InDesign: The Step by Step Beginner’s Guide

Tom Wicks | August 3, 2020

Time to read: 8 mins

InDesign Lesson 1: The Basics

Oh hello! I didn’t see you there. Would you like a drink? How about a hot steaming cup of learning, straight to the face? 

Learning InDesign can be a bit tricky without help. Don’t worry though. In this series of InDesign lessons, I’ll get you up to speed. You’ll soon be making documents so sexy you will make your colleagues weep with joy. A chorus of angels will accompany your every move, as god rays alight on your heavenly visage. It’s time to become the office rockstar you were always meant to be.

Learning InDesign: Step by Step Guide

Why should I bother with InDesign?

What’s the point?! I hear some of you cry. Can’t I just open Microsoft Word? 

Yes, of course, you can, you cheeky scamp. However, the problem is that Word can only create very simple designs. Anything more complicated than a single column of text and a couple of images and Word will throw its toys out of the pram and have a strop. 

InDesign, on the other hand, walks on the wild side. It laughs in the face of danger.

Lion King: I Laugh in the Face of Danger

InDesign can make any print design you can possibly imagine come to life. Nearly any magazine, poster or book you’ve ever seen is likely to have been laid out in InDesign.

With great power comes great responsibility

InDesign’s level of power inevitably comes with added complexity. That’s where this series comes in. It’s my job to give you a sound understanding of the fundamentals of InDesign, as well as impart a bit of wisdom about design in general.

What we’ll be making with InDesign

Let’s start with a goal in mind shall we? That way we can learn everything we need to as we go, and when you’re finished you will be able to send the document to your colleagues and gloat with wild abandon.

How to make an InDesign Brochure

So we’ll be making a little 4 page A5 brochure (so essentially a folded piece of A4) for a fictional furniture company called Showcase. The assets I’m using are largely available for free. The images are from Pexels and the fonts are from Google Fonts. I did get the S logo from Shutterstock, but for learning projects like this you could always download vector assets from Freepik

If you want to follow along with me then please download the full set of resources here. If you need any help installing the fonts, check out this guide here.

Keeping things organised

One important thing to remember with InDesign is that unlike office programs like Word, images are not embedded as part of the document, but instead are linked. What this means is that the document looks for the images on your computer and pulls them in.

This not only keeps document sizes down, but also has a host of other advantages (for instance, being able to update illustrations and photographs separately and have them automatically update in the main document). 

So basically what this means is that you need to get your folder structure set up right. 

Organisation is a boring but important part of good document design.

It's Boring But Its a Part of My Life

At Ellis James we tend to keep things as simple as we can whilst still retaining a solid, repeatable structure:

File Organisation: Structure

The main document sits at the top level of the folder. This is version numbered so if any major changes are made to it, a new version can be saved (02) and the v01 document can go into the Archive folder. This means that at the top level of the folder there will only be the latest working document. This is great for team members looking for the files, as they know for sure that the document there is the latest version.

The Resources folder contains all of your resources for the document. This includes linked images, reference files, vector files, etc. 

The Exports folder contains all of your exports from the InDesign document, so normally for print this would be PDFs, but could also be images and other assets from the document as well.

Create your folder structure

So at this point I want you to create the same folder structure as shown above, then unzip the resources folder you’ve downloaded and put everything from that folder into the new resources folder you’ve just created.

Now that we’re organised, it’s time to actually open up InDesign.

Setting up the document 

When you first open InDesign you’ll be greeted with a screen that looks very similar to the below. 

Setting up an InDesign File

So the first thing to do is click on that nice big button that says

 ‘Create New’.

Once you’ve done that you’ll be greeted with this dialogue box:

Setting up an InDesign File

When you’re here go over to the print tab then choose A5 (you might have to click ‘View all presets +’ to show the A5 option). 

Make sure the facing pages option is ticked. We want 4 pages, each with 4 columns and a column gutter of 6mm.

For the margins we want 21mm top, 7mm bottom, 14mm inside and 21mm outside.

We also want to add 3mm of bleed.

Once that’s all set up, click ‘Create’.

A quick note on ‘bleed’

When I first started using InDesign I had no idea what ‘bleed’ was. It sounded dangerous and a bit stabby, but how exactly did it relate to setting up a print document?

So in the interest of saving you some confusion here is a very quick explanation of what bleed is:

At professional printers instead of running A4 sheets through the printing press they run larger sheets through and then cut them down to size. This allows the print to have colour running right up to the edge. This cut isn’t always exactly where they want it to be every single time, so when we design documents we give 3mm extra ‘bleed’ around the edges of the document, so that even if the cut is slightly off the colour still runs to the edge.

What is Bleed?

So basically when you’re designing, any blocks of colour that run to the edge of the document also need to run out to the bleed lines that sit outside of the document. I’ll show you how that works in practice later in the series.

Setting up the InDesign workspace

Once you’ve clicked create you should see something similar to the screen shot below.

Setting up an InDesign Workspace

(If your app is light coloured instead of dark you can go to Preferences > Interface and under appearance choose the colour theme you like the best.)

Now we need to get the workspace set up properly so that you can follow along with me. By ‘workspace’ I mean the organisation of the various tools and panels within the app that allow you to create and adjust the design.

Go to the top right next to the search bar. Here there is a dropdown of preset workspaces that come shipped with InDesign. I want you to choose ‘essential’. This is good for learning as it has a context-sensitive panel which shows most of the tools you might need when certain items are selected.

After you’ve chosen the essential workspace, go to the Window dropdown. Add ‘Control’ then go back to the dropdown and also add ‘Layers’.

The control bar sits across the top of the document and shows a list of common controls. Some of those will be duplicated between this panel and the context sensitive properties toolbar on the right, but I think it’s a good idea to have both going at the same time.

Once you’ve clicked on layers in the dropdown it might come up as a floating panel instead of the little docked icon I have on my screenshot. To change this just grab the top of the panel and drag it to the right of the screen until you see a long blue bar appear in between the main window and the other panels. If you let go now the panel will ‘dock’ itself. You can then collapse it using the two little rightward facing arrows at the top right of the panel. Now it is within easy reach, and you can just click on the icon to make the panel appear and disappear.

Setting up an InDesign Workspace

Now that we’ve got the document all set up and we can see it I think we’ve definitely made the bottom margin too small. So in order to change that we need to go to Layout > Margins and Columns.

Setting up an InDesign Document

Once you’re on that panel you can increase the bottom margin from 7mm up to 14mm.

Next in the InDesign Series

Now that you’ve got your document all set up and ready to go we can move on to the good stuff and start actually designing our document. Unfortunately for you though you’ll have to wait until the next part in the series. 

In the meantime though you can check out some of our print design on our work page, and if you want any professional design support on ongoing jobs please do get in touch.