Why can’t we use InDesign for websites?

I get asked this question a lot, and I always say it’s like asking, “Why can’t we drive in these nails with this screwdriver?” A screwdriver is obviously a very useful, valuable tool. And it’s the wrong tool for the job at hand. We can argue that a screwdriver is a more sophisticated tool than a hammer! And the hammer is still the right tool for the job at hand, i.e. driving in nails.

That’s really your answer right there. InDesign is a useful, valuable tool. It’s the wrong tool for web design. Here are some reasons.

1. InDesign is largely vector-based. Websites are largely raster-based. In building websites, we need to deal with very precise pixel dimensions for layout elements like images, columns, margins, etc. InDesign can definitely be used to make a picture that looks like a website, but when it’s time to slice it and code it, it’s missing the precision — the pixel-perfect-ness — that Photoshop offers. Lay out a bunch of buttons in InDesign as vector-based rectangles. In the world of vector they’re all exactly the same size. Now rasterize your layout into a 1000-pixel-wide image and suddenly three of your buttons are 250 pixels wide and one of them is 249 pixels wide, and a couple of them have a blurred “half-pixel” edge on one side. This is a big problem on the development side. And in the low-res, 72-dpi world of web browsers, these little differences are visible, and they are ugly.

2. Developers know Photoshop. Barely, in some cases. They do not know InDesign. And they’re not going to volunteer to learn it any time soon. Since Photoshop has been the industry standard for websites since the dawn of the internet — we’re talking the mid to late 1990s here — all web developers have learned how to use it at least a little bit. For the most part this just means flattening layers, slicing images, editing text, exporting to various web-friendly formats, etc. These are the basic Photoshop techniques any front-end developer knows. They’ve learned this necessary basic graphics stuff so they can do what they love, which is code websites. They’re not going to learn a whole new application to do the same thing, unless the entire industry demands it. And while it’s possible this may happen for InDesign someday, we’re nowhere near there yet. As stated above, InDesign is the wrong tool for the job, and the industry won’t embrace it unless big changes are made that basically make it a lot more like Photoshop. Which could happen! Someday.

3. One more point, which is specific to the agency where I work but it applies to lots of other organizations as well: Even if we as an agency decided we wanted to make InDesign our standard (which we should not, as the application currently is), and send our full time developers to training for it, there would still be a huge problem in the fact that we rely heavily on freelance developers on a project by project basis. We can train our full time devs in whatever we want, but we can’t expect to find freelance developers who can work with InDesign. And at any given time, up to half our developers are freelancers. Freelance devs represent a good sample of what the industry is really doing, because they have the skills that are in demand across all agencies. If we make InDesign a prerequisite for our freelance devs (as we do with Photoshop, html, etc), we’re eliminating the vast majority of talent out there that we can tap into.

Around 2007 or so, a very smart colleague of mine told me that Fireworks was on its way to becoming the new standard for web design; by his reckoning it was already there, and the rest of the industry just needed to catch up. Adobe had bought Fireworks from Macromedia and were pushing it hard. (Folks were making the seemingly very valid point: Photoshop is for photo editing! It was never intended for web design!) I remember thinking, wow, I’ve used Fireworks a bit, but I guess I’m going to have to get a lot better at it. But it never took; I basically never heard about Fireworks ever again, and now with Creative Cloud Adobe has killed it off. They’ve had to admit by default that Photoshop is the best web design tool out there, even if it wasn’t initially designed to be.

Photoshop is in our blood. Something other than Photoshop might take over for web design someday, but it will have to really be something special and get an enormous amount of traction and industry-wide support. It will simply have to be better for web design than Photoshop, which InDesign, in its current form, is not.

I actually feel mean talking all this trash about InDesign, which is a very good product! It’s just that I’ve been challenged on this so many times by the wonderful creatives I work with, I need to really make it clear that there are concrete reasons for sticking with Photoshop and that it isn’t just a personal choice. I’m excited to see what we’re using in five years, ten years! Photoshop has reigned for almost twenty, and it will be very hard for another program to come along and unseat it.

One Response to “Why can’t we use InDesign for websites?”

  1. Dillon says:

    Thanks for the great post. I’ve been wondering this question for a while, and I see what you mean about the vector-based issues with InDesign

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