Adobe InDesign and Linked Text Assets


Adobe InDesign is the tool of choice for page layout, yet it is a relatively old piece of software, originating in the late 1990s. While InDesign has a concept of "links", its initial approach to graphic references was fundamentally that of desktop software prior to the age of the world wide web. Concepts of linked text in InDesign have evolved slowly over the past 15 years.

A link in InDesign is not, by default, a URL, as one might expect of today's programs. Instead, InDesign links are pointers to assets that are local (on the physical drive of the computer running InDesign) or available across the local network (via a network share). A simple plug-in (our Silicon Connector) can bring InDesign into the modern age, where true URLs enable cloud-based workflows, but we'll get to that later.

Whether you are using the default InDesign behavior, or the URL linking available with Silicon Connector, you will find that graphics are extremely straightforward and easy to work with, but text is a much more complex world. However, careful planning and/or significant development effort can make text linking a powerful part of your publishing workflow.

Referencing text is complex because text itself is complex; it doesn't often fit into a neat rectangle, but instead forces authors/designers to consider fonts, semantics, inline formatting, copy-fitting, and more. As magical as Adobe is, they have yet to provide a silver bullet for text. Yet there are several varieties of linking to text-based assets that have proven useful in publishing workflows.

Linking vs. Embedding

Links are a well-established best practice for graphic assets since the origin of InDesign, for some fairly obvious reasons:

  1. File size might get crazy due to the size of high-resolution graphic assets. Linking requires packaging, or somehow associating the linked assets with the InDesign file, but at least the InDesign file itself does not become unwieldy.
  2. With linking, graphics are nicely independent. Say the company logo changes, for example: by updating that single graphic file, all of the InDesign content that uses it can automatically point to the new version, avoiding scouring through every InDesign file and looking for uses of an embedded graphic.

While embedding may have some valid use cases, using embedded graphics is certainly the exception rather than the rule. Most InDesign users are familiar with linking to graphics, as it is generally far more practical than embedding.

Linking to Text in its Myriad Forms

While linking to graphic assets is the most common InDesign practice, linking to text is rare, and not something casually done by the typical individual designer, but is instead something that may be the case in larger organizations or with automation-savvy designers/publishers who use it to support specific workflows. There isn't a "one size fits all" solution for working with text, but the different forms of linking to text can each end up being quite powerful, given specific authoring and multi-channel publishing use cases.

Linking Text

Linked text content can be very powerful for authoring workgroups, as it lets a single InDesign document aggregate content authored by multiple users (with Silicon Connector, these can be remote users).

Plain Text

Linking to plain text is generally silly, because updating the link will kill the formatting you've applied to it. You might have expected that the text would be referenced independent of the formatting (I sure did, in fact I thought this must be the case until I tried it), but no. Therefore this is not often useful. Still, getting plain text linking to work is a nice first step in working with those text-based formats that have more value.

InDesign behavior when you import a text file of any form (whether Text, Tagged Text, ICML, Word, or Excel) is not to create a link, but instead to import the text into InDesign. It is nice to know how to change this behavior.

How to link to text files from InDesign

1. Link plain text. Not a good option

The key to doing any sort of text linking from InDesign is to set your preferences accordingly. Choose InDesign > Preferences > File Handling, and check "Create Links When Placing Text and Spreadsheet Files". This will let you drag text files into your document and link to them just as you do graphic files.

Linking to Text

Once you've done this, dragging a text file into your InDesign document will create a link to that file (note the link appearing in the Links panel). When the text changes, you will be warned in the Links panel and offered a chance to update the asset. However, updating the text sets you back to square one relative to any formatting you've applied.

Use cases for linking to plain text are few and far between. Yet it is a good thing to try out, in order to understand how text linking works with InDesign generally.

InDesign Tagged Text

2. Linking Tagget text. A good solution

Linking to InDesign Tagged Text, on the other hand, has been used in some of the most powerful publishing workflows on the planet. To be fair, it isn't always linked tagged text, as embedded tagged text often works just fine in many cases.

Consider a web-centric content management model. If your content is all in HTML, or (even better) an upstream format like XML, you can feed InDesign stores of rich text. You (or the third-party development shop you hire) need to figure out how to map the HTML/XML/JSON/etc. structure to that of InDesign tagged text, yet that is surmountable (contact us at Silicon Publishing if you need help). VoilĂ , you are maintaining content in one place, and generating print and web output from a single source.

I have seen miracles achieved with InDesign tagged text. For example, I know of a small newspaper that maintains all of their content in WordPress, then scripts the transformation from HTML to tagged text, thus publishing to both web and high-quality print from a single source. Tagged text is a very powerful capability of InDesign and InDesign Server: linking via URLs makes this approach scalable for remote users.


