Mail Merge is Dead! Long Live InDesign Data Merge!

By LaurenMarie

Have you ever had to set up a catalog, a set of coupons or ads that are basically repetitive and have data stored in a database or spreadsheet?

If you’re currently working on this type of project, you are so in luck because InDesign will automate the creation of these sections of data! All you need to do is set up the source properly and create a template for the data in InDesign. You’ll never go back to Mail Merge again!

A little disclaimer before we get started: These coupons are for example purposes only and they are completely fictional. Don’t try to use these codes!

Data File Setup

The first line of your spreadsheet must be field (variable) names. The order of data from column to column in your spreadsheet need not be the same as what you will use in InDesign. The only part that matters is the field names at the top of the columns need to correspond to the information in those columns.

Spreadsheet Setup

You can also specify pictures or even other files to be imported into InDesign. In your spreadsheet, make the field name (title at the top) @Name, with Name being whatever you want to call the field—images, pictures, logos, etc. Then in the rows below, list the file name and path to the file if necessary. Use a \ for Windows and : for Mac to denote directories. Remember to put a \ or : before the name if using a document relative path, \hallmark\logo.jpg or :hallmark:logo.jpg for example, otherwise InDesign won’t be able to find your image. Read more specifics about naming in the Live Docs.

Finally, export your file as a tab-separated (will be a .txt) or comma-separated (.csv) file.

Now to InDesign

Open InDesign and create a new document. For the document dimensions, use the size that the final page will be (as opposed to the size each data area will be). For example, if you have a coupon book and you want all the pages to be 6” x 6”, with two 4” x 2.5” coupons per page plus some extra padding, then make your document 6” x 6”.

Coupon Template

Now you want to pull up the Data Merge panel by going to Window>Automation>Data Merge.

Data Merge Panel

In the panel flyout>Select Data Source and choose the file you exported from your database. Now the field names you created at the top of the file will appear in panel.

NOTE: You only need one instance of the coupon template on the page! It doesn’t matter where you put it. Everything on the page will be a part of the template. Create graphic frames for images and empty text boxes for text areas.

To insert images, select the graphic frame, click on the image field name you create in Data Merge panel. You’ll see the graphic frame populated with a placeholder, <<field name>>.

Coupon Template

To insert text, click in text frame and add field names by clicking on field name in Data Merge panel. You can add extra static text manually outside the <<field name>> placeholder. For example if you wanted to add a SAVE before a placeholder called <<percent>> or some kind of disclaimer to the bottom of each coupon.

Create the Merge

Now your template is all set up and you need to create the actual merged file. Easy! Go to the Data Merge panel Flyout>Create Merged Document.

Create Merged: Records Tab

In this dialog box, you’ll find three tabs (in CS3 at least). In the first tab, Records, you’ll probably want to choose All Records and then under Records per Document Page drop down menu, select Multiple Records.

Create Merged: Multiple Record Layout

In the next tab, Multiple Record Layout, you’ll find options for how the record should be laid out on the page, including the way the records will go (go across rows first or down columns first), vertical and horizontal space between record sets, etc. It’s really helpful to use the preview checkbox at the bottom.

Now this part is a little strange, to me at least: the Multiple Record Layout doesn’t work if you have a multiple-page document! There are some easy ways around this, including making the data merge template a separate file and then importing that into your multiple page document after you’ve created the merge.

Create Merged: Options

There’s one more tab in the Create Merged Document dialog box, the Options tab. This has options for how pictures are imported. For fitting, I like to choose Fill Frames Proportionally and check the box to Link to Images (just like you normally would when importing images). You may also want to check the box to Remove Blank Lines for Empty Fields.

Click OK, wait a few minutes and… magic! You have just saved yourself loads of time formatting, importing and arranging text. Now go take a siesta. For all that hard work, you deserve it. And hang on to the files for a few hours, just so they think it took you a lot longer ;)

Merged Coupons!

What Else?

What else can you use data merge for? Tons of things!

  • Mailing labels (you’re probably used to that idea from MS Word)
  • Personalized letters, postcards, etc (i.e. “Dear Lauren, …”)
  • Catalog items
  • Contact directories
  • Directional signage
  • Nametags
  • Sponsor information posters (gee, can you tell I work on a lot of events?)

The list could go on! What types of projects have you used data merge for? Do you have any tips or advice for working with this awesome InDesign feature?

Final Notes

If you need more advanced data merging capabilities, there is an InDesign plugin by EM Software called InData.

PLEASE REMEMBER: These coupons were for example purposes only and they are completely fictional. Don’t try to use these codes!

Do you need more help with InDesign? Feel free to leave a comment below, contact me or head over to and sign up for their InDesign Tutorials. It’s only $25/mo for unlimited access! This is a resource I use myself and I highly recommend it.

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