Computer Arts Magazine Asks Jay Nelson About Quark and QuarkXPress 8

QuarkXPress 8As the editor and publisher of Design Tools Monthly for the past 15 years, I’m sometimes called upon to provide my perspective when a major change occurs in the design and publishing industry. With the release of QuarkXPress 8, I was asked by Tom Dennis at Computer Arts magazine to respond to some very pointed questions about Quark and QuarkXPress 8.

Computer Arts MagazineComputer Arts is a well-respected magazine for creative professionals in the UK. Since 1995 it’s been inspiring and informing designers and artists around the world. Naturally, I was flattered to be asked.

An edited version of my response will appear in their magazine in the near future. Meanwhile, they’ve given Planet Quark permission to publish the full Q&A, which appears below.

Who is Quark aiming Version 8 of XPress at?

I think they have several targets. The biggest one is their existing user base, who appreciates the efficient interface of QuarkXPress, and wants even more efficiency. QXP 8 not only makes it much easier to navigate through the tools and work with objects on the page, it also brings many of the useful, hidden functions out into the open. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked by a longtime QuarkXPress user: “Why doesn’t QuarkXPress do such-and-such?” and the answer is: “Well, it does… see right here?”

Another target is students. Quark is positioning QuarkXPress 8 as “not your father’s QuarkXPress” — which I think is true, at least in how it’s perceived. Quark ignored the education market for so many years that an entire generation of graphic designers have never used it. But now, Quark is offering killer discounts to schools, free copies to students, and fully developed curriculum to teachers.

Certainly, the East Asian market is a big target for version 8. Quark put a tremendous amount of effort into developing a powerful typographic engine for Chinese, Japanese and Korean language users. The quality of their support for those languages may cause QuarkXPress to take over those markets.

I think Quark is also hoping to reclaim a big chunk of the multilingual publishing market. Unlike previous single-language versions of QuarkXPress, or the obscenely overpriced QuarkXPress Passport, QuarkXPress 8 can read and format documents created by any language version of QuarkXPress — including East Asian. There is no longer a concern about whether your version of QuarkXPress can read a document created by someone else’s — anywhere in the world.

And finally, I think they’re hoping to attract and keep users who need to create Flash animations, interactive PDFs, and design Web pages, but who don’t have the time or inclination to learn the complex intricacies of several other applications. If you know how to use QuarkXPress, you’re 90% of the way to knowing how to do those things.

How has Quark repositioned and reinvented itself since Ray Schiavone took over the CEO?

The reinvention began several years before Ray joined Quark. Soon after CEO Fred Ebrahimi stepped out of day-to-day operations, the company took a sharp turn toward improving customer satisfaction, their product line, and their company image. Quark began shifting gears with the release of version 6, and Ray came on after QuarkXPress 7 was released.

Ray has certainly put a kinder, gentler face on Quark. He brought in several key executives that he worked with in previous successful companies, and they brought with them a fresh look at what the company could be doing better. He spent most of his first year visiting with customers around the world and absorbing their needs.

Apparently, those needs involved multilingual publishing, cross-media publishing, greater integration with Adobe products, and greater support for education. At least, those are the directions I’ve seen Quark moving in.

Their new corporate identity helps, too. After a disastrous attempt at hiring a company to invent a new corporate identity, they turned to their own, amazing Matt Bargell to design a new logo and identity. I really like the new look.

In your opinion, how did Quark lose its dominance of the design market?

I think the Quark story will go down in business school textbooks as a classic example of how a company could come to dominate an entire industry and then lose much of its customer base. They did just about everything wrong they could have. First, Tim Gill, the soul of the company, left. Then, the remaining partner, Fred Ebrahimi, methodically alienated his employees, the press, and many of Quark’s committed customers. Also, because he despised Apple Computer, he was blinded to the need of QuarkXPress for Mac OS X. With the majority of its users on the Macintosh platform, and all new Macs requiring Mac OS X, hundreds of thousands of QuarkXPress users were looking around for an alternative that ran natively on Mac OS X and on Windows.

