FrameMaker or InDesign?

Blogging has become difficult recently. As I have worked at my new job, ask I’ve found that I’m running around from task to task at such a pace that I haven’t had much time for blogging. It’s a great thing, work-wise. It is interesting and engaging, which I love. It’s not so good for my blog. Last night Christina said, “I can’t wait to see your next entry.” Then she suggested that I set aside a specific time to blog, or I won’t get it done. Now, I’m on the train. I don’t have an internet connection, so this is a good use of my time.

I found a way to bring some light into the cave. I purchased a swing arm desk lamp. I can get it right up under my bookcase, over my computer. Now I can actually see what I’m working on, which is a benefit.

I am having a great time at my new job. I’m finishing the installation guide for the newest iteration of the company’s software. It’s about twenty pages long and I’m excited to get it finished… My first project.

From a technical writing perspective, I’m learning a lot working as a lone writer on a new project. First, It’s been interesting to try to figure out the resources I’d need to complete a project before I understood the scope of the project. I learned that scope is the horse, and resources are the cart that must follow. One of the first things the company wanted from me was a list of the software that I needed to get my job done. For my main document publishing tool, I was debating between InDesign and FrameMaker. The problem was that I hadn’t really looked at the software, nor had I seen the documentation requirements for the project. So I was working blind as I selected the software packages I needed.

I chose InDesign because I think it is a powerful publishing tool. And it came in a suite, packaged with PhotoShop, and Acrobat Professional, in addition to others. In the end, I was cheaper to buy the suite and get all the software than it would have been to buy just Photoshop and Acrobat Professional, so if you look at it that way, InDesign was free. The problem was that after I had ordered my software, I had a meeting with the product manager where for the first time I understood the scope of the project and understood the documentation requirements. It became clear quickly that some of the doc requirements wouldn’t be met by InDesign. In particular, InDesign’s support for the following features was lacking:

  • Running Headers and Footers. The documentation template, which I am expected to use, has running headers and footers that reflect the heading levels in the document. So the document title always appears on right page headers. The chapter name always appears on left page footers. The text of the most recent Heading 1 always appears on the right page footer. InDesign doesn’t do running headers/footers, so I’d have to do these manually at the end of my production cycle — the very last step, for fear that the document might re-flow if any changes were added.
  • Cross References. FrameMaker has a feature that lets you cross reference other headings in your book. So, if I was writing about a feature, and wanted to insert a reference to another chapter that deals with a corollary feature, I can insert a variable that pulls the heading text I want to point to, and the page that heading is on. If the document re-flows, or if the heading text is changed, the cross reference link is updated. So if I’m writing installation instructions, and I want to tell the user to see chapter 9 for more information on account management, I can enter a cross reference to do so. In InDesign, I’d have to just type the text in manually. If the chapter number changed, I’d never know all the places in the documentation that pointed to it.
  • Conditional Text. The company I work for has government contracts and private contracts alike. There are certain documentation requirements for government contracts that we aren’t required to include in our regular product version. The software is also customizable for specific clients. With Frame’s conditional text, I can add all the information into one guide, say the administration guide. The government-contract-specific text gets marked with a conditional text marker. When I print, I can turn On the government text, or I can turn it OFF. I can make two versions of the manual from the same file with a couple of mouse clicks. The table of contents and cross references are all updated throughout the guide. I don’t have to maintain multiple guides for government versus private sector clients.

So, I had to go back to my manager and request the latest version of FrameMaker. I’d love to use InDesign, and I probably will use it for Quick Reference cards and other layout-intensive documents, but for my book-length documents, my documentation requirements are better met by Frame.

Yesterday I asked my manager if he thought they were going to approve the Frame upgrade. He told me that if I had requested it with my initial software list, it would likely have been approved.But since it wasn’t on the initial request, there was a chance I might not get it.

Lesson learned. The first of many, I’m sure. After all, I’m a lone writer, foraging my way through territory I’ve never visited.


Editor’s note: (Oct 2008) When this post was written more than two years ago, my options were between InDesign CS2 and Framemaker 7.2. Technologies have changed since then, and this post should be read in context of the features that were available in those versions of the products. I had to make my software purchase based on those features, and have since moved away from both tools in favor of an XML-based authoring solution.

15 responses to “FrameMaker or InDesign?”

  1. I know you and I have had numerous discussions over the merits of InDesign, but for the benefit of the unknowing….

    InDesign was created largely for the quick-to-print world. This includes newspapers, magazines, journals, and the like. FrameMaker was not. Because of that, there are key differences that make certain features less or more powerful. As you mentioned, InDesign is extremely useful for layout intensive documents. It all depends, I guess, on the needs of the user.

    Personally, I’ve used InDesign with great success. But I’ve never used FrameMaker either, so grab your salt shaker.

