Using Apple’s Pages for collaborative design and layout.

We’re in the process of producing a new brochure for Echoleft to highlight our event registration and ticketing features.

Designing printed materials for us had previously started with a pencil-and-paper sketch layout and, perhaps, a Google Doc for the written content. We would then jumped almost immediately into Photoshop or InDesign to get the layout and text working together. This step, however, means that everyone other than the designer is unable to see how changes to the wording affect the layout and vice-versa. It also creates a multi-step process for edits: suggest the new content in the Google Doc, wait for the designer to implement it, review the changes, repeat.

We have tried using Google Docs (including Drawings) for the layout in the past, but the tools just aren’t good enough yet.

I’ve always liked the layout tools in Apple’s Pages app, it’s always been a solid desktop-publishing app for those that aren’t professional designers but need to produce documents that look good. I see people using Microsoft Word for this, but if you’ve ever had to edit or manipulate images in Word and inevitably wanted to throw your computer out the window, you’ll know why I prefer Pages even with its imperfections.

With the announcement in 2016 that Apple’s iWork apps (Pages, Keynote and Numbers) would support real-time collaboration, it made sense to give it a try for designing the layout of our new brochure. It will end up in professional design software eventually, but I wanted to produce a draft that would give us a ‘close enough’ version that we could work on together.

Here are a few observations from the process:

  • Apple’s collaboration for Pages is still not finished. It’s not bad per se, it’s just not finished. Here’s the list of features that currently aren’t supported when you make a document collaborative.

  • That list is optimistic. There are other thing that don’t work, I found several issues that were resolved by switching collaboration off, for example at one point I lost the ability to delete a page.
  • If you’re using custom fonts, you need them to be installed on all devices. Google Docs works around this by providing access to a range of ‘good enough for most cases and in some cases excellent’ fonts across all devices. Apple’s default list is much shorter. I did learn, however, that you can install custom fonts on an iOS device. I used the AnyFont app and it worked really well. I had to restart Pages for it to recognise the new fonts and once I’d done that everything looked just right.
  • If you’re willing to spend a little time getting to know it’s features, Pages is an incredibly powerful layout tool. I found learning as much as I could about everything in the ‘format’ bar really useful. I think the lack of linked text boxes in the last few versions has constrained Pages as a desktop publishing tool, but now they’re back and they worked well for me.
  • When you’re offline, you can’t work on a collaborative document in Pages at all. Google Docs makes this features available via a Chrome Extension although my mileage has varied dramatically with it over the years. There’s something ‘unnatural’ about being told by an Apple-made native macOS application that you can’t use it offline. I think this is the first time I’ve ever experienced that and it’s not handled particularly sensitively in the UI.

If I was working on content alone and didn’t need the layout features, I’d choose Google Docs every time. Powerful privacy features, the fact that it’s cross-platform and third-party integrations are just some of the reasons we use it every day. However for working on a more complex layout, I wouldn’t hesitate to use Pages ‘collaboration’ feature.

I don’t think Apple isn’t competing on the same playing field and for small groups at work, families and friends working on documents together I think Apple are making real progress on a useful feature that’s worth your consideration if you need it in the future.