HerGeekness Says: Convert a File, Any File

I bet they forgot to tell you in design school that you need to become an expert in computer file formats to survive, let alone succeed, in our field.

Consider graphic file formats. Your clients and vendors assume you know the limitations and appropriate use of all the image file types: JPEG, TIFF, PSD, AI, EPS, GIF, PNG, DNG, BMP… Tell me, did you take that class at Design School U?

Luckily, most layout programs (Web, print, or presentation) can import a wide variety of graphics file formats; and if they can’t, a quick trip to an image converter utility (or in and out of Photoshop, Illustrator, or CorelDRAW) will spit out a version in an appropriate format.

To me, the real challenge for designers is dealing with the hundreds of other file formats out there, the ones clients occasionally ask you to pull content from. Most clients don’t need to be as computer-savvy as we do; it’s just a peripheral tool to them. In their sweet naiveté, they assume that if you have a computer, you can open any computer file, period.

My ever-lovin’ clients blithely send me files created in the dawn of time (WQ1, which is Quatro Pro DOS), files from a program they’ve upgraded to and so assume everyone else has too (DOCX, the new Microsoft Word format), and every format in between, from WS4 (WordStar) to CDR (CorelDraw) to PUB (Microsoft Publisher) — all without a thought that I may not be able to do anything with them.

Figure 1. Ack! What the heck is a CWK file?

As a business owner, I want to make it as easy as possible for clients to work with me, but I can’t go broke buying every application under the sun just to open their occasional weirdo file.

Here are some trusted conversion tools I’ve come to rely upon to get me out of just about any file format jam.

Get a Universal Translator
Remember that Quatro Pro (DOS) file I mentioned? I needed to get data out of it to include in a chart, but I didn’t have a PC running DOS, let alone Quatro Pro. Instead of calling my client to ask her to save the spreadsheet out to a tab-delimited text file, I simply converted it to an Excel file in a flat minute with my trusty MacLinkPlus Deluxe ($79.99) software from DataViz, which is now on version 16. (Probably the highest-versioned software I own.) This wunderkind, and its Windows equivalent, Conversions Plus ($49.99), can convert dozens of file types from one format to another, on the same platform or cross-platform.

Figure 2. Here are about half of the file formats MacLinkPlus Deluxe can convert. (Click on the image to see larger version of it.) For the full list, go to www.dataviz.com.

Of course, file conversions, just like language translations, can only go so far. Data and most formatting remains intact, but don’t expect the converted file to look and feel exactly like the original.

Converting Layout Formats
While Dataviz software is great for converting general business files and graphics, it doesn’t speak page layoutese. What can you do if a client sends you QuarkXPress 6.5 source files and you only use Adobe InDesign CS3?

Markzware to the rescue! In true entrepreneurial spirit, these developers, already well-known for their flagship FlightCheck Pro prepress software, found a need and filled it with their killer conversion add-ons, Q2ID, ID2Q, and PUB2ID.

Each program is available for Mac OS X and Windows and can convert cross-platform. The first one, Q2ID, is an InDesign CS2 or CS3 plug-in that converts QuarkXPress 3-7 files into INDD files. ID2Q is an XTension for QuarkXPress 6 or 7 that — surprise! — converts INDD files to QXP layouts. PUB2ID, a plug-in for InDesign CS2 or CS3, converts Microsoft Publisher files to INDD layouts.

None of them are cheap — each starts at $199 for a single seat — and Markzware doesn’t do trial versions. However, they offer a test conversion service at their Product Trial page if you want to see some results before forking over the money.

Figure 3. This is the top couple of inches from a random page in an electronic parts catalog done in QuarkXPress 6.5 (note the cursor upper right). Click on the image to see a larger version.

Figure 4. This is the same section of the page after converting it to InDesign CS3 with Markzware’s Q2ID plug-in. Can you imagine having to recreate this page in InDesign manually? It’s just one of 1,200 pages where the default type size is 5.5/6! Click on the image to see a larger version.

As with the Dataviz products, you can’t expect perfect conversions, especially because page layout programs often have key differences that just don’t translate. Markzware’s documentation does a great job of explaining how it handles those situations. Nonetheless, I’ve used both Q2ID and ID2Q and believe me, the almost perfect conversions they do will pay for themselves ten minutes into the first time you need them!

Converting Fonts
Last year, a client asked my studio to develop an InDesign CS3 template for their Windows-based magazine with the same basic design and typography they used in their previous program, QuarkXPress 6.5 for Windows. With the help of Markzware’s Q2ID (see above), I converted their most recent QuarkXPress issue into my Mac version of InDesign CS3, which I used as a reference for the new template I was creating in InDesign.

While the initial conversion from Quark to InDesign and Windows to Mac was trouble-free, the magazine’s Windows-only custom Type 1 font was a problem.

I needed a Mac version of the font to test H and J settings for paragraph styles in InDesign, but the client didn’t own a Mac version. Before my client could start to fret, I told her I’d take care of it.

