About Plug-Ins

Plug-In Technology for Variable Data

How plug-ins work and how they can transform your VDP experience

Plug-in technology has been available in the Graphic Arts marketplace for many years, but you may still think of it in terms of that $49 Quark XTension that you purchased twenty years ago to add some special utility feature not yet available.

Well all of that has changed, big time! With the advent of Adobe InDesign, and advances in computer hardware and processor speed, plug-in technology is now the hottest thing going in VDP. Today, plug-in technology, especially the technologies offered for Adobe InDesign and Acrobat, are incredibly powerful. Products such as DesignMerge Pro that have been developed using these technologies can take advantage of the power of the most advanced composition engines in the world, and extend that power to provide new, feature-rich applications.

In the case of DesignMerge Pro, we have developed a product that serves to supplement the Adobe InDesign page layout application by adding special features for variable data printing (VDP) and data publishing applications. The combination of Adobe InDesign with DesignMerge Pro software provides one of the most advanced VDP solutions on the market today.

The following section is meant to provide a broader look at plug-in technologies and to answer some common questions. This section also compares the Meadows DesignMerge Pro product to other variable data printing software products that utilize different technology approaches.


What is Plug-In Technology?

Plug-in technology is a general term that refers to a software module that is developed to work “in conjunction with” another third-party software application. In the graphic arts, the best examples of plug-in technology are plug-in modules for Adobe InDesign and Adobe Acrobat.


How does Plug-In Technology Work?

Adobe InDesign provides a way for developers to write software that communicates with and controls the application. In this fashion, the plug-in software is developed as a standalone component that “plugs into” the Adobe InDesign application. The plug-in software typically serves to provide additional features that are not provided by the host application. Plug-in software for Adobe InDesign cannot be run as a standalone application — the plug-in modules must be installed along with Adobe InDesign in order to function.


Is DesignMerge a Plug-in?

Yes. DesignMerge consists of a suite of more than a dozen different plug-in modules that work directly with Adobe InDesign. DesignMerge supports all versions of Adobe InDesign Creative Cloud, and extends the functionality of InDesign by allowing the user to easily link text, pictures, or articles to database information. The data is merged into standard Adobe InDesign pages, and replaces the identified variable areas. The merged document can then be output in a variety of file and VDP formats. DesignMerge Pro is a feature-rich application that is impossible to fully describe in a single paragraph. For more information about DesignMerge Pro, please visit the DesignMerge Pro page on our web site.


What Are The Advantages of Plug-ins for VDP?

There are several advantages to plug-in technology in the VDP space. The most important advantage is that the software can utilize the most powerful and popular composition engine in the world, Adobe InDesign. All of the composition and styling features that a user has grown accustomed to using are fully supported by DesignMerge Pro. Advanced features such as object runarounds, multi-page composition, transparency effects, type-on-a-curve, drop caps, tables, etc. are all available and fully supported. A user simply takes an existing document, and uses DesignMerge Pro to Make It Variable™. The variable output will look just like a File/Print was performed for each individual data record.

Another important advantage to a plug-in approach for VDP is the minimization of ramp-up and production time. Because the user is allowed to remain in the Adobe InDesign application the entire time, there is very little training required. It is not necessary to learn a brand new page layout tool. Rather, using the DesignMerge Pro interface, the user can very easily identify variable elements in an existing document, start the merge session, and produce VDP output, all without having to leave the the Adobe InDesign environment. This also makes it very easy to make edits to the document, as the user can implement them immediately, just like they are editing a “normal” Adobe InDesign document… because they are!


How do Other Standalone VDP Programs Differ from the DesignMerge Plug-in Approach?

Many of the desktop VDP products on the market today all share a common flaw. They all utilize their own composition engines.

What does this mean? Well, the way that most of these packages work is to separate the “fixed/static” (non-changing) portion of a document from the “variable” portion of the document. Typically, the user is instructed to save the fixed portion of the job as a “background form” in PDF or some other format. If they are working in Adobe InDesign, it is up to them to delete or suppress the variable portion of the document, then save what’s left out as a PDF file.

Once the fixed file is created, the user then runs a completely separate VDP application. Most of the standalone VDP applications are themselves page layout applications, and they provide a very basic set of layout and design tools. The user places the background form (the PDF file) onto the page in the VDP page layout software, and this becomes the fixed/background portion of the document.

Next, using the tools provide by the VDP program, they create and “overlay” the variable portion of the document on top of the fixed graphic, being careful to properly align the variable data so that when everything is printed, the composite piece is properly aligned. This is not always easy to do, especially when working with a small variable area where the positioning must be very accurate.


What is Wrong With The Approach of Other VDP Programs?

We feel that there are several disadvantages to the approach offered by standalone VDP applications.

Limited Styling and Composition Features

The most important consideration is that many of the features that a designer has grown accustomed to using in Adobe InDesign are simply not available in other VDP applications. For example, features such as transparency effects, drop-shadows, drop-caps, type on an angle or a curve, graphic image runarounds, multi-page composition, and tabular composition, may simply not be supported by these programs. And it is not hard to imagine why. A composition engine is a very sophisticated piece of software, and Adobe has spent years refining their InDesign composition engine, and continue to add new and sophisticated features and improvements all the time.

This is bad news for standalone VDP applications because they must be operating in constant “catch up” mode, trying to match the features offered by Adobe InDesign as users demand them. And let’s be realistic – none of them can come anywhere close to what Adobe InDesign provides. In fact all of the standalone VDP software applications on the market today are very limited with respect to their composition and styling capabilities, which means that certain VDP jobs are quite literally impossible to produce.

Problems with Fonts and Colors

Many standalone VDP applications have problems with various Open Type and newer font formats, especially on the Macintosh platform. In addition, Pantone and custom color support is either non-existent or only very minimally supported.

Unpredictable Output

Another important consideration is that the variable portion of a VDP job produced using a standalone VDP application does not “look the same” as the fixed portion of the job. The fixed background (most likely created in Adobe InDesign) looks great, exactly like it should. However, because the variable portion of the text is created and printed using a separate VDP application, the quality of the output will not match the fixed background. Why? Because the text is composed using an entirely different composition engine, not Adobe InDesign.

Edits are Difficult

There is also the issue of edits. Remember that it is necessary to first create the fixed portion of the job as a PDF file using Adobe InDesign, or some other application, and then place that as a non-editable graphic in the VDP software. Therefore, editing any part of the fixed/static portion of the VDP job requires backing all the way out to the original application, making the edits there, and then re-positioning the background in the standalone application. This can often be very frustrating and time consuming for the VDP designers.

Learning Curve

Finally, there is the training and “comfort level” aspect, which we have found to be a very important issue with most users. A separate application means that the user must learn a new page layout program, and they are often reluctant to do so. We feel that remaining within the Adobe InDesign environment offers a distinct advantage because the user already knows how to use the features offered by the Adobe InDesign application.


Do You Have More Questions?

If you still have questions about DesignMerge, plug-in technology, or which VDP technology is right for you, please give us a call. Our professional sales staff have been fully trained and are very knowledgeable in the areas of VDP and data publishing.