9 Lessons from designing a $5,000 document

9 Lessons from Designing a $5,000 Document

I just wrapped up designing a complex, 48-page program for the Virginia Festival of the Book. It’s not the first time I’ve created a document like this, but this time I did something a little different. I catalogued my entire process, analyzed it, and came away with some key lessons.

Originally, I wasn’t going to post these notes online, but I was sharing some with a friend, and they demanded I put it online. In this post, you’ll learn:

  1. How to setup your document
  2. How to build your grid
  3. How to pick your typefaces
  4. How to setup type and paragraph styles
  5. And 5 other just-as-important things

I hope it’s helpful next time you go to design something really big and complex.

1. Space set up your document thoughtfully

When you first fire up Adobe InDesign and create a new document, it’s important to take the time to establish these key settings properly. Before changing any of these settings, make sure to select Preview in the bottom left of the window. This will let you see the blank document as you make these decisions.

The first you’ll notice is Intent; this will determine a whole bunch of behind-the-scenes things like color space, which is incredibly important. If you’re designing for print, make sure to select print. If you’re designing for the web, then make sure to select that you’re designing for the web. This will determine if the document uses CMYK or RGB.

The next thing you’ll notice is Number of Pages. If you’re designing for print, it’s especially useful to know ahead of time how many pages the document is meant to include. Print documents need to be a multiple of four pages long, so for this document that I’m working on, it needed to be 48 pages. If I had designed it to be 46 pages, then printing simply would not have worked. If you don’t know exactly how many pages the document is meant to be ahead of time, don’t worry about it too much. And if you’re designing for the web, it doesn’t really matter. While selecting this, you’ll also be able to choose whether you have Facing Pages or now—this determines if the document will have spreads, or standalone pages. Facing Pages are almost always the case with printed booklets, while non-Facing Pages is often the choice for digital documents.

The third setting is Page Size. If you’re designing for the web then you want to select a page size that will be comfortable for people to read; fortunately, this can mean anything from a horizontal page that will fit a laptop or desktop screen, to a more traditional vertical page that will still fit those devices while working extremely well on mobile. If you’re working in print, then you probably already know the page size. If it’s a standard size, then you can select it from the drop-down menu; otherwise you’ll need to specify the dimensions of the page.

If you don’t understand what the measurements mean, feel free to check out my Illustrated Guide to Type Measurements.

The next setting you will notice is Columns and Gutter. We’ll talk more about this in Number 2.

The fifth setting you’ll notice is Margins. If you have Facing Pages selected, which is usually the case if you’re designing for print, then you’ll see margin options for Top, Bottom, Inside, and Outside. Top and bottom are self-explanatory; the Inside margin is the margin at the center of the spread where the page folds, and the Outside margin is, well, on the outside. If you do not have Facing Pages selected, then Inside and Outside are replaced with Left and Right. Look at the live preview to make sure that your margins are appropriate. You’ll want them to be large enough to set the content on the page aside from the world behind the page, while letting the text breathe (this is extra important for the inside gutter when you have Facing Pages selected).

2. Create a versatile grid

When you’re creating your document, it’s easy to think that three or four columns will be enough. On larger, more robust documents, you may need more flexibility. I generally select a number that will let me combine and recombine columns as needed. In this document, I chose a 12-column grid; this would allow me to use four columns on most pages, create sidebars on pages where that was needed, and use all 12 columns evenly on dense, complex pages like the schedule.

Typography Grid in InDesign

I often recommend creating more columns than you think will be necessary: 9 and 12 are my standard choices because they afford a large degree of flexibility.

Learn the full process of creating your grid in my Seven Essential Layout Systems eBook.

3. Pick your fonts early

Fonts add texture to text, so pick fonts that have the right texture. This requires that you read through the text thoroughly and get a good grasp on its content and message.

In my interview with Tobias Frere-Jones, he explained that his design process solves two sets of criteria: the technical and the aesthetic. This certainly applies to font selection. Your aesthetic choices are informed by the content; your technical choices are informed by the display format.

For this document, since it’s a design for the Virginia Festival of the Book, I chose Adobe Garamond Pro as the main body text to fit the brand’s humanities-focus. Garamond is a classic for many reasons, including that it does not feel so constructed or buttoned-up. Perfect for this kind of design.

In the past, the Festival had used Myriad for header text. Unfortunately for Myriad, its ubiquity has come to suggest apathy in its use. I chose a similar, but better typeface: Frutiger.

Picking the right font

It’s important to select your fonts early for a few reasons. First, it’s one of the more important design choices, and is tied so closely to the content of the text that its choice proceeds layout and color decisions. Second, because your type options vary so widely, this decision can have massive ramifications throughout your design if not made properly upfront. Say you get halfway through design, and decide that the typeface should change… You’re past the point of no return, and need to reformat the entire document. No, thank you.

You can learn more about what makes a font good—and the nine best ones you already have—by reading the Nine Best Fonts You Already Have.

4. Create a hierarchy map for your document

When reading through the text of your document, make sure to notice all the different potential levels of hierarchy. For example, in the Book Festival program, some pages had up to five levels of text: header, event title, location, speakers, and ticket information. Not to mention the ancillary text like page number and column headers.