    On a completely different note… Lone Writing is the ONLY reason I am still a tech writer. I realized a few weeks back that while I do enjoy tech writing, I don’t enjoy it enough to do this for life. However, I do enjoy Lone Writing enough to do it for life. With traditional team tech writing you take a portion of the tasks and take care of only that portion. With Lone Writing you get assignments from all ends of the spectrum covering a wide range of topics requiring an ever expanding skill set.

    Lone Writing forces continued learning and growth while providing for mobility that is refreshing. Every day is typically different and unique with a new beast rearing its ugly head right around the corner. But that’s just me. I quickly feel stagnant if I can’t try my hand at something new. If you don’t like change, I wouldn’t recommend Lone Writing.

    Here’s hoping you enjoy Lone Writing as much as I do. It is fantasticaly rewarding at the end of the day to leave your office with only the mild reassurance that you actually moved forward on every project. At the very least, you become an expert time budgeter.

    Once you start, you may never be able to go back. It’s just too exciting.

  2. I’m a big fan of FrameMaker. Our software manuals were all done with it.

    It’s a learning process to know what tools will work best for you. Hope they decide and change their minds and get you the FrameMaker upgrade.

  3. Dave,
    You and I have discussed this topic at length. 🙂 Let me just say that I don’t think InDesign is inherently bad. I’m just saying it is lacking some functionality that FrameMaker includes that makes techincal documentation much easier. They are products for different audiences.

    Thanks! I hope so too!

    Thanks for your comment. There are some plugins for cross references in InDesign, and even for running headers and footers. The problem with the plugins is the cost! Just the cross reference plugin costs almost US$200! A third the cost of InDesign just to add a plugin to do cross references? That’s crazy! If I add the cross reference plugin and the running header/footer plugin, I’m coming close to doubling my investment. For a little bit more, I might as well buy a full version of FrameMaker! 🙂

  4. Hello, I did enjoy the content and learned a little about what may be appropriate use of framemaker. As a prepress manager in a large commercial printer, my main comment is that FrameMaker is a business document tool, not appropriate for high volume commercial color printing.

    If you are doing a newsletter or memo on the color copier or network printer, FrameMaker would be an appropriate tool.

    But, if you are trying to send a job out to a real printer. The kind with presses and ink. Do Not use these business document tools like MS Word, FrameMaker and the like. To do high volume commercial printing, colors have to be separated, making a metal plate for each of four colors, or maybe even PMS inks. This is the realm of Adobe InDesign and professional level graphic arts applications like Adobe InDesign and Quark Xpress. Don’t attempt a professional job with a consumer level tool like FrameMaker. Get Adobe Indesign or Quark Xpress, or hire a professional that uses them.

  5. Hi, yeah Frame is really the standard for Tech writing, unless you are going to use a native XML editor. Keep in mind that cross references have much more use than simply being a kind of link.

  6. For InDesign there are also scripts that allow you to work with running header and footers though, I think, that still with FrameMaker it’s an easier task.

  7. I’ve written two books for Addison Wesley using Framemaker. It’s the tool they use internally to create the PDFs to send to the printer. The last time I created the PDFs myself. The big shortcoming in using Frame for prepress is that its drawing tools like to use a ‘hairline’ that renders invisibly on high resolution professional printing systems. It’s fine for rulings between sections if you avoid hairlines. Vector graphic diagrams generally get imported using EPS files.

    I’ve tripped over color separation controls in Frame any number of times, though I’ve never had need for them, but I would assume that one could do such a thing in Frame.

  8. I just ran into this very problem: I want to reference a figure, and there’s no bloody support for it!

    Corel Ventura Publisher, which is like FrameMaker on ‘roids, has this. I am *SO* disappointed with Adobe. There are perhaps a half-dozen, certainly no more than a dozen, features which would take this tool into the realm of long-document publishing, bumping both FM and VP out of the limelight.

    But, no. It’s been three iterations and many years, and Adobe still can’t get it together. I am annoyed.

  9. Looks like InDesign CS3 has addressed the running headers and footers, very good numbered list control, and references. I’m not sure about conditional text, but it appears that using layers is intended for hiding content for different versions, but I don’t know if it’s possible to hide text that’s in a text thread.

  10. As a technical writer, I’ve used FrameMaker for over a decade and recently made the plunge into InDesign.

    I made that decision because the Marketing and Design departments at my new company were using InDesign and it seemed important to develop a work flow with them. Plus, I’d heard such great things about InDesign and CS3, and really wanted to learn Illustrator and more about Photoshop.

    I don’t have to produce a help system, just PDFs. If I had to produce help or had multiple product lines to document using the same content (requiring conditional text or DITA), I would not have chosen InDesign.

    With CS3, there is good support for indexing, headers and footers, and TOCs. A cross-reference plug-in is available from DTPtools that is very FrameMaker-like in its capabilities and it seems more intuitive. That’s and extra $130, but worth it.

