Madyson Designs

Design solutions for web, print, and multimedia

InDesign 101

InDesign can seem daunting to beginners since there is so much going on. I rarely come across tips and tricks for InDesign the way I do Photoshop, CSS, and other web-related technologies. Perhaps there is just more audience for web-related information on the web. Hopefully this guide will help new InDesign users become more efficient and more knowledgeable about such a powerful and flexible piece of software.

When starting a new print document using InDesign, there are a few steps you should take when setting up your document to make things easier down the line. A little planning will make your document easier to design, easier to have printed, easier to collaborate on, and easier to revise and add on to in the future. These tips are just general InDesign good practice, rather than a specific tutorial, and is mainly geared to InDesign beginners. Knowing these things when I started would have saved me a lot of time and energy.


Document Setup

Document Setup

This would normally seem fairly straightforward, but the decisions you make here will affect the document throughout the entire process. It’s much more efficient to set them up correctly initially than it is to change them down the road. Here are the important things you should consider:

  • Paper Size- InDesign gives you several presets for standard paper sizes. In most cases, you can simply select one. However, if you are making a non-standard sized document, such as an advertisement, you will need to set custom dimensions. If you frequently work with specific sizes, you can add your own presets to save time.
  • Facing Pages- Make sure you decide if your document will be bound. Whether this is selected or not will control how your master pages are laid out and they will not automatically update if you change this in the future. It will require creating new masters and replicating any master objects.
  • Columns and Margins- This is somewhat related to your grid, but setting up how many columns you want on a page and the edge margins will help you keep everything aligned nice and neatly. I find it easier to work in points here, as you can relate it more easily to your baseline grid.

Grid & Guides

Grids and Guides

It’s important to have some sense of alignment when designing a document, and setting up a grid can make this easier. Following a grid layout will make your design much more cohesive and rhythmic. First off, set up your baseline grid. Go to InDesign Preferences and select the Grids pane. Here, you can decide what the default spacing is. Again, it’s often easier to work in points. You can set this to whatever the leading for your body text will be, or if you need more flexibility, you could set it to half of your leading. This will make getting things aligned a little more difficult but will give you a little more room to fudge your layout if you need to. Uncheck the box for ‘Grids In Back’ if you would like it to be visible over the items on your page. After you’ve set up your baseline grid, you can set up your horizontal sections. This will determine where your copy blocks, headers, images, and other items will be placed- basically horizontal columns. Drag horizontal guides out of the ruler at the top of your page and place them where you want things to line up. Since you’ve set up your baseline grid, the guides will snap into alignment with your text automatically.


Color Swatches

Color Swatches

Setting up all your color swatches before you start your document will save you time down the road. If you think about what colors you are using and add them as swatches, you can just pick them from the palette, which can also make your design decisions easier. In terms of choosing particular colors, using a service like Adobe Kuler or Color Lovers can help you to pick single colors or an entire color palette. There are two ways to add colors swatches to your document:

  • If you know the CMYK color values or you have a Pantone color number, you can pick ‘New Color Swatch’ in the Swatches palette menu and type it in. You can also use the CMYK value sliders to choose a color using this method.
  • If you have picked or created a color scheme through Kuler etc., you can directly import the Adobe Swatch Exchange file by selecting ‘Load Swatches’ in the palette menu. You will then be able to browse to the swatch file you downloaded and the color swatches will be automatically added for you.

Master Items

Master Page Items

Now that your page is prepared, you can begin to lay it out. But in most documents, there will be items in common with all pages. This can be as simple as a background image and page number, or can be as rigid as having every text and image block laid out ready to fill in. To access your master page, open the Pages palette and double-click the default master page that InDesign automatically adds for you. Anything you place on this page will appear on any page or spread of your document.  If you are using spreads (Facing Pages), it will know what you’ve placed on a left hand page and what you’ve placed on a right hand page. One great thing about master pages is that you can set up variables that will be populated for each page or for each section, no matter how you shuffle pages or spreads around. For example, to set up a page number that will appear on every page sequentially, add a text box where you want the page number to appear. Under the Text menu, select Insert Special Character > Markers > Current Page Number. It will show up as ‘#’ and you can then select this text and format it how you want. When you start to lay out your document, new pages will automatically have the correct page number added, and if you need to reorder pages, InDesign will update the numbering for you rather than having to edit each page manually.


Now that you have your document foundation laid out, you can jump into the creative design portion. This should come a lot faster since you have planned your framework; and you can also spend less time on the picky issues such as alignment and colors, and spend your time making something beautiful. What else do you consider mandatory for new documents? Leave a comment and let everyone know!

14 Responses to “InDesign 101”

  1. Nice post, and you’re right; quality InDesign tutorials, tips or articles are few and far between. One of many things I was hoping to take a closer look at down the road. Nice!

  2. Tony says:

    Great article! Found it really useful especially the master items paragraph. I learned once how to insert the page numbers, but forgot. Setting up color swatches at the start, before working on the document, now that’s a useful productive tip, I think. Only thing that is still a bit confusing for me is the grids and guidelines, but I think that with some practice, It’ll make more sense.

    Do you think that for a future article, you could talk about page bleeds? It’s the one subject that continues to elude my understanding.

  3. Sarah says:

    Thanks for the comment, Tony. I can definitely follow this up with information about bleeds. You are right, it’s one of the things that can be a little confusing at first.

  4. loswl says:

    Great beginners Tut, great to see someone place a In Design Tutorial online, there is so little support for such a great program, :o)

    loswl’s last blog post..Creation: The Dawn of Mankind – Part1

  5. […] to InDesign, I’ve written a 101-style tutorial on how to set up your document that you can check out on my blog here. As you can see in the screenshot, I’ve gathered all my items into a folder and saved my […]

  6. […] to more projects like this in the future. This tutorial is great for those of you who enjoyed InDesign 101 and are looking to put your new skills to good use! Head on over to Outlaw Design Blog to check it […]

  7. […] new to InDesign, I’ve written a 101-style tutorial on how to set up your document that you can check out on my blog here. As you can see in the screenshot, I’ve gathered all my items into a folder and saved my document […]

  8. […] new to InDesign, I’ve written a 101-style tutorial on how to set up your document that you can check out on my blog here. As you can see in the screenshot, I’ve gathered all my items into a folder and saved my document […]

  9. flashplayer says:

    Nice!

  10. LnddMiles says:

    Great post! I’ll subscribe right now wth my feedreader software!

  11. MichaellaS says:

    tks for the effort you put in here I appreciate it!

  12. shiexia says:

    hi. great article!

  13. PatShelby says:

    what a great site and informative posts, I will add a backlink and bookmark your site. Keep up the good work! 🙂