Modular Documents – Best Practices

Corporate users in marketing and sales departments frequently need to produce complex documents. Proposals and RFQ/RFPs fit into this category. Modular documents make it easier to produce these files, but Microsoft Word is is not modular by nature.

Users need to add and remove sections of the document to increase the relevance to the potential buyer. If you’ve used Microsoft Word for more than a few minutes, you’ve noticed that its documents are not modular in the least. Each section in a document is dependent on information from other sections. Even the trained Word users find it difficult to remove a Word section or set of pages without trashing the whole file.

The wrong path: Trying to use PowerPoint for Modular Documents

For some clients, this leads them down the wrong road. They notice that PowerPoint has great page modularity. You can remove slides, move them around and add new ones without having any effect on the existing ones. So they request that their proposal template be formatted in PowerPoint. Genius brainwave? NOT!

PowerPoint is missing so many long-document functions that this is a terrible solution. What you gain in modularity, you more than lose in productivity. PowerPoint is missing typestyles, automatic tables of contents, page margins, end notes, table styles, cross-referencing, bookmarks and much more. Users can get around all of these by spending more time manually formatting, but isn’t that what the client was trying to avoid in the first place?

There are 2 alternatives for modular documents. Both are better than the PowerPoint “solution”. One is Microsoft Publisher, and the other is good old Word, used in a slightly different way.

Microsoft Publisher for Modular Documents

First, I’ll cover Publisher, because it’s less well known and deserves to be used more. Microsoft Publisher is included with many versions of Office, so it’s likely your client already has it installed. It follows many Microsoft conventions, so the learning curve is not too steep. Publisher is a full-fledged desktop publisher program with an interface similar to Adobe PageMaker, if you’ve been around that long.

Unlike Word, Publisher uses CMYK and Pantone colors, does color separations, has measurements to 1/1000″ and, most germane to our discussion, has Master Pages! This latter feature makes it easy to create a modular document. All pages are completely independent of one another. No section or page breaks to foul up formatting. No pictures anchored to text that move around. The main catch with Publisher is that people don’t know it’s there, so they have to do some learning.

OK, so maybe learning is a roadblock. That’s OK, there is another way that’s still better than PowerPoint for proposals. Word!

Using Word for Modular Documents

Word is useable for modular documents as long as you know about Master Documents. A Master Document is like a super file that links a number of Word documents. Simply put, you create separate Word files for each section of your long document. Then you use a Master Document to link them for printing. The sub-documents can be edited, moved and deleted with ease. Your client gets flexibility in document structure and only has to learn one new thing!

Word has had this feature for a long time, but it got a bad reputation. This was because users would assemble Master Documents and then try to maintain the large assembly as one entity. Almost inevitably, corruption of the Master Document would ensue and users would have to start over. So what’s changed?

Over the years, Word has gotten more stable. The Master Document feature doesn’t get corrupted as easily. But the deepest secret is that you create a Master Document to print the files, then you throw it away! Trying to preserve it by editing it is what creates the problems, so don’t try to preserve it. A Master Document is a temporary device used only at output time. Remember that and you will never have a problem.

We can help your client with Master Documents. We write tutorials that cover every step of creation, assembly, printing and follow-up. We also write macros that create instant Master Documents from a folder full of sequenced Word files. This is much easier than toiling away with manual formatting in PowerPoint. Give us a call to solve your modular document challenges, or email me at

Microsoft Publisher: Better than Word? – Best Practices

Is Microsoft Publisher better than Word? For design-intensive documents like newsletters, the answer is YES!

We recently had a request to transcribe a full-scale 16-page magazine layout from InDesign to Word. We recommended using Microsoft Publisher. In addition to the usual Word, PowerPoint and Excel, many versions of Office include Microsoft Publisher, a lightweight but capable desktop publishing program.

MS Publisher is comparable to PageMaker, for those of you that have been in the industry long enough. The interface is similar enough to other Office products that the learning curve is fairly low. But the best part is that it’s free and already installed in most offices. Your client doesn’t have to buy or install anything to get good quality design documents.

Users will find useful features like:

  • master pages,
  • Pantone and CMYK color models,
  • the ability to make color seps and print to a real press,
  • measurements to 1/1000 of an inch and
  • many others.

Word doesn’t have any of these.

Microsoft Publisher for Modular Design

But perhaps the greatest advantage lies in a fundamental design choice in Word. Publisher does not link everything to the text stream. Just like InDesign and Quark, pages and graphics exist as independent entities that stay where you put them. In Word, all page breaks, placed graphics, column breaks, etc. are anchored to the text string. When the text is edited, all elements move in relation to it. This isn’t a defect, just the fundamental difference between a word processor and a page layout program.

Designers rarely recommend Publisher simply because they’re unfamiliar with it. It’s a Windows-only product, so they don’t see it in their copy of Mac Office. Microsoft doesn’t advertise it as a feature product. But Publisher is ideal for newsletters, brochures and magazines. Consider it for any document where you need a flexible layout with lots of graphics, photos and articles.

These types of files can be done in Word, but they are always less reliable and more limited. Word is still a better choice for documents that must be editable by anyone at the client’s office. Publisher is not universally installed and does require a little familiarity. For design-intensive Word files, we suggest additional tech support time to help handle the inevitable “I deleted a paragraph and my photo disappeared as well!” questions.

