Basics of InDesign

The InDesign Workspace

indesign workspace
The InDesign workspace. The window on the left is the toolbar and the window on the right is the options pane.

This is the InDesign workspace. The toolbar is on the left, and most other menu options are on the far right. Any options that can't be accessed from these two panes can be found along the top.

By default, InDesign opens in Normal mode. You can access Preview mode, which shows what the printed version of your layout will look like, by pressing W.

The Absolute Basics

Text Boxes

text boxes
An example of a text box. The tool selected in the toolbar is the text tool.

In magazine design, one of the most basic elements is the text box. It holds the written content in a spread and can be any size or shape and have any sort of formatting applied to it.

To create a text box in InDesign, click on the text box tool in the toolbar (which looks like a capital letter 'T'), or press T on your keyboard. Click and drag to create the text box.

Formatting options for the text itself are available at the top of the window. You can set font, weight, size and spacing, in addition to more advanced options like kerning and leading.

Formatting can also be applied to the text box itself. You can give the text box a border or a fill color and change the formatting of either of those.

For creating layout mock-ups, InDesign allows you to fill empty text boxes with placeholder text. To use it, right click an empty text box and select "Fill with Placeholder Text."

formatted text box
A formatted text box.


Adding and manipulating images in InDesign is fairly intuitive. To place in image into your document, go to File > Place (or press Cmd + D on a Mac, Ctrl + D on a PC.) Locate the image on your computer and click to place it into the document at full size, or click and drag to place it at a custom size.

image scaling
The image on the left has its original proportions. The image on the right has been warped.

In InDesign, images have frames. If you try to adjust the size of an image without holding down any keys, you are effectively changing the size of the frame. More advanced controls (some of which are new to CS5) allow you to change the placement of the image within the frame.

To scale your image, hold Cmd + Shift on a Mac or Ctrl + Shift on a PC and drag one of the corners in or out. This keeps the original proportions of the image.

To change the size of an image without maintaining the proportions, hold Cmd on a Mac or Ctrl on a PC and drag any of the sides or corners of the image.

Like textboxes, images can be given borders and fill colors. They can be any shape or size. The only real limitation to what you can do with an image is the original resolution of the photograph.

Lines and Shapes

Examples of lines and shapes. The tool selected in the toolbar is the polygon tool.

Another basic element in any InDesign document is the "shape." Shapes can be anything. Right-clicking on this tool in the toolbar gives you the option to create rectangles, ellipses and polygons.

The line tool, also in the toolbar, creates straight lines of any width. The type of line can also be changed -- from solid to dashed or double, for instance.

You can set a fill and stroke color for both lines and shapes (though lines technically won't display the fill color, only the stroke.) They can be scaled, rotated, warped and manipulated in any way that images or text can be.


Stroke is an option that essentially allows you to set the formatting of a border. You can put a stroke on almost any object in InDesign, images and text being the two most obvious.

Stroke formatting is changed through the "Stroke" pane of the options toolbar. The weight and type of stroke, along with many advanced options, can be changed through this menu.

This text box is given a "wavy" type stroke with a weight of 3 pixels.


InDesign allows you to give color to almost any object you can create. Double-clicking on the fill and stroke squares in the toolbar opens the color picker.

color picker
The RGB color picker.

Thoroughly explaining the RGB Color Picker would involve a short lesson in color theory. Suffice it to say that you select which color you would like to change (red, green or blue) and that color appears in the vertical color bar. The other two colors will change in combination in the color square.

The swatch palette.

Once you've selected the color you'd like to use, click the "Add CMYK Swatch" to add a color swatch to the swatch palette.

The swatch palette can be accessed by clicking "Swatches" in the Options toolbar. Here, you can organize and name all the colors you intend to use for a project. Having swatches for your entire palette keeps your colors consistent throughout a document.

To apply a swatch to an object, select the object and click on either the fill color or the stroke color (whichever you aim to change) in the tool bar. Then, open the swatch palette and select the desired color.

Manipulating Objects


It's not uncommon to have overlapping objects in InDesign. In fact, certain elements that you create will require overlapping -- like a text overlay on an image, or intersecting shapes.

Several objects arranged from front to back.

When this situation arises, arranging your objects -- that is, ordering them from front to back -- becomes important.

To arrange an object, right click it and go to "Arrange." The menu will give you four options: Bring to Front, Bring Forward, Send Backward and Send to Back.

These are all fairly self-explanatory. Bring to Front brings an object to the top of a document, while Bring Forward will move it towards the top by one. Similarly, Send Backward sends it one step closer to the bottom, and Send to Back sends it all the way to the bottom of the stack.

Arranging is important in many common scenarios. An image or shape that is intended as a background, for example, should be sent to the back so that all other objects are in the "foreground," on top of the background.


Which brings us to locking. Locking an object secures it its current position. It becomes unselectable, which is convenient for background objects: you can select entire groups of objects without also selecting the background.

locked shape
This object is locked.

To lock an object, right click it and select Lock, or select it and press Cmd + L on a Mac, Ctrl + L on a PC.

To unlock an object, make sure you're in Normal mode. Then click the blue lock at the upper left of the object.

A brief note on "backgrounds" in InDesign: There is no background "tool." To make a colored background, create a rectangle with that color fill. Scale it to fill the page. Send it to the back and lock it. Viola, a colored background!


You will sometimes use multiple objects to create one "element" of your document. Once you've finished coloring, scaling and arranging these multiple objects, grouping will make the element easier to manipulate.

A group of objects versus several indivudal objects.

Grouping multiple objects means that by selecting one, you select the whole group. The objects move together, scale together and arrange together.

To create a group, select all of the desired objects. Then press Cmd + G on a Mac or Ctrl + G on a PC.

To ungroup, select the group, then press Cmd + Shift + G on a Mac or Ctrl + Shift + G on a PC.

Next: Layout Walkthrough