22nd Oct 2012 AUTHOR: Matt Milgrom

Document Design: Word or InDesign?

Not every tender document needs to look a million dollars. But a proposal worth that much might. Should you use InDesign?


  • Word is perfect for writing, editing and collaboration
  • InDesign is the industry-standard choice for professional publishing
  • Using Word to publish complex documents can be a painful experience
  • Using InDesign to publish finished documents requires strategic commitment or an outsourced specialist

Tenders and proposals come in all shapes and sizes. The simplest - such as government grant applications - are form-like 'fill in the blanks' and require minimal visual flair and flourishes. At the other end of the scale sit the multi-billion dollar bids: gilt-edged bond paper bound in embossed leather and delivered by armed security guards. Of course, the vast majority of tenders sit somewhere in the middle. So when a major bid calls for a PDF or printed submission, is it worth turning to professional publishing to present your offer?

The vital importance of using careful visual design to present a written proposal has been discussed in other articles. Clarity, legibility and professionalism are all at stake when your tender is received. But using a high-end publishing tool demands more specialised skills than firing up a word processor. What are the relative merits of using InDesign?

Microsoft Word: An Excellent Content Creation Tool

For most people in business, Microsoft Word needs little introduction. As ubiquitous as the office copier, Word is one of the most-used communication tools in technology history. Installed in practically every corporate office, Word first launched in 1983 as a DOS-based 'Word Processing' program. It has evolved since then into a sophisticated multi-media document creation suite. As result, Word has become the go-to application for the development and publishing of business documents, including tender responses.

Word's Strengths for Content Development

Word has become a powerful business tool for good reason:

  • Availability: Word has a large install-base and is a permanent fixture in most business organisations - large or small. If you're in business, you probably already have it on your computer.
  • Learning Curve: Thanks to a relatively simple user interface, basic functionality is intuitive. Even the more powerful features are easily accessible to advanced users.
  • Capabilities: Word is now much more than just a word processor, with sophisticated graphics, diagrams and effects now available.
  • Collaboration: The ability to add comments, track changes and share files with your tender response team makes Word an excellent tool for gathering and editing group-written content.

It is little wonder, then, that many use Word to collectively compile the raw content of their tender responses. It allows for a swift and intuitive workflow of collaborative ideas which everyone in the company can access.

However, using Word to turn your finished draft into a polished, professional publication is fraught with problems.

Word's Limitations as a Design Tool

Word has grown up since the early days. With specialist knowledge and design know-how, it can be used to produce impressive-looking documents. Under the hood, however, it remains a Word Processor with go-faster stripes, rather than a dedicated page layout tool. There are many reasons why the design and publishing industry doesn't use it to produce annual reports and company magazines, including:

  • Stability: Largely robust when editing modest-sized text documents, Word begins to struggle as page count, graphics and file size grows. If you might think "Death by Powerpoint" is bad (enduring an excruciating slide presentation), "Death by Word" is in a different league. Anyone who has had Word crash during the edit of a massive tender response will know the dreadful feeling of losing hours of precious life.
  • Collaboration: Working on simple text documents as a team is generally hassle-free. However, as soon as styles, typefaces and formatting enter the picture, frustration tends to rule. Each time an edit is made by a different person, pagination, formatting, fonts, styles and other essential cosmetics start descending into chaos, requiring frequent 'repairs' and double-handling.
  • Layout Capabilities: Getting near professional-level results using Word is possible, but it's not easy. Page layout, pagination, graphic handling and character / paragraph controls are complex, buried in menus and often limited. Bringing together a series of complex documents into a single volume is fraught with complexity, and the PDFs produced are often not "press-ready" (i.e. the format required by professional printers).

Introducing Adobe InDesign

InDesign, by contrast, has a relatively short history. Launched in 1999 to replace Adobe Pagemaker, it was engineered from inception for publishing houses already using creative products such as Photoshop and Illustrator. Its principal users are Graphic Designers and Production Artists developing magazines, company brochures and annual reports, amongst others. The latest versions can also export to electronic formats such as PDF (interactive or otherwise) and ePUB for tablets.

Designed for the highly complex world of press-ready publishing, InDesign is stable, powerful and designed for those working visually within very exact parameters. In short, it's not a 'Word Processor' it's a 'Page Processor'. And it has become the default choice for the publishing industry for good reason:

  • Performance and Stability: InDesign uses low-resolution links to graphical elements rather than embedding them into the actual document. This approach results in small files, high performance and rock-solid stability. As it has been designed for graphically rich, complex publications such as magazines, it handles multi-volume tender documents with aplomb.
  • Page Layout and Typography: As it's primarily a visual tool, InDesign offers very precise control of the document grid, visual elements and character and paragraph styles using intuitive menus and tools. Options are freely available in a visually-geared interface, not locked away in hidden menus. The entire application is designed so that the user can produce visually appealing, highly legible documents.
  • Output: The application turns out press-ready PDFs which can have colour profiles applied for precise professional printing. Full-bleed (where elements print right to the edge of the page) and the very precise rendering of high resolution graphics are standard.

Why You Might Choose Not to Use InDesign

Despite these clear benefits, using InDesign is a strategic choice, not just a software selection:

  • The Learning Curve: If Word is a Swiss Army knife, InDesign is a craftsman's lathe. Anyone can grab a knife and use it to whittle a stick. But only a specialist could turn out a beautifully crafted product that will sell. InDesign is a precision instrument designed to produce highly professional results. And that requires specialist knowledge.
  • The Cost: You probably already own Word. But InDesign isn't cheap at around AUD$900. Factor in specific training and the time required to master it and that figure grows.
  • The Workflow 'Speed Hump': InDesign will enable you to turn finished content into exquisitely rendered pages. However, aside from simple typos and minor corrections this assumes that content is finished: on time. And that imposes discipline to your workflow. If your organisation is used to making large-scale, 11th hour changes (often at the 11th hour - or later!), then introducing an extra project speed-bump might just be enough to put you off.


The consultants at Tender Success simply cannot imagine a tendering world without using both of these invaluable tools.

For team-based collaboration, development of raw content and final editing and review, Word is hard to beat. It's available, easy-to-use and is an essential part of internal business communication. Our consultants use it right up to the point of publishing.

When it comes to external business communication, however, our consultants only use Word to publish if there is no other choice, for example if the RFT mandates it. Professional publishing - especially for larger bids - is strategic and is built right into the response workflow. And that means using InDesign.

Each tool for its own task. Word is the perfect content creation and collaboration tool; but push it beyond its Word Processor remit and you'll likely end up with headaches and a lacklustre end product. If you want your tender to exude the professionalism of an annual report, you'll need to use a professional publishing tool like InDesign. And if the learning curve and cost don't make financial sense, you can always consider outsourcing the job to a skilled specialist.

mattMatt Milgrom is a senior consultant for Tender Success and has overseen the publishing of several multi-million dollar tenders using both Word and InDesign in concert. Contact Matt to ensure your next response is a success.