InDesign Defaults

When Matthew Butterick mentioned this series as a good online source for reading about typography, he also mentioned its general bias towards InDesign in the examples I give. That’s true. And while I deal with and have dealt with plenty of other tools, software and otherwise, for editing, writing, drawing, setting and composing what will ultimately become design that’s typographic in nature, InDesign, particularly the few-generations-old InDesign, is the one I regularly turn to when working with digital type.

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 10.13.05 PM

I have to a limited extent touched on the most popular typographic medium, hypertext, and its conveyance, your browser, but it’s still unnecessarily complicated to talk about a simple concept in a simple way, say, kerning, or small caps, when web standards aren’t there yet, and there’s no good way of ensuring that the results I’m getting are the ones you’ll get. Other stuff like columnar layout and text flow, H&J, baseline grids, and the ability to detect the size of final output, are altogether missing from browsers or in their infancy. All that, and the fact that a fixed medium  lends itself well to making a single set of arbitrary and finite adjustments here and there is one of the things that has always drawn me to print work, and for this specific purpose (demonstrating the principles of typography), caused me to remain with a tool made for print production. (That said, I do plan to focus more on typography in the new medium as part of Using Type, but I’ve had a good long run so far sticking to the basics in the old.)

Internal note

As a kind of wrap to what I’ve written in the series thus far I thought, ‘This writing isn’t really giving much of a glimpse into the typographer’s brain; more like the brain stem.’ These principles I’ve covered aren’t what typographers talk about, just as musicians rarely discuss fingerings, or emergency room doctors their stitching technique. These become built-in, and felt, and what happens beyond that point in the creative process becomes much harder to describe. That’s where I want to go though. At least get to something concrete that articulates a principle better than, ‘You’ve just got to feel it.’ There’s wisdom in following one’s instincts, but if the reader doesn’t see the reasoning that leads to the platform from which the typographer instinctively leaps—to the next decision, little good it does. Those benefited are almost exclusively the readers who already understand the concept, those who also ‘just feel it.’

Anyway, forget all this. I’ll get to it and either strike gold or retreat. Today, and over the next couple of weeks, I want to talk more about what happens inside that typographer’s brain stem. And this is shop talk, the painter reviewing his list of brushes and ladders, the photographer his lenses. Kind of as a last final rundown, I want to go specifically over the conscious decisions made working with InDesign before the first project file opens.

General note on setting defaults

When in InDesign, or any of the major CS or CC Adobe apps, the way to set a program-wide default is by setting something while no documents are open. To make document-wide defaults, (and I’m actually not sure this works everywhere) you specify something while nothing in the document is selected. There are other defaults, such as New Document and Print menu defaults, which are set within those menus using a Save Preset dialog.

The defaults

With no documents open, consider what to keep from what’s already chosen for you by default. In the Character palette, set the font family and size if you have one in mind. Here I set mine to Jordi Embodas’s Pona 9 pt and leave the leading set to auto. That’s what the parentheses mean.

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 8.58.25 PM

Now, this next part is important. Set the kerning value to Metrics. This, not optical, should be your default. See above.

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 9.21.00 PM

Also, through the top rightmost button on the Character palette, which looks like a tiny down arrow next to three horizontal lines, enable Ligatures and Contextual alternates. This last one allows for example complex connected scripts to work as intended.

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 9.10.04 PM

On to Paragraph. Select the Align to baseline grid option at the lower right. I also recommend hyphenation being on by default. Change if you disagree, or if the language you primarily work in doesn’t have a very good hyphenation dictionary or whatever.

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 9.36.11 PM

The place you set up the baseline grid is under (on the Mac) InDesign > Preferences > Grids, or the same under the Edit menu in Windows. Here I set my increment to 6 pt, and Start at the top, 0 in.

And of course I use points and inches because I’m an American, but if you’d prefer millimeters and centimeters, the same can be set one dialog up from Grids in Units and Increments.

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 9.47.47 PM

Unless you work primarily with Pro fonts, the following is ill-advised: Go to Advanced Type and set the Small Cap height to 25%. And while you’re at it, you may consider altering the superscript and subscript values. What will this do? Instead of InDesign surreptitiously inserting fake small caps, this setting will make all fake small caps terribly noticeable. You can then go and replace them with properly drawn and proportioned real small caps. The same goes with these settings for super- and subscripts.

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 10.07.44 PM

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 9.59.37 PM Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 10.02.38 PM

Lastly, hyphenation and justification. Follow these settings, referring to my post on the subject to know when to deviate, for example, when exporting a PDF to be read primarily on-screen you should never scale glyphs. These are set from the top rightmost corner of the Paragraph palette. After looking at it, I think I’ll have to revisit my decisions on the hyphenation of certain words or words that lie in precarious places.

