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.
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.”
[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.
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.