BOOK REVIEW: The Designer’s Apprentice Deconstructs Automation

Designer's Apprentice book

For designers who work strictly with print, the possibility of coding elaborate scripts can be a frightening prospect—the process is tedious, there’s no room for error, and when errors do happen (and they WILL happen) there’s nothing to do but debug and debug and debug some more until the thing finally works correctly. Sometimes it can feel like banging your head against a wall. Compare this to desktop publishing and illustration, where you can create elements anywhere and place them wherever you like. As with fine art, it’s easy to be creative and daring—but there’s no place for it in scripting and building automated processes.

But every designer has some mundane tasks that computers are well-suited to do, if they could only be told how. So I’m glad to see that Rick Ralston has written The Designer’s Apprentice: Automating Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign in Adobe Creative Suite 3. It’s a long title but the book is relatively short at 250 pages. It’s a comprehensive resource on automation, with sections on the concepts behind automation, the tools available to create automated processes with CS3, and a variety of projects to give the reader hands-on experience making their own actions, scripts and droplets.

A very good writing style

Rick Ralston, who works for Coca-Cola as an automation specialist, is yet another good writer for our industry. He reminds me of Chad Perkins in that he has a smooth and informal writing style with just enough humor that doesn’t get in the way of the material. One of Rick’s strengths is that he uses analogies quite a bit, which is especially effective for a book like this which covers a subject not everyone is familiar with—his analogy of automation as Mickey Mouse’s brooms in Fantasia‘s “The Wizard’s Apprentice” is both colorful and descriptive. There’s other analogies throughout the book, and each chapter opens with a quote from a literary work or movie that helps drive his points home. More authors should be using metaphor like this.

I am also happy that Rick includes quite a few sidebar notes and tips, most of which are very helpful. Some books have too many tips and others not enough, but The Designer’s Apprentice has just the right amount. The book’s design doesn’t get in the way either: the text is clear and well-organized, the sidebars are used well but not overused, and there are plenty of screenshots and dialog box shots that are helpful. There’s many shots of windows with code in them, and sometimes I wish specific lines of code pertinent to the text were called out, whether by a highlight or an arrow, but this is usually done clearly in the text itself so it’s only a minor issue.

So will this make me an automation expert?

I don’t think you can read The Designer’s Apprentice and become an automation expert right away, but it’s not the book’s or author’s fault. Scripting automation takes some practice, just like coding HTML or JavaScript, and even if you devour this book you’ll still encounter bugs, errors and problems with your scripting—even true experts deal with it, and a couple times in the book Rick admits that a particular exercise he created for the book had to be redone a time or two because his approach just didn’t work. Again, it’s just the nature of creating applications like this and it’s something that turns away all but the most analytical minds.

That being said, there are four full chapters of projects in the back of this book totaling 100 pages, and they are excellent. The chapters cover automation tasks for Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and the last chapter brings them all together with operating system automation techniques to create an automated system that integrates Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and the operating system (note that Rick works exclusively with the Mac OS in this book, although he devotes some pages earlier in the book to Windows-specific automation tools and how they differ from the Mac OS). If you are disciplined enough to master all four chapters, you will have all the tools you need to tackle major automation projects for CS3.

Three scripting languages (and only one is covered)

Very early in the book, The Designer’s Apprentice covers the three scripting languages that can be used for automation projects:

  • AppleScript, which is simple but restricted to Mac OS
  • JavaScript, the web standard that is also cross-platform
  • VBScript, which is similar to Visual Basic and the smart choice for PC users

Not many people know that the CS3 applications can understand and respond to JavaScript commands, and in fact Adobe’s implementation of JavaScript includes some commands specific to these applications, thus creating a new version called ExtendScript. CS3 also ships with an ExtendScript Toolkit editor that is surprisingly robust for a free script editor.

I myself would use JavaScript/ExtendScript for scripting, since it’s cross-platform and Adobe built the framework for it within CS3. However, all the scripts in the book are in AppleScript—this is because it’s an easy language for beginners to learn with. However, if someone wanted to learn JavaScript or VBScript specifically for automation, this book can only help to a point—further research will have to be done. Fortunately there’s a thorough appendix of resources in the back of the book. I know there’s such a thing as making a book too thick and complicated, but I do think The Designer’s Apprentice would have been improved if at least a few scripts were written with JavaScript and VBScript. The ideal way would have been to duplicate the projects section a couple times and rewrite the scripts for JavaScript and VBScript. It would have added a lot of pages to the book but it would have been much more comprehensive. Or perhaps a few select scripts throughout the book could have been shown in all three languages so readers could compare and contrast how the languages are structured—something like a Rosetta Stone for scripting languages.

There was one other element of CS3 that I noticed was absent: Acrobat. The processing and distribution of PDFs can be an important part of a creative workflow, but Acrobat is given only a few pages of coverage as part of the InDesign projects. Acrobat is included with most CS3 packages so I am surprised it does not have better representation here.

Conclusion

As far as I know, The Designer’s Apprentice is the definitive resource for automating Adobe Creative Suite 3. The book is published by Adobe Press and written by someone who obviously knows what he’s talking about, so the pedigree is strong. The writing is clean and clear and the visuals are appealing and helpful. I especially like the way the book shepherds readers through everything from automation concepts to languages, then to small tasks and finally robust systems made out of the building blocks learned earlier in the book. There is no disconnect between chapters or exercises that can leave a reader scratching their head. I only wish that the book was a little more thorough in its handling of the various scripting languages—it doesn’t teach you everything. However, it’s compelling enough to make you want to learn.

The Designer’s Apprentice: Automating Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign in Adobe Creative Suite 3
Rick Ralston
Rating: 9/10
US$39.99
Published by Adobe Press