All you need to know about using XML with Adobe InDesign

When talking about XML Import, you can easily define three groups of users :

  • One that master and use it : 5%
  • One that heard about it : 10%
  • One that ignore all about it : 85%

I admit XML is all but sexy. Who wants to spend time with XML when you can do nice DPS/ePub projects ? Still, it may be worth the look. In this post, we are introducing the peculiarities of the XML import process and some resources for a successful training.

So the client asked : can you take my XML file as data input for the catalog ? You said yes, open InDesign, imported the damn file, tried to figure it out, failed and renounced…This is a common phase for XML beginners. They often rush without preparation.

Fact is XML import is all about learning. Let me show you with an example how working with XML in InDesign is twisted. Showtime…

A) A very specific workflow

Consider this fruits and vegetables catalog :


We intend to introduce every aliment with a combination of a name, a picture and a period of consummation. We will repeat a “module” of three InDesign objects.



You would think it’s easy here. Well it’s not that much. Read the following commitments carefully. Those are the key of success !

Thou shalt use a main overriden master text frame

The main lesson above all is that XML is regular text. Whatever your layout is, you will end using an overriden master text frame from the master page. You want to repeat items ? Do that !

Thou shalt use anchored objects

That’s a tough one. As XML is text, any specific item positioning within the page implies to anchor the object. That’s why some layouts can become very complex. Here we have only three basic objects.


Thou shalt not group your objects

Nothing but natural, the combo grouped objects/tagging/anchoring may lead to InDesign crash at worst, failure at best. Avoid grouping.

Thou shalt use styles

Using styles is always a good idea. In our case, this is thanks to a paragraph style that we can adjust the X spacing and the Y spacing of our modules with a combinations of tabs and leading !



Thou shalt learn XSLT

You think it was hard ? Well it’s even harder. It’s likely that the raw XML structure will never match your layouts concerns. XSLT is the only way to go though the toughest challenges. XSLT will tansform the input structure on the fly to make it compliant to your layout tagging. No magic here, it’s programming above all.



Thou shalt not update your document

Just avoid the xml updates unless you like to live hard and spend time in fixing the damages. As a matter of fact, as XML is text, any changes will reflow the whole content.

Thou shalt learn

This quick introduction demonstrates that using XML import is not straightforward. You need to master InDesign at first, xml at second. Plus you need to be tricky. So learn, learn and learn again.

B) Litterature

Learn how to import XML is rather easy these day. You find books, videos, blog posts. A few years ago, well, it was complicated. Here is a bunch of authors. Let’s thank them for their efforts and contributions.

Cari Jansen : XML & InDesign

XML and InDesign By Cari Jansen

Adobe Certified Instructor, Cari released several XML Import cheatsheets. Many were my first readings. She is one  of a few to have introduced the possibility of linking paragraph a/o character styles right into the XML structure thanks to the aid:pstyle and aid:cstyle attributes; Also, you can find attributes for creating native indesign tables on the fly with XML.


Don’t think these documents are outdated although related to CS3. Still a very valuable resource.

Dorothy Hopkins : XML & InDesign



A true expert for InDesign & XML in the publishing area. Also very influent within the u.s. InDesign users community.Frequently updated, Dorothy’s book mostly targets on DTD validation, a very sensitive topic for the publishing industry. She is also close to the InDesign engineers and keep an eye on any possible improvement done to the XML import engine. Publishers looking for XML info, add this book to your collection !

Jim Maivald : A Designer’s Guide to Adobe InDesign and XML

In one word : The “Bible”. “A Designer’s Guide to Adobe InDesign and XML” is the most educative book dealing with InDesign XML import. Jim does the impossible and transform complex concepts into simple yet effective exercices. Gonna get started ? Buy the book eyes closed.

David Blatner & Olav Martin Kvern  : Real World Adobe InDesign CS2

Real Word InDesign CS2

CS2, mmm that seems old-school. Don’t think that way. XML import feature did not moved much since then. In other words, anything you will learn here will still be usable in CC 2014. A book written by David Blatner, one of the owners of the InDesign Secrets website, also InDesign expert and Olav Martin Kvern, a former responsible of the InDesign Developer team is a warranty of quality. Once that said, there are 40 pages waiting for you. To be noted, 4 pages deal with XSL transformation, a very rarely discussed topic.

C) Tutoriaux vidéo

Books are great but video tutorials are even better !

Loïc Aigon : InDesign XML Import at Video2Brain


Dedicated to french speaking viewers, this tutorial is one of the most complete you may ever find. If you are actually a Video2Brain subscriber, you may get access to the demo files. A good way to try the exercices by your own. Once that said, the video covers all the important topics such as XSLT, XML validation, Export…Feedback is great so far. We hope many users will get confidence with the XML import feature thanks to us.

I am not aware of english spoken video tutorial. If you know one, feel free to share it in the comments.

D) Conclusion

Still no luck ? Reading, viewing many XML training materials and still unable to get XML nicely injected within InDesign. Why not consider a training on site ? Contact us for details.

In any other cases, congrats. You have become a pro of XML import. Come and share your experiences. A true fan, a hater ? The comments area is waiting for you.

See you soon !

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