Practical execution for variable data

The principle of variable data is straightforward. Whether text, colour, photo etc., each printed piece is different from the other and no two pieces are the same. It’s easy to see the function of variable data for business cards or personalized products, but there are also instances where it can be incredibly useful for typesetting complex jobs like directories or yearbooks. The challenge has always been how does one create these pieces efficiently using the available software, as many high-end variable data printing (VDP) solutions come with just as high a price tag.

Word – Mail Merge

Mail Merge is a practical tool I was introduced to in university when a professor used it for their grading sheets. Whether one chooses to create a new document or simply opens an existing file the first step is to specify “create new” in the Mail Merge Manager. The user can then import the data from an Excel worksheet where each column becomes a placeholder; these placeholders can be arranged and formatted in the document to create variable elements. The variable information can be previewed and, finally, a merged document generated where each page corresponds to a row of the worksheet.

The drawback to Mail Merge is Word itself. The program is not a proper graphic design tool.  There are sometimes font embedding or colour space issues to contend with and file properties like bleed are very difficult to create in a Word document, which is why InDesign’s option is invaluable.

InDesign – Data Merge

InDesign’s Data Merge, Window>Utilities>Data Merge, creates a merged document from a database that has been converted to either a comma separated value (.csv) file or text (.txt) file. Again, each column heading becomes a placeholder that can be inserted into the InDesign document and formatted.

What makes Data Merge different is it has the ability to also easily create variable photos. To employ this technique the column heading should be preceded with an ‘@’, for example, @gender. The data in this column must then be the file link to where the desired image resides on the computer.

Limitations and Workarounds

Both options have limitations. Initially, both tools can only create merged documents where each record is a distinct page, which can be difficult when dealing with large databases where one wants more than one record to occupy the page. This is particularly frustrating when working with directories where customers supply long Excel sheets that need to be converted into condensed, sorted documents.

One method to circumvent this problem is to use Data Merge’s multiple record layout. A user can arrange multiple records in a grid on a single page; however, each record is in a distinct text box making reflowing text during the editing process nightmarish. An alternative option is generating the directory in Word’s Mail Merge. By combining Mail Merge’s “other placeholders’ ” “Next Record,” one can create an entire formatted merged Word document that can then be “placed” in InDesign.

Thankfully scripts have made the process easier. One of the websites I frequently visit is InDesign Secrets. It is an invaluable font of knowledge, advice, and instruction; including a number of posts discussing Data Merge. A user, Loic Aigon, has created a number of InDesign scripts that ease these pain points. The first is, inlineMerge, which allows a designer to data merge many variable entries into a single text box. This merged document retains all the formatting applied to the placeholders and both the text and any anchored objects can be reflowed inline or used in conjunction with text wrap as the design is edited. The second script, CSV2TABLES, allows for the creation of a proper multiple row table from a database.


There are a number of variable data solutions and workarounds available in the marketplace, but the ability to leverage the tools one already has can save both time and money; especially if Data Merge can do what you need. Scripts and combining the skills and software already in one’s arsenal can get very effective results. The best part, no longer needing to lay out complicated directories or import and place hundreds of photos, only for the customer to make a few changes and render the whole process moot.