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The A to Z of Adobe InDesign

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Adobe InDesign is a diverse software programme for creating beautiful designs for print and digital. Most designers will have a tried-and-trusted set of InDesign tools they consistently use in their daily workflow (guilty!), but aside from the ever-faithful features there are also some exciting tools and tips you may not know about. 

Whether you’re a newbie to the programme or a seasoned InDesign professional, there may be something in the following list that you haven’t yet discovered or used. Click the links to access detailed tutorials on some of InDesign's features.

Want to point out any more InDesign tools/tips/features that aren’t included here? Share them in the Comments below!


Align panel (Window > Object & Layout > Align): This panel gives the designer control over the arrangement of objects on a page in a document. Check out Gavin Selby’s great Quick Tip for the Align panel here.

Alignment (find Text Alignment options in the Paragraph Formatting Controls menu, in the top Application Bar): Use these options to set the Alignment of your text to Justified, Aligned Center, or Aligned Towards or Away From the Spine.

Anchor Point (Tools Panel > Add / Delete Anchor Point Tool): As in Illustrator, you can apply an anchor point to a Stroke or Shape to manually alter its arc.

Anchored Object (Object > Anchored Object): You can attach/anchor items (such as text frames, or images) to specified text in a document, in a series of positions, including Inline, Above Line and Custom.

Application Bar and Application Frame (Window > Application Bar / Application Frame): The Application Bar sits at the top of your screen when InDesign is open and contains menus, a Workspace switcher and other application controls. The Frame is a modern InDesign interface which groups all the Workspace elements together as one unit. You can switch this on or off in the Window menu.

Arrange (Window > Arrange / Ctrl-Click [Mac] or Right-Click [PC] > Arrange): This allows you to send a selected item (e.g. a text frame/shape/image frame) to the back or front of your document within the same Layer.

Articles (Window > Articles): Articles (from CS5.5 onwards) provide a way of setting the order between elements in a document that is not restricted to the usual left-to-right reading of a traditional typeset document. This is useful for exporting a document to EPUB, HTML, or Accessible PDFs. You can drag and drop items, such as individual text frames, into the Articles Panel in the correct order before exporting.


Baseline Shift (in Character Formatting Controls Panel): A Baseline is the invisible line on which a text character sits; you can shift this up or down using the Baseline Shift option, pushing a character upwards or downwards.

Bleed (File > New Document > Bleed and Slug): A Bleed can be set up extra to the boundaries of a document. It allows text, images and color to extend past the boundary of the document, allowing for any minor trimming inaccuracies post-printing to appear less noticeable.

Book (File > New > Book...): You can create a ‘Book’ file in InDesign. This creates a grouping of separate documents, such as chapters or sections, while maintaining the numbering sequence of pages. 


Character (Window > Type & Tables > Character): You can apply attributes or Styles (see ‘S’, below) to text. By selecting individual characters, words or sentences you can change the Font, Size, Leading (see ‘L’, below) etc. using the options available in the Character Formatting Controls panel (see below).

Character Formatting Controls: Find this panel in the Applications Bar which runs along the top of the screen. It is indicated by an ‘A’ icon on the left-hand side of the Bar.

Color: Find out how to manage Color in InDesign.

Columns (Layout > Margins and Columns...): When creating a New Document you can set the number of Columns in a document as well as the Gutter spacing between them. This can be used to more easily arrange columns of text, for example for a newspaper or brochure layout. Check out Martin Perhiniak’s tips for designing layouts with columns.

Content Collector Tool (B) / Content Placer Tool: Available from CS6 onwards, this useful pop-up panel allows you to ‘collect’ and distribute content across a document. For example, you may want to use an image several times throughout a long book; you can ‘collect’ the image in the Content Collector and drop it in easily where needed.

Corners (Object > Corner Options): Use the Corner Options menu to set the Size and Shape (e.g. Bevelled, Rounded) of the corners of an object, such as a text or image frame. 


Direct Selection Tool (A): Allows you to directly select anchor points of a shape or stroke to apply more flexible transformations.

Drop Cap (in Character Formatting Controls Panel): A Drop Cap is a striking typographic effect which extends the size and line-depth of a single or multiple characters at the start of a paragraph. You can set the Number of Lines and choose to effect One or More Characters.


