Cool Technique: Self-Contained InDesign Files

September 14, 2006 - 2:00am ||| 0 Comments | Add new

Designers moving from QuarkXPress to InDesign tend to overlook some useful features in InDesign because they never existed in XPress. They're not on their "I did [x] in Quark, how do I do [x] in InDesign" radar.

One of the most-frequently overlooked InDesign features is the ability to embed linked files, such as images, right inside the layout file. If you've ever imported a Photoshop file into an Illustrator document, or any image into a Microsoft Word document, you've seen this feature more overtly. You're given the choice of embedding the art into the file or linking to it right in the Import dialog box.

InDesign doesn't have that option in its Place dialog box; all imported images are linked by default, just as in QuarkXPress. You can see which files are linked to your layout by looking at the Links palette. Designers have to be careful of those original files, as the layout won't print properly if InDesign can't find them, just like XPress.

But as I said, you can choose to embed any or all of these linked files. When a placed image or PDF is embedded, InDesign doesn't need the external native file to print or export to PDF properly. If someone else needs to work on the layout, all they need is the layout file and the fonts, which InDesign can't embed. (That's only an option for PDFs.) But at least you don't have to worry about collecting all the outside files and transferring those too.

As with Illustrator and Word, embedding an imported file is a feature you should use carefully, as it has some downsides. I'll get to that in a minute.

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How to Embed
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Oh, it's so complicated. Open the Links palette from the Window menu and select the linked file(s) you want to embed. Then from the Links palette menu, choose Embed File. You're done.

You'll see that embedding a linked file doesn't delete its entry from the Links palette, instead it adds a little icon to the right indicating it's an embedded file. You can double-click the entry to see the path to the original image it embedded.

The path that Link Info shows to the embedded image is just there as a sort of historical record, though. You can move, rename, modify or even delete that external file, and nothing changes in your layout or in Link Info. You don't get a "modified" or "missing" alert because InDesign is no longer tracking it. You've captured all the data from the external file at that point in time and saved it in the layout file.

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How to Unembed
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Change your mind? You can always Unembed, even if the original file is long gone. Select the embedded file entry in the Links palette and choose Unembed File from the Links palette menu. An alert immediately asks if you want to re-link to the original file or have InDesign create a new file.

Relinking to the original during an unembed will only work if the original file still exists at the same location and with the same filename. You can't point InDesign to where you moved it to as you can with a normal Relink. But assuming you haven't moved or renamed the original, once you unembed it via the relink option, the file is no longer embedded and is a normal link again.

Amazingly (to me, at least), is that other choice: InDesign can unembed a file even if the original is nowhere to be found, by creating it anew. If you opt for a new file, the program asks where you want to save it, but not what its name will be, because it automatically uses the same filename as the original. As soon as it's done, the Links palette entry for the file loses its "embedded" icon and is now linked to the new file InDesign just created, same as usual.

The first time I tried this with an embedded raster image (a complicated .psd file which I had scaled and flipped and feathered and done all sorts of abusive things to in InDesign), I opened the InDesign-created file in Photoshop with trepidation. I was ready for some Frankenstein-like version of my original image, an unholy creation complete with stitches and studs. But the image, boringly enough, was simply exactly what I originally placed, same dimensions, even the Photoshop layers and blend modes were intact. I've had InDesign unembed all sorts of files, including PDFs, and have yet to find an instance where it didn't work.

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When and When Not to Embed
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First, because Edit Original doesn't work on embedded files (it's grayed out) you probably should keep it as a normal linked file until you're certain it's final, and only then embed it. It's no tragedy though if down the road you need to modify an embedded image. Find the original native file (assuming you still have it; if not, see above) and edit it in its native program. Then choose the embedded link in the Links palette and click the Relink icon. In the Relink dialog box you can locate and select the modified file. InDesign replaces the old embedded image with a normal linked image pointing to the new external file. You can re-embed the new one if you want.

Second, embedding files increases the size of the InDesign file proportionally. Common sense holds that the larger the file, the more likely it will go south at some point … that's why people use the Book feature instead of jamming all 30 chapters into one InDesign file.

So that 80 MB Photoshop cover is probably not a prudent choice, but screen shots are great candidates for embedding, as are little vector icons, newsletter head shots, charts and graphs, things like that.

In truth, though, I would never embed anything in a layout I'm planning to send to an outside vendor for printing. Vendors don't like it, and it could interfere with their own internal production processes. If I'm going to be sending them a press-ready PDF, though, I might embed some files as I'm working on the layout, just to keep the number of links down to a manageable size. After all, the PDF I'll be sending will have *everything* embedded, so what do they care.

Most often I use InDesign's embed feature for "in-house" work (calendars, meeting notes, employee how-to's) and for student and seminar handouts. After laying out the document, I just select all the entries in the Links palette and embed them all in one swoop. I can still scale, crop, add drop shadows, and so on to embedded images, just like linked ones.

It's handy to have one single file containing everything necessary (except for the fonts) to print the document on our office color printer or to archive on the server. It's better than a PDF in this respect because it's an easily editable file. Other people in the office can grab that InDesign file and update the text, add pages, etc. without having to worry about where the original images are.

Give it a try!

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