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Book review: Seven books on Adobe InDesign CS3

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2008. Seven books on Adobe InDesign CS3. Technical Communication 55(3):307–310.

InDesign may not be the Quark-killer Adobe hoped for, but it’s become one of the most popular desktop publishing programs. As a result, there are plenty of references to get you up to speed quickly and keep you learning. In this review, I compare seven recent books on InDesign’s latest release, CS3.

Getting-started books

Most STC members have at least a basic acquaintance with desktop publishing, but may have received their layout training in PageMaker, Quark, or FrameMaker. For such readers, getting-started books may be most important because they provide the context required to begin using a tool productively without slogging up the learning curve. I review three books in this category: Adobe InDesign CS3 classroom in a book (Classroom), the first of two full-color books, as well as InDesign CS3 for dummies (Dummies), and Indesign CS3 for Macintosh and Windows: Visual QuickStart guide (QuickStart).

Classroom and Dummies illustrate different extremes in how to learn software. Classroom is, as its name suggests, a series of lessons. It begins with a whirlwind tour of the software that reveals the overall interface metaphor, then, via a tutorial and sample files on CD, illustrates everything you need to know to create a publication. The advantage of this approach is that it combines context (what you’re hoping to achieve) with a clear explanation of the tools you’ll use within that context, supplemented by realistic practice applying those tools to achieve clearly defined goals. The approach also integrates descriptions of how to combine various tools to accomplish specific layout tasks. Because the context primes you for the theory, it provides strong mental hooks on which to hang new knowledge of the tools you’ll use. Practicing with the tools then reveals how the theory really works and provides “muscle memory” to reinforce the learning. This combination greatly increases the likelihood you’ll both learn and remember key concepts. The downside is that because the examples are specific, it’s less easy to generalize what you learned to your own work.

In contrast, Dummies works on the instructional design principle of providing clear context (in more detail than either Classroom or QuickStart), then explaining the nuances of the tools you’ll use within that context. This helps you to generalize specific tool skills to other situations, as the explanation of each tool and how its usage changes in different contexts is more detailed than in Classroom. This works well, but has the potentially serious drawback that theory is easy to forget if you don’t explicitly apply that theory to accomplish a layout task. Because there are no explicit exercises to reinforce the theory, you’re more likely to forget what you learned. On the plus side, the book does a better job than Classroom of repeating information in different contexts. For example, Dummies discusses the use and properties of frames within larger sections on graphics and text, whereas Classroom treats frames as a separate chapter. The Dummies approach will work better if you’re returning to the book to relearn a specific skill; Classroom will do a better job of teaching that skill in the first place.

QuickStart most closely resembles Dummies. Like Dummies, it lacks a tutorial and lesson plan and focuses on clear, effective descriptions of each tool. QuickStart provides only the minimum context you need to understand a tool, without the kind of integrated description of combining tools that Classroom provides. This sometimes undermines the book’s effectiveness. For example, there is no coherent discussion of document templates—thus, no discussion of how to use these files to group text and object styles to impose a consistent layout for book chapters. In fact, there seems to be no specific discussion of templates whatsoever, not even an index entry to provide cross-references to related topics. The book compensates for this lack of broader context by providing more detail than Dummies or Classroom, with deeper explication of each tool’s nuances. Explanations appear as a series of numbered steps, and the “Visual” part of the title refers to the copious screenshots and other graphics running down the gutter; these clearly illustrate key steps and effectively tie the text to the graphics. This approach makes QuickStart less effective as a getting-started book, but better as a reference work once you already know the basics.

Comprehensive books

Comprehensive books face a different challenge. They must provide a sound foundation for readers new to the software and intensive support for those who have mastered the basics. To some extent, they must also serve as reference books to help you relearn old skills or advanced features of tools you already understand. Ideally, they should also correct misapprehensions you’ve acquired along the way, and describe how to solve (or avoid) problems you’ll never hear the developer admit. Thus, they must meet the criteria for getting-started books, but also comprehensively review the software’s unplumbed depths. The inevitably greater scope—nearly 1000 pages for both comprehensive books I reviewed—means they must also make it easy to find topics.

