Remote control: Collaboration and proofing tools for design teams

For many of the book publishers I work with the use of freelancers is an integral part of their workflow. Some companies offer their internal design and editorial staff the opportunity of working from home and use remote working on projects with colleagues based in other locations.

It might not be for everyone, but working from home (or the café or in fact anywhere that isn’t the office) can increase concentration, creativity and productivity.

Of course, there are also times when coming together as a team is important. Modern connectivity means instant written, spoken and even face to face communication are all becoming commonplace but for publishers the everyday challenges of reading through or viewing a designed page, keeping track of progress and exchanging comments can still be mundane, lengthy and potentially risky.

In recent years several software companies, including my own, have brought out solutions to connect creative people who are working together but remotely. In this article I have a look at some of the different solutions available.

Sharing files

Let’s be clear. Email is OK for general communications but it should never be used when sharing the large files we deal with in illustrated book publishing. I’d also strongly recommend avoiding it for collaborating or sharing proofs and comments.

Wetransfer offer a neat and free solution to send big files to one or more others. It is simple and reliable, better than FTP, and more features come with the paid version.

However, if working within a team then centralising your file sharing is much smarter than passing copies of files between each other. Google Drive, Box, Hightail and others offer ways to share centralised access to your files.

Dropbox offer this too and, in my opinion, have the best solutions for managing files within a creative team. I really like Dropbox desktop integration and synchronisation. Files sit in a regular folder on your PC or Mac, you can work offline and files are then synced when online. It’s worth knowing about their ‘selective sync‘ feature: this lets you choose which folders you wish to access locally in order to free up space whilst knowing all other files are safe, available to others and easily retrievable.

There are ways to restrict access to certain areas and to prevent overwriting. Whilst I would not recommend relying upon Dropbox as your only backup solution, their paid version automatically saves every version of every file, and you can revert to a previous version if you need to.

Dropbox selective sync lets you choose which shared files are on your computer

Collaboration

Whilst the creative process is happening then working together on the same publication and even on the same page becomes important.

As well as holding your files centrally Hightail and Dropbox also offer the ability to share PDF and image files for commenting and will notify users when comments are added.

Hightail and Dropbox offer ability to add comments to images

Futureproofs is a cloud-based system designed by an experienced editor that focuses on the jobs that editors, proofreaders, authors and designers actually do. Its quick, precise annotation tools combine traditional standards-based markup with modern gesture recognition. Their built-in collaboration tools help your whole team stay on top of queries and decisions, and real-time data give deep insight into project management. Deadlines, live notifications and tracking are all held online for easy access.

Futureproofs lets you mark up the page just by drawing on it

MasterPlan is a planning, tracking and commenting system for your entire publishing team. Multiple projects can be planned out and their progress viewed in the browser. Changes made in InDesign are instantly pushed to an online overview. Clicking on a thumbnail opens spreads in a retina quality preview where annotations can be drawn and comments added. Back in InDesign these comments are pulled down onto the InDesign page.

MasterPlan integrates with InDesign to share an overview of entire illustrated publications

Communication

Rather than using unwieldly email threads, those working in publishing teams can benefit from using messaging and chat. Slack, HipChat and Skype chat are all ways to communicate quickly and to keep everyone in touch about day to day minutiae. Also, Masterplan connects with Slack to let colleagues know whenever InDesign pages are changed or comments are added.

Messaging apps build up a well presented project specific shared history that can be easily filtered and searched. You can direct questions at certain people and mark important info for later reference using @ and # tags when necessary and all in a more immediate way that is ideal for team communication.

It is helpful to have a way to be able to dip out and back in to threads of product info without having to hunt through a mixture of other emails.

Slack gets team communications neatly under control

Sometimes a quick live screen share can really help with describing or resolving a particular point. Google Hangouts, Skype and Zoom all offer free ways to do this.

For big projects that start to require some project management it is worth looking at larger tools like BaseCamp and Trello which can become a central single location for messages, to-dos and timelines.

Commenting and approval

Towards the end of the design and editorial stages there are several options for sharing proofs, adding comments and receiving approval. Also, people outside of the design teams may well need to sign off on a project too.

Although Futureproofs and MasterPlan offer commenting and approval tailored to fit into the workflow of book publishers, if you would prefer a more simple online proof approval on a file by file basis then other tools such as ProofHQ, GoProof and PageProof are all available.

Of these PageProof stands out as a well thought-out option which also handles setting up of approval chains. These mean the next person who needs to approve a piece gets notified at the right time. It integrates with Adobe InDesign, InCopy, Photoshop, and Illustrator and even allows commenting on video and audio files. PageProof is also fully encrypted so this might be an option if ‘for your eyes only’ security is important.

For those looking for a custom branded file sharing and commenting and Digital Asset Management system then FileCamp may fit the bill.

Outputting for production

GreenLight is a simple system that ensures that your house style and production rules are applied to all InDesign files in your workflow. Instantly updated checklists of rules and presets are shared with all remote workers and if a problem is found then the area of InDesign page is highlighted and online help pages show how to amend them. When files are ready, GreenLight can also be used to output approved final PDFs and prepare final files.

GreenLight makes sure your house styles and production rules are followed

So, these days, there are real alternatives available to the fiddly and time consuming practice of sending around PDFs, long confusing email trails of feedback and scribbled on print outs.

When making your choice, think about the type and length of publications you produce, the number of people within your creative teams, the amount and order of final approvals required and who is to make the final files for production.

MasterPlan and GreenLight are my company’s tools. I’ve tried to be impartial and fair in my recommendations of these and others.

I hope you find this article useful, if you have any other favourites then please let me know in the comments below.

Circular SoftwareKen Jones is a publishing software expert with over ten years experience as Technical Production Manager, software trainer and developer Penguin Group UK. Now specialising in writing workflow applications and offering training and consultancy for publishers on print and digital workflows.

Ken’s company ‘Circular Software’ provides software tools and services for a range of illustrated book publishing customers including Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Thames & Hudson and Nosy Crow.

You can contact Ken via twitter @circularken or through the website http://www.circularsoftware.com

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