    With the help of our Design department, I developed a beautiful template that includes many of the paragraph and character styles that I used in FrameMaker. Meanwhile, I created DOC templates with the same style names, so I can import content authored in MS Word by subject matter experts. This import works surprisingly well and all the styles are mapped automatically. Likewise, it’s easy to output a DOC file if reviewers prefer it to a PDF (so they can directly edit the text).

    Compared to FrameMaker, I have faster and easier control over the layout and the quality of the images are excellent and scale beautifully. This is important because I am documenting hardware as well as software and I’m using a lot more images than ever before.

    Conditional text is a limitation. I have yet to find out whether there is a workaround for this.

    So, I think InDesign CS3 is a valid choice for technical documentation as long as you don’t have to produce help or single-source your content. For basic PDF deliveries, it works well. InDesign PDFs can be enormous, so that is something to be careful about and there are some best practices to follow that are not immediately obvious.

    If I wanted my life to be easy and wanted to be more productive, I’d have chosen FrameMaker. I’m not sure whether FrameMaker is actually easier or I’m just more used to it. I made the tougher choice because I also want to be part of a larger team, not preoccupied my own tech doc area.

    Overall, I’m glad that I chose InDesign. It’s a much more powerful, up-to-date application and the PDFs look much better than anything I produced in FrameMaker. I don’t think that FrameMaker has changed significantly in the last 10, with the exception of support for DITA architecture, which has little bearing on the types of projects I’m working on. CS3 clearly gets a lot more of Adobe’s development resources than FrameMaker.



  11. Jared –

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments on Frame vs. InDesign. I wrote that post two years ago and I ended up going back to Frame for my main publishing tool (getting additional software was difficult at that point). About a year later, my company wanted me to create in-application help as well, so I made the case for a switch in software, and moved to MadCap Flare. Now I do all my authoring in Flare and produce great printed output with single-sourced online help.

    Anyway, thanks again for your review; especially for the information on CS3, which I haven’t seen. I never upgraded my CS2 products to CS3.

  12. Paul,

    It sounds like things worked out for you in the way that the decisions unfolded. Two years ago, you probably would not have chosen MadCap Flare based on its early stage of development. Now you have experience with FrameMaker, Creative Suite, and MadCap Flare!

    Once I knew that I would be transitioning from one company to another, I spent a tense three weeks assessing the available tools on the market. At that point, WebWorks had not yet released a FrameMaker 8.0-compatible product and did not hint at their impending release. At that point, it seemed like a slam dunk for my chosing Flare.

    Once I was inside the culture of my current company, I could see that Help was just extra. As a startup, we just need a lot of quick docs. I decided to use InDesign for my stated reasons and because it seemed like my quickest path to a great looking template. I’m in production, it looks professional, and that is what counts.

    As an aside, I almost chose OpenOffice as my primary authoring tool and even developed a book template for my company. I think it’s an extremely versatile tool (much more powerful than Word, very FrameMakerish, and free). I’d have chosen it were it not for the previously-stated workflow incentive to choose InDesign. OpenOffice can produce great-looking PDFs with bookmarks and you can also create a variety of paths to CHMs if you need a help system.

    If OpenOffice use had been prevalent in the trenches at my company, I’d have considered it more strongly. It’s predominantly a Microsoft shop, so I could sense that it was a lost cause to develop an OpenOffice workflow. Luckily, InDesign plays nice with Word.

    At some point, I expect our needs will expand and I’ll need to produce a help system and maintain multiple products, branches, audiences, and languages. At that point, I’ll convert to Flare via InDesign’s XML output. Meanwhile, I’m writing everything in topical chunks: concepts, procedures, reference, and figures.

    I encourage other writers to take the opportunity to try out new tools and filters between them whenever the opportunity arises. Get past your “MUST DO DITA” preconceptions and ask yourself what your company really needs.

    Most of the doc depts I’ve been involved in did not have the complexity or page count to warrant DITA. It was just the current buzz wagon to jump on. But if your company requires single-sourced, topic-based help and PDF, Flare and DITA seems like the way to go. What to choose for a content management system would be the next big question.



  13. Actually, InDesign CS3 does do running headers and footers and could do conditional text also with the same technique.

    You use text variables. You define a text variable, then insert a text variable marker. For instance, you can define variables for Heading 1, or Section 1, or whatever you choose. Then you can create your headers and footers on your master pages, and insert a text variable marker to pick up section titles, chapter names, or first instances of head 1. Then as you flow text, the variable gets picked up in your document. Try it, you’ll like it! I use it in long books and it works fine.

    I think you can use the same technique for conditional text also.

    InDesign CS4 just came out and includes cross references, but I haven’t used it yet, so I can’t comment on it, but I’m looking forward to it.


  14. I haven’t had a chance to check out either CS3 or CS4 (or even Frame 8), but it sounds like they are really improving InDesign for long document support.

    I’m not using Frame or InDesign anymore, but it’s always good when a tool adds features it’s missing.

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