The Adobe InDesign CS3 bible (Bible) is far more comprehensive than the beginner books. For example, its provides a strong section on color output, with better information on trapping, chokes, spreads, and screen angles than even Print Design (see below), but only briefly mentions halftone screens. (The index is good, but needs more synonyms and cross-references, since it mentions halftones only in a cryptic “lines per inch” entry.) The writing is clear and to the point, without being stuffy. The design is adequate, but more cluttered and less crisp than in several of the other books. Real world Adobe InDesign CS3 (Real World), 100 or so pages shorter, does a better job of discussing trapping and halftone screens. Real World does “chatty” right: the authors talk to you like a knowledgeable buddy, without indulging in the excesses of some For Dummies books. If you don’t like this approach, you’ll prefer Bible. Real World also has the best index of all the books, with detailed subentries for each main topic and an adequate number of synonyms.

Each book excels in some areas and suffers in others, and contains details the other lacks—often, important details. Real World, for instance, does a great job of discussing scripting languages, whereas Bible contains useful appendixes for readers switching to InDesign from Quark or PageMaker, plus a single list of keyboard shortcuts. Real World lacks a workflow and workgroup section, but provides an excellent, detailed discussion of XML. In contrast, Bible thoroughly discusses workflow issues, but glosses over XML. Both warn about the gotchas Adobe doesn’t mention, such as problems when multiple users work on the same book over a network (Bible) and InDesign’s failure to automatically update a book’s status when documents are edited outside the book (Real World). Oddly, neither book explains how to create automatic “continued on page X” links when you split a story over many pages, as magazines do.

Special-purpose books

These books differ from the previous ones in that they set out to accomplish a specific goal rather than cover all aspects of the software equally well. Their audience will thus have more demanding needs. In this category, I review Mastering InDesign CS3 for print design and production (Print Design) and Adobe InDesign CS3 how-tos: 100 essential techniques (Essentials).

Despite the e-book and Internet revolution, printed documents remain as popular as ever, their format almost perfectly suited to its use. Understanding print production thus remains important. The “design” part of Print Design’s title refers to the book’s designer audience (“creatives”). Thus, a strong chapter on collaboration does a better job than the other books of describing how editors and designers work together and manage complex, high-pressure workflows. Though clearly based on magazine production, the suggestions would work equally well for technical communicators. There’s also a helpful chapter on efficiency that gathers tips dispersed through other books into a package that reminds busy designers to think right from the start about how to work more efficiently with groups of features.

The explanations are generally clear, but often don’t go beyond what the online help provides. For example, the printing (output) chapter is competent, but has gaps such as scanty information on photographs and halftone screens. It clearly illustrates difficult, complicated topics such as trapping, but this topic highlights the inadequate index and glossary: trapping appears in the index, but neither choking nor spreading appears as subheading or independent topics, and neither appears in the glossary—though curiously, "onomatopoeia" does. Both are described, but despite the focus on “print” design, their descriptions are weak. Curious omissions include how to control total ink coverage in relation to separations and paper choice; undercolor removal and grey component replacement don’t appear to be mentioned, and for print production, both topics are essential (as many designers don’t want to trust this to the RIP). The writing is informal (a designer speaking to designers) and generally succeeds but sometimes produces awkward results. The design is crisp and legible, and the use of color is effective.

Essentials focuses on 100 specific tasks, and its success thus depends on how well its choices cover the tasks you want to understand. The overall approach is to select specific, narrowly focused tasks or groups of tasks and present concise (rarely more than 2 pages) explanations. Unfortunately, the book sacrifices too much detail, often providing little not already present in the online help. For instance, the two-paragraph description of hyphenation sacrifices crucial details such as how to customize hyphenation using the built-in hyphenation dictionary. Similarly, in describing the goals of some features, it occasionally oversimplifies so much that it misses the point (“Lists are a great way to break up blocks of text and keep the reader interested” [63]). And explaining how to manually number groups of paragraphs replaces a more useful discussion of automating numbering via paragraph styles. As a result of these flaws, the book seems to have little to recommend it over the others.

