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Formatting Typography and the Use of Styles in Adobe InDesign

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Read Time: 11 min

After working for a couple agencies as an Art Director, I noticed many entry level designers and old pros alike still use InDesign very inefficiently when it comes to typography and formatting. This tutorial will cover the formatting of type within Adobe Indesign using their wonderful paragraph and character styles feature.

This tutorial assumes you already know some of the basics of InDesign, but I will cover some of the basics quickly for new users. We'll look at paragraph styles first, and then learn about character styles. Let's get started!

Final Image Preview

The final styles we will be working with throughout this tutorial are shown below. Want access to the full Vector Source files and downloadable copies of every tutorial, including this one? Join Vector Plus for just 9$ a month.

Step 1 - Create a New Document.

Create a new one page document with half inch margins to begin with.

Step 2 - The Live Area

You should now have a 8.5 inch by 11 inch document with half inch margins, giving you a 7.5 inch by 10 inch live area to work with.

Step 3 - Creating Type Boxes

Using the Type Tool, lets create a 7.5 inch by 10 inch type box.

You have two options when it comes to creating a type box. You can click and drag with the Type Tool from one corner to its diagonal...

Or you can click and drag enough to create a mini type box and use the size and location settings to make it fit perfectly. The X and Y are locations on the page, so we want to use .5 to clear our margins. W and H are the Width and Height of whatever is selected, in this case our type box. Make sure that lists 7.5 for the Width and 10 for the height.

I usually click and drag, and then use the size and location settings to make sure its exact.

Step 4 - Adding Type to Type Boxes.

Alright, so we should now have a standard 8.5 inch by 11 inch page with half inch margins, and a 7.5 inch by 10 inch type box filling our live area.

Lets grab five paragraphs of type from our favorite dummy type source. I like to use Lorem Ipsum, but it doesn't matter - all we need is five paragraphs to play with. Once you have some, copy and paste it into your type block, as shown below.

Step 5 - Creating the Basic Style

It's not looking like much right now, but once I explain the use of styles you will be able to chop up type blocks and make changes to entire books with a few clicks of the mouse. So let's get started. If you look at your toolbars, by default there should be a Paragraph Styles and Character Styles sections.

If not, you can turn them on by going to your window menu and selecting them within the Type & Tables menu.

Let's start by creating some new paragraph styles.

"Paragraph Style 1" will appear in the list of paragraph styles. Double-click it to bring up the options menu. You can see that the style options menu is very extensive. Don't let this scare you. Styles can be very helpful with very little usage of their options, and extremely helpful with some of the extra features. For now let's focus on the basics.

Now let's select the basic character formats. Let's create a generic paragraph style. This will be the style we use on large chunks of type. Let's use Regular Times, and increase its Leading to 14pt, and its Tracking to 10pt. That's it for now. Being that this is the generic style, we are not going to go heavy on the options. We will save those for special paragraph styles.

Tip: Leading is the spacing between each line. Tracking is the spacing between each letter, also known as Kerning.

Step 6 - Creating Special Styles, and More About Style Options

OK, so we now have a basic style to apply to large chunks of type. If you select all of the type in your type box and click the style, you will see it change.

Now let's create a new style like before, and double-click it to bring up its options. As you can see, I made the type in this style larger and gave it more leading. I also made it Italic.

We are not going to change the settings under the Advanced Character Formats tab, but I wanted to explain what the features do:

  1. The Vertical and Horizontal Scales - scale your type based on the percent given. This is the same as increasing its size.
  2. Baseline Shift - shifts the type up off of the baseline, which is an imaginary line that runs directly under any line of type.
  3. Skew - is like advanced Italics.

In my opinion, you should rarely change the settings under the advanced tab because it distorts type beyond it's original design, which is bad practice.

Now onto the Indents and Spacing tab. Basically, what I have done here is given this style quarter inch padding all around it by indenting it left and right, and adding spacing before and after. I also gave it a First Line Indent, which indents only the first line of a paragraph. I also applied Justify Left, so we can explore the Justification Tab.

If you click the Tabs tab you can see it has already adjusted for the quarter inch indents we applied in the Indents and Spacing tab. The Tabs tab is useful for formatting the Tab key and how it interacts with InDesign, it also allows similar options like we adjusted in the Indents and Spacing tab.

Now let's move onto the Paragraph Rules tab. We will add a dotted rule above our call out. I don't typically use this option, but I think its worth showing. Most of the options are pretty straight forward, except I imagine some readers might not know what overprint means.

When you print colors on top of each other, like yellow over blue, the printer knocks out the blue and prints the yellow over white. If you ever use overprint for anything, it would print the yellow over the blue and create green. So unless you want your colors to mix, leave overprint unchecked.

Playing with the Justification Tab will takes some practice to get use to. I'm going to leave it default but explain the concept. Justification forces a paragraph to align flush on both sides. Sometimes this can be problematic because not every line is the same length, so some words can have excessive spacing between them.

