Automating for efficiency and scale

PROJECT TYPE

Production and workflow improvements using XML tagging and GREP styling.

MY ROLE

Adobe InDesign Expert and XML champion working with design, IT, publishing, editorial, and print production.

TEAM ROLES​

Tools

  • Adobe InDesign

  • XML

  • GREP

BACKGROUND

Our Daily Bread is the flagship product and a publication dating back to 1956. As with any project that has that much history, it utilized a lot of antiquated workflows and hidden dependencies across the organization. The institutional knowledge of how the product was produced and distributed was heavily siloed and unnecessarily complicated based on decades of emergent technologies and workflows. In 2014 the organization embarked on a major rebranding effort and as part of that work, desired to make a large design update to this classic flagship product.

The problem that was quickly uncovered was that any moderate changes to the layout of the print design had a ripple effect across entire departments and workflows that would halt production and completely disable digital channels. Upon identifying some of the initial dependancies that were not taken into consideration, I was asked to step in and provide some analysis and suggestions to remedy this situation.

short-term GOALS

  1. Identify and mitigate the dependencies without disrupting the current workflow.

  2. Maintain the original redesign launch date without disabling digital channels.​​

As one coworker put it, the plane was broken and we had to fix it in the air and land it on time.

LONG-term GOALS

  1. Develop an improved workflow and production process.

  2. Decouple digital channels from print channels.

  3. Reduce production time.

  4. Create a workflow that was not design-dependent to accommodate future redesign and testing needs. ​​

RESEARCH

I started by interviewing everyone who was a part of the legacy workflow for both print and digital channels. During this process I was able to uncover a lot of workflow and system dependencies and bring them to light for everyone. It didn't take much conversation for all parties to be in agreement that there were some inefficient processes in place and that we could solve these for the future.

To address the short-term concerns, I was able to work with the publishing, editorial, design, and IT departments to understand why the digital channels were dependent on the print in the legacy workflows.

While talking with everyone I also got a good look at the legacy production process and saw a lot of manual and repetitive work taking place.

DESIGN

I was able to help the organization mitigate the impending derailment by modifying the existing document template to be able to output the necessary files and structure needed for digital channels. Having had previous experience in XML workflows through InDesign, I was able to remap the new design and content to legacy tags and then provide training for editorial staff to continue that work for the next few issues.

This solved the immediate problem of needing to hit a press date with the new print designs while keeping existing digital channels operational. The cost to doing this was an extra step on an already overly complicated process as well as additional staff time to handle that work manually.

With the organization having been made aware of the challenges built in to maintaining a legacy workflow and the limitations it would have on future progress, I was given the support needed to go about engineering a new workflow to bring the Our Daily Bread content production and distribution up to date and future-proof it.

I was able to demonstrate to all stakeholders the benefits of a content first distribution model. By creating a central repository for the content, we would be able to customize the delivery to all existing channels and remove their interdependencies. This would also result in a system capable of handling future channels as they emerged.

DEVELOPMENT

The green light was given for me to work with publishing, editorial, and IT and a new system was built to house the content. Capabilities were built in for the system to output the content specifically and directly to each channel along with the ability to customize those outputs for channel optimization. By implementing this, a new "source of truth" was created to ensure content accuracy and continuity across all channels.

The next step was to improve efficiency in print layout and production. Up until this point, the publication had been laid out manually page by page. This was a lot of work and was multiplied by the various formats and editions produced. Monthly, quarterly, and large print editions were all being designed manually with the same content but for unique layouts.

I set up new InDesign templates utilizing XML and worked with IT to use the new content system to output the necessary XML files to drive the production of the various layouts. After training the production designer on the new process, he told me the new method reduced his working time by 75%.

Our Daily Bread Monthly Edition template showing XML and GREP fields for automatic layout and styling.

One of the benefits of this system is that it allows for easier layout for all languages that Our Daily Bread is translated to. While the system isn't set up to handle translations yet, I have worked with IT and the design team in India to develop a proof of concept for the Hindi and Tamil languages. I was able to do this layout work myself with no familiarity with these languages because of the universal nature of XML tagging.

XML automation proof of concept for the Tamil language.

ADDITIONAL PROCESS BENEFITS

Once the system was proven to work, I began looking at other labor-intensive production work and identified another project that would benefit greatly from an XML/GREP workflow. The organization sends out reply cards with each Our Daily Bread mailing. There are a number of card formats prepared each month and because of internal systems and conventions it can be very confusing to work on these projects. They are prone to transpositions and errors throughout the lifespan of the project.

Since these do not contain shared content or need to live on past their initial use, it didn't make sense to incorporate the content in a central repository. To get the advantages of efficiency and reduce errors, I worked with IT to develop a Google form that allows project managers to input the reply card data and it exports an XML document that pulls all content, including images, into the card. Print layout happens automatically and the number of times data is communicated across teams is greatly reduced resulting in far fewer opportunities for errors to be made in the content.

Reply card template showing all content automated through XML import and GREP styling.

WHAT'S AHEAD

The content distribution system is poised for scale across the global organization. Work is currently being scoped to allow these efficiencies to be available to all languages. This will bring content translation and layout production in line with the new process. Considering that Our Daily Bread is available in over 50 languages, there is incredible potential for thousands of hours of annual time savings ahead.

Since needing to focus more on digital growth and UX, I have handed this critical work off to Sam Carbaugh who has taken it and is skillfully pushing it into new territory. The XML process has worked so well that additional projects are being lined up to have the same workflow applied to them.

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