Which is right for you?

No book does everything perfectly or will be right for everyone. Which one you choose depends on your learning style, what you need to learn, and how you’ll use the book. With that in mind:

I’m reluctant to recommend a book that should have accompanied the software, but Classroom is an effective tool for learning the basics—and remembering what you learned. The use of color is helpful, and the design is crisp and elegant. On the downside, the unacceptable index omits obvious topics and provides few synonyms and no cross-references. The writing style is formal, but always clear.

If you’ll be learning InDesign under deadline pressure while rushing to complete a manual, Dummies will get you up to speed fast, and its simple, effective index will quickly locate fundamental concepts when you need a refresher. The layout is cluttered and heavy-handed (pages are infested with large, overly intrusive icons) compared with Classroom, but remains functional and usable. Unlike in some For Dummies books, the informal style neither cloys nor patronizes.

Despite its name, QuickStart is more a reference manual than a getting-started book. It provides insufficient context if you don’t already know what you hope to achieve, and no tutorial to show you how the parts fit together, forcing you to create this understanding yourself. The content depth is superior, the index is good, and the integration of screenshots with text is better than in Classroom or Dummies. However, its approach makes the book best for readers who already know their goals and who will primarily refer to the book to learn how to perform specific procedures.

Bible and Real World are both excellent choices if your budget limits you to a single book. They cover the basics almost as well as the getting-started books, but their bulk makes them more intimidating and less beginner-friendly. If I had to choose just one, I’d balk; they complement each other so well I often found myself referring to both to research an obscure detail or deepen my understanding of the other book’s explanation. Real World gets the nod, but Bible is a very close second. Choosing between them will depend on how thoroughly they cover the topics that interest you most, such as workflow issues and XML.

If producing printed documents is an important part of your work, Print Design provides the best coverage and an emphasis from the working designer’s perspective; it also deals with workflow issues better than any other book. However, various omissions mean that the current version fails to provide the all-in-one reference print designers need. If version 2 of the book corrects these problems, it will be an essential addition to any designer’s library. Now, it’s an effective reference, but you’ll need to supplement it with one of the comprehensive books.

Although the basic idea of Essentials (providing short, focused feature descriptions) is sound, and the writing is generally clear and effective, it’s hard to recommend this book. It covers fewer topics than the other books, and does so too shallowly. Unless the book heavily overlaps with your needs, and speed is more important than depth of coverage, the other books are better choices.


Adobe Systems. 2007. Adobe InDesign CS3 classroom in a book. Berkeley, CA: Adobe Press. [ISBN 978-0-321-49201-2. 448 pages, including index and CD-ROM. $54.99 USD (softcover).]

Burke, P.S. 2007. Mastering InDesign CS3 for print design and production. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing, Inc. [ISBN 978-0-470-11456-8. 492 pages, including index. $49.99 USD (softcover).]

Cohen, S. 2008. Indesign CS3 for Macintosh and Windows: Visual QuickStart guide. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press. [ISBN 978-0-321-50306-0. 578 pages, including index. $29.99 USD (softcover).]

Cruise, J.; Kordes Anton, K. 2007. Adobe InDesign CS3 how-tos: 100 essential techniques. Berkeley, CA: Adobe Press. [ISBN 978-0-321-50895-9. 266 pages, including index. $24.99 USD (softcover).]

Gruman, G. 2007. InDesign CS3 for dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc. [ISBN 978-0-470-11865-8. 414 pages, including index. $24.99 USD (softcover).]

Gruman, G. 2007. Adobe InDesign CS3 bible. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing, Inc. [ISBN 978-0-470-11938-9. 988 pages, including index. $44.99 USD (softcover).]

Kvern, O.M.; Blatner, D. 2008. Real world Adobe InDesign CS3. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press. [ISBN 978-0-321-49170-1. 900 pages, including index. $49.99 USD (softcover).]

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved