QuarkXPress crowdsources its wishlist, and hurtles past the competitors
QuarkXPress 2016 brings powerful new features to the table, works with QuarkXPress 2015 compatible extensions, and reveals a remarkably responsive attitude to user requests, which other software houses could learn from.
Alongside a slew of user-requested features which on their own would make the upgrade worthwhile, QuarkXPress brings a pair of major new elements which send it hurtling past the competition.
The biggest frustration for most designers is getting supplied graphics to match the design. There has been an explosion of exciting new apps to produce maps, diagrams, charts and specialized illustrations—these are great, until you want them to match your brand, rather than impose their own. Then there’s Word’s ‘smart’ art and Excel charts—by far the commonest format for off-brand graphics. These are a nightmare, and designers are often reduced to recreating them element by element, because they don’t import properly into anything.
Now there’s a solution to these lost hours of re-creation: In QuarkXPress 2016 you can paste elements such as vector graphics and text natively from other applications, and import EPS and PDF files and convert them natively into Quark editable vector objects. This is huge.
Illustration apps, of course, have been able to do this for years—after a fashion. However, anyone who has actually tried to import a PowerPoint slide, Excel chart or MagicMaps map knows that so much cleaning up may be required that it isn’t worth the effort. QuarkXPress has leap-frogged not only its own main competitor, but also the world’s leading illustration application in accurately bringing in and converting the most troublesome graphics.
Fonts, text, and colours come across flawlessly, with text in editable form, rather than broken up into single words, single letters, or baffling hieroglyphics.
There are still opportunities for improvements here, based on how the originating application treats its files. For example: Word smart art copy/pastes as low-resolution images, but if exported as PDF, they import and convert into good Quark vectors. Excel’s bar, pie and line graphs copy/paste fine, but the odd conical charts (seriously, does anyone still use these?) come across as image files no matter what you do.
With full page PDFs, it means that there is now no barrier to taking a layout from some indeterminate source and turning it straight into a Quark master page. Logos can be seamlessly extracted, as can graphic elements, and all of these are then amenable to Quark’s own quite powerful path combination tools, and the inimitable Super Step and Repeat. It works for vector elements and bitmap elements, and you can save these out as images and reimport if you want to keep them separate from the main file.
Importing an EPS or PDF file and converting to native objects also adds the colours used to Quark’s list in the colour-space in which they are saved. This means that you can now pick up a full set of brand-approved CMYK or RGB values, even if these differ from Quark’s internal conversions, without having to enter the numbers by hand.
What is remarkable here is how fast Quark is then able to work with the new objects. A logo should not cause any application any trouble, but if you import a GIS-derived map of, say, an English county with all of its statistical output areas, most applications grind to a halt. Quark’s leading competitor can’t import PDFs or EPS as native objects, but if you do try to copy and paste the aforementioned county map from Illustrator, that competitor grinds to a halt, before eventually coming up with an apologetic error dialogue.
Can we have an app for that?
It will thrill some users, and not interest others, but Quark can now natively create and export standalone HTML5. No third party software or subscriptions are required. Quark calls it “HTML5 Publications” and it can be created fresh or Print layouts can be created to digital layouts and then exported. From a digital layout, features such as popups, slideshows, video and animations can be applied as easily as creating text boxes and importing graphics. As significantly, imported graphics can be anything that Quark supports. It is not necessary to convert EPS files to PNG or JPEG. Quark does it all, seamlessly. What’s more, you can export from the same digital layout to multiple formats — HTML5 Publications, ePub (fixed layout and reflow), Kindle, content for native apps — and all the features that the format supports will be available.
This has two uses. The business case is that it’s now possible to create HTML5 Publications for iPads, iPhones, Androids and other devices. Because they are HTML5, they are platform independent. Clearly you won’t be programming a car-chase game on this, but for the kinds of device-based publications that previously required an App-Studio subscription (which is still supported, for truly native applications), you can now produce them free of additional cost directly in QuarkXPress. This underlines Quark’s ‘perpetual license—no subscription required’ policy.
Print designers may be tempted to look at this and decide that they would rather stick with what they know, but for those willing to extend their skill set, it means that, with a little additional work, a print publication can be quickly turned into something entirely interactive, including video, scrolling and so on, without having to bring in the time and cost of HTML specialists—many of whom may lack a design aesthetic and thereby produce something which fails to truly reflect the original. Freelancers should welcome this, but in-house and agency teams can also significantly improve their cost/output ratios.
The other use is for quickly mocking up websites, especially ones which are to be transcoded in something like Pinegrow into WordPress or Drupal themes. This will please the old-timers, who used to be able to export HTML in version 9, but the experience—and the results—are considerably more refined. Anything which QuarkXPress can display appears in the browser exactly as it appears in QuarkXPress, at full resolution. Surprisingly, also almost all typography features known from print are retained in the HTML5. Anyone who has wrestled with HTML5 code will appreciate the simplicity of this.
We’re playing requests…
Quark has been listening to its users—more on that in a moment. Top of the list of requests were an eye-dropper, multi-colour blends, improvements to Open Type, and cross-references.