While Fred was eating through the customer goodwill that had accumulated over the years, Adobe was developing InDesign; a page layout program that answered many of the requests that QuarkXPress users had made to Quark, but had been ignored. In fact, many of the developers of InDesign were former Quark employees. Conveniently, InDesign also ran natively on Mac OS X and on Windows.

QuarkXPress users who were unhappy with how they had been treated by Quark flocked to InDesign. So did QuarkXPress users who never really liked QuarkXPress, but were forced to use it by its dominance in the industry. In other words, InDesign had an instant customer base.

Adobe pushed it over the top by bundling InDesign with Illustrator and Photoshop, essentially giving away InDesign to anyone who bought their other products — which is most of the designers in the world.

And then there was the education market, which Quark ignored for enough time that an entire generation of design students only knew InDesign. Adobe spun InDesign as being more hip and up-to-date than QuarkXPress, a combination that ignorant young designers jumped all over.

Adobe also helped create InDesign user groups all over the world, which helped new users not only become more proficient in using InDesign, but also encouraged them to feel safe to adopt it — by relieving the fear that there wouldn’t be other users they could rely on.

Meanwhile, Quark ignored the threat and didn’t fund a marketing effort. Because of that, they released versions of QuarkXPress that contained great new features, but didn’t effectively educate their users about the new features. The result was that the existing user base didn’t feel QuarkXPress was becoming more useful. So why pay to upgrade — especially when you could cross-grade to InDesign for about the same amount of money?

And when I say “ignored the threat”, this includes not understanding that designers really wanted seamless interaction between Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat (or PDF) and QuarkXPress. They wanted to be able to use native file formats from Illustrator and Photoshop, and to double-click those files within QuarkXPress to edit them. But Quark didn’t provide any real level of Illustrator support, and their support for native Photoshop files had a short list of limitations that made it unattractive to designers who already had a million details on their minds.

Will they be able to recover their reputation in one release?

No. They’ll never recover their reputation, because the market has changed too dramatically. Their original reputation was created by developing an efficient page layout program that printed reliably. That’s no longer the market. Nobody knows what the market is. Adobe is developing in one direction, and Quark in another. If designers fall in love with QuarkXPress 8 again — and I think that is definitely possible — then Quark will have recovered its reputation for innovative, quality products.

If we’re talking about customer service, then yes — as long as customers are willing to open their eyes they’ll see that Quark is treating them in an entirely new way. For quite a while now, Quark has been offering free technical support by phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from the U.S. during U.S. business hours, and from India at other times. My experience with product activation and registration has been easy and quick, which was also a sore point in the past.

Quark has had a presence at every major trade show related to design and publishing for the past several years. Compare that to surprising absences in the years before that.

The list goes on… but as I said, it depends on whether customers will allow the new Quark to make up for the old Quark.

What new tools does QuarkXPress 8 promise? How will these bring QXP 8 in line with its strategic plans?

In the past several releases, I’ve equated an attempt at describing the new features in QuarkXPress with the old story of the four blind men encountering an elephant and attempting to describe it. The blind man touching the elephant’s side describes it as a wall. The one touching his trunk describes it as a snake. The one touching his leg describes it as a tree. And the one touching his tail describes it as a rope. They’re all correct, but even taken together the four descriptions don’t add up to an elephant.

QuarkXPress 8 is no different. Its interface and user experience is improved in a hundred small ways. Users of Adobe products will find it more familiar. Features that everyone assumes it should have, it now has: drag-and-drop from the Finder or from Adobe Bridge; drag content from a QuarkXPress page onto other applications or the desktop; support for native Adobe Illustrator files and the newest PDFs; item styles; convert multiple lines of text to outlines; hanging characters and punctuation; multiple grids; that sort of thing.

But the big breakthrough features involve multilingual publishing and Flash export — both of which build on features introduced in version 7. If you’re publishing in several languages, just knowing that anyone using QuarkXPress anywhere in the world can work with your document is a huge advantage. Not having to buy QuarkXPress Passport to publish in multiple languages is huge. The Asian market should fall all over itself to use the breakthrough new Asian language features in version 8 — as should anyone publishing in those languages.

When you add these features to the cross-media features in earlier releases, including interactive PDF and Web page design, they now have their cross-media bases mostly covered for an average graphic designer.

