If the only word processors you’ve ever known are Microsoft Word or Google Docs, the first time you start up Adobe InDesign you may feel as if you’ve upgraded cars from a Geo Metro to a Lamborghini. There are new sounds and behaviors, and although the controls seem the same, it’s obvious that there’s more “going on” with InDesign. The good news is that like many other professional-level tools like InDesign, we only use a small number of its features on a day-to-day basis. The bad news is that over the lifetime of a book, that exact “small number” changes, and by the time the manuscript is all placed, the layout designer will have checked or changed nearly everything the computer needs to know about how to format the book. The best way to become fluent with a tool like InDesign is to practice, practice, practice.

“But how am I supposed to practice making books or magazines if I don’t have any?”

Now’s the time to imagine one up! Perhaps you do your own writing on the side or have friends who write. Try placing it into a fake book page just to see how it looks. If you’d rather not, then all you need to know is that between “educational purposes” and “terms of fair use” you can use pretty much anything you want. Scour Wikipedia for a good-sized article with some pretty images. Hit up Pinterest boards or a few Tumblr blogs. Copy and paste is your friend. But do keep your sources handy! If you make something you like, you may want to use it as a portfolio or demonstration piece, and then of course you’ll look like a fool if you don’t have your sources.

“I have some digitized Polaroids and my bassist friend wrote a bunch of really good copy for her snowcore/crust punk band. How do I make this look good?”

Use Benjamin Franklin’s method that he used to teach himself to write better.

  1. Find an example you like, as close to ideal and as real as you can: a magazine spread, a book, even a stack of index cards—InDesign won’t care!
  2. Examine the example and take notes on the stylistic choices, the dimensions, the margins, etc.
  3. Wait a while. Ben Franklin liked to wait a week, but some of us prefer as little as a day or an hour depending on deadlines.
  4. Attempt to recreate the original using only your notes. Do not look at the original; the point is to exercise your memory and creative powers. Emplace your own text if you like; unlike Ben Franklin, we’re practicing with layout and design, not the writing. In the end it doesn’t matter what the text is.
  5. Compare your reproduction to the original. Take more notes! Don’t worry if you didn’t do as well as you wanted; memory is an imperfect function and creativity arises from that gap between your memory and your uncertainty.
  6. Repeat these steps until you’re done, you’re sick of looking at the text, the deadline arrives, or your friend quits the band.

By using some other material as a “seed,” we take a shortcut around that dreaded blank page. Each time you try, you’ll learn more about which tools are critically important and which ones are less so. Taking notes is shown to improve one’s powers of recall and help you take on objectivity about how well you did. When you know how far off the mark you were, you’ll find it’s easier to reach it the next time you try.

InDesign is complex. Even those of us who use it regularly still have to look up small questions like “how to set lining numerals.” Many of the help pages on the Adobe website include video tutorials and example documents you can try out yourself to examine specific features and tools. Finally, there are several font websites out there that provide fair-use fonts for anyone to add, in addition to Adobe’s own typekit. Above all, don’t give up! InDesign might be daunting, but there’s nothing in there that practice and exploration (and judicious application of undo) won’t take care of.

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