I could’ve moved the project from my Mac to one of our Windows machines running ID CS3, but there was no reason to. Instead, I converted the Windows Type 1 font to a Mac Type 1 font with TransType Pro, a wonderful utility for Mac or Windows from FontLab. The standard TransType ($99) converts fonts cross-platform and cross-format with aplomb, but the Pro version ($199) can convert Type 1, True Type, and Multiple Master fonts to OpenType format, which takes care of the platform issue quite easily. (I stuck with Type 1 for my client since that’s what they were used to.) All hinting and built-in pair kerns are maintained in the font’s new version.

Figure 5. Converting fonts with TransTypePro is a straightforward process: Add fonts to the left side of the TransTypePro window, set your Preferences (what platform/format they should be converted to and where they should be saved), and click the Convert button (not shown). Click the image to see larger version of it.

Before you convert fonts, however, check the typeface vendor’s End User License Agreement (EULA) to make sure the conversion is legal. Converting Adobe’s fonts from one platform or format to another is fine with Adobe, by the way — I checked the EULA and even got it confirmed with some suits over there before recommending TransTypePro to clients.

Converting Microsoft Office Files
With the release of Office 2007 for Windows last year, Microsoft changed the default file format for Excel, Word, and PowerPoint documents to what they call the “Office Open XML” format. That means Word files are no longer .doc, they’re .docx; Excel files are no longer .xls, they’re.xlsx; and PowerPoint files are no longer .ppt, they’re .pptx. Office 2008 (for Macintosh) came out a few months ago, and it shares those new default formats and file extensions.

Earlier versions of the Office apps can’t open these files, and many non-Microsoft programs can’t import them, either. (I’ve found that Adobe InDesign CS3 can place .docx files without a problem, but QuarkXPress 7.x doesn’t recognize them.)

Do you need a .doc but your client sent you a .docx? You could ask the client to do a Save As, choosing “Word/Excel/PowerPoint 97-2003 Document” as the format, which produces a .doc file, but it’s not necessary — there are plenty of workarounds. (One obvious solution is to buy the upgrade, of course. The latest versions of Mac and Windows versions will open each other’s files, just as with previous versions. But I’ll assume you’re not in a position to do that.)

If you’re using an older Windows version of the Office apps, you can download Microsoft’s free Office Compatibility Pack, which lets you open, edit, and save the new file types in your Office programs (and thus, in a format that QuarkXPress and other programs can import).

Microsoft just released a similar Compatibility update for Mac users who haven’t upgraded to Office 2008 yet, Microsoft Office 2004 version 11.5.0. You can download it from this Microsoft page or just choose Check for Updates from any Help menu in the Office 2004 applications. It’s designed to work in tandem with the standalone Open XML File Format Converter for Mac 1.0 package, which just came out of a long beta, so you’ll need to install that too. (The 11.5 updater will let you know if you don’t have the latest version of the converter and bring you to its download page.)

Figure 6. After you install the Microsoft Office 2004 11.5.0 update and its companion converter, you’ll be able to convert .docx, .xlsx, and .pptx files and open them in Office 2004 programs just by double-clicking them.

What if you’re using an even earlier version of Microsoft Office — or none at all — and so can’t take advantage of the Compatibility updates? No problem — there are many free and low-cost utilities and web services that convert the “x files,” either to earlier versions of Office programs, or to generic RTF (Rich Text Format) or CSV (comma-delimited text) files. (Google “docx converter” to see what I mean).

One of the best free converters for Mac users is the same Open XML File Converter I mentioned above, which can be run as a standalone utility whether or not you have Office 2004. Just drag and drop files on top of the application’s window to convert them to “standard” Office format.

Figure 7. Here I’m dragging a .docx file on top of Microsoft’s Open XML File Format Converter window to automatically convert it to .doc format, allowing me to import the file into a QuarkXPress layout.

If you use Leopard (Mac OS 10.5), you have good access to Microsoft’s new format even if you don’t own any version of Office. TextEdit 1.5 can open .docx files, maintaining even the most complex formatting, and even save files in .docx format! (How’d they swing that?) Apple’s iWork ’08 suite ($79) can open .docx files in Pages, .pptx files in Keynote, and .xlsx files in Numbers. Once the files are open, you can export the data in a more compatible format to use elsewhere.

For Windows and Mac users alike, I really like the speedy, low-carbon-footprint conversion utilities from Panergy Software. Their cross-platform .docXConverter ($19.95) lets you drag and drop .docx, .xlsx, and even .cwk (Apple Works/Claris Works v5 or v6 word processing files) files on top of the application window to quickly convert them to RTF or CSV format so you can open them in earlier versions of Office programs, or in any program, for that matter, that can open or import an RTF or CSV file. (Meaning, you don’t need to own Excel or Word to access the data!)

Figure 8. Panergy’s .docXConverter did a great job converting this .xlsx example of a balance sheet to CSV format. It automatically opened the file in FileMakerPro 7, the application I had selected in the program’s preferences. Click on the image to see a larger version.

