Design Community Dishes on the ‘Big Switch’

Progressivism is a core tenet of the alternative media, but most newsweeklies find this tenet lends itself more to content than form: i.e., editorial departments are expected to risk and innovate while designers are responsible for establishing a consistently styled framework.

For over 20 years, that framework was built almost exclusively in Quark, a software platform that took publishing from mechanical production to the desktop. Quark got a little too comfortable with its hold on the market, however, and Adobe crept in with some serious competition on the eve of the 21st century.

Many field tests and customer surveys later, the consensus among noted software analysts and professional designers is that while Quark has better color and Web capabilities, Adobe InDesign wins the features race in the essential categories of text and type, imaging, page layout, tables and overall quality. It didn’t take long for Adobe’s trifecta — InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator — to be unofficially declared the next techno-publishing hegemony, but Quark’s constituency has proven fiercely loyal and fiercely dependent on the only system it has ever known.

Unfortunately for Quark, loyalties are shifting as more and more papers witness the successful transitions and improved workflow of so-called “converts.” The debate is nearing the proportions of the Mac versus PC tumult, and the two camps are equally vehement about their reasons for either sticking with the program or (literally) throwing the drawing board out the window.

A survey of design and production managers, which drew 69 responses last week, found that about two-thirds of the alt-weeklies that belong to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies are currently using Quark XPress. A third have switched to InDesign, and three get by with Adobe PageMaker.

Of the 45 managers who still use Quark, 24 said they expect to switch to InDesign within the next two years, and another 21 said that they might make the change. Reasons given for staying with Quark included the considerable cost and steep learning curve associated with switching, high hopes for Quark 6 (the latest upgrade) and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentalities. Those in favor of InDesign cited its excellent tech support (a notoriously sore subject for Quark), compatibility across programs, cheaper upgrades, decreased glitches, increased productivity and a much greater degree of user-friendliness overall.

“I would only go back to Quark if my life depended on it, and even then I would be kicking and screaming,” said Rachel Brown of the Charleston City Paper, representing the extreme attitude of an exponentially growing minority. In the shrinking majority are people like Chicago Newcity’s Sean Hernandez, who likens Quark’s “classic” status to something of a technological antique.

“Quark is to our publication what a Technics 1200 turntable is to a DJ,” he said. “It’s an old industry standard, but not the best thing out there.”

The Chicago Reader is another holdout, staying with Quark despite all of the industry naysaying — for now. The paper’s design staff is considering making some big changes, but they are watching an affiliate to see how things go.

“We are seriously considering the transition — have been more-and-more seriously considering it for over a year now — but at the moment, in Chicago, I would have to say the switch is still not high priority, not imminent,” said David Jones, production director for the Reader.

His department has spent the last six months mastering a Quark-based re-design, and other image and product development priorities come before total system overhaul. But the Reader’s sister paper, Washington City Paper, is on the verge of making the switch, and the Reader has adopted a “wait and see what happens” attitude.

“It seems fairly clear, purely as a business decision, the greatest efficiencies would likely come from ‘going with the flow’ and going all-Adobe,” Jones said. “Of course, our department (and our company) still has some fundamental distrust of an environmental monopoly like that. What’s a good alternative newspaper without a dependable alternative design supplier? Where will we all turn once Adobe should kill Quark?”

Jones adds: “The department still holds some faint hope that Quark would prove to serve us well.” Yet the Reader is nervous about being left behind, battling with what Jones calls “clumsy, antiquated and still expensive equipment” while the design mainstream moves in a different direction.

Washington City Paper just took its first steps in that direction. Mike Kalyan, City Paper’s production manager, helped set up a consultation with Russell Viers, sometimes referred to as “the Photoshop Guy,” and host/producer of the online DIGIVersity.TV. Viers spent a day assessing workflow, editorial routines and Quark-related hang-ups, ultimately supporting Kalyan’s proposal to switch City Paper’s operating system to OSX and implement InDesign and InCopy.

