InDesign at 20: how Adobe beat Quark to become the graphic design tool of choice

We look back at the early years of InDesign with Adobe's Maria Yap, who worked on version 2.0.

20 years ago, Adobe launched at tool called InDesign that changed how graphic design was done – and also began a change in the company’s tools that moved it from an app maker to having an integrated suite of tools, and began an approach to tool design that has lead to innovative apps such as Adobe XD.

In 1999, chances are you used only one or two of Adobe’s tools. All graphic designers used Photoshop to edit images, and if you created logos and graphics alongside doing page layout you used Illustrator.

Layout itself was done in QuarkXPress, a tool that designers had even more of a love-hate relationship than they currently do with InDesign. I joined Digit, as the print magazine that later became Digital Arts was called, in 1999 and swiftly learned the frustrations of losing hours of work due to crashes and idiosyncratic workflows.

XPress delivery

Quark as company had a reputation for complacency and slow development, which many took as arrogance driven by market dominance. Then Adobe launched InDesign and, slowly at first, everything changed. InDesign 1.0 wasn’t a match for QuarkXPress in every regard – and required more expensive hardware to run usably – but it had better typographic controls. More importantly, it introduced innovation and competition, the latter driving the former for years to come. (You can read more about how InDesign 1.0 fared against QuarkXPress 4 in this story from 1999 on our sister site Macworld).

Maria Yap was working at Adobe at the time on the print production tool Acrobat Distiller. Previously a designer, she went on to become InDesign’s product manager for version 2.0 – when it really started taking off. She’s now VP of Adobe’s Digital Imaging group, which includes Photoshop and Lightroom.

“Being a long time – I'll admit – QuarkXPress user, it was really intriguing to see a product being built almost from the ground up to compete against something that was an industry standard,” says Maria.

Asked why she wanted to work on InDesign, she says that “I felt that I had a lot that I could bring to the product, since I had such deep experience in the industry. Plus, knowing the competitive products so well. I really felt it was an opportunity to really help Adobe compete, and further differentiate itself from the competition.”

And differentiate itself it did. InDesign 2.0 introduced powerful and well-thought-out tools for tables, glyphs and transparency (including cut-outs and drop shadows) – tools that got designers excited about what they could create and how quickly they could create it. QuarkXPress 5.0, launched a few days after, had a toolset that looked basic and outdated by comparison.

"Tables had never been in DTP apps since until 2002,” notes Maria, “which is crazy when you think about it.

"Tools like that, the deeper integration with Photoshop and Illustrator, and transparency – we take them for granted now. But I helped introduce them,” she says with pride.

X appeal

Another feature that InDesign 2.0 had over QuarkXPress 5.0 is that it ran natively on Apple’s new Mac OS X, which shipped the previous year. Compared to the predecessor Mac OS 9, Mac OS X was a completely new generation of operating system. OS 9 apps – such as QuarkXpress 5.0 – could run on a virtualised version of OS 9 called the Classic Environment, albeit slowly.

Maria describes the launch of InDesign 2.0 on Mac OS X as one of her proudest moments. It showed how her team – and Adobe in general – could innovate far in advance of the competition. She calls it her “Master’s thesis, it helped me become the product leader that I am today ” – but after it was complete, it was time to move on.

"I ended up joining the Creative Suite team at that point,” says Maria. "Because shortly after InDesign shifted, we started to conceive of this notion of bringing all our products together.

"What we hadn't done yet was, think about how we were going to innovate once we brought those products together – what sort of features or functionalities could we introduce with our products were on the same schedule.”

There wasn’t to be an InDesign 3 – instead the next version was to be InDesign CS, launched alongside CS versions of Illustrator and Photoshop (and Acrobat in the Professional version of Creative Suite. The Creative Suite release was where InDesign really started to take over from QuarkXPress – as much perhaps because it was much more cost-effective to buy or upgrade the Creative Suite as one than QuarkXPress plus Photoshop and Illustrator. Creative Suite became Creative Cloud in 2013.

While InDesign has seen relatively few new features in the past five years – though it did gain the same Properties panel as other Adobe tools and the nifty Content-Aware Fit in November 2018 – what Adobe learned from its initial development can be seen when it created the highly praised UX design tool Adobe XD.

However, despite recent competition from Affinity Publisher, InDesign is still the page layout tool of choice for the majority of graphic designers. And Maria fully expects it to still be in use in another 20.

“What I'm most proud of is that InDesign is up to 20 years,” she says. "When you're early on on a product, you never know where it's going to go. It's very competitive."

Measuring up to Photoshop

Working on a new product that existed alongside some of the industry's most venerated tools, Maria felt what she describes as a "sibling pressure" – that the team and the software itself as to live up to the quality and functionality of its sister apps Illustrator and Photoshop.

"With the first version, [the future of InDesign] was unclear,” says Maria. "With the second version we felt we we're not going to get that many swings at this – if we don't make sure that InDesign is solidly anchored in the creative industry, it could be game over. I was living in a period of Adobe where we did introduce a lot of products, and not all of them have survived [RIP GoLive, Flash and Fireworks, Ed].

"I think I'm most proud that I was part of that early team that helped to make the right critical decisions, and what we built has survived the test of time."

Read our InDesign 2.0 review from March 2002.

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