Using Adobe InDesign with Box: The Trend to Cloud-based Design Workflows

At the time Adobe InDesign was created, 15 years ago, it was generally impractical to store print-quality assets on web servers. A decade and a half later, however, the maturity of cloud-based file storage and asset management systems is making links from InDesign to assets housed in modern platforms, such as Box, a powerful solution for creative professionals.

Asset storage as of Adobe InDesign 1.0

Adobe InDesign is the tool of choice for the creation of high-quality print documents. It is nearly ubiquitous among those creating newspapers, magazines, books, catalogs, marketing collateral, or almost anything that prints. InDesign started out as a competitor to QuarkXPress, and given the dominance of Adobe in tangential technology (PostScript, PDF, PhotoShop, Illustrator) along with substantial and well-focused investment in the product, it was inevitable that InDesign would take the place of Quark at the center of high-end publishing workflows.

Incorporating graphical assets into an InDesign document was much the same as it had been with Quark. Assets placed in a document could either be embedded in the document or "linked" to their location on the local file system (or network share). The best, most common practice was to link assets, as it kept down the size of the InDesign file and allowed for independent work on the assets themselves. Collaborating on documents typically required "packaging" the dependent files, then exchanging not only the InDesign file, but the fonts and links that it depended on as well.

As of 1999, when InDesign 1.0 was released, there were some web-based asset management systems, but they primarily targeted assets for the web, not for print. At that time (long before the advent of retina displays) graphic assets for the web had significantly lower resolution (meaning much smaller file sizes) than print assets. The traditions and habits of the print industry, coupled with the infancy of web-based storage, meant that InDesign initially ignored the possibility of linking directly to web-based assets, but was instead designed to operate on a single computer or network. Few if any features of InDesign 1.0 had much to do with the web or http.

The trend towards cloud storage and the ascent of Box

Cloud storage has finally come of age due to a combination of factors. Among cloud storage platforms, Box is proving itself as a leader, with a momentum similar to the growth of the internet itself.

Global Internet Usage

As of 1999:

  • Less than 25% of developed world residents had Internet access
  • A good modem had a speed of 128kbps
  • Storage cost an average of $10/gigabyte
  • Concepts that were to become essential to "cloud" computing were in their infancy

Given these factors, along with the relatively large file size of print assets, it is easy to understand that the InDesign 1.0 concept of graphic "links" referred to graphics on local or network file systems, rather than remote web servers. While the web soon inspired features such as SVG and HTML export, it took some time before Adobe considered basing links on URLs rather than the tried and true file-based mechanisms familiar to Quark and PageMaker users since the 1980s.

As of 2013:

  • Over 70% of developed world residents have Internet access
  • A good modem has a speed of many mbps
  • Storage costs an average of $.05/gigabyte
  • Cloud computing and storage as a service continue exponential growth

Box is a classic Silicon Valley success story, led by an iconic visionary with impressive insight into real-world problems. Founded in 2006 as a consumer offering for free file sharing, Box pivoted in 2007 to target the enterprise, right at the time that cloud-based storage became economically viable. Beyond the "freemium" model common with Dropbox and others in this space, Box served the enterprise market with a focus on security and compliance with standards such as HIPAA, along with fast-paced innovation supporting mobile and BYOD trends as they evolve. While other storage providers were aiming to replace FTP sites, Box was aiming to replace Microsoft SharePoint.

"Information velocity is going to transform how individuals work and how organizations operate. Over time, it will even revolutionize and modernize entire industries." -- Box CEO Aaron Levie

By extending their cloud storage service into an enterprise platform, Box has achieved astonishing growth. Current valuation of the company is on the order of $1 billion. With over 20 million users and 180,000+ enterprise implementations, Box reflects the global shift to a cloud future. Their vision is expressed in their rich developer ecosystem, and is bolstered by support for rich metadata, usually associated with a traditional DAM. Despite the absence of some features one would normally find in a DAM, the Box platform is rapidly becoming a popular place for corporate design groups to store images.