Mapping out all the levels of hierarchy for each distinct type of page will make your life a lot easier down the road, when you are designing text and paragraph styles. You’ll be able to see all the different levels of hierarchy, each of which will need a distinct typographic treatment.

5. Build thorough master pages

As you’re going through the document to create your hierarchy map, make a note of every distinct kind of page in the document. This will reduce stress when you go to create your master pages, as you’ll know exactly how many distinct page styles you need. Not every kind of page needs its own master page, and you can usually get away with only a handful—if they’re designed properly.

For the Book Festival program, there were something like nine distinct page types, but I needed only three distinct master pages. Even though many of the pages had different kinds of content, they could share the same format: same margins, same 12 column grid, same footer treatment with title and page number, etc.

InDesign Master Pages

When building your master pages, it’s best to keep it simple. Start with the obvious elements, like page numbers, and go back to look at your document. You want to make sure that everything you include on your master page looks good over and over again. This will often mean that strokes along the header or ornamental frames will clutter your design.

6. Design your character and paragraph styles before setting your type

Once you know the typefaces you’re planning to use and all the different levels of hierarchy, I suggest building several possible designs for each level of hierarchy. I generally start this process with the body text, as—in a long-form document—that’s the most important. If your body text looks good, the rest can fall in place around it.

By exploring different headline and body text combinations, you should be able to figure out pretty quickly what works and what doesn’t work. Then you can add however much complexity and style your heart desires.

Once you know how you want your text to look, try to build as much of that into your character and paragraph styles as possible. For example, when designing the program, the speaker bios required three levels of hierarchy: the speaker names, the rest of their biographies, and information about their events. I decided to set apart the speaker names by changing the typeface the color and setting it in small caps.


To save myself from having to apply that style manually to every speaker name, I set that as a character style. This allowed me to create a paragraph style for the speaker bios and designate that the first two words of the paragraph should use that character style. Then I gave all the speaker bio text that speaker bio paragraph style. Obviously, this isn’t perfect, and I had to go through and make sure that any speaker with three names was taken care of. All in all, this still saved at least an hour.

7. Set your type and graphics in the correct order

I have a four-step process for when I need to set type and graphics across multiple pages. I’ve used the same system when designing dozens of books, brochures, and programs—it works every time.

Step 1. Create a text box that spans every column on every page in which you plan to set text and graphics. It will be blank for now, and that’s the point.

Step 2. Paste in the text, style it using your character and paragraph styles, and proofread. At this stage, you should not be looking to correct orphans and widows that break up your paragraphs; you’ll come back to that after inserting your photos and graphics. When you’re done with step 2, the text should not fill all the available space—the remaining space will show you precisely how much room you have available when inserting your visuals. The goal here is to make sure that your text looks good.

Step 3. Input your photos and graphics, making sure that they adhere to your grid. After each graphic, it makes sense to scroll to the end of your text box and see how much room you still have available.

Step 4. Once you have all your text and all your photos inserted into your document, comb through—starting from the beginning—and manually correct odd hyphenation, widows, and orphans by adjusting image location, image cropping, hyphens, tracking, and line breaks.


8. Break your grid only when you must

When you built your grid, you intentionally designed it to be flexible, but it still might not accommodate every piece of text. When designing the Book Festival program, there were a handful of cases where the type would not fit the grid, and I had to break it. One case, which happens quite often, is that of an indented list which appears in a sidebar.


When you encounter these kinds of things, I recommend using your grid measurements as often as possible. For example, you can set your type so that you maintain the same gutter as the grid. You can also use the same outside edges of your grid columns. Ideally, the casual reader won’t even notice that you broke the grid.

9. Check your package settings

If you’re designing for the web, then the normal Export as Interactive PDF will usually work fine. If your design for print, though, then you’ll need to Package your document. Packaging is a process that copies all linked and embedded images, graphics, and fonts to a single folder, along with a PDF and InDesign file. Most printers operate using these packages, so knowing how to package correctly is very important.

When you go to package your document, you might get a few warnings: the two most common warnings surround fonts and images.

If your fonts are listed as incomplete or protected, then you’ll need to either find your font files and relink them, or outline those fonts altogether. I recommend trying out packaging your document early in the design process, specifically when picking your fonts, that way you’ll know well in advance if you’re going to run into any issues with your fonts.

With your images, the biggest warnings surround color. Chances are, many of your photos will be using RGB color space, regardless of if your document is intended for print or the web. If you’re designing for the web, then this isn’t a problem. If your design for print, though, then you want to make sure that you have Press Quality chosen as your PDF Preset, as this will automatically convert all your RGB photos to the CMYK color space. If you have High Quality Print selected instead, InDesign will not convert your images to CMYK.

To learn more about Color, take my free Type & Color video course.


Obviously, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it takes to design a complex 48-page document. There are so many typographic choices that go into a project like this, and it would be impossible to cover them all in a single write-up, but I hope these key takeaways will help you next time you sit down to design:

  1. Setup your document thoughtfully
  2. Create a versatile grid
  3. Pick your fonts early
  4. Create a hierarchy map of your document
  5. Build thorough master pages
  6. Design your type and paragraph styles before setting your type
  7. Set your character and graphics in the correct order
  8. Break your grid only when you must
  9. Check your package settings

If you learned something, have any questions (of if this post can be better) let me know by leaving a comment below!


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