Need training at your office? Request a quote for custom training.

Home / Adobe FrameMaker / FrameMaker vs InDesign

FrameMaker vs InDesign

By Barb Binder, Adobe Certified Instructor on InDesign and FrameMaker
Updated: Sep 22, 2020

You’ve been producing publications in Word for years, but are finding that your files are just getting too complicated and difficult to handle. You are ready to make the move to a professional page layout program and turn to Adobe Systems, the world leader in publications software. Adobe offers two programs specifically for publishing multi-page documentation: FrameMaker and InDesign. Which one do you chose?

The two programs share a number of features. Both allow you to design the page structure with master pages, including the ability to pull live data off the page to display chapter and section headings for quick reference. Both programs support paragraph styles and character styles to make quick work of text formatting. If tables are prevalent in your publications, you’ll be glad to know that both programs offer table styles to quickly and uniformly lay out your tables.

So how do you figure out which one to purchase and use for your work? InDesign excels at shorter, multi-story publications such as brochures, flyers, newsletters and magazines. It is chock-full of high-end typography controls such as automatic ligatures, tracking, kerning, glyphs, hanging punctuation, drop-caps, and more. FrameMaker can produce the multi-story pubs, but it is very cumbersome. FrameMaker excels at laying out long, multi-chapter publications. With the strong and flexible numbering options, you can make quick work of table, figure and section numbering, plus you can add cross-references, equations, conditional text, all sorts of hypertext links, and user variables. InDesign has added more long document support over the years, but I still reach for FrameMaker to tackle my most complicated technical manuals.

Adobe states that InDesign has “robust” long document support. It does have some of the features mentioned above, but in my opinion, it still falls short for the really long, complex technical documents. If you are a technical writer, working on product documentation, I’d steer you towards FrameMaker. For the rest of you, the wide and varied features of InDesign will probably be a better fit.

Or do what I do, buy both and then you can chose the best fit for each individual job!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

7 thoughts on “FrameMaker vs InDesign

  1. Your assessment seems to be the consensus of what I have found on the internet too.

    I’m at a new company as their one-man-shop technical writer. I don’t have experience with FrameMaker nor InDesign. My experience has been with Word, PageMaker, and RoboHelp (and Photoshop) within the technical writing arena. This company does produce long documentation (service manuals) and I have been recruited to make manuals with more images and better user-friendly assistance. If that was all that was on the plate, it would seem easy to choose TCS2 with FM as the driving force.

    However, they also have discussed using me to develop some marketing materials. That looks more like InDesign.

    Can FrameMaker be used to make marketing slicks effectively? I have noticed in my research that InDesign is getting ever closer to FM, but cannot yet effectively handle the long documentation component. I’d rather stick to one software to learn and I’m sure the company would prefer to buy only one suite of products (TCS) and not have to shell out for another that is only going to be used occasionally.

    Your thoughts?

  2. My thought is that you have completely grasped the dilemma. FrameMaker has the outstanding book features, and InDesign has the outstanding high-end design features. The ideal situation is to purchase and learn both… but in the real world, where you have to settle on one, based on what you’ve described, I’m going to guide you to InDesign CS4, which is by far the more flexible of the two products. I think that once you learn the InDesign feature set, you’ll be able to produce the range of publications. The real trick for you is to learn the program BEFORE you start designing, which is the only way to create designs that will allow you to incorporate a program’s strengths while actively avoiding the weaknesses. Let me know how it goes!

  3. One thing which Framemaker has that InDesign still doesn’t is mapping master pages according to paragraph styles — e.g. if you have a “chapteropening” paragraph style (or format, I think it’s called in Framemakerese) the correct master page will be applied. Save loads of time in Framemaker.

    To fix this I have a written a great script for InDesign which does just that. Have a look:


  4. Thanks Barb for your insight. Somebody directed me to your comments while I was facing the same dilemma, I mainly work on large manuals for an engineering company, and word is really not coping anymore. So I will be going for Framemaker I think. Although as you say the ideal world would be to have both. I have noticed with job applications it also works out 50/50 between the two.

  5. Hay Barb,
    In these times, our company has been using InDesign to support the Engineering efforts for Service Manuals and User Guides. The more technical we’re becoming the stronger the case for FrameMaker.

    If we begin building a bridge from Engineering Dept. to the Marketing “Look and Feel” (starting with engineering content in MS-Word) how far can you go with the FrameMaker features and functionality before Frame starts to create problems for InDesign?

    I’m thinking Tables, Captions, Cross-references, TOC, List of Tables and Figures, Index, etc.

    Thoughts, Cautions, Comments?

    1. Hi Ken:

      This comes down to one major decision—do you want to lay out the manuals and guides in InDesign or in FrameMaker?

      I can help you port the contents from one application to the other, but once you make the transition, that’s where it should stay. InDesign doesn’t open FrameMaker files directly and FrameMaker doesn’t open InDesign files directly, so there can’t be any round-tripping between the two applications.

      I think it is worth noting that InDesign may well be capable of handling the layout for shorter books, though I can’t say for sure without seeing a file. Both applications support:

      1. Books and chapters
      2. Master pages and variables for live running heads
      3. Paragraph, character, table and object styles
      4. Auto-numbering for paragraphs and pages
      5. Anchored frames
      6. Tables
      7. Captions
      8. Cross-references
      9. Table of contents and other generated lists like lists of figures, tables, etc.
      10. Conditional text