InDesign’s Dysfunctional Defaults

Edit 2/17/2018: This article was written 7 years ago, and it has been 5 years since I last updated it. While it still has some useful information, I’ve written an update for CC 2018 that includes many new settings not covered here. The new list is also less verbose, making it easier to just fix the settings. 

I love Adobe InDesign. The application functions beautifully. The title of this post merely reflects the fact that InDesign presents new users with some surprising default settings that need to be changed in order for the application to behave the way new users would expect.

I work with many first-time InDesign users. Often they’ve gotten as far as making a new document, seen the page size listed as “Width: 51p0, Height: 66p0” and were ready to throw in the towel. In fact, in the 8 years I’ve been teaching InDesign I think I’ve met probably 6 people who actually prefer picas over inches; many of my students haven’t even heard of picas. So why are they the default unit of measurement?

And it doesn’t stop there. Perhaps it’s because InDesign is written by software developers, not designers and publishers. Regardless, I teach my students to watch out for certain default settings that most people don’t really want as defaults. Now I’m happy to present the most important ones in one nice tidy list, broken into three parts: preferences, typography, and other defaults.

But first, a note on changing preferences and defaults. InDesign’s preferences can be accessed on a Mac in the Application menu; in Windows they are located in the Edit menu. If you change your preferences or other defaults when you have a document open it will change the settings only for that document. If you change settings when all documents are closed it will change the defaults so that every time you make a new document those settings will be in effect.

Be sure to close all documents before changing the below settings so that they will become the new defaults for all new documents you create.

Application Preferences

Units & Increments. Since most people in the United States specify document sizes in inches, it makes sense to make this your default unit of measurement. You can easily change the units to points, picas, or whatever else you want once you’re in a document by right-clicking your rulers. For example, I often switch to points when working with type, as this will allow me to more easily control baseline grinds, spacing between paragraphs, etc.

Spelling. Don’t you love how MS Word (and most other apps on a Mac) will underline misspelled words in red? Wouldn’t it be nice if InDesign did that too? Well, it does! But it’s off by default. Just “Enable Dynamic Spelling.” While you’re there, you’ll notice that InDesign also has an autocorrect feature, if you want to use it. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for a grammar check feature someday.

Some of you might be thinking, “but what if you’re doing other languages?” For documents entirely in other languages, change the preference to your desired language. For multi-lingual documents, just make a paragraph style for the non-English text and set the language for that style to whatever other language your using.

The only time I can think of when you don’t want dynamic spelling turned on is if you’re working with lots of placeholder text; your computer will slow down to underline all those misspelled words.

Display Performance. Out of the box, the Default View is set to “Typical.”  New InDesign users are often dismayed to see that their high-resolution photos appear horribly pixelated in InDesign. Well, they’ll print fine, but on screen they look terrible, and it’s because of this setting. I recommend changing the Default View to “High Quality.” I also adjust the “High Quality” setting, and set the “Greek Type Below” to “0,” so that those annoying gray bars never show up in place of my text.

The only time you need to use typical is when you’re working on a graphics intensive project that is causing your computer to slow down; then you can just go to the View menu and change your display settings there to “Typical.”

Appearance of Black. Experienced print designers understand that 100% black ink isn’t the darkest black you can get. InDesign will let you see the difference between 100K black and Rich Blacks onscreen, if you let it. If you work often with rich blacks, you definitely want to change this setting to “Display All Blacks Accurately.”

Typography Settings

[Basic Paragraph]. InDesign uses this paragraph style by default. If you make changes to your default font or other settings without changing this style to match, the changes are treated as overrides to the basic style. I recommend making the changes listed below to default fonts, justification, and hyphenation, as well as any other changes you desire, by editing this style.

Default Font. In older versions this was a real problem, as the default was different depending on whether you used Mac or Windows; InDesign defaulted to the system version of Times. In CS5 the default font was changed to Minion Pro, which is an Opentype font that ships with InDesign.