That’s it for now. What am I leaving out? Next week we’ll continue on the subject of defaults. Thanks again goes to Jordi Embodas’s Pona (my new default!) for setting the title.


  1. Posted May 9, 2014 at 3:48 AM | Permalink

    There have been extensive discussions on about this. One of the conclusions was that Justification:Glyph Scaling is a strict NO-NO and should never be used.

    The values in this post for Justification:Word Spacing result in wide spaces for quite a few typefaces. One should evaluate these for each font, taking in consideration whether type will be justified or not, aiming for spaces that are as wide as the inner space of a lowercase n (for sans serifs), or the width of a lowercase i (for serifs).

    Also one should set Auto Scaling to 100%, because 120% of most type sizes leads to irregular values that are just too difficult to work with. Leading should preferably be based on the baseline grid.

  2. Posted May 9, 2014 at 4:49 AM | Permalink

    Thanks Bert. Glyph scaling has always been a strict no-no. But I think it has its uses when applied modestly, particularly in improving the body’s color in the unlikely event that I decide to justify a column of text. And I agree that one should reevaluate these settings with each typeface used—I just think this particular set of defaults gets the typographer closer to where she or he will ultimately end up.

  3. Posted May 9, 2014 at 7:28 AM | Permalink

    The answer to pretty much all the mentioned topics, including glyph scaling, is: it depends. Like David said, the important thing is that you have to question and reconsider the defaults every time, all the time, irrespective of whether it’s InDesign’s standard defaults or your own adjusted defaults.

    Glyph scaling as subtle as one or two per cent can be very much visible (and hence ugly and unwanted) with geometric typeface designs at not-too-small sizes. But for more organic designs, it is a powerful tool that can help tremendously in avoiding other unwanted effects – like rivers, for example. It shouldn’t be discarded for dogmatic reasons.

  4. Posted May 9, 2014 at 12:52 PM | Permalink

    Hi David — Good topic.

    Why do you leave the leading as Auto (10.8) if you’re locking it to a baseline of 6pt increments? With a new document your initial text will lock to 12 but the Paragraph palette will not reflect that adjustment. (Ideally, InDesign would be a bit more forthcoming.)

    In general, I believe it’s safer to leave off locking and stay away form Baseline grid options until you have other parameters defined, such as margins and columns, so that one is deliberately locking calculated, not default, text. Personally, I set my default type to something larger and unlocked so that it’s imperfect, similar to your small caps trick.

  5. Posted May 9, 2014 at 1:45 PM | Permalink

    I’m so glad you asked, André! And the difference between the way of working you describe and the one I give, help, I think, in seeing what considerations typographers take into account at a higher level. If something isn’t quite right, is it better that it appear a little wrong, or totally wrong? I prefer totally wrong, and you do too, though we get at the solution that works from different directions. I like to adjust a system’s parameters as the composition solidifies. And you like to devise the system more naturally before committing to it. The difference is probably subtler than that even, since I run tests on the body text without adhering to a baseline grid, trying different sizes and line-heights, and we both probably adjust the baseline grid a hair even after we’ve come up with what it’s going to be.
    Your question though—’why not set the leading value up front?’ The main reason is because I’m often resizing the type by 2 and 10pt increments using the keyboard, so it’s just easier for me to change one value (size) instead of two (size & leading). For example, in the exploratory phase, If I specify 12 pt leading, and then change a multi-line subhead to 40 pt (over 12 pt leading), I’ve got a mess. It’s better I think to put in a value that gets you closer to your end result, just in terms of less mess to deal with. But also, I completely see your point about prematurely getting too comfortable with an imposed grid structure.
    I should add that once the grid increment is set, and paragraph styles are set up, I specify leading values in the base styles, since you never know what might happen, e.g. baseline grids lose all power to ensure proper spacing in rotated text frames.

  6. Posted May 13, 2014 at 12:28 PM | Permalink

    >> e.g. baseline grids lose all power to ensure proper spacing in rotated text frames. <<

    I think you have overlooked the Text Frame Options : Baseline Grid (settings). When applied to a text frame the grid holds in every position. (Menu : Object : Text Frame Options or Command-B. You have to make the frame a text frame first).

  7. Posted May 13, 2014 at 12:51 PM | Permalink

    Thank you Bert; I had overlooked that option. I wish that there were some way of tying the increment of each text frame with a ‘Custom Baseline Grid” to the document’s baseline grid value. Still, very handy & good information.

  8. Posted May 13, 2014 at 2:19 PM | Permalink

    @David: There are ways to do that — a bit complicated to explain, but it involves cutting a Text Frame and pasting it as an inline element after an invisible character (possibly with negative tracking) that adheres to the general baseline grid.

  9. Posted May 13, 2014 at 2:46 PM | Permalink

    I am totally going to try this! Thank you!

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