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Working with Objects in InDesign

InDesign allows you to compile many different types of files and media into one singular document. With the variety of media types used in the program each piece of the design is created as an object in InDesign. At first this can be confusing for beginners, but once you understand how the objects work it makes manipulating items much easier.

Each object gives you the ability to manipulate the object itself, i.e. the bounding box containing the media, and also the media inside of the object. You might think of an object as a box in which to wrap a gift. You can change the appearance of the box with wrapping paper and bows, but you can also change the appearance of the gift inside the box if you wish to.

Creating Objects

Choosing Objects from toolbar

Choosing Objects from toolbar

An object can be any shape. The first step to creating an object is to decide what shape you want. For drawing standard shapes you will use the Frame tool. Initially it shows the Rectangular Frame tool, but if you right click on the icon you will get a pop-out with options for an rectangle, ellipse, or polygon.
If you choose one of these shapes you can then click and draw a shape. If you want to have a square or circle, hold down the shift key while drawing your shape. It will constrain the proportions to create a symmetrical shape.

Once you have drawn your object you then have the ability to manipulate it as you wish. You could leave it as a graphic shape, perhaps giving it a color. Or you could add text or a graphic image inside of the shape.

Three object shapes with three different types of content: color, text, and image

Three object shapes with three different types of content: color, text, and image

Solid Colors

To add colors to an object, you use the Swatches window. If it isn’t visible you can always go to WINDOW > COLOR > SWATCHES. The swatch window will be added to your tools on the right side of the screen. From here you can create new swatches or select existing ones.



To add text to an object you will need to use the type tool. In the toolbar on the left it is the icon with the capital T. Once you select the type tool you can then click on an object and it becomes an area for adding text.text tool


If you wish to add an image to an object you will need to place the image into the object. This is done by going to FILE > PLACE… (or using cmd + D). You will then see a window to browse your computer and choose an existing image from your hard drive. The object will show the image you choose as a linked file. It’s important to understand that the image will be linked to your document, not permanently relocated into the document. This is important if you decide to later delete or move files on your computer. If you delete or move the linked file InDesign will no longer show the image.

Manipulating content within objects

This is where beginners start to get confused with InDesign. You have mastered creating objects and adding different media types, but then you need to adjust the content within an object.


When you want to manipulate text in InDesign you must use the type tool. To get into the text box you can choose the type tool and then click inside a text object, or you can double click on the text box while the select or direct select tool is active. Double-clicking with the select tools will automatically change you to the type tool and allow you to edit the text as needed.


Working with images within objects is probably the most confusing thing you will do at first. I promise if you pay attention to a few things you will have it mastered in no time. When you hover over an image that has been placed into an object you will see a small double circle in the center of the image.

selected object in InDesign
This area allows you to move the image within the object. If you click on the double circle you will notice that the image outline changes to yellow letting you know that you are now working with the image itself, not the image object. If you move, rotate, or resize the image, the image object will stay the same size, shape, and orientation but the image within it will adjust. Conversely, if you want to move, rotate, or resize the image object you will need to click somewhere on the image, but not on the double circle. When you do this the image will have a blue outline.

To simplify, the color out the outline when you select lets you know if you’re working with the image object or the image within the object.

Blue outline = image object selected
Yellow outline = image selected

Scaling Images within an object

Often you will drawn an object on the page and place an image within it that is much larger than the object. When you place the image you will see a small section of the full-size image. Obviously you want the image to fit within the object you created. You can adjust this manually by clicking in the double circle area and then grabbing the bounding box and resizing. InDesign also has some automatic tools available. If you right click on the image there will be a menu item labeled “Fitting”. Inside are some options for automatically adjusting the image size.