Justification Options. These can be accessed in the Paragraph Style dialog box or in the Paragraph panel menu options. You’ll notice that the default has the “Letter Spacing” minimum, desired, and maximum all set to “o.” In other words, InDesign isn’t going to let any of your characters spread out when justifying type, it will only put space between the words. This is ugly. What settings you use will depend on your font and whether you use its kerning metrics or optical kerning, but most fonts will work with a minimum of “-2,” desired of “0,” and maximum of “5.” Note that these are ballpark figures; you probably don’t wan’t to ever exceed “10.”

Hyphenation Settings. Find them in the same place as the Justification settings. I can’t think of many 5-letter words that I want to hyphenate, but that’s the default. I usually use 8, with 3 letters as the smallest syllables allowed, and a maximum of one consecutive hyphen. The other settings you can adjust until your type looks good.

Type: Show Hidden Characters. Turn them on and leave them on permanently. They can be hidden at any time by going to preview mode (in your tools panel; default shortcut key is ‘w’).

View: Extras: Show Text Threads. I love this feature! Flowing your text and working with anchored objects is a breeze when you see lines connecting all your content in order. They only show up when you select a frame in a thread.

Other Defunct Defaults

Window: Workspace. Your workspace is the arrangement of panels and menu options that appear on your screen. For CS5, the default is the “Essentials” workspace. This workspace is not very well named, though, for it is lacking the essentials! It should at least have paragraph and character styles! Switch to the advanced workspace and then customize it from there to suit your needs. Be sure to save it as a new workspace (Window: Workspace: New).

Print Dialog: Advanced: Transparency Flattener. When printing on a Postscript printer you’ll find that the default for this setting is “[Medium Resolution]” (for non-PS printers the setting is irrelevant and is grayed out). This will result in any raster areas of your design that interact with transparency to be rendered at lower-than-desired resolution, often with visible defects. ALWAYS use the “[High Resolution]” setting. Sure, the print job takes a bit longer to process, but it’s worth the wait!

In earlier versions of InDesign visible print defects would often occur even when using the “[High Resolution]” setting. Fortunately improvements in InDesign’s print engine have removed most of these problems.

Summary

I’m sure there are other settings that many people like to change, but for me these are the big ones. I’ve been working in and teaching InDesign since version 2.0 (that’s before CS1 was released). The entire time most of these defaults have not changed. Until (unless?) they do, we’ll just have to go on changing them ourselves.

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39 Responses to InDesign’s Dysfunctional Defaults

  1. andy kemmis October 25, 2011 at 8:55 am #

    helpful article indeed. thanks. But i am still stumped when creating a new document, the units are displayed in picas, despite me changing it in the Units & Increments window. I don’t work in picas (who does anymore?) and am not sure what size i am getting if I need to set up a unique size page.

    any help is appreciated.

    ak

    • Paul Erdman October 25, 2011 at 9:10 am #

      Thanks for your comment! You must close all your documents, then change your units to inches in your preferences. Only then will new documents be created in inches. If you have a document open when you change preferences, inDesign will change the setting for that document only.

      And in the almost 10 years I’ve been working with and teaching InDesign, and among the thousands of people I’ve worked with and taught, I’ve met probably 5 that prefer picas over inches as their default unit of measurement. I have no idea why the developers feel picas should be the default, yet we’re still stuck with it.

      I will say that I frequently change my units to points when working with type, as I often work with a baseline grid and I think in multiples of my leading, especially vertically. but that’s points, not picas, and I’m often thinking in 14s or 13s (whatever my leading and grid happens to be for that document) not 12s.

      And by the way, a quick and easy way to change your units is to simply right-click your rulers.

      • SherryO June 9, 2015 at 2:46 pm #

        Picas and points are offered because that’s the typographic standard, period. For artwork sizing, using inches (or metric if elsewhere) is appropriate, but type should always be handled through picas and points; much greater control when you really need to nudge something a half point (yes, it is visible) and figuring that out in inches is beyond confusing and frustrating.

        For truly beautiful and eye-pleasing typography, use picas and points.

