MadCap Flare’s 3-fold templates were one of the key reasons I upgraded to Flare 10. I mostly use Flare for online help work, and rely on MS Word and Adobe InDesign for print, so I was intrigued to see if the new templates would cut the mustard.
Beauty is in the Eye of the 3-Folder
I needed to create a one-sheet overview of a product for use in a telecommunications data centre. The overview was going to be printed, laminated, and fixed to the wall where operators could easily view the information. So I needed something that allowed enough space for all the information required and also looked appealing. Flare’s 3-fold template looked to be exactly what I was after.
The template itself is for a double-sided, triple-column booklet, so not really suited to my requirements. That wasn’t a problem though, as the inside pages were what I wanted, so I planned to simply remove the external side. Was this easy to do? Yes. MadCap provide the page layouts for each different page as separate files, so it was just a case of removing those I didn’t want to use from my project.
A PDF is included with the template, which explains how it all works. There’s not a lot to it really – the three columns are separate ‘Body’ frames, which flow in an order. When you look at the page layout file, the flow is indicated by arrows. To change the flow, you just select the body frame, right-click, and then choose Select Next Frame. Select the next body frame that the text will flow into, and you’re done. The important thing to remember here is that the content of your topic will be inserted into the body frames in the order that it appears in the XHTML of your topic file. So you may need to change the flow to something that appears a little out-of-sequence in the page layout view to get the result you want. I didn’t experience this problem though – I just kept the body frames running in a linear order (to start with, anyway). One of the few times where linearity isn’t the enemy!
Image Frames – Background, New Image Frame, or Decorative Frame?
The part I struggled to get my head around was the placement of the image in the bi fold template. In the PDF, it states that MadCap added it to the background to allow for wrapping two columns. I tried removing it and replacing it with a new image frame and didn’t have any problems with it spanning the two body frames underneath. Maybe I am missing something, but it didn’t seem to affect my output either way. On the subject of new image frames, I also found out the hard way that if you use a decoration frame instead, and insert an image into that, the image appears at an odd size in the frame. So if you want an image to fill the frame you have created, be sure to use the New Image Frame option. Quite why you would ever want an image to appear small in the centre of a frame is beyond me, but there must be some reason for decorative frames working in this way. If you know, please add it in the comments section because it’ll save me having to read the MadCap Flare documentation for that feature.
How to Stop Your Columns from Breaking Bad
As the separate body frames are really all one flowing frame, you might run into this problem when you add your content : the content doesn’t break at the right point in each column. Now, there’s no column break feature like you may use in MS Word (all the best with getting that to work as you expect!), so how do you break the columns. Could it be that you just enter extra carriage returns until it crosses into the next body frame? Well, you could do it that way, but it would be a bit of a dumb-ass move, especially if you change the content later. The best way I found of breaking the columns correctly was to create a new CSS style that had the column-break-before attribute set to Always. This worked for me as I had a h2 heading at each column break, so it was just a case of creating the ‘h2.ColumnBreak’ class, and then setting those headings that needed to be in new columns to h2.ColumnBreak instead of regular h2.
It was going so well until…
I had the layout I wanted and everything was looking good. Every so often, I would build the output (PDF) just to check it looked okay, and yes, it was fine. Until I needed to change the colour of text in certain cells of a table. To do this, I created a CSS span style and applied it to the cells in question. The text changed colour just as I wanted, but the layout went haywire. Why? Because space on the page was tight and the span tags were making the table flow out of the body frame.
In the output, it wasn’t a problem as the tags aren’t included, so the page was as I intended. But trying to edit the layout when you can’t see how it is going to be in the final version is really frustrating. I know what you are thinking – why didn’t you just hide the span tags? Well, that’s what I did eventually, but it took someone on the MadCap Forums to tell me that the code-angled-brackets-with-the-eye-ball is where you show/hide markers in Flare (thanks, Jason Smith). Which just goes to show how you can work with Flare for years and still miss simple little things like that!
Output to Word? It’s Going to Get Ugly
The sheet I had so lovingly crafted looked great in PDF and online formats, but my client likes stuff in Word so that they can edit it as and when.
Unfortunately, I assumed that I could just output the work to a Word output target. Did it work? Did it balls. MS word only recognises one frame, so when you output the 3-fold template to Word, the result looks like someone has puked up a manual; all your content goes into one long, single-column mess of text, tables and images. That’s not MadCap’s fault or even Microsoft’s – it is just how the underlying technology works.
But at least it was a start. Within an hour, I had created the document exactly as I wanted in Word and had it ready for review.
Was it Worth It?
Anything that involves learning something new is worth it, in my book. I like the look of the built-in templates and, having played with them some more, can see that they are pretty easy to manipulate. For print content, it’s not as good as working in InDesign, but if you have online content that you need to present as print media, the Flare templates could work well. Just be prepared for some trial and error with positioning and measurements.