Microsoft Publisher Case Study

New York University needed a flexible ask brochure to help raise construction funds from donors. They required an electronic document that could have pages added and removed at will (not a strong point of Word!). They also needed to customize the brochure with each donor’s name and information before printing it out on a color copier. Publisher met their needs for handling large linked graphics and color consistency using Pantone specs. Here’s what the cover looked like:

Microsoft Publisher ask brochure cover

Cover of NYU ask brochure in Microsoft Publisher

Do you have a client newsletter project coming up? Give us a call at +1 201 664 6007 to discuss whether Microsoft Publisher might suit your client better.

Microsoft Blinks!

Microsoft has been trying to push customers to their Office 365 subscription service. But when this strategy backfires, Microsoft blinks!

The subscription scheme promises them a steadier cashflow. One of the ways they have been applying pressure to consumers is by maintaining the high price of Office but adding burdensome licensing provisions. The worst of these was the rule that you could only install Office 2013 on one computer and could not transfer that to a new machine. See my previous post on this subject.

Apparently abysmal sales figures for both Office 2013 and Windows 8 have prompted a rethink.

Microsoft Blinks!

The good news is, they’ve caved on two fronts:

  • They are lowering the pricing on Office 2013. OEM clients who bundle it on new machines will now get a Windows 8/Office 2013 bundle of 1/4 of the previous price. unfortunately, there are no price cuts on the retail version of Office.
  • Microsoft has also announced new licensing terms that allow transfer of Office 2013 to a new computer, as we have always been able to do with all other software. The amendment to the licensing agreement now reads:

Updated transferability provision to the Retail License Terms of the Software License Agreement for Microsoft Office 2013 Desktop Application Software:
Can I transfer the software to another computer or user? You may transfer the software to another computer that belongs to you, but not more than one time every 90 days (except due to hardware failure, in which case you may transfer sooner). If you transfer the software to another computer, that other computer becomes the “licensed computer.” You may also transfer the software (together with the license) to a computer owned by someone else if a) you are the first licensed user of the software and b) the new user agrees to the terms of this agreement before the transfer. Any time you transfer the software to a new computer, you must remove the software from the prior computer and you may not retain any copies.

The restriction remains in place that you can only install on one machine at a time, so you’ll still have to buy separate licenses for your desktop and laptop, but that is something we’ll have to live with.

The Most Expensive Office Version

At first glance, the new version of Microsoft Office appears to be pretty much a standard upgrade. List price $399 for Office Professional doesn’t sound like the most expensive office ever. That gets you Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Outlook Publisher and OneNote. The list of new features is brief, including gems like:

• Show your style by using Word templates in more than 40 categories
• New functions in the math and trig, statistical, engineering, date and time, lookup and reference, logical, and text function categories
• Add your local weather forecast right there in Calendar view, along with current conditions

Not enough to motivate me personally to upgrade, but lots of people have to have the latest.

Expensive Office Licensing Restictions

Hold on, though, there’s a little note here:

• Office on 1 PC for business use

If that sounds unusual, it’s because it is. Most software allows you to install on 2 machines, like a desktop and a laptop, so you can use the software wherever you are. But wait, it gets worse! The fine print on the license agreement reads:

You may not transfer the software to another computer or user. You may transfer the software directly to a third party only as installed on the licensed computer, with the Certificate of Authenticity label and this agreement. Before the transfer, that party must agree that this agreement applies to the transfer and use of the software. You may not retain any copies.

In other words, your license lasts only as long as your computer! Microsoft attempted to soften their position recently by stating that “An exception is granted when the software is on a PC that is replaced under warranty.” Oh, I feel so much better! Now if I have a new PC and it dies, I can get Microsoft’s permission to reinstall!

If I’m installing on an older machine and the hard disk dies tomorrow, it’s back to the store to buy a new copy of Office!

In the document production business, we depend on having access to our software for as long as our clients are still using it. Sending a client a file developed on a later version is a sure way to lose a client. We still support Office 97, if a client needs it!

The only upside to this mess is that clients will be unable to continue using Office 2013 for as long as they have previous versions, because dying hardware will force them to upgrade. This is an obvious ploy to shift clients to their Office 365 subscription model, which will be much better for the Microsoft cashflow. But more about that mess in another post.

This is the most expensive Office suite Microsoft has ever produced. If you’re in corporate I.T., it’s time to think seriously about more reasonable alternatives like Apache OpenOffice, LibreOffice or Kingston Office Suite (We support them all!). If you’re in the template production business, you should consider stockpiling copies for future installs. And if you’re a serious programmer, get to work on the next great office suite! Now!

Best Practices

In the years I’ve spent creating great documents for companies, its become painfully obvious that the best practices are unknown to design professionals. Almost all of the files we receive as source material, whether they have been created by graphic artists or end user, are badly constructed and unreliable.

Best Practices are not about looks

I’m not talking about aesthetics. The documents created by artists are usually quite pretty. I’m talking about how well they are constructed. Most artist-created Office documents are like beautiful houses built on sub-standard foundations. It just takes a little tremor to make them crumble.

This is not the fault of the users or artists. There is no leadership from Microsoft or Adobe. There’s no awareness of this issue at educational institutions. There is some good information from the web community, but you have to seek it out and discern good from bad advice. This is why I have started this blog, to create a place for sharing proven best practices for document creation.

This will not be a hard and fast set of rules. There are always many ways to solve problems and I’m always discovering new creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems, both through my own work and by looking at the work of others. My guiding philosophy is to always picture the end user. What will make their life easier? How can I create a document that will be so easy to use and bullet-proof, it disappears? Disappears in the sense that it becomes a conduit for the user’s efforts instead of an impediment to their work.

I hope you will find this journal useful and informative. I hope it will let you work better. And I hope it will remind you to always look at your work from your clients or users point of view.