        And while I haven’t scrolled through all the comments yet, I’m willing to bet that there are at least now 7 (and maybe even 8!) typographers/designers who prefer P&Ps. Just sayin’ … 😉

        • Paul Erdman September 1, 2015 at 10:50 am #

          As I say elsewhere, I prefer setting the default to Inches, so that when I set up new documents it displays inches — since document sizing is typically done in inches. I often change my rulers to points by right-clicking them when working with type. In fact, on average I’d say I’m more often in points than I am in inches while I’m working in a document — but even though I work more in points, since the default setting is what I see every time I make a NEW DOCUMENT, and I typically want to see inches when I make new documents, it just makes sense, to me, anyway, to set the default to inches.

  2. andy kemmis October 25, 2011 at 9:18 am #

    A-ha! That makes sense. Thanks a ton for answering my question. It helped a bunch!

    andy

    • Paul Erdman October 25, 2011 at 9:26 am #

      One more comment—you can actually type in any units you want to, and InDesign will convert them. Just type in “in,” “cm”, a ” mark after the number, use pica notation or “pt,” etc to specify what units your numbers are in and InDesign will convert them to whatever units it is using.

      And InDesign can do simple math in numeric fields. so even when you’re in inches, you can type in “2in+2pt” and InD will figure it out for you.

  3. Randall Beckwih January 8, 2013 at 7:42 am #

    I am old enough to have worked in the days before computers and I prefer picas — I’ll be your sixth person who prefers to work in picas.

    I need help changing the default for underlining. I go to Underline Options and change the specs, but it doesn’t hold overall. I can’t find anything in the Preferences that would allow me to make a global changing in the thickness and distance from the text for underlines.

    Am I missing something, or just too old?

    • Paul Erdman January 8, 2013 at 8:35 am #

      Great! Glad to have a #6!

      It depends. Paragraph and Character styles will override any defaults, so if you’re using styles, you’ll need to set the underline options in your styles. If you’re not using styles, I would recommend you start, as they save LOTS of time. The best way to do this is to edit your paragraph style, go to “Underline Options,” Temporarily turn on underline so you have access to the settings, and change them however you want. Then, before clicking ok, turn underlining back off. Now, whenever you underline text in this paragraph style it will have the settings you wish.

      If you need to have more than 1 kind of underlining in a paragraph (such has your default underlining as well as highlighting) then use a character style for the custom underline.

      If you’re NOT using styles, then make sure you have nothing selected (not even a blinking cursor in your type anywhere) and set your underline options. The next time you make NEW TEXT it will inherit those defaults. However, it will NOT change EXISTING paragraphs.

      By default, text is tagged with the “Basic Paragraph” style if you don’t assign anything else. So you MAY be able to change the format of your existing text by editing the “Basic Paragraph” style.

      Keep in mind that the default underline will scale when type size scales, while if you put in specific values it will not adjust to fit different type sizes automatically.

      Hope this helps!

    • Randall Beckwih January 8, 2013 at 9:14 am #

      Excellent information. Thanks for the various options for underlining. I appreciate the detail so I am successful in advancing my knowledge and skill in InDesign.

  4. Rebecca January 18, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

    Hi Paul,

    Nice post, very helpful indeed. I just upgraded to CS6 and all factory defaults are restored.

    With all documents closed I selected my font settings that I want to be default. Yet, when I create a new document and draw a text frame the initial paragraph is what I set as default. BUT as soon as I hit return/enter the font automatically changes to Minion Pro.

    Any idea about whats going on here?

    • Paul Erdman January 18, 2013 at 7:25 pm #

      Not sure–but best way to ensure that the formatting sticks is to edit the “Basic Paragraph” style with no documents open. Minion Pro is what is being used by “Basic Paragraph,” by default; anything you do to change text formatting is just overriding this–and in your case, imperfectly. I’d have to take a look at your screen and closely examine the settings to see what’s going on; that could be done during an online session if needed.

      Even better than relying on defaults, I’d recommend you define your own paragraph and character styles to use.