  • Fit Frame Proportionally: will detect whether the image is more similar to the object shape (the frame) in width or height and adjust the image accordingly to fit.
  • Fit Content Proportionally: will detect the long edge of the image and shrink the image so that the entire image fits within the frame.
  • Fit Frame to Content: will adjust the size of the object (frame) to match the size of the image
  • Fit Content to Frame: will adjust the image to fit the exact size of the object, possibly stretching and distorting the image.
  • Center Content: centers the image within the object

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Design Theory: Alignment

When composing a design you will need to make decisions on where to position elements along the top, bottom, and sides of the page as well as whether you want to cluster elements into groups or isolate them. This spacial arrangement is part of design theory referred to as alignment and applies both to blocks of text and elements on the page.

Aligning Text

You are probably most familiar with aligning paragraphs of text with standard word processing programs giving you options to left, center, right align, or justify paragraphs. Like the other theories we have been discussing, there are no right or wrong ways to align text, but there are some general guidelines that may help you make decisions.

When setting paragraphs of information alignment is crucial to comprehension and also the speed in which the information can be read. The three examples below show the same two paragraphs of text set in three different alignments: left, center, and right aligned. One of the most important pieces to choosing alignment is how a culture reads. In American culture we read from left to right, but other cultures read from right to left. This makes a huge difference in how readable type is. Because we read from left to right our eyes become trained in tracking from the end of a line of text (on the right side) to the beginning of the next line (on the left side). Because of this, text that is center or right aligned is more difficult to read quickly because the eye has a more difficult time tracking from line to line without the solid left edge to use for a baseline.

Try it for yourself. Read the first paragraph as quickly as you can in each alignment and you will find that the first one allows you to read more quickly than the other two.

As a general rule, large paragraphs of text should be left aligned to be more readable. Again, this is a general rule, not an absolute, and there are certainly times when you need to choose other types of alignment. This also doesn’t apply to smaller pieces of text like headlines where tracking from line to line is not relevant.

Justification has its own issues with readability,particularly in the unpredictability of how the justification is applied. Like left-aligned text it still has the solid left baseline to help with readability, but there are other issues to consider. Take a look at the last line of the first paragraph. The justification creates very large spaces between words in order to fill up the line. The uneven spaces make it more difficult to read. This is a dramatic example, but if you analyze the other lines you will start to see that there is no consistency in spacing between words. Sometimes this is more or less noticeable depending on the width of your paragraphs. Over long periods of time (think 2+ pages of paragraph text like a book) the differences can result in eye strain and start to slow the pace of reading.

Text aligned justified

Text aligned justified

Alignment of Objects

The alignment of objects on a page is similar to working with text, but you also need to consider both a vertical and horizontal axis for arranging elements in relation to one another.

Vertical Axis

Objects can be arranged and aligned on a vertical axis. This is useful to create a flow down a page, from one object to another. The idea of flow is to allow your eye to progress smoothly from one element to another without noticing any visual breaks. Take a look at the three examples of vertical alignment here. When the image and text are all left aligned your eye naturally starts with the image and then moves down the left side of the paragraphs. There is a very easy break between the image and the text, which takes almost no effort to transition. In the second example the same objects are aligned on a vertical axis, or centered with one another. The image is shifted over a bit from the left side of the text, but the distance is still relatively small and doesn’t impede the flow from image to text. In the last example the objects are all aligned on their right edges. In this instance there is a very noticeable shift between looking at the image and then moving to read the paragraphs of text. Unless you intended to cause a shift in focus between two objects, you should use vertical alignment create a smooth transition and help guide the viewer through the information.

Horizontal Axis

In addition to the vertical alignment objects can also be aligned along horizontal axis. The three following examples show the elements aligned on three different horizontal axes at the top, center, and bottom of the page. The relationship of the objects to one another creates a central horizon on each version. Just like the vertical axes, the horizon helps guide your eye between the different objects.


Keeping alignment consistent throughout the document will help create a feeling of balance and continuity. Take a look at the two examples below. In the first example, the text has all been left aligned, but the objects have been right aligned. The ragged right edge of the text competes with the right vertical axis creating visual discord. In the second example, the text has been right aligned as well as the object, creating one visual axis that flows down the entire document. The overall effect is more harmonious because there is a single point of alignment for your eye to follow.