When you add the new multilingual publishing features to the shared content and other collaboration features from version 7, you have a publishing engine you can base a worldwide, enterprise-level system upon.

So yes, I think the new features are directly in line with Quark’s stated strategies.

Is Quark’s new strategy of cross-media publishing reflected in the refinements it has made in XPress 8? In your opinion, which new tools and features support this strategic plan?

I think they could have gone farther in this direction. It would have been great to see some of the limitations eliminated in their Flash and Web page design environments — not because the tools aren’t already at a level appropriate for the average page designer, but because these limitations create hesitation in the mind of the end user. I mean, if it does A through Z, but not G, M and Q, then that’s too much to think about. But that’s just my opinion. Quark has obviously been listening to their user base, so perhaps what they have is enough.

I think their support for native Illustrator and Photoshop files, full support for the latest PDF format, and bringing some of their lesser-used features to the fore, should encourage more designers to use the powerful cross-media features in QuarkXPress.

Finally, (phew!), and in your opinion, does the design industry still need QuarkXPress?

Yes. You asked about the “design” industry, but I’ll begin with the publishing industry. Aside from the millions and millions of documents that were created in QuarkXPress and will need to be updated sometime, QuarkXPress is simply a better tool for many users. It seems to me that QuarkXPress was created and maintained as a publishing engine. It’s all about efficiency and ease of use when formatting pages. A cottage industry of XTensions is built around it, and publishing workflows are based on the combination of QuarkXPress and custom XTensions. Add the reality that the printing and publishing industry is a big, slow-moving beast, and doesn’t adopt new technologies quickly, and you’ve got a lengthy future for QuarkXPress.

There are good reasons for that resistance to change. New options come along every day, but remaining profitable requires keeping projects moving. Although it’s possible to convert SIMPLE QuarkXPress documents to InDesign, the process requires manual touchups to every document. And complex documents — or those that use features in QuarkXPress 5 or later — don’t convert at all. Those pages have to be manually rebuilt. Any publisher will look at that process and weigh the time and costs of converting those documents and training their staff. Especially in this economic climate, most don’t have the profit margin to afford that extra time.

Now about the design industry: I’ve spoken to more than a few designers who are terrified of Adobe owning the market. Not because Adobe is a bad company, or that they wouldn’t develop InDesign any further, but because without competition Adobe would have no reason to innovate, and Adobe could become similar to the old, indifferent Quark. And nobody, not even Adobe, wants that.

Without QuarkXPress doing it first, I don’t think Adobe would have added layouts-within-layouts in InDesign. Their transparency features would be more limited than they are now, plug-ins would be even more difficult to write than they are now, you wouldn’t be able to control layers in placed Photoshop files… the list goes on. All these things were introduced in a superior way in QuarkXPress, and then later implemented in InDesign. Would we have those features without QuarkXPress? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

But these are simply features within the traditional page layout space. If we ask ourselves: “What IS a ‘designer’ now?”, we realize it’s exactly what it always has been: a skilled visual communicator. Someone who understands how visual presentation affects how we think and feel about a message. That skill is necessary in all visual communications, including interactive PDFs, websites and animations. Adobe has compartmentalized those tasks, creating time-sucking bottlenecks in project workflows. Website designers must master Dreamweaver or give up trying. InDesign users who want to create animations must master Flash, or give up trying. What Quark is doing in QuarkXPress is providing designers direct access to those kinds of tools, because design skills are inherently cross-media, and much of a designer’s value is currently being lost in Adobe workflows. And that’s less profitable for a design firm.

So, by including interactive PDF, Flash and web page design capabilities inside QuarkXPress, Quark is giving the average designer the tools they need to deliver their vision to customers, and if necessary, to pass those designs along to the technical experts in those fields. Heck, QuarkXPress users don’t even need to know Illustrator, because they can use the Bezier tools built into QuarkXPress to create just about anything they’d be likely to create in Illustrator. And the cost for all those tools? Simply upgrading their copy of QuarkXPress.

Wow. It seems that I just talked myself into a much bigger “yes” than I started with. Thanks for asking!

Jay Nelson
Editor & Publisher :: co-host
Design Tools Monthly :: Design Tools Weekly podcast ::

Editorial Director
Planet Quark