Data Merge InDesign Tutorial

(Updated: May 18, 2018 with InDesign CC 2018)

This tutorial will show you how to create a catalog using Data Merge InDesign.

  • Download the free project template:

    To help you to learn and practice Data Merge, we provide a free working template. Download it from the button above.
    In your downloaded zip file, you will find the InDesign template and the data source in .xlsx, .csv, and .txt format.

One of Data Merge InDesign main weaknesses is the need to prepare spreadsheets to InDesign’s exact import specifications. Only CSV and TXT files can be imported, and the conversion process can be daunting, complex, and prone to errors.

Pagination, a cloud-based catalog software, offers solutions to overcome conversion issues. 

Table of Contents

  1. Preparing the data source
  2. Setting up the Data Merge panel
  3. Mapping the fields
  4. Creating the merged document


Data Merge InDesign Tutorial

Preparing the data source

Let’s start by preparing the data source. Open a blank spreadsheet and use the first row to define your fields. Be sure to write the field names correctly, add a field for every column and never duplicate a field name.

Image fields should be defined with the @ symbol prefix (e.g. @Image). The @ symbol is a special character in Excel, so add an apostrophe before it if you’re presented with an error (e.g. ‘@Image). The apostrophe will force the cell’s entire content to be considered as text.

When all of the fields have been defined, the next step is to populate the table with your records. Take care to make all image paths match your file system, for example.

On a Windows system – C:UsersUser NameMy DocumentsImage.psd
On a Mac system – Macintosh HD:Users:User Name:MyDocuments:Image.psd

The populated table should next be exported as either a comma-delimited file (.csv) or a tab-delimited file (.txt). The Data Merge function won’t work with .xls/.xlsx or alternatives! Perform the export in Excel by using File > Save As.

By exporting the data source as a .csv file, you’ll have to choose the encoding. If you’re using Libre Office, we suggest choosing Unicode UTF-16 encoding to display special characters correctly.

Now close your spreadsheet and open InDesign.

1.1 Converting .xls into .csv/.txt

Conversion of .xls/.csv or .txt files can be quite complex.

Setting up the Data Merge panel

Now it’s time to set up the Data Merge InDesign panel. Open your InDesign document and the Data Merge panel via Window > Utilities > Data Merge > Select Data Source. In the new window, choose your .csv or .txt file and click Open.

Optional: You can change the data source import options. To do this, check the “Show Import Options” box (shown below).

Now, click “OK” and take a look at the new dialog box that appears:

The window already shows the right settings based on your data source properties. Remember, you can change these options in this box to match your situation:

  • Delimiter – Choose “Comma” if you saved your data source as a .csv file. Choose “Tab” if you saved your data source as a .txt file.
  • Encoding – Choose whether the file uses “ASCII” or “Unicode” encoding. Pay attention to the choice of the encoding. If you open a file that uses ASCII encoding with Unicode, the Data Merge panel won’t be populated with any fields. If you open a file that uses Unicode encoding with ASCII, the file will be imported, but some of its characters may not appear correctly.
  • Platform – Choose “PC” if you’re working on a PC. Choose “Mac” if you’re working on a Mac.
  • Preserve Spaces in Data Source – Check this box if you want to keep all extra spaces within your fields.

Click on “OK” once you’re finished. The Data Merge panel will now fill with all of the fields from your source file:

InDesign has identified two field types in our catalog example: text () and image ().

Mapping the fields

Now it’s time to map each field within your desired layout. Each of your data source records will follow this mapping during the subsequent automatic pagination process.

Text fields are inserted by creating a Text Frame, selecting that frame and then clicking on the selected text field in the Data Merge panel.

Image fields are inserted by creating a box with the Rectangle Frame tool (R), selecting that box and then clicking on the selected image field in the Data Merge panel.

You can also insert the fields in the layout by choosing the field in the Data Merge Panel and dragging it into the chosen frame.