The Eye Dropper tool, previously available as an XTension, is now part of the core software. The Eye Dropper is not quite like other Eye Droppers. Instead of copying a colour from one item to another, it copies the selected colour from imported images to Quark’s own palette, either as a temporary colour or straight in. This might seem like an extra step, but it helps greatly with document consistency—something in which Quark has always scored heavily.
Just as interesting is the arrival of multi-colour blends. Once looked down on as being a cheap design trick, the relentless rise of CMYK over two-colour print and our experience of the web mean that these are now increasingly part of brand specifications. It’s always been possible to create multi-part gradient in another application and import it as an EPS file, and this would print and output perfectly well—at a cost in file size, and another in convenience and consistency. If you take a simple three-part gradient which appears five times on an A5 page, doing it natively in Quark results in a file which is 334 KB, instead of 1.2 MB. Multi-part gradients don’t just allow differing colours, but also differing opacity, which means you can use them as overlays for text and other graphics. You can enter them visually, or precisely using percentages and placements or store them in Item Styles. Again, very useful if you are working to a brand specification.
Multi-colour transformations and Stylistic sets in Open Type
Hard-core typographers may eschew the relative flippancy of multi-part gradients, but the arrival of full support for Open Type stylistic sets is something they will welcome. Stylistic Sets have been part of the ever-extending Open Type specification for some time, but it’s only now that type foundries are really getting to grips with them. Stylistic sets offer multiple fonts within a font. Ordinary mortals may wonder what the point of this is, but for typographers it prompts visions of the Holy Grail: digital type, but with the original foundry designs, each precisely crafted for a particular size, rather than averaged out across a range. To the uninitiated, that would be like the difference between Titling versions and Body versions, but with a different cut for each of 10, 12, 18, 24, 36 and 72 point.
Building on the foot-notes and end-notes introduced in 2015, QuarkXPress 2016 now supports cross-references to those notes, and also to numbered items. This is a boon to those doing structured corporate documents, where adding in a new paragraph 2.1 would previously have made all the references to the old 2.1 incorrect.
Tweaks and improvements
On a Mac, you can now pinch & zoom and turn images using gestures. The Windows interface has been given a thorough overhaul. On both systems, the measurements panel now has two sizes: regular, and large. Search and Replace has been upgraded to include breaking and non-breaking characters, and to remember what you last searched for. Dynamic guidelines have been improved. Content Variables can now wrap (something, that another major layout application can’t do). It’s things like these which make the application so much nicer to use. There are also tweaks and upgrades to the footnote styles, and some new numbering styles suited to footnotes.
Under the hood
Under the hood, QuarkXPress 2016 processes extensions in the same way that QuarkXPress 2015 did. So, unless they conflict with new functionality, all the extensions you upgraded in 2015 will work without having to wait for new releases.
There’s one other upgrade which is worth knowing about. ICCv4 colour profiles are now fully supported. Quark’s colour management until now has been relatively transparent after initial set-up, but it has been working with the older ICCv2 profiles. These are generally alright, but ICCv2 will sometimes produce situations in which two supposedly identically specified colours will come out differently.
Is this important? It is when it is. Back in the early ’90s, a printer once told me something that I have never forgotten: ‘The first 80% of quality is easy to achieve’. If you love design and work for a tiny not-for-profit, you can get QuarkXPress for a special price, and it will be worth it even if all you ever design is black-and-white flyers printed on a Risograph. Equally, though, if you are working for a global mega-corporate and absolute colour reliability is crucial to your brand across flexo, offset, spot, and other processes, QuarkXPress will take you all the way.
A new philosophy
What we’ve looked at is an unusually useful set of features and improvements, but it is how Quark got there which is even more interesting. Ever since WordStar gave way to WordPerfect and Word in the 1980s, software companies have known that if you don’t keep adding features, customers eventually leave. However, the very same customers also endlessly complain about bloatware and slews of features that nobody actually wants.
You might put it down to good market research, but, over the last year, Quark has been quietly developing its social media activities via Facebook. With over 1,000 users to ask, Quark teams have been busy polling, questioning and discussing what it is their users most want. Stylistic sets, the eye dropper, HTML5 output and changes to the measurements palette have all been prioritised because it is what professional users say they want. The passion with which users have demanded the Eye Dropper is only matched by the speed with which Quark chose to implement it—an unusual symbiosis.
At the same time, Quark has been more than usually responsive about solving user problems and getting out intermediate updates, especially after Apple released El Capitan, which caused problems across many applications.
Every software company, of course, has Facebook, discussion forums, Twitter, and anything else which they think might shift a few more boxes. Quark’s approach, to create an enormous pool of experts for the software engineers to respond to, is unusual. It is a model worth watching. In the quest to balance ever more features with a genuinely useful work environment, Quark may have just found the elusive centre point.
Martin Turner is the author of Desk Top Publishing with QuarkXPress 2016, Desk Top Publishing with QuarkXPress 2017, and presenter on the video series Desk Top Publishing with QuarkXPress.