Effects (Object > Effects): You can apply a number of Effects to an object, such as a text frame, image or shape, such as applying a Gradient Feather, adjust Transparency or add a Drop Shadow.

Ellipse Tool (L): Use this tool to create an ellipsical or circular (by holding down Shift) frame suitable for color and text.

Ellipse Frame Tool (Tools Panel > Under Rectangle Frame Tool drop-down menu): Use this tool to create an elliptical or circular (by holding down Shift) frame suitable for placing images.

Erase Tool (Tools Panel > Under Pencil Tool drop-down menu): Get rid of unwanted sections of path using the Erase Tool. You can’t erase paths which you have converted to Type on a Path (see ‘T’, below).

Export (File > Export...): Use this option to export your InDesign document to PDF (Print or Interactive), as an image file (e.g. EPS, PNG, JPEG), to HTML or to a number of other formats.

Eyedropper Tool (I): Hover the Eyedropper Tool over a colored area of your document, such as part of an image, to pick up a replication of that color which you can then add to your Swatches panel.


Facing Pages (File > New Document > Check Facing Pages): Compared to other design software, like Photoshop and Illustrator, InDesign was created to facilitate the design of print layouts, e.g. for books, magazines, leaflets. Check ‘Facing Pages’ to create spreads that begin on a single right-hand page and have two-page facing spreads throughout.

Fill (X): Set a color Fill for an object, such as a frame, or text. You can also set this from the Swatches panel and the Character Formatting Controls panel.

Fitting (Object > Fitting): In InDesign placed content, such as images, are positioned within a frame. Use the Fitting options to dictate the size and extent of visible content within a frame. If you’re unsure what to select, Fill Frame Proportionally is usually a safe option.

Free Transform Tool (E): Use this tool to manually Rotate (see ‘R’, below) an Object (see ‘O’, below).


Gap Tool (U): This can be used to alter the space between and around Objects. See Gavin Selby’s Quick tip for more info.

Glyphs (Window > Type & Tables > Glyphs): View all the Glyphs/Symbols available for your selected Font. You can also view recently used glyphs and create new glyph sets by going to the drop-down menu in the Glyphs panel.

Gradient Feather Tool (Shift-G): Use this tool to soften the Gradient effect applied to an Object (see ‘O’).

Gradient Swatch Tool (G): Use this tool to apply a simple Gradient effect to an Object (see ‘O’) or alter an existing Gradient.

Grids (View > Extras > Show Baseline Grid/Show Document Grid): The Baseline Grid is used to align columns of text and is visible on the document, but not the pasteboard. The Document Grid is used to align Objects and extends across the whole of the Pasteboard (see ‘P’). You can edit Grids using the Grid Preferences (Edit > Preferences > Grids [Windows] or InDesign > Preferences > Grids [Mac]).

Group (Object > Group / Ungroup): Grouping Objects, Frames and/or other elements together is a useful way of applying Effects to a group of items simultaneously or to simply group items for convenience.

Guides (Layout > Create Guides... or manually drag from the Rulers): Use Guides to create informal guidelines for placing content on a spread. For example, if you wanted to mark out the spine of a book cover, this is often much simpler to achieve using Guides than marking out fiddly Column Widths. Learn more about using Guides and Rulers (see ‘R’, below) here.


Hand Tool (H): Use the Hand Tool (found in the Tools panel) to ‘grab’ the document and navigate more flexibly across a spread or between pages.

Hyphenate (in Character Formatting Controls and Paragraph Formatting Controls Panels): Check the Hyphenate option while your Type cursor sits in a given paragraph to allow words to break across lines.


Info (Window > Info): Open the Info panel to get more detailed stats on the number of Characters, Words, Lines and Paragraphs in your document.

Intent (File > New Document > Intent): You can set the Intent of an InDesign document to Print, Web (for desktop websites) or Digital Publishing (for designing for tablets, smartphones and eBook readers). You can choose a specific option from the Page Size drop-down menu.


Join (Object > Paths > Join): As in Illustrator, you can use the Join option to unite two strokes as a single Shape or Stroke, preventing any unsightly overlaps of Strokes or visible Ends.