  5. Jamie April 23, 2013 at 8:48 am #

    WOW wow WOW, this was by far THE MOST HELPFUL article I’ve read about InDesign settings. I initially found it when trying to change my default measurement settings. I kept trying to do it with a document open and it would never “stick.” I went from there to follow most of your other advice and am looking forward to a much improved InDesign experience. Thank you times a million!

    • Paul Erdman May 1, 2013 at 8:31 am #

      Thank you so much for your positive feedback. Once I’ve changed my default to Inches, I rarely leave my rulers alone. I’m constantly changing them as I work by right-clicking on them. I like to switch between inches and points when working with type. Who would ever want to measure spacing between paragraphs in inches, after all? But I never use picas, personally.

  6. Susan Carter April 29, 2013 at 4:31 am #

    Thank you for a very helpful article. I have one more thing that I would like to be my default setting in InDesign6.

    I always need the ruler to be displayed across the top and down the side. The default right now is no ruler at all.

    Is there a way to change this?

    • Paul Erdman May 1, 2013 at 7:43 am #

      With no documents open, go to View: Show Rulers. The next time you make a new document, the rulers should show by default.

  7. Sheryl May 29, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    Love this article…I am currently using CS6 and am having issues with the selection tool. Every time I click on it this box “Move” pops up. This is something new and it is a nuisance. Also when trying to select several objects on a page to group together so I could paste it in another place the selection tool is automatically going to the text tool. I used to just hold down the shift key while selecting all the objects then click group and go from there but now I can’t keep the selection tool up long enough to get them all clicked. Frustration x 10!!!

    • Paul Erdman May 29, 2013 at 4:18 pm #

      Several things could be going on, Sheryl. I’d need more information from you to sufficiently answer your questions, and will e-mail you.

      • gail July 26, 2013 at 8:56 am #

        Paul, would you care to share an answer to Sheryl’s question about the “Move” box that pops up….i also agree what a pain and i get it all the time as well…

        thank you
        gail

    • gail July 29, 2013 at 11:09 am #

      HELP…..i have dealt with this annoying “Move” pop-up at least 15 times today already…any way to disable this thing?

      I agree Sheryl, frustration x 10!!!

      • Paul Erdman July 29, 2013 at 2:52 pm #

        Ah, sorry, didn’t realize it would be such a popular item! I had sent a solution in e-mail but not posted it here.

        Preferences: Interface: uncheck “Show Transfom Values.”

  8. gail July 15, 2013 at 11:12 am #

    just installed CS6 coming from CS2!!!….one dysfunctional default i dislike is when i pull out a text window an annoying grey box with dimensions pops up…can i disable that feature?

    great tips….already used a couple

    thanks
    gail

    • Paul Erdman July 15, 2013 at 11:23 am #

      EDIT: Oh, you’re talking about the pop-up that is visible while dragging? Took me a while to figure out what gray box you were talking about (at first I thought you meant some sort of dialog with an OK button, etc). When resizing objects in InDesign, a popup overlay will display the size of the object to the right of the mouse cursor. This can be turned off via Preferences: Interface: Show Transform Values. It is a handy feature, so you might decide you like it once you get used to it.

      POSTED PREVIOUSLY: What you’re describing does not sound like ordinary behavior, unless you’re actually using the Rectangle or Rectangular Frame tool and clicking (not dragging) on the page. I’ll need more information to figure out what’s going on, and will e-mail you directly.

    • gail July 16, 2013 at 7:31 am #

      Thank you Paul,

      Yes, being an art director I often find my technical lingo lacking….and I do see where the transform values feature would be handy…but, for now, it is one less piece of visual clutter as I am learning my way through CS6.

      Also went from a 1998 mac to the new 27″ iMAC….so I am learning to drive a porsche instead of an old toyota (which I own by the way)

      Thank you so much for helping us out here….you will probably be hearing from me in the near future.

