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InDesign & Variable Data: 4 Essential Tips*

At 1•2•1MSG, we see A LOT of Adobe InDesign files created by our clients and/or their creative agencies. For the most part, these files are well prepared for printing. The same cannot often be said for how they are set up for variable data printing. Some effort has usually been made to indicate which elements will be variable, but we usually end up having to make sizable edits to the files to generate acceptable proofs and final print documents.

Don’t get us wrong, we are happy to provide this service. On the other hand, time and money could be saved if the files were set up correctly in the first place. Here, then, are our 4 Essential Tips for setting up InDesign files to run smoothly in our variable data print production workflow…

1) Double-Check Assets, Especially Fonts

Occasionally we receive unsupported InDesign files. Without fonts and supporting images/graphics we cannot create the pdfs our print process requires. We recommend that InDesign files be “packaged” before they are sent to us. Packaging should ensure that all needed assets come along with the InDesign file, but the process is not infallible, especially when it comes to fonts. It is a good idea to test files after they’ve been packaged to be sure the InDesign file can “find” its assets. A little due diligence before sending files to us can save a lot of time and energy!

By the way, this principle also applies to Adobe Illustrator and Acrobat files. If the file in question needs editing, we will definitely need all the fonts it uses – including those used in embedded graphics.

2) Variable Text Fonts: Formatting Matters

Our variable data process runs most smoothly using True Type formatted fonts, so if there is a choice, always use these. True Type font files end in the suffix “.ttf”.

We can also work with Open Type formatted fonts but usually purchase True Type versions, if available, to avoid extra programming steps. Open Type formatted font files end in the suffix “.otf”.

We cannot work with Macintosh-formatted Postscript fonts, so avoid use of this format if possible. True Type or Open Type versions of these fonts must be purchased for variable text using these fonts. Mac Postscript fonts usually don’t have suffixes and also have separate files for each font weight / style.

Please note: Though still needed for production, fonts used in the preprinted elements of a layout can be supplied in any font format. Work on preprint elements – most often the creation of pdfs – is done on a Mac platform which accommodates all font formats.

3) Single Variable Color Definition, Please

In order to create accurate live data proofs AND final variable print documents, our process requires that placeholders for variable data fields be colored 100% Black. Almost all InDesign files we receive call out variable text and graphics by assigning them an eye-catching color like Magenta. This is helpful initially in making variable data insertion points easy to find, but it can also create time-consuming work down the road.

How so? InDesign allows the creation and naming of color swatches. In a perfect world, a single color named “Variable” or similar would be assigned to ALL variable text and graphics. This color could be defined as any mixture of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow or Black. To easily change all variable text and graphics to 100% Black, all we have to do is change the definition of the color “Variable” from whatever is was to 100% Black. Job done.

Troubles creep in when variable text and graphics are assigned multiple differently named but similarly defined colors. The example below shows a Swatches palette containing five colors used for designating variable elements. Though named differently, all are defined as 100% Magenta. For use in our system, the colors in this palette had to be consolidated and tested, a time-consuming bit of work that could have been avoided had a single color been defined for variable elements.

To keep your InDesign colors consistent and make it easy for us to work with them, follow these steps:

  1. Delete unused colors. We frequently see re-used InDesign files that have accumulated dozens of confusing, unused colors. Select “All Unused Colors” in the Swatches palette and delete them.

  2. If more than one color has been defined for variable elements, consolidate so only one color remains for all variable text and graphics.

  3. If no color exists for variable elements, create one named “Variable”, “Laser” or similar. This color should NOT be 100% Cyan, Magenta, Yellow or Black. Bright green or orange make good stand-out variable element colors.

  4. Make sure all variable elements, text and graphic, are assigned to one, user-defined color only.

4) Layers: Keep ’Em Separated

Our process requires that separate pdfs be created for preprinted and variable layout elements. These two pdfs are layered together to create time-saving digital proofs of actual data records. Once approved, the pdf of preprinted matter is discarded and the variable pdf is used for live production. Simple.

In order to create separate pdfs from a single InDesign file, we recommend moving elements into layers named for what they contain. Ideally, a file would have only two layers, one layer named “Preprint” and another named “Variable” or similar. (If other non-printing elements such as dielines or “for position” graphics appear on the layout, simply create another layer and move them to it.) The goal is to be able to preview Preprint elements only and Variable elements only by turning on and off layers.

Please note that it is not necessary to isolate the variable text (often shown within brackets) from surrounding text. For our puposes, the entirety of a text block which contains variable elements is considered a variable element. For example, it is common for only two or three variable elements to appear in a long text block filling most of a layout.

Note: Create separate layers for every distinct set of variable data even if the differences between the sets are small. We commonly see InDesign files with dozens of layers named for the data segment to which they will be mailed.

Please don’t hesistate to contact us for clarification on any of our tips. We’re here to ensure that your variable print production goes as smoothly as is humanly possible!

*Though the specific procedures may vary somewhat, the principles used in this article apply to all page layout softwares – QuarkXpress, PagePlus, etc. Please contact us if you need more information on how to prepare a file for variable data printing using one of these softwares.

#variabledata #InDesign #formatting

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