Kerning (in Character Formatting Controls Panel): You can reduce or increase the Kerning, or space between individual characters, using this option.


Language (set Language in the Paragraph Formatting Controls Panel, at the far right): Changing the Language setting in this menu will change the default dictionary used by InDesign. This can affect how words are automatically broken by hyphenation for example.

Layers (Window > Layers): It is good practice to create Layers for different elements in your document, and Lock those Layers that are not currently being edited. For example, separating text and image elements into different Layers can make individual items easier to edit. Learn more about the Layers panel.

Line Tool (\): The Line Tool creates a single stroke that can be edited using the Stroke panel (Window > Stroke, see ‘S’ below). Hold down Shift as you drag for a straight vertical or horizontal line.

Links (Window > Links): Images are not embedded in InDesign documents but linked instead. The software creates a ‘Link’ between the ID document and the image file in its folder. The Preflight panel (Window > Output > Preflight, see ‘P’, below) will alert you before exporting if any Links are missing. You can use the Relink icon in the Links panel to relocate the relevant file.

Liquid Layout (Window > Interactive > Liquid Layout): Allows you to flexibly adjust your content to different page sizes. Check out Martin Perhiniak’s video tutorial for using Liquid Layouts in InDesign.

Lock (Object > Lock): Select any elements on a page you would like to be locked (and not move at all) and choose this option. This is really useful for when you don’t want to mistakenly move an element on a page while you’re editing something else.


Margins (Layout > Margins and Columns...): Define the Margins of a document in the New Document window, or later on from the Layout menu (note: select all the Pages you want to adjust the Margins for before going to the Layout menu, by clicking on the relevant page icons in the Pages panel).

Markers (Type > Insert Special Character > Markers): You can transform a simple text frame into a dynamic Page Number or Section Marker by going to the Markers menu. A useful tip is to create a small text frame on your Master page(s) and insert a Page Number marker there, which will then appear on all pages that have that Master applied to them.

Master Pages (see top of Pages Panel [Window > Pages]): Masters are a simple way to manage longer documents that have common features across pages (e.g. Page Numbers, Headers, Footers, background colors/images etc.). A default single-page Master (named ‘A-Master’) appears in the Pages panel when you create a New Document. You can add more Masters by going to the drop-down menu in the Pages Panel and checking New Master...; you can then drag and drop Masters onto the Page icons below.

Measure Tool (K): The Measure Tool calculates the distance between any two points in your document. The distance value will appear in the Info panel (see ‘I’, above).

Mini Bridge (Window > Mini Bridge): Mini Bridge is an extension that allows you to manage your images more efficiently and drop them into InDesign more easily. Find out more about how to manage images in Mini Bridge.


Nested Styles (find in drop-down menu at far right of the top Application Bar > Drop Caps and Nested Styles): You can apply a Nested Style to text at the beginning of a paragraph, or apply a Nested Line Style to one or more lines in a paragraph. Check out Cheryl Graham’s Quick Tip for Nested Styles.

Note Tool (Tools Panel > Fourth Section Down): Use the Note Tool to mark out text you want to make temporarily invisible. In the Notes panel (click on the Note symbol that appears next to your note with the Type Tool selected) to review your Note and have the option of reinserting it.

Numbering & Section Options (Layout > Numbering & Section Options): When putting together a longer document in InDesign, such as a Book, you will probably want to divide the document into Sections and perhaps define different page numbering options for different sections. Open the Numbering & Section Options window to make these adjustments.


Object (see Object drop-down menu in top menu): An Object is any element on a page that can be edited directly by the designer. For example, this may be a text frame or an image frame. Refer to this menu to apply Effects, Edit Paths, Lock/Unlock/Group/Ungroup Objects, etc.

Optical Margin Alignment (in Story Panel - Window > Type & Tables > Story): Check the Optical Margin Alignment to slightly shift any text characters, e.g. punctuation marks, which can fall outside of the text frame border to create a cleaner line against the Margin.

Overprint (View > Overprint Preview): If you're using Spot Colors in your InDesign document, it’s a great idea to check the Overprint Preview to see a more accurate view of how your Colors (see 'C', above) will actually print.


