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How to Design a Cool Contents Page in Adobe InDesign

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Every magazine needs a contents page, but there are ways of making sure your layout becomes just as eye-catching as the magazine’s cover and articles. In this tutorial, suitable for beginners, you’ll learn how to create a full-spread contents page in Adobe InDesign, and pick up some tips for making your contents page layouts look beautiful, striking and ultra-modern.

Want to create a fantastic print design you can show off to friends and family? Then let’s get started! In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to create this two-page contents layout in Adobe InDesign, for the fictional magazine Pro Cook

final layout

We’ll be creating the layout at a standard US magazine size, but you can adapt the layout to a smaller or larger size if you prefer.

1. Set Up the Magazine Document in InDesign

Step 1

First up, get InDesign opened up and create a new document by selecting File > New > Document from the top menu or Welcome window.

In the New Document window, keep the Intent set to Print (if you want to create a magazine for online circulation, you can always export it to an Interactive PDF at the end of the process).

Set the Number of Pages to 3, and keep Facing Pages checked.

Under Page Size, select Custom... to create a new custom page size. 

Type ‘US Magazine’ into the Name text box, and set the Width to 213 mm and Height to 276.5 mm. This is an industry standard size for magazines in the US, but you may want to choose a different format depending on your preferences.

Click Add, and then click OK to return to the New Document window.

custom page size

Step 2 

Under Margins, ‘break’ the chain icon to allow you to enter different values for the margin width. Set the Top Margin to 13 mm, Bottom to 15 mm, Inside to 14 mm and Outside to 13 mm.

Under Bleed and Slug, set the Bleed to 3 mm on the Top, Bottom and Outside edges of the page, and 0 mm on the Inside edge.

new document window

Click OK to create your new document. Ignore Page 1 for now—we’ll create the contents spread on pages 2 and 3. Scroll down to these pages.

new document created

Step 3

Ensuring your rulers are visible (View > Show Rulers), click and drag out a guide from the left-hand ruler, allowing it to rest on the far-left margin of Page 2. Drag out a second guide to X position 61 mm. 

guides on left-hand page

Drag your mouse over Page 2 to select both guides, and go to Edit > Copy, and Edit > Paste. Position the pasted guides on the right side of Page 2, resting the right guide on the right-hand margin, as shown below.

pasted guides

Drag your mouse again over the whole of Page 2 to select all four guides, and Copy and Paste. Place in a mirrored position on the opposite page, Page 3.

guides on both pages

This has created a set of column guides, which will be helpful when we come to place our text onto the layout.

2. Create a Balanced Layout

What makes a good contents page design? Often it comes down to a finely-tuned balance between images and type. Graphics and text shouldn’t compete for your attention, but should work together to create a visually appealing, clear-to-read layout.

When selecting images for your contents page, consider containing them within a defined box if they are busy, and varying the size of a large number of images to create a pleasing collage effect.

A great tip is also to choose a single image which allows you to place text into white space. This doesn’t need to be actually white, but just an image that contains enough empty space to allow any text set on top of it to be clear and legible.

For this design, I’m going to create the look of a single uniform photo by using a number of related images all set against a white background. I’ll be using a number of images taken from Cameron Knight’s food photography tutorial (check out Cameron’s tutorial here) and I’ve also used this image of a wok from PhotoDune. 

preview of layout with images

You can find similar images for the spice dishes at PhotoDune, like this one or this one, or use any images of cooking ingredients, which are taken from an aerial viewpoint and are set against a white background.

Step 1

Expand the Layers panel (Window > Layers) and double-click on the default Layer 1 name in the panel to open the Layer Options window. Rename the layer as Images and click OK.

layer options

Zoom into the right-hand page of the spread, Page 3, using the Zoom Tool (Z). 

Take the Rectangle Frame Tool (F) from the Tools panel and drag to create a small, square image frame. Go to File > Place and select one of your chosen images (a small one, don’t select the wok image yet), and click Open. Choose Fill Frame Proportionally from the top Controls panel to fit the image nicely in your frame.

image of spice dish

Step 2 

Repeat the process, creating new image frames with the Rectangle Frame Tool (F) and File > Place new images; or Copy and Paste existing image frames to create a repeated look.

Try to position the images running roughly down the center of the page, avoiding the space between the guides we created earlier, and position a couple at the fringes of the page, allowing them to run over the edges of the page, and onto the left-hand page if you like. 

image of butter dish
images of spices

Try to leave a nice amount of white space on the left-hand page.

preview of layout with white space

Step 3

Take the Rectangle Frame Tool (F) again and drag onto the left-hand page, Page 2, to create a much larger image frame. File > Place and choose the image of the wok; hit Open.

Double-click to directly select the image within the frame, and hold down Shift to enlarge the image. Rotate it a little until the handle of the wok sits diagonally towards the bottom of the page, as shown.

wok image
preview of layout with images

3. Create Typography That Catches the Eye

You’re now ready to start placing text onto your layout. The first task is to choose fonts which are going to suit the layout.