      Sincerely,
      Gail Kaiser

  9. Fei December 15, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    I’m no veteran like Randall but (just to chime in) I would like to be your #7 person who prefers picas (sometimes!) and I’ll try to explain why… It might seem very archaic at first, but when working with imperial measurements and formats in North America, over time I’ve found that picas are the perfect in-between unit for inches and points. There is just this nice granularity of measurement on a paper layout that picas seem to fulfill. It interchanges easily between font sizes (pt) and with common imperial paper sizes (in). A letter-size paper can be defined as whole numbers in picas and points, and it is also easily divisible into grid columns and rows without getting decimals. I love designing my fonts, guides and grids to hit whole numbers – for standard bleeds it’s either 0.125in vs. a 0p9, or for a baseline or leading I can go in increments of 0.1667in or 1p0. I find decimals jarring in imperial, while in metric I’m totally fine with up to two decimals. Yup, I’m weird…

    Speaking of metric, if dealing with A-formats, I prefer metric hands down. No imperial is allowed near my document. I have created documents across the metric/imperial divide, and I adjust my measurements accordingly. In other words, depending on context I think both are right 🙂

    Also, about the Content Grabber – I used to be old-school, preferring to use my keyboard shortcuts V and A to select between the frame and the image more precisely. But ever since the introduction of the Content Grabber – or what I lovingly call “the doughnut” – it’s been so much easier for me to teach students about the difference between the two intuitively. Double-clicking is fine too I guess, but I’ll do anything to encourage students to reduce the number of clicks to do an action, which cumulatively can help prevent repetitive strain in the long run. I’m cool with the doughnut.

    • Paul Erdman December 16, 2013 at 8:17 pm #

      Yay, I’ve found person #7!

      I personally switch to points for all small measurements. I can’t stand tiny fractions of an inch; points are so much more tidy. But rather than using picas I often just use multiples of the leading for my body text. So if my leading is 14 pts, I use 14pt intervals to divide up my page (along with using baseline grids, etc.). I find this much more flexible than being locked into 12 point picas.

      As for the Content Grabber, I’ve found that many students and beginners get frustrated because they intuitively click and drag the center of the image to move it, but with the content grabber turned on, they end up moving the image out of it’s frame instead. Double-clicking is such a common, intuitive action I’ve found many people prefer this functionality. But to each their own!

  10. Misti January 26, 2014 at 1:48 am #

    Thank you sooo much! Some of this stuff has been driving me nuts trying to figure out!! 🙂

  11. mo lohaus April 29, 2014 at 8:16 am #

    This paragraph is worth its weight in bitcoin:

    Be sure to close all documents before changing the below settings so that they will become the new defaults for all new documents you create.

    Thanks so much!

  12. Heather May 13, 2014 at 11:00 am #

    So, if I want to change the default font from Minion pro – do I do that through the application preferences?

    Thanks for a very useful bunch of posts!

    • Paul Erdman May 13, 2014 at 11:44 am #

      Any changes you make while no documents are open will become the default settings for new documents. So you simply choose a different font in the way you would usually choose a font (in the control panel with the type tool active, or in the Character panel) when all documents are closed. Then the next time you make a new document, that new font will be active.

      Even better, you would edit your built-in “Basic Paragraph” style and make the change there.

      Keep in mind this will affect new documents, but not currently existing ones. to change default settings in a document, have the document open, but have nothing selected. Then change a setting. So for example, if I have a document open and no objects selected but then choose a different paragraph style, that becomes my new default. The next time I make a text frame and start typing in that document, it will use the style I chose.

  13. gail May 19, 2014 at 9:19 am #

    i am using CS6 now, and miss the time when i just typed the first few letters of the font name and the cursor went to that family…now i have to scroll all the way down to get to windsor…any fix for this?

    • Paul Erdman May 19, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

      Gail, in my experience this functionality works in CS6. You can start typing the name of a font in the font selector and it will go to that font. Perhaps I’m not understanding your question correctly?

      You can minimize the number of times you need to choose a font by name through the use of paragraph and character styles.

      InD CC changes the font menu a bit, but the basic functionality is still there (it searches for the name rather than scrolling down the list).