Package (File > Package...): If you’re sending your InDesign document to another person, another computer, or just as an exercise in good practice for your own files, you should always Package a document once you’ve finished editing. This brings together all the image files, fonts and optional printing instructions in one handy folder.

Pages panel (Window > Pages): Navigate through your document using the Pages Panel. Add, Delete or Duplicate Pages by referring to the icons at the bottom of the Panel. Explore more about Page Numbering with Gavin Selby’s Quick Tip.

Page Tool (Shift-P): The Page Tool allows you to change the page size and layout of an individual page in a document without effecting other pages. Check out Gavin Selby’s take on the Page Tool.

Paragraph panel (Window > Type & Tables > Paragraph); plus in drop-down menu, Paragraph Composer options: Format individual paragraphs using the options in this menu; you can edit Alignment, Hyphenation, Indentation, Drop Caps etc.

Paragraph Formatting Controls (find in the top Application Bar): This is a long menu you can find when using the Type Tool. Click the icon below the ‘A’-symbol on the far-left of the panel to bring it up.

Paste (Edit > Paste / Paste in Place): Self-explanatory, but Paste can be a very useful option for carrying content across pages. Check Paste in Place if you want to maintain the original position of the frame. Avoid pasting images from other programmes, as this will not be Linked (see ‘L’, above).

Pasteboard (View > Entire Pasteboard): The Pasteboard is the whole area of the InDesign document plus the space available for dropping non-printed content. Use it as an artboard for keeping elements on stand-by you may or may not use as you make edits.

Pen Tool (P): This functions in the same way as the Illustrator Pen Tool does. Create custom lines, and Add or Delete Anchor Points to a Line using the drop-down options in the Tools panel.

Pencil Tool (N): As above, but with more flexibility to create fluid and organic shapes. Hold down to create a line with numerous Anchor Points.

Place (File > Place...): You should always Place images into an InDesign document rather than Opening or Pasting. This allows the file to remain Linked (see ‘L’, above). Create an image frame of a desired size before you go to Place.

Polygon Tool (Tools Panel > Under Rectangle Tool drop-down menu): Use this Tool to create a 6-sided polygon shape, suitable for adding Color or Text.

Polygon Frame Tool (Tools Panel > Under Rectangle Frame Tool drop-down menu): As above, but suitable for placing Images into.

Preflight (Window > Output > Preflight): InDesign prompts you to Preflight (check your document for errors) before exporting or packaging. Learn more about Live Preflight.

Profiles (Edit > Assign Profiles... / Convert to Profile...): You can alter the Color Profile of your document (with RGB or CMYK options) from here.


Quick Apply (Edit > Quick Apply): Allows you to select from a list of commonly used functions, e.g. Basic Paragraph Style, Chapter Number etc. at the click of a mouse. 


Rectangle Tool (M): Use this to create a frame suitable for Color, Effects and/or Text. Hold Shift to create a perfect square.

Rectangle Frame Tool (F): As above, but suitable for placing Images.

Relink (at bottom of Links Panel [Window > Links] or Opt-Click to Relink all Missing Links): Sometimes image files are moved or renamed, prompting InDesign to flash up an error warning in the Preflight panel. Use the Relink icon in the Links panel to locate the lost file.

Revert (File > Revert...): Revert back to the previous saved version of your InDesign document.

Rotate Spread (View > Rotate Spread): Alter the view of a given page/spread. Can be rotated a full 180 degrees or 90 degrees CW or CCW.

Rotate Tool (R): Select an Object and Rotate it manually using this tool.

Rulers (View > Show Rulers): Rulers lie along the top and left-hand side of the document window. You can drag Guides from them to mark out sections of a document.


Scale Tool (S): Use this tool to Scale an Object along the X or Y axis, or both.

Scissors Tool (C): Use this tool to split Shapes, Paths and Frames.

Screen Mode (View > Screen Mode): You can tap the ‘W’ key to switch between the two main modes, Normal and Preview. You should always make edits while in the Normal Mode.

Selection Tool (V, Escape): Drag the Selection Tool across elements in a document to select them.