The typefaces for headings can be as creative as you like, but stick to classic, clear-to-read fonts for any pieces of smaller text. For this design I’m going to be using three distinct fonts: Arial Black for the heading, Matchbook for the sub-headings (page numbers), and Theano Didot for the remaining text. 

Download and install the fonts, and then return to your InDesign document.

Step 1

Return to the Layers panel and Lock the Images layer by clicking in the blank square space to the left of the layer’s name in the panel. 

From the panel’s drop-down menu, select New Layer. Name the layer Typography and click OK.

layers panel
new layer

Select the Type Tool (T) from the Tools panel and drag to create a long, narrow text frame about 45 mm in Height and 280 mm in Width, and position at the top of the left-hand page, sitting the left edge on the margin. 

Type ‘Contents’ and set the Font to Arial Black, Size 160 pt

contents header

Highlight just ‘Con’ and set the Font Color to [Paper], either from the top Controls panel or the Swatches panel (Window > Color > Swatches)

Highlight the last letter of the text and set the Font Color to [Paper] too (if it’s sitting across an image; keep as default [Black] if not).

white letter

Step 2

Move over to the right-hand page (Page 3) of the spread, and take the Type Tool (T) again. Drag to create a much smaller frame, that fits between the two guides on the left side of the page. Position about a third of the way down the page, nested between the guides.

Type ‘Page Number’ and set the Font to Matchbook, Size 60 pt and Align Center. 

text frame with page number

Step 3

Take the Line Tool (\) from the Tools panel and, while holding down Shift, drag from left to right to create a completely straight horizontal line, about 10 mm in Length. Position centrally below the page number text frame. 

Open the Stroke panel (Window > Stroke) and reduce the Weight of the stroke of the line to 0.1 mm.

stroke panel

Step 4

Take the Type Tool (T) and drag to create a text frame the same Width as the page number frame, and position below the straight line. 

Type in the title of the magazine article, followed by a paragraph break and then a short one- or two-sentence summary of the article. 

Highlight all the text and set the Font to Theano Didot, Align Center, Size 9.5 pt, and keep the default Leading (11.4 pt). Highlight just the article title alone, increase the Font Size to 12 pt, and choose the All Caps button from the Character Formatting Controls panel running along the top of the screen.

text frame

Step 5

Drag your mouse over the two text frames and the line between them, and go to Edit > Copy. Return to the Edit menu and select Paste

Move the pasted elements below the first article summary, in the same column, as shown. Edit the page number and text appropriately. 

pasted text frame

Drag your mouse over to select both the article summaries, and Copy and Paste. Move the pasted pair over to the right side of the page, moving them towards the top of the page, and fitting them within the column guides on the right-hand side. Edit the page numbers and text appropriately.

pasted text summaries
preview of page

Step 6

Expand the Swatches panel (Window > Color > Swatches) and from the panel’s drop-down menu select New Color Swatch.

swatches panel

Set the Color Type to Process and Mode to CMYK. Set the percentage sliders to the following values: C=15 M=98 Y=100 K=6. This creates a lovely red color swatch. Click Add, and then OK.

new color swatch

You can also lift an RGB color from one of your images, if you prefer, using the Eyedropper Tool (I), and convert it to a CMYK Swatch by opening up the New Color Swatch window from the Swatch panel’s drop-down menu. This will ensure your color swatch will match nicely with your choice of images on the layout.

Step 7

Drag your mouse over two pairs of article summaries (each including the page number, line, and article summary below), and go to Edit > Copy.

Edit > Paste the elements and move them over to the left-hand page, moving them into the bottom right corner, and fitting them perfectly within the column guides, as shown below.

Adjust the Font Color of the text and Stroke Color of the line to the new swatch color you created in the previous step.

red text

Now take a step back and admire your work...

finished layout

Your contents page is finished, and it’s looking great! A bold heading, striking images and generous white space create a clean, modern design that helps the reader to find relevant information quickly and easily.

Step 8

You can export the contents page artwork for print by going to File > Export, and choosing Adobe PDF (Print) from the Format drop-down menu. Click Save.

adobe PDF for print

In the Export Adobe PDF window that opens, choose Press Quality from the Adobe PDF Preset menu at the top of the window. 

press quality

From the Marks and Bleeds options window, accessible from the far-left menu, check All Printer’s Marks and Use Document Bleed Settings. Click Export to create your print-ready contents page!

marks and bleeds
exported file

You can also export your contents page for a digital or online format by choosing Adobe PDF (Interactive) from the Format drop-down menu when you come to export the file.


In this tutorial you’ve learned how to successfully create a two-page contents spread for the fictional Pro Cook magazine. 

final layout

Many of the skills and tips we’ve looked at here you can apply to creating your own unique contents page layouts. You now know:

  • How to set up a magazine layout at a standard size and incorporate margins, guides and a bleed
  • How to select suitable images for a contents page, and focus on allowing for generous white space in the design
  • How to create striking typography for your contents page using a variety of font styles, and apply color appropriately to keep your text looking legible and modern
  • How to export your completed layout as a print- or digital-ready file, ready to incorporate into a full magazine design

Great work! Feel free to share your contents page designs, and any tips and tricks you have for creating your own beautiful contents layouts in the Comments below.

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