Keep it simple, stupid: Word vs InDesign

Word vs InDesign: Designer's desk with layout on screen

Scott West

Studio Manager

Posted on February 9, 2015

You’ve likely heard of the KISS principle, coined back in the 60s by the US Navy, meaning ‘keep it simple, stupid’. Originally set down as a design principle, the idea was that most systems work best when they’re kept simple, so ‘simplicity should be a key goal in design and unnecessary complexity should be avoided’.

This is a pretty solid principle for most things, including document design, but when it comes to Word vs InDesign, which one is best at keeping it simple? Word, which everyone knows; or InDesign, which takes a lot more knowledge but lets you produce great-looking results?

The designer’s perspective

Virtually every design studio uses InDesign. That doesn’t mean they can’t use Word, but they’d certainly rather not. And there are several reasons why:

  • Version compatibility. You can spend hours designing the perfect layout in Word, but if you have Office 2010 and the client has, say, Office 2008, when they open the document they’ll likely see a mess. InDesign on the other hand, retains all formatting and placement no matter which version you open a document in.
  • Picture placement. Everyone knows that trying to insert a picture into a Word document and get it to stay where you put it is a nightmare. Just closing a document and reopening it can move images for no apparent reason. InDesign has picture and text boxes that you can move freely and stay where you put them.
  • Designed with design in mind. Word is basically a very swish version of Notepad. It wasn’t created with document design in mind, and while there have been improvements in more recent versions, it’s still not fit for financial services design purposes.
  • Interactivity. A lot of clients now want interactive elements in their documents such as buttons and navigation, that make a digital document feel more like an app. InDesign lets you do this. Word doesn’t.

The client’s perspective

Word is ubiquitous: everyone knows (or thinks they know) how to use it and pretty much everyone in business has a copy. Unlike InDesign documents, Word documents can be easily edited by clients, making turnarounds faster. It also means documents that need regular updates don’t have to be sent to the financial sector design agency every time, which keeps costs down.

There are also issues of software compatibility. For example, some financial services firms still use archaic software to merge application forms, and that software only works with Word.

Finally there are certain design projects, like letterheads, where the client needs to be able to regularly use the template. Thanks to the affordability of high-quality digital printers, many businesses have them in house and print out letterheads with the letter as and when they need. It would be uneconomical to get everyone a copy of InDesign simply to write letters.

The practical perspective

Simplicity isn’t always the same as usability. Often InDesign is the simpler option because it has more advanced (or some might argue, complex) tools:

  • Printing. When it comes to printed literature, there aren’t many output options in Word. Only the latest versions include CMYK and Pantone spot colours and most printing houses won’t accept Word documents, or if they do you either have to accept poor quality or a very high cost for tweaking. InDesign is focused on publishing and can output in any media that’s available at the moment.
  • Brand guidelines. In Word, it’s all too easy for a stakeholder in the client’s business to change the font to Comic Sans or insert a headline in brown rather than the specific Pantone spot colour laid out in the client’s brand guidelines. InDesign means you can set the guidelines andthe final PDF which is sent to the client cannot be altered.
  • Effort to output ratio. Once exported, application forms (for example) produced in Word can look very similar to those created in InDesign, but they will have taken a lot longer to produce. We all think we know Word, but most people actually only use a fraction of the functionality: it’s fiddly and not designed for this kind of work. Getting the same result from Word costs more time, money and effort.

Word vs InDesign? The answer’s simple, stupid

‘Word has a very high “four-letter-word factor,” according to my informal statistics around my studio,’ says Bevi Chagnon, publishing and communication consultant.

It’s simple: InDesign is the best option for high-quality document design. If a client wants a Word doc, but doesn’t need to edit it very much, it’s actually simpler to create it in InDesign, export it as a PDF, then use Acrobat to convert it to a Word file.

Where clients really do want or need a Word document though, the best agencies (Talisman included of course) will be able to produce high quality documents along with support and guidelines to help clients edit the document without falling foul of brand guidelines or destroying the integrity of the layout.

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