Fields that are successfully mapped will appear surrounded by << and >> symbols. Numbers will also appear next to each field in the Data Merge panel. These numbers reference the page number on which each field is mapped.

If you want to insert a field in a text of your layout, you just have to place the cursor inside the text in the desired position and insert the field using one of the above methods. The field will be inserted where the cursor is positioned.
If you don’t place the cursor, the field will be queued with the rest of the contents of the box.

Continue to add all of your fields and customize the layout to meet your needs. Our example catalog uses a simple style: a large image at the top, a text frame with the price, and then a list of all of the other fields.

Creating the merged document

Finally, we’ll create the merged document. Begin the final step by clicking on ‘Create Merged Document’ within the Data Merge panel. All three tabs in this dialog box – Records, Multiple Record Layout and Options – require our attention.

Records: This is where we choose whether to have one record or multiple records on each page.

For our example catalog we’ll opt to merge ‘All Records’ and have ‘Multiple Records’ per document page.

We’ll also choose to generate an overset text report and set up an alert for missing images. These options can help us to identify issues that may occur during the document creation process.

Multiple Record Layout: This is where we establish how the records will be laid out during the merging process.

The Data Merge tool works in accordance with page margins. This means that a record that’s too big to fit within a page’s margins will be automatically placed on the next page.

Records can be paginated using one of two directions: ‘Rows First’ or ‘Columns First’. Rows First merges records left to right and then top to bottom, while Columns First merges records top to bottom and then left to right. The following image shows Rows First on the left and Columns First on the right:

The distance between each record is defined by the two spacing options: ‘Between Columns’ and ‘Between Rows’. Setting both options to 0 will cause the records to appear attached in the final result.

For our example catalog we’ll choose a ‘Rows First’ arrangement and 1mm of space between both the columns and rows.

Options: This is where we configure a few remaining choices.

There are five options for placing images during the merge:

  • Fit Images Proportionally – Fit the image inside the Rectangle Frame tool box and maintain its proportions.
  • Fit Images to Frames – Fit the image width and height to the Rectangle Frame tool box width and height; proportions will not be kept.
  • Fit Frames to Images – Import the image with its original size and fit the frame to this size.
  • Preserve Frame and Image Sizes – Import image with its original size but do not fit the frame to this size.
  • Fill Frame Proportionally – Increase image size proportionally until it has filled the entire frame.

Each option is shown in the following image:

Select ‘Fit Images Proportionately’ for our catalog. Also select ‘Center in Frame’ and ‘Link Images’.

It's done!

Now click on ‘OK’. A new document will be created and all of the records will have been merged!

6 responses to “Data Merge InDesign Tutorial”

  1. Ed Sibley says:

    Really useful, thanks.

  2. Suresh Wariyar says:

    Thanks for giving the required information about print merge. I have an adobe illustrator CS4. Does it have a Indesign software in it? or whether it has to be separately installed. Does excel spreadsheets work in the print merge, because i have a templete of students certificates in Adobe illustrator CS4 where I have to mail merge their names and their marks allotted to them. Is Indesign software freely downloadable from internet. Please help me and advise.

  3. Raphael says:


    Sorry my english is not very good.

    But, it’s possible to import a idms file?


  4. Riccardo Basso says:


    At the moment it’s not possible to work with .idms files, but if you’d like to check the feasibility of your project, feel free to send us your project files for a quick analysis.


  5. Jean-Pierre Richard says:

    You did not think of mentionning WHERE will the … pdf document be stored??????

  6. Riccardo Basso says:

    Hello Jean-Pierre,

    You can save the file wherever you want on your computer.


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Most mentioned Data Merge InDesign limitations include:

  • Cannot group elements;
  • Cannot handle moderately large datasets;
  • Few data-specific error messages.

To overcome these limitations Adobe suggests to use XML-Import, but there is a powerful solution that help you create your documents faster and easier, and is called Pagination.

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