“I’m very lucky that I have management’s support to allocate resources to the upgrade and that I have a staff that is excited and willing to make the transition. This makes our job a lot easier,” Kalyan says. He lauds the latest version of InDesign, CS2, introduced in April, and all of the bells and whistles that have the design world buzzing.

Advice on
Making the Transition

  • If you’re familiar with Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, you’ll feel at home with the functions, look and feel of InDesign.
  • Although InDesign assures its patrons that documents can be transferred easily from Quark, it is better in the long run to start from scratch with a new program and clean templates. If it seems overwhelming, just do it in sections—it will go fast, even if you don’t know what you’re doing.
  • Don’t be nervous about exporting PDFs within InDesign. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to go through Acrobat’s distiller to ensure that the export will go off without a hitch.
  • Build a solid bridge between InCopy and InDesign to ensure the most streamlined workflow between editorial and design.
  • Run a lot of tests to make sure your new system is functioning properly.
  • Don’t be afraid to call other papers and ask questions. Most often, they are happy to volunteer information and useful insights about making a clean switch.

Courtesy of Leila Ramella, artistic director at Boise Weekly; and Karen Rheudasil Barr, production manager at Austin Chronicle.

Such “bells and whistles” include the same basic function improvements presented by the original CS plus cutting-edge special features that are as fun as they are efficient. The Object Style Palette lets designers create, delete, copy and edit styles as well as lock them into consistent formats with just one click. In the same vein, Nested Styles can be set and cued so that various elements on a page will automatically be in the appropriate format. There is a Lens Correction Filter that heals images distorted by camera lenses, a Layer Comps Feature that preserves multiple design options within a single image and something called a “Snippet,” which exports page elements as separate files just by dragging them into the Adobe Bridge. Adobe Bridge is a visual file browser that lets designers easily browse, organize and process design assets within Adobe Creative Suite 2 software components.

There are countless perks, but Kalyan suggests that the underlying cause of InDesign’s successful coup seems to be a general loss of faith not only in Quark’s software, but also its slow pace of development in an industry fueled by innovation.

“We have major issues with QuarkXpress crashing at the most inopportune moments and we’ve seen nothing out of them since the release of 4.11,” he said. “The pathetic attempts at upgrades offered since then are nothing compared to the features in the Creative Suite. I was a Quark user, but I’m one of the pleased converts to InDesign.”

Based on Viers’ recommendations, Kalyan and the City Paper staff are planning to re-budget and set a timeline for the second phase of their technology upgrade. If all goes well, the transition will be complete by summer’s end and the Chicago Reader will have to fight even harder to maintain the status quo.

“Making such a huge jump in switching the operating system, applications and workflows should be done carefully. Connectivity issues, IT server issues, font and printer issues, and making sure that all applications you use in 9.2 have OSX counterparts are all items that need to be addressed before making the switch, in addition to actually testing the applications,” says Kalyan. “We plan on setting the timeline and doing thorough testing and training before we convert fully. We don’t want to sacrifice the quality of our product just to make the jump, so we’re hoping that our testing stage will make our transition go very smoothly.”

For Kalyan, switching to InDesign means staying current and cutting-edge, but professionals like David Jones aren’t so sure they want to close the door forever on a classic that has served them well. Both Kalyan and Jones agree, however, that papers considering the change should evaluate their motivations and the potential gains and losses before taking the plunge.

“If you’re doing something now because that’s the way we’ve always done it, then chances are you will most likely see the most benefit from making the transition,” Kalyan says. “Don’t be afraid of change. Changes are temporary. Pretty soon the changes you made become the standard.”

Editor’s Note: Adobe’s Lisa Forrester will present a seminar on how to use Adobe InDesign CS2 and InCopy CS2 on June 18 at AAN’s 28th annual convention in San Diego.

Erin Ryan is a freelance writer and editor in Boise, Idaho, whose bylines are featured regularly in the Boise Weekly, Organic Gardening Magazine and a smattering of other regional publications.