If you use Justification, and one line in the paragraph has really harsh word spacing, adjusting the letter and word spacing percentages can fix this to a degree.

The final tab for this style will be the Character Color Tab, which is pretty straight forward. And as you can see, our friend overprint comes up again. After changing the Character Color, click OK to finish this style.

So if you now select the second paragraph in our type box and click our new style, you can see it applies our new style and leaves everything else still under the control of our Generic Paragraph Style.

I have a feeling some readers are wondering, why not create separate type boxes for each paragraph? We could do this, but consider that approach for large multi-page documents. It would be a nightmare to make sure every page has every type box perfectly aligned. Creating one large type box per page and applying Paragraph styles where needed maintains alignment, and anytime you need to make a change, just change the style and everything else will change along with it.

Step 7 - Paragraph Style Options Finished

You have probably noticed we have kind of skipped around the tabs within the Paragraph Styles Options. This is OK, not every paragraph will use every option available.

Create a new style and double-click it to bring up the options menu. Let's give it some basic styling.

And adjust the indents and spacing.

And finally for this style, lets add some Bullets and Numbering.

As for the rest of the tabs, let's cover them in brief:

  1. Keep Options - allow you to apply the paragraph style to a selected number of lines after the paragraph. It can be applied to an entire paragraph, or just the third through fifth lines. It can also be used to apply the style to an entire page and then stop and return to the original style on the next page.
  2. Drop Caps and Nested Styles - is covered later in this tutorial. In short, it allows you to apply styles to drop caps within a paragraph instead of going through your document and applying character styles to each one.
  3. Open Type Features - is a tutorial in itself. In short, Open Type Faces are those that can travel between Mac and PC without substitutions. This tab allows you to adjust the aspects of Open Type Faces.
  4. Underline and Strikethrough - tabs are very straightforward options for underlines and strikethroughs. I personally never use either so I don't bother with these tabs. But if you choose to use them, they don't offer anything different than what we have already covered.

Click OK to close out the options. Select a paragraph and set it to bulleted.

Now with the bulleted paragraph selected, apply our third and final style.

Step 8 - Character Styles

By now you should understand the importance of using styles in InDesign. So lets head into Character Styles and learn how they intermix with Paragraph Styles.

Alright, lets open our Character Styles tab, and create a New Character Style. This is just like in the Paragraph Style tab.

It will create "Character Style 1," double-click this to bring up the options.

Step 9 - Building our Character Style

Wait a minute this all looks familiar. Let's start by making it Bold Times at 36pt size.

Just like before we are going to skip over the Advanced Character Formats tabs. Click on the Character Color tab and let's use pure cyan as our color.

Again we come across the Open Type Features, Underline, and Strikethrough Options. Same concept as the Paragraph Style Options.

Step 10 - Using our Character Style with our Paragraph Styles.

So we now have a basic Character Style, lets select the first letter in our last paragraph and apply our style to it.

As you can see, Character Styles work just like Paragraph Styles. So why not just use one or the other you may be thinking? Well you will rarely build Character Styles and select a single character to apply it to. The real power of Character Styles is using them inside of Paragraph Styles. Let's explore this.

Select our single character again and set its Character Style to None, or just use the Undo option.

Let's go back into the Paragraph Styles tab and select our Generic Paragraph Style by double-clicking on it. Click on the Drop Caps and Nested Styles tab. As you can see, I applied our character style to 1 Line and 1 Letter. This translates to the first character of every first line. Click OK.

Well look at that, it applied to our "Call Out" Paragraph style. That's OK, just double-click the "Call Out" Paragraph Style and remove the settings under Drop Caps and Nested Styles.

Thats better.

Step 11 - Nested Styles

Let's now duplicate our "Generic Paragraph Style" by right-clicking on it and selecting Duplicate Style

Name this "Nested Style," and click on the Drop Caps and Nested Styles tab.

Remove the drop cap settings, and click New Nested Style. This will create a new Nested Style, which we will apply some basic settings too. If you notice two things about Nested Styles, you can have a whole list of them all being applied to different sections of one paragraph. Let's set ours to go through three sentences. Click OK.

Select our third paragraph and click our new "Nested Style."

Eww, that doesn't look pretty.

Double-click "Nested Style," and under the Basic Character Formats let's set the Leading to 24pt.

Thats better, see how it automatically changed?

And there we have it, one page of styles.

Final Thoughts

The key to using styles in InDesign effectively is to play around with the options until you are familiar with what they do, and then plan your documents out in advance by building your styles first.

Learning about typography is important too, I didn't attempt to make this pretty because the point of the tutorial was to explain the proper use of Paragraph and Character Styles in Adobe InDesign. Now it's up to you to use these tools and get creative with them. Thank you for reading!

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