Separations (Window > Output > Separations Preview): This is a great tool to use before Preflighting and Exporting a file for print. Select Separations from the drop-down View menu to view all the Colors being used in your document. Here, you can identify stray Spot Colors etc. and also switch off the visibility of individual colors to check color overprints and knock-outs are working correctly.

Shear Tool (O): Use this to skew an Object horizontally, creating the illusion of 3D depth.

Slug (File > New Document > Bleed and Slug): The Slug is the area which falls outside the Page and Bleed. It’s a suitable place for inserting print instructions, sign-off info or anything else that won’t appear on the final printed document.

Smooth Tool (Tools Panel > Under Pencil Tool drop-down menu): Drag the Smooth Tool along a section of Path to smooth the line, and remove any unnecessary Anchor points.

Story (Window > Type & Tables > Story): The Story panel gives you access to the Optical Margin Alignment check-box (see ‘O’, above).

Stroke (Window > Stroke): Open the Stroke panel to access more formatting controls for affecting Lines and Paths. You can set the Weight, Type and even alter the appearance of the Start and/or End of a Line (such as adding arrow ends).

Styles (Window > Styles): You can set ‘Styles’ (formatting rules) for Paragraphs, Characters, Objects, Cells and Tables. They are a great way of lifting formatting and applying it throughout a long document, and are an essential time-saver! Check out Cheryl Graham’s Quick Tip for creating Paragraph Styles. You can also read more about using Styles.

Swatches (Window > Color > Swatches): The Swatches panel allows you to create and organise Colors, Gradients, or Tints, and apply them. It’s important to note that Swatches behave similarly to Paragraph and Character Styles; any edits you make to a Swatch will effect all the elements/Objects which have that Swatch applied to them.


Table (See ‘Table’ in the main menu > Insert Table; and Window > Type and Tables > Table for the Table Panel): You can create a Table from the main menu and format features such as the number of columns/rows, height /width of cells and inset values using the Table panel. You can also save these formats as Cell and Table Styles (Window > Styles > Cell Styles / Table Styles).

Text Threads (View > Extras > Show Text Threads): Text Threads show the connections made between text frames, for the flow of text. You can create a Text Thread by clicking in the bottom right-hand corner of a text frame and clicking again in a second text frame. Explore Gavin Selby’s Quick Tip for Threading.

Text Wrap (Window > Text Wrap): You can wrap text around an Object using the Text Wrap Panel. Check out Martin Perhiniak’s useful tutorial.

Tracking (in Character Formatting Controls Panel): Tracking reduces or increases the spaces between characters in a whole block of text.

Transform (Object > Transform or Cmd-Click [Mac] / Right-Click [PC] > Transform): The Transformation options in InDesign give you a bit more freedom with the position and appearance of an Object. You can Rotate, Flip, Move, Scale, or Shear an Object.

Type Tool (T): Use the Type Tool to create a text frame (just click and drag) for inserting text or click once on an existing frame or shape to transform it into a text frame. 

Type on a Path Tool (Shift-T): The Type on a Path Tool allows you to flexibly apply text to the shape of a Path or Object. Just hover over where you would like your text to begin and click once.


Units & Increments (InDesign > Preferences > Units & Increments...): Set your preferences for measurement units here. Millimeters are the industry standard for print, but pixels should be used for Web / Digital design. Setting the Intent (see ‘I’, above) of the document will also set this for you before you begin any work.


Variables (Type > Text Variables): In the Text Variables window you can find a number of preset text variables that you can insert in your document. The Variables change according to the context, such as a Chapter Number or Page Number. These Variables can be edited, or you can create your own.


Workspace (Window > Workspace), also find at top right of Application Bar: The Workspace defines which InDesign panels you see on your screen. ‘Essentials’ is the default option and can be Reset from the drop-down menu. You can create your own custom Workspace for future use by selecting New Workspace... from the drop-down menu.


XML (File > Import XML...): XML (Extensible Markup Language) works as a sort of translation tool for data. InDesign works with XML files, and you can also tag content in your InDesign file, and save and export it as an XML file for use in another application. Go to the Structure panel (View > Structure) to view imported XML data.


Zoom Tool (Z) / Manual Zoom - The Zoom keyboard shortcut is a really useful way of navigating over a page or spread, and should become an integral part of the way you use InDesign every time you open a document.