Consistency doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to always aligned your objects and text in the same way like the previous two examples. This example shows the same elements using two vertical axes. The text is aligned on a left vertical edge to match the paragraph alignment, but the other two objects, the image and citation, are aligned on a right vertical axis. This creates two distinctive areas on the page for the eye to visit. Instead of having one continuous line of sight down the page the object alignment breaks the content apart creating two distinctive areas of information.
Even though there are two points of alignment, the layout still has consistency because of the two groupings. If a third axis were introduced the consistency would be lost. Take a look at the huge difference a subtle alignment change can make. Here the image is aligned on a centered axis with the page. Now there are three distinctive content areas , but there doesn’t seem to be any logical grouping. Because of this your eye bounces around the page too much.

Related Articles on Design Theory


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Defining your audience and creating a profile

The first step to designing to to think about who will be receiving the the final product, or defining your audience. This should be narrowed to a specific demographic or stakeholder group. One of the biggest problems I’ve seen is an inability to define an audience. Here’s how this process can sometimes go:

“Hmm…I know that I want to send this event’s postcard to our donors, to other artists, to students, and also to friends of the artist, so that must be my audience.”

While it is true that you need to send to different types of people, it is impossible to effectively communicate to all of those various groups because they all have different needs and desires in the piece. Thought it may be difficult, You have to narrow the focus to one primary audience group and base the bulk of the decisions around the needs and desires of that group. Let’s say for example that you decide donors are the most important audience group. With them in mind you can ask yourself what would be most important? Is it more important to them that the imagery reflect the artwork that will be featured at the event or that it publicize your organization? You will likely have both types of information, but one will be more prominent and more important. Maybe you decide that the donors would be more interested in the prominence of the organization so you highlight that and narrow the focus on the artwork.

Because you defined the primary audience you have a logical path of reasoning to make decisions and also to defend them if questioned. You could just have easily decided that the friends of the artist were the most important audience group. In that instance you would guess they would be more important in seeing the work done by their friend with less emphasis on the organization. This design would be completely different with the focus on the artwork and much smaller emphasis given to the organization.

Writing an Audience Profile

When you begin working on an audience profile it is very helpful to first make a list of all of the different types of stakeholders and recipients that you will be sending to. Write down as many different audience groups as you can think of, whether they are small or large. Then you can take the completed list and begin to narrow your focus and choose which will be the primary audience group.

With the audience group defined you want to start to imagine some demographic information that will shape your decisions. Some of the demographic information would include:

  1. typical age range
  2. gender
  3. social class and/or income
  4. location

With this information you can begin to form a picture of someone who embodies the profile and extrapolate more information about what shapes their needs and desires. For example, based on age range you can make some assumptions about values. If the age range is 16-18 years old you might assume that they are heavily involved with social media and therefore surmise that they value transparency, openness, and autonomy. If your audience is upper-middle social class you might surmise that they are educated and place values in learning and a work ethic.


So what does this look like in practice? Below is an audience profile for a Savannah, GA based cafe chain providing gallery space for local artists. As you read the short profile you should begin to get an image of someone who fits this profile. This description and that image will be the driving factors throughout the rest of the design process.

Demographic Information

  1. Age: 18-50
  2. Gender: male & female
  3. Social Class: middle-upper
  4. Location: work or live in Savannah, GA

Audience Profile

Gallery Expresso’s target audience includes males and females ages 18–50. They are socially aware trendsetters, appreciating culture, local arts and entertainment. Their style is both modern and eclectic. They value transparency and simplicity over corporate policies. They work or live in the central Savannah area and demand an atmosphere where they can be creative, social and work from laptops or relax and enjoy entertainment with friends. They are well educated and technologically savvy, having a moderate expendable income for food and entertainment.

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Basics of Professional Printing

Professional printing can be intimidating to new designers. You may be unsure of what questions to ask, or what questions you’ll be asked. Once you master the basic lingo and find local printers that you can build a relationship with the process becomes very easy. Here is some basic information that will aid you in getting started.

Print Terminology & Project Estimates

When you are working with a printer there is a common vocabulary that will make the process of working with vendors much smoother. There are specific pieces of information about the finish product that the printer will need to know up front in order to give you an accurate price quote. Below are the most common information that will be needed:

  1. Date the job is needed – The printer will need to know at the beginning of a project when the final product will be needed so they can begin to work your project into their schedules. This also lets them know if the project is one they can complete. If the date you need the product is too short for their product timeline they may not be able to do the work for you.
  2. How the artwork will be delivered – You will need to be confident in your ability to deliver artwork so the printer can plan ahead for potential issues and changes. Some designers prefer to deliver their original InDesign files and links so that the printer can make changes at the last minute if needed. Others deliver completed PDF files. Delivering PDF files is usually preferable because there is less room for error and the file will come completed. It also cuts down on the time the printer has to spend preparing your file for the presses.
  3. Quantity – This is straight forward, how many of the final product do you want. If you don’t have an exact number it is good to have a few different quantities quoted so you have an idea of how much per unit you would have to pay if you ordered more. If you think you need around 2,000 copies you might also have them quote 2,500 and 3,000. The total cost will likely not increase much and it may be beneficial to have extra copies.
  4. Color – When discussing colors you will need to know if you are printing in full color or using only a few spot colors. Printers refer to full color as 4/4 meaning you are using all four colors (CMYK). If you are only printing in black and white you would be printing in 1/4. If you were using two colors it would be 2/4.
  5. Bleed – Bleeds are used to achieve an edge-to-edge effect in your design. Printers can’t print completely to the edge of a piece of paper, so to achieve this effect you must set up your document with a bleed and design so that the graphics extend past the final size. After printing the piece will be trimmed down to the exact size. Typically bleeds should be .125 inches on all sides. Your printer will need to know up front if you plan on having a bleed because it will add another step in the process for them increasing the production time and cost.
  6. Finish Size – The finish size is the actual size you want after the bleed has been trimmed and any folding and binding has taken place.
  7. Paper – The thickness of paper is called weight and is defined in terms of the number of pounds 500 sheets of that paper would weigh. Typical copy paper is 20lb and typical cover stock (think business card thickness) is 80lb cover stock. If you’re unsure on the feel you want, always ask the printer to see some samples so you can hold the paper and feel the thickness.
  8. Type of proof needed – There are two ways of proofing your document before the final printing is done: digitally and with a hard copy. Digital proofs are PDF files that the printer would email to you to review for final typos and minor mistakes. Because you would be viewing these on a computer screen there is a chance that the color may not be exactly as it will be printed. If color precision is a must you will need a hard copy press proof. Most printers charge extra for these because there is time and materials necessary to create one and then send or deliver it to you.
  9. Finishing – If you are designing a booklet that needs to have multiple pages bound together there are different options for the type of binding and its final appearance. It is helpful to find an example of the type of binding that you like and show it to the printer to make sure they can achieve the same look. Other pieces may have special finishings or need special trimming.

If you are working on a project and are unsure about any of the elements of the final output you should always ask the printer to see samples and ask for their recommendations. It is also helpful if you have examples of a final product that you like. Most printers are very experienced and can easily look at a piece and tell you the type and weight of the paper and the binding used.

Working with Printers

Because of their expertise and experience, print vendors can be a huge asset in the design process. It is really helpful to form good working relationships with vendors. Once you develop a rapport they learn the types of looks that you like and can make suggestions to help you stay within budget and produce the best quality pieces possible.

Standard Print Timeline

One of the most important parts of setting an accurate timeline for printing and production is to make sure you are submitting accurate information for your initial quote. Based on the information you provide in the initial quote the printer will give you a timeline of how long they will need to complete the work and when you will need to deliver the final files to them so that your deadline is met.

If you are having a specialty process done extra time would be needed, but for a typical job you should always plan for at least two weeks of printing time. You may be able to get the work done quicker if it is less complicated or if the printer happens to have an opening in their schedule, but it is best to always plan for the worst case scenario.

Online vs Local Printers

We’ve talked a lot about how to quote projects and work with prints, but we have skipped over one important element: finding a printer. There are two main types of printers, online and local.

Online Printers

In the past few years online printing has exploded and there are many printers that you can order from online and have the final products shipped to you. Often these printers will specialize in one or two different types of products and this allows them to offer cheaper prices to you. They will also have predefined types of projects, so you woul dhave to work within their size and color options. Most reputable online printers offer samples that you can have shipped to you prior to ordering so you can see the print quality and feel the paper quality.

One very popular online service is Modern Postcard. They have expanded their services to cover a wide array of project types. Some of the newer services may not be priced as competitively as you could find elsewhere, but when it comes to postcards it is really difficult to beat their pricing. They are particularly well suited for smaller quantities under 1,000.

Another all-purpose online printer is UPrinting. They offer a wide array of products with competitive pricing and quick turn around. They even offer a selection of design templates if you need help getting started in setting up your designs. These templates give you the framework with appropriate bleeds, margins and sizing so that your final product will match their specifications exactly.

These two are good options for online printing, but are by no means the only two options. It is good to do some research with a specific project in mind so you can find the best company for that job.

Local Printers

Finding a local printer is necessary for custom jobs. As I mentioned, online printers have set sizes and color options for different types of jobs and don’t allow you the flexibility to customize every aspect. Local printers can help you create anything you want. Their location is important because you will often need to show them an example of something you want and they will be able to deliver proofs and completed projects directly to you much quicker than they could be shipped.

If you are new to an area or new to working with printers a Google search can be a good starting point. Try searching “Printers city, state” and you will be surprised how many will appear. I did a quick search for printers in Lexington, KY and found 1,300 results. Some of these are duplicates, but it still shows there are hundreds of printers in the area. You might start with some initial research by calling a few on the list and asking them what they specialize in. Most printers can do anything ,but typically are suited for specific types of work. In this case, specialization = cost savings. It means they’ve become very efficient

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Common Glyphs

Here are several commonglyphs, or typographic symbols, that every designer should be aware of. Incorrect usage is an indication of beginner design, and alternatively, correct usage adds a professional polish to any design.

Small Caps

Small caps are the uppercase characters at the size of a font’s x-height (the literal height of the lowercase letter x). An important distinction, however, small caps are not simply smaller versions of the same capital letterforms. True small caps are crafted differently to be readable at smaller sizes and to flow within the text. I Love Typography has a great visual representation of the difference between the caps and small caps letterforms.

To use small caps in InDesign, open the Character window under WINDOWS > CHARACTER. Then click on the small menu icon in the upper right corner of the panel and choose small caps.

Usage & Example: for acronyms like lol and abbreviations such as am or pm.

Hyphen & Dashes

Hyphens and dashes are possibly the most misused glyphs. There are three different types of hyphens and dashes, each with their own specific use: the hyphen (-), en dash (–), and em dash (—).

To choose hyphens & dashes in InDesign go to TYPE > GLYPHS


Hyphens are short dashes used to link hyphenated words and connect word breaks at the end of lines. A good way to remember their use is to remember that they connect, like joining numerals in a phone number or a word across two lines.

Usage: Connector

Example: Typographic rules can be a real eye-opener.

Em Dash

The em dash is based upon a unit of measurement, the length in points of a font. So, for a 12pt font the em would be 12pts long. An em is used to indicate a break in thought and can be used in place of parentheses.

Usage: break in thought

Example: You are the dash—the best dash—to create drama.

En Dash

The en dash half the length of an em dash and is used to indicate a range of values. Again, the en dash is based upon a unit of measurement, half of an em. So, for a 12 pt font the en would be 6pts long.

Usage: range of values

Example: March 3–7, 2012


To choose hyphens & dashes in InDesign go to InDesign go to TYPE > GLYPHS

Smart Quotes

Smart quotes are curved in the shape of the numbers 6 and 9 to wrap around text. Most word processing programs automatically convert to smart quotes, but you should pay attention in case the program does not convert these for you. The same applies with apostrophes. These should also used smart quotes, that angel the apostrophe instead of using a straight glyph.

Usage: quote passages of text

Example: “This really makes me feel smart, don’t you think”.

Dumb Quotes

Dumb quotes, or straight quotes were originally used on typewriters and exist today as indications of measurement.

Usage: indicate measurement

Example: 2′ 36″

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Setting up Color on the Internet

In the last post I discussed setting up color for printing. This week I’d like to switch gears and instead look at using color for digital applications, including the internet, is much simplified from working for print. Digital screens can only interpret color in the three color breakdown RGB, red, green, and blue. It’s likely this will change in the future (TV maker Sharp introduce a four color TV in 2010, but the technology hasn’t gained much popularity), but for now the one color mode option simplifies things. When working with images in Photoshop, it is very easy now to set your color mode to RGB by going to the menu and choosing IMAGE > MODE > and then RGB Color.

Setting color mode in Photoshop

Setting color mode in Photoshop

Web Safe Colors

I’ll also mention that designers used to refer to “web safe” colors. When the web was in its infancy and computer monitors were also quite new, the number of actual colors that could be display consistently and accurately was really limited. At one point the number of colors available was 256 and designers had to work within that range. Computer displays have advanced greatly since those early days and “web safe” colors don’t apply any more. Today’s monitors can display millions of colors. I still hear the term thrown around some, mostly be people who don’t really understand what the term referenced. If you happen to be told by your boss to be careful in choose web safe colors you might kindly and respectfully let them know that those old limitations no longer apply.

Hexadecimal Color Codes

The one part of working with digital color that can be confusing or tricky at first is the use of hexadecimal, or HEX, color codes. These are another legacy of early internet, but are still widely used in web design because web browsers haven’t all advanced enough to switch to RGB color codes. Some newer browsers are doing so, but not enough to change the standard just yet. In later units you will be building an email campaign and portfolio website and will need to use HEX codes when choosing colors to set up the design of each.

HEX colors are six-digit codes that represent each color. The code is actually a translation of RGB values from 9 digits to 6 digits. The codes are a combination of letters and colors. Using Photoshop it is very easy to find a HEX code. You can use the Eyedropper tool to sample a color.


Then if you double click on the sampled color the color sample box will come up showing you all of the different values for that image. Below the RGB values there is a box labeled #. This number is the hexadecimal color code. You can easily copy the value here to use in your website or email campaign.

Color Picker Foreground Color

Color Picker Foreground Color

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Setting up Color for Printing

If you plan to have something professionally printed (and you really should if the quantities are more than 100) then understanding how to set up and work with color in your digital files is so very important. Let me illustrate this with a story from my first year of designing:

I had designed a fabulous brochure for the company I was interning for. It was my first design that was going to be printed and used and I was so excited to send my InDesign files to the printer. I attached all of my files to an email, hit send and went home for the evening. The next morning I get a response from the printer that the color is set up wrong and needs to be CMYK. That was all the feedback I got. I had never worked with a printer before and had no idea what he was talking about. After doing some internet research I thought I had figured out the problem. I converted the image mode of all of my images, reattached the files and sent it back to the printer. Feeling like I had learned a valuable lesson, I packed up for the day. The next morning I came back to another email from the printer. I had fixed the images, but the text was wrong. Again, not knowing what he meant I did some internet research and learned that text has to be set to 100% K (or solid black). It took me the better part of the day to go through every piece of my document and make the adjustments. The file was finally ready, but my mistakes had pushed the timeline 2 full days behind and the brochures would arrive 2 days later than they were scheduled to.

Two lessons I learned from this experience: First, the printer could have been a bit more helpful in giving me direction. Had he been more specific the first time and told me that the images and the text were an issue I could have saved a full day of work and received the brochures only 1 day late. Secondly, if I had understood how to work with color before I started the design I would have saved myself two whole days of unnecessary work.

Overview of Offset Printing

One of the best experiences I had early on was designing for a print shop. Unlike the printer I worked with during my previous experience, the owner of this print shop spent a day with me showing me how the presses worked and explaining what I needed to know up front so that my design files would come out the way I intended to. We will go into more detail about printing options a future post, but for now I want to focus more on how to specifically set up color in InDesign.
Offset printing is the primary method of professional printing. It allows for many copies to be made very quickly. This type of printing is also called four color process because full color artwork is broken down into four different colors and those color separations are each applied to one of four plates. The printing presses overlay those plates to form one, complete color image.


The four colors used in printing are cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. The acronym used for this type of printing is CMYK. The K stands for key. The black plate is used to key the others, or set the alignment by. When you create a new document in InDesign the color mode is set to CMYK, but it is also easy for you to override those settings while working with the color palette. It is important to pay attention when choosing and setting colors so that you are mindful to only use CMYK colors.

When you use the color palette in InDesign it will be clear what type of color you are using. If there are three boxes for value, it is RGB. If there are 4 boxes for values it is CMYK. In the two images below the same color is shown, but on the left RGB color is used and on the right CMYK color is used.

If you are choosing a color and notice that it is in RGB it is very easy to change to CMYK. In the upper right corner of the color palette there is a down arrow with a menu icon. If you click on that icon you will get options to switch between CMYK, RGB, and Lab color modes.

Changing color options to CMYK

Changing color options to CMYK

Spot Color

Sometimes you may have a limited budget and only be able to print in one or two colors. If you decided that you were only going to use black and red for your document you might naturally just set it up with CMYK colors of black and red. It would definitely appear as if it were set up in two colors, but when the printer outputs that file it is still going to render on four different plates. This is where spot color comes in.

You may have heard the acronym PMS. PMS stands for the Pantone Matching System and is the industry standard for spot colors. What makes PMS colors different is that each color you choose from a book of colors or through InDesign is an actual ink mixed to that color. If you wanted to print in red, traditional offset printing would mix together different tints of cyan, magenta, yellow and black to form the red you wanted. The presses would use four different printing plates to combine and form the color red. If you wanted to do a red PMS spot color there would be no mixture and the press would use only one plate to apply the red ink.

Spot colors are really necessary when working in one or two color, but can also be helpful when printing for a brand that has a specific color in its logo. One of my former employers had a logo with a very odd shade of purple. It was somewhere between a blue and a purple and no matter how we set it up in CMYK it always came back a slightly different shade. When we had a really big or important print job we would always use a spot color so that the purple was exactly as it was intended to be.

If you want to use a spot color it is as easy as switching between RGB and CMYK. Because PMS colors are not a mixtures of shades you can’t work with them in the color palette. You must use the swatches palette to choose and switch between PMS colors. If you double-click on an existing swatch, or use the icon second from the bottom right to create a new swatch, you will get an options panel. The important element here is the Color Type selector. Initially the swatch is set to process color and you see the familiar CMYK breakdown.

CMYK Swatch

CMYK Swatch

If you click on the Color Type drop-down box you can change to spot color. This still doesn’t adjust the CMYK value. You also need to change the color mode to one of the PMS libraries. There are several different library options, but the biggest deciding factor is whether you plan to print your pieces with a matte or glossy finish. Typically if you plan on a glossy finish you want to use a coated color. The coating will give it the right sheen. Conversely, if you plan on a matte finish then you want to use an uncoated color that doesn’t have a sheen.

PMS Libraries

PMS Libraries

After you choose a library the available colors within that library will show up. You can scroll through and find the right color for your project. Once you find the right color, hit the OK button and your new spot color swatch will be read for you to use.

PMS Swatches

PMS Swatches


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