      • gail May 20, 2014 at 8:15 am #

        Thank you Paul,

        A bit more explanation from me…i have four different windsor type styles…if i type win … i will get the first windsor font, but if that is not the one i want i then still have to scroll all the way down to the W’s. Before, at least the font bar would jump to fonts starting with a W. I do use a style palette for most everything in the magazine, but headlines and subheads i pick and choose different fonts each issue. When i choose Helvetica for example…another box off to the right pops up to choose regular, condensed, bold, etc….same with adobe Garamond…so this tells me there must be a way to have all font families open like that? That would make life easier.

  14. Marla July 7, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    What I don’t get is why ID CS6 keeps reverting back to old defaults (e.g. content grabber, picas) even when I haven’t touched a document with those preferences.

    It’s not that big of a deal to change the preferences, but it BUGS me. I hate the content grabber so much that it offends me every time I see it.

    Is it just me, or do other people experience irritating CS6 defaults mysteriously coming back out of nowhere periodically?

    • Paul Erdman July 26, 2014 at 12:20 pm #

      First thing to test: make a new document. Are your settings preserved in the new document?

      Generally, content grabber is not a document-specific setting. Once turned off it should stay off. Measurement units, on the other hand, are document specific; each document remembers what ruler units it was last saved in. So if someone sends you a document that was saved in picas, it will open in picas, even if your default setting is inches. This is as designed. (You can easily change your rulers at any time in a document by right-clicking them).

      You mention this happens periodically. If InDesign crashes, it sometimes does forget its preferences and reverts back to defaults. Do your resets to default settings seem related to crashes? If InDesign is crashing frequently, that could be another problem to look into.

      It might be safest to reset all your preferences and start fresh. To do this:
      Quit InDesign
      Right after starting InDesing, press the following keys simultaneously:
      (Mac) CMD+Option+Control+Shift
      (Win) CTRL+ALT+SHIFT
      You should get a screen asking you to confirm.If not, try again until you get it.

      Once you’ve reset your preferences, DO NOT open any documents. Just change your preferences, turn off content grappber, and make any other changes you want. Then quit InDesign.

      Start it again. See if your settings have held. If not, then something on your system is preventing your user account from writing to the settings file. I know some IT departments have their local user accounts severely restricted; In other cases, user profiles become corrupted. I’ve seen cases where users weren’t able to save their own preferences, resulting in exactly the sort of symptoms you’re experiencing. If you do not have admin rights to your system, check with your IT department. In order to save your preferences you will need access to:
      (Mac) the user library folder
      (Win) the user app data folder, particularly the Adobe subfolder.

      • Marla July 26, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

        Thanks for the info! I’ll pay more attention to the variables leading up to the revert and try out your instructions. Also, neat tip about right clicking the ruler. Did not know!

  15. Don Hammond September 12, 2014 at 10:18 am #

    Paul:

    Just found your site while searching for help with InDesign’s awful default justification settings, and thanks for the info.

    I’m chuckling over your comments re: picas vs. inches for units, since this issue is a running joke in the office between me and a colleague. I always use picas in layout work, whereas colleague Mike has abandoned the true path of enlightenment and gone to the dark side of inches.

    Having said that, I do always use inches when initially setting up a document, and your info that InDesign automatically converts input dimensions to whatever the current default units are is extremely helpful.

    Cheers,

    Don Hammond
    Hammond Design

  16. Hooch June 25, 2015 at 10:21 pm #

    “Since most people specify document sizes in inches”

    uhhh, this map begs to differ:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metric_system#/media/File:Metric_system_adoption_map.svg

    • Paul Erdman September 1, 2015 at 10:43 am #

      OK, you got me. I should have said “Since most people in the USA specify document sizes in inches.”

      To my knowledge only the US version of InDesign ships with the default units set to points. I know, for example, that if you live in Europe and subscript to the Creative Cloud your defaults will be centimeters. If you have the M.E. version, it will be centimeters. If you have the CJK version, it’s centimeters. Etc., etc. Perhaps we’re being punished here in the USA with picas and points as our defaults because we still use Inches.

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