The benefits of linking from InDesign to cloud-based assets

The continued growth of the web and the evolution of cloud-based storage lead Adobe to re-architect the linking model of InDesign under the hood, in order to support URL-based concepts. In 2008 the release of InDesign CS4 introduced a brand-new linking model. However, this model was not brought to the surface to make it directly accessible to end-users, but instead required significant development effort on the part of Adobe or third-party developers to actually connect to web-based assets. Adobe used this model internally to provide URL-based linking in support of their Buzzword and VersionCue products. Silicon Publishing, a software company specializing in extending Adobe InDesign and InDesign Server, created "Silicon Connector", a plug-in enabling robust URL-based links to assets on generic web servers and specific DAM/storage platforms, in 2010. In 2013 this was updated specifically for the Box platform, and is known as Silicon Connector for Box.

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Linking directly to cloud-based assets is a liberating experience for design shops used to collaborative authoring, especially in cases where designers do not share the same network. It is quite common for agencies and other organizations to work with freelance designers, and typically cumbersome to package all the related assets to an InDesign file. Consider the "before and after" of a workflow with generic InDesign and Box, on the left, vs. the incredible simplicity of a Silicon Connector for Box workflow on the right.

Exchanging InDesign files before and after Silicon Connector for Box

Without Silicon Connector for Box, the following steps are necessary to share an InDesign document between two or more users:

  • User 1 copies the original assets from Box (or any other remote file storage solution), then links to a local copy.
  • There are now two sets of assets – one local, one remote.
  • In preparation for sharing with User 2, User 1 next creates an InDesign “package”.  Packaging entails duplicating the local assets.
  • A third copy of the assets now exists.
  • User 1 uploads the InDesign package to Box (or other remote system, such as an FTP server), creating a fourth copy of the assets.
  • User 2 downloads the remote InDesign package to their local file system or network share.
  • There is now a fifth copy of the assets: beginning with the original, it was necessary to download User 1’s copy; followed by a packaged set, a copy of that package uploaded to the remote system; and User 2’s downloaded copy of the remote package.
  • In many cases, User 2 will then have to relink to this fifth set of assets once they are available locally.
  • Once User 2 is finished working with the InDesign document, the process must be reversed: package – copy assets to remote – duplicating assets, etc., including the possible necessity of relinking assets at the end of every iteration.

With Silicon Connector for Box, only the following steps are needed:

  • When editing in InDesign, User 1 links to Box-resident assets from the InDesign document.
  • When editing is done, User 1 copies the InDesign file to Box, then shares it via a secure link (https) transmitted to User 2 (or many users).
  • User 2 simply clicks the link and downloads the InDesign file. Because it retains its internal links to the Box-resident assets, no relinkage or packaging is needed.

It should be fairly obvious, even to those non-designers who have never enjoyed hours of packaging, uploading, and re-linking assets, and those non-coders who haven't written scripts and set up automated processes to re-link, validate that assets are available, etc., that the linked approach to cloud-based assets is the only sensible approach. Demand for Silicon Connector has increased proportionally with the growth of cloud-based asset management among InDesign users, as the availability of a single, secure, central source of assets saves huge amounts of time, while dramatically reducing redundant assets and the consequent risk of error.

Using InDesign with cloud-based assets the right way

Connecting InDesign with Box assets properly requires Silicon Connector for Box, available from Silicon Publishing. With this simple plug-in, users can work with pure and persistent references to their assets in the Box cloud, without moving any of these assets around.

Silicon Connector for Box

Silicon Connector for Box enables access to Box assets directly from within InDesign. When you drag and drop the asset into the document, a secure http link to the Box repository is established. When you exchange your files with others that have access to the same assets, you can simply exchange InDesign files without packaging assets. You can, alternately, package assets in the old fashioned way, in which case your box assets are downloaded and added to a complete package on the local file system. In most corporate design groups using Box for asset storage, it would be rare to use the older method, yet it can be useful in creating a final archive or exchanging files with those that don't have access to your Box assets.

Silicon Connector for Box also allows for generic drag and drop from unsecured assets on a web server, for example from wikimedia. Links to http-based or Box assets can also be associated or changed with simple scripts. Using such extensibility, it is possible to easily swap, for example, between high-resolution and low-resolution assets. Silicon Connector for Box makes it possible to work with InDesign and single-source, cloud-based assets.