The Dataviz conversion programs that I mentioned above (Conversions Plus for Windows, MacLinkPlus Deluxe for Macs) have only spotty support for the Office Open XML format. MacLinkPlus Deluxe can convert .docx and .xlsx files created in Windows, but Conversions Plus can’t convert them, and neither app can convert Powerpoint .pptx files.

Finally, I’ve read that the free, multi-platform, open source alternatives to the Microsoft Office suite, NeoOffice 2.24 and the 3.0 beta version of OpenOffice.org, can open the new Office Open XML file formats with decent results and save them out as RTF or CSV files, suitable for importing into other design applications. I haven’t yet tested this myself, so I can’t confirm.

In Case of Emergency, Ask for a PDF
Inevitably, you’ll receive a file in a format for which there is no conversion solution. Last week, a client wanting a Web site handed me a layout file done in Ventura Publisher 4.1 — that’s circa 1993, ladies and gentlemen. If you encounter a hair-puller like that one, your best bet is to get it into PDF format and then either extract the text and images for re-use elsewhere, or convert the PDF itself.

I’ll cover all sorts of tips and techniques for exporting files to PDF (even if the client doesn’t have Acrobat and you don’t have the source application) and then squeezing formatted, editable content back out of them in parts 2 and 3 of this file conversion survival kit for designers.

Posted on: July 9, 2008

Anne-Marie Concepcion

Anne-Marie “Her Geekness” Concepción is the co-founder (with David Blatner) and CEO of Creative Publishing Network, which produces CreativePro, InDesignSecrets, InDesign Magazine, and other resources for creative professionals. Through her cross-media design studio, Seneca Design & Training, Anne-Marie develops ebooks and trains and consults with companies who want to master the tools and workflows of digital publishing. She has authored over 20 courses on lynda.com on these topics and others. Keep up with Anne-Marie by subscribing to her ezine, HerGeekness Gazette, and contact her by email at amc@cpn.co or on Twitter @amarie

13 Comments on HerGeekness Says: Convert a File, Any File

  1. Sometimes we need to convert our own files for software that we already own but no longer works on our newer hardware or OS. Look into VMware, SheepShaver, and Wine for free methods to keep legacy systems and apps working on your newer hardware. You may not need to mess with a document conversion (often a rebuild) for a simple update on a vintage document.

  2. If you’re not in a terrible hurry (I know who isn’t?), try zamzar.com. You can upload a file for free and get it converted. I’ve done PPT to PDF and DOCX to DOC. It may take an hour to get the return file, but it’s cheap and hassle-free.

  3. Working for a commercial printer, we tend to get all different types of files. I thought this was a great article that addressed many of the problems we run into.

    James Wamser

  4. Livingwell magazine

    July 15, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    Hi, thanks, we get this all the time, But just recently I had a client that send me a PPt file, with low res, images.. Any suggestions?

  5. I’m not sure how to reply … you haven’t stated a problem. 😉

    They sent you a PPT with low-res images, and…? What do you need to do with the PPT file or the content inside it that you can’t do/don’t know how to do? Do you have Powerpoint?


  6. Just came across this company, who appears to sell lots of document conversion apps, Windows-only though.


  7. Was sent an .xis file and did not even know what that was and tried to open on Leonard with TextEdit and it flagged it as not in right format or as corrupted. However, with Default Folder I was able to use its preview to at least see file. Then realized that Quick Look will do the same. At least one can then see what you are dealing with.

  8. liverpoolviking

    July 16, 2008 at 8:55 am

    When I clicked on the email link for this article my browser (Safari, Mac OSX) just quit.
    Same when I tried to open webpage . Had to open page using Firefox.
    So much for details of how to open old files when current browsers crash using the links!

  9. hah! Yes, that’s almost painfully ironic. 😉

    FWIW I’m able to reach the article and use the Email link at the bottom with Safari/OS X without a problem. I tried it with Safari 3.04/Tiger 10.4.11 and Safari 3.1.1/Leopard 10.5.2, both times it brought me to the email page.

    Maybe there’s something else going on?

  10. Concurring with triadcom — Zamzar has been good. There is an option to establish an inexpensive monthly subscription to accelerate your file conversions.

  11. I have successfully used Windows fonts on my Mac many times (but not the other way around). I’m not sure why you needed to convert them. In the OS 9 days you had to convert but not any more.

  12. Critter, it’s true that you can use Windows True Type fonts in a Mac (Mac OS X) without a problem, just copy/paste them over to a Fonts folder and you’re good to go.

    But the situation I talked about in the article was about Type 1 Postscript fonts. Those do not travel between platforms. You need a platform-specific version or you need to convert the fonts with a utility like TransType.

    The same would be true if you’re on Windows and need to use Mac TrueType fonts, I believe.


  13. I use a docx to pdf converter and I really like it! I’ve never been good at conversions and I find the docx converter quite helpful…

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