3. InCopy Markup

InCopy is InDesign's obscure cousin, which seems to be enjoying a resurgence now that it is free with a Creative Cloud subscription. InCopy allows writers, who may not know or care much about the final layout, to work undistracted on the text content of a document. It offers some features around collaboration (such as "assignments"), but InCopy workflows often suffer from the fact that it does not handle the modern web-based paradigm well. Still, one very cool feature (which we see enabling current cloud-based workflows) is the fact that the file format for InCopy stories (which are similar to a "story" in InDesign, typically an article in a publication like a newspaper or magazine) can leverage InDesign's linking architecture.

You can use ICML links to let users author in InCopy, either the way InCopy expects (using the assignment workflow) or by simply maintaining ICML articles in your InDesign document and referencing them. If you're really ambitious, you can transform HTML, XML, JSON, or some other structured text format into ICML (although doing this with tagged text is easier).

Word and RTF

4. Word and RTF with WordsFlow and Connector

InDesign will let you integrate content from Word or RTF. As with text, these can be imported, or they can be linked. While the out-of-the-box functionality to translate Word to InDesign is less than perfect, many organizations use this workflow because Word is fairly ubiquitous as a word processor among non-designers, while InDesign is far superior at precise layout. InDesign includes functionality allowing you to map styles from Word to styles in InDesign.

The default behavior of InDesign's management of Word content can work well, if your Word authors follow established processes (such as using styles). But the more random the source of Word content, the less perfect the conversion tends to be. If you are really serious about working with Word and InDesign together, we've found Em Software's WordsFlow product to be quite powerful.


Excel is another file format supported by InDesign, and like Word the import is not flawless (again, WordsFlow can help), yet there are many successful workflows around the world where Excel is the content source feeding InDesign. Linked Excel tables can use the updated data from source Excel files while retaining InDesign table formatting.

The one gotcha with regard to Excel is the specific way that InDesign maps structure to style with Excel source data. According to the documentation, "the only formatting that is preserved with a linked Excel document is that formatting that comes from Table Styles and Cell Styles." So you can't just apply direct formatting and expect it to stick: formatting from table styles and cell styles (which in turn may require paragraph and/or character styles) can exist in InDesign independent of the source text content.

Text that doesn't link: Snippets (IDMS)

You might expect to be able to link to InDesign snippets, or IDMS files, but snippets can only be embedded in InDesign documents. However, snippets themselves can contain links to images or any of the flavors of text content mentioned above.

Silicon Connector for Box

For several years now, we've offered a Silicon Connector for Box. While Box isn't really a DAM as much as it is a storage platform, it is fast becoming a practical way to store assets in the cloud and, for better or worse, many organizations now use Box as a DAM for graphic assets.

Through the magic of URLs, an InCopy/Word/HTML/Excel user (or any combination of these) can author their respective parts, while an InDesign user in another city or country will immediately see the updated article in the master InDesign document.

We have seen the Box web client improve steadily over the years, and now it is a largely seamless experience to open an InCopy, Word, Text, or Excel file from Box, edit it, and save it right back to Box without having to look at the file system at all. This was not the case 3 years ago, but between Box and the Creative Cloud license, you can now do collaborative authoring beyond what was possible back when Aaron Levie still looked young.

Empowering Linked Text from InDesign with True URLs

Linking, so far, may go only as far as "links" to the local file system or the local network. Certainly the trend is to store graphics and text content in the cloud, and Adobe was not stupid. In the CS3 to CS4 timeframe (think 2006, when HTML5 was becoming a thing, but WebGL was still a gleam in Tony Parisi's eye), Adobe invested in a URL-based architecture for linking with their flagship product, which was then InDesign. Under the hood, even the file-system links exposed to normal end users have been managed in InDesign as URLs since that time. Yet the full power of this architecture is not directly exposed to end users.

We at Silicon Publishing became rather obsessed with this functionality and worked for years, with help from Adobe (and importantly some engineers who joined us from the original InDesign team), to bring true URL-based linking to the surface. We built a plug-in, Silicon Connector, that creates a true URL-link from InDesign to assets (graphics and text) located in Digital Asset Management systems or storage platforms. It is now quite well-proven, with years of use by thousands of users around the world.

Silicon Connector is not a generic solution (as in a single plugin connecting to many DAMs), but is instead a core technology from which we've connected InDesign (and often Photoshop and Illustrator) to 19 different DAMs, in 19 different ways. Our Connectors for Webdam, Widen, MediaValet, Bynder, and Photoshelter are distinct products available from their respective DAMs, but in a few cases (such as Adobe Experience Manager, Box, Alfresco, DALIM ES) we sell the Connector directly. We keep adding DAMs and storage platforms regularly: reach out if you are wondering where your favorite DAM stands on our roadmap.

You can find out more about Silicon Connector for Box here.

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