InDesign: If You Do It, Do With Styles

If You Do It, Do With Styles

Computers are great at reducing drudgery, but they usually need your help. In this article, I’ll present a few ways to give it that help that will also make your life a whole lot easier. The TL;DR: Use styles. Always. For everything.

Post by Board Member Tim Plumer

Note: Click images to view them larger.


Style Sheets

The styles I use in this document.

Perhaps the most obvious use for styles (or style sheets) is for text. You should use them for every single letter of text. I know I know I know, that’s extra work up front. However, if you need to make even the smallest change to the formatting of any text, you can do so in one quick place. A style in text editing is a way to define every characteristic of the formatting of text. They come in paragraph and character flavors, and they are one of the most valuable tools for working with text.

Use Them

Both programs allow you to set the “next style” so that, on hitting return, a new style sheet is applied.

Here’s the thing — these are only valuable if you get into the habit of using them consistently. For example, page numbers. Seems easy enough to skip using styles them—they are, after all, usually in the header/footer of Word or on the parent page in InDesign, or built into whatever templating can be created in the tool you use. Don’t fall for that trap because reformatting even just two blocks of text is slower (and potentially more error-prone) than making a single change in a style sheet. Also, style use allows for things like nesting styles together, so when you type a Headline and hit return, it automatically changes to a Body or Normal style. This saves a lot of time when writing copy. This is especially true if you assign hotkeys to them—making it possible to write away without touching the mouse.

Characters & Paragraphs

Both Word and InDesign offer Character and Paragraph styles.

Many styles are set up to affect entire paragraphs. However, there are times when you may want to override a word or even a letter within a paragraph. Keep your mouse off the formatting ribbon! Create a character style instead and use it. You can base a character style on a paragraph style, so the character style only changes one aspect of the formatting—say, by adding emphasis via italics. Reformatting the entirety of your text is as easy as changing, for example, the font of the paragraph style. Any character style based on it will also change the font and keep the italics. A few mouse clicks and ta-da! Your whole document is reformatted.

Map & Share

You may have noted that I am mentioning two specific applications in my examples: MS Word, and Adobe InDesign. That’s very much on purpose—it’s very common practice to author text in Word and then import it into InDesign. This is especially the case if you have a copywriter and layout artists working on the same publication. What becomes sticky is when a Word document is imported into an InDesign file. Many users will plop the text into a file and crawl through it applying styles (or worse, apply formatting manually). Huge time waste.

Instead, share Word templates with styles built in with copy editing. Then match the style names in the InDesign document. If the names match, then you will have to do very little additional formatting.

Plus—and this is a bit of a brain teaser—it doesn’t matter at all what formatting characteristics you use in Word. InDesign formatting rules will override whatever the Word file uses and will apply the formatting of the InDesign styles.

Importing a Word file into InDesign offers the ability to map styles and let InDesign override formatting. The power of structure.

This has at least two advantages:

  • Copywriters needn’t worry about the look of the text, so they can make the styles easy to read, write, and edit on a computer screen. When I write, I use BIG BOLD HELVETICA, because my old eyes have trouble with smaller, serif fonts.
  • You don’t need to pay for font licenses for the Word users, saving you money on fonts.

Let the writers write and the designers design, and this will work between or among most text editing and page layout tools.


Structured text is much easier to work with when converting to HTML (InDesign Export panel shown here).

The final advantage (I’ll cover here) is structure. Styling text is also a way of indicating its purpose, thus giving it structure. “Headline 1” means that it’s a top-level headline block of text. No matter where I am sending the text beyond Word, it’ll be a lot easier to apply formatting in cases where the tool doesn’t support style sharing. At the very least the task of reformatting the text is much less guesswork. For example, if your text is going to the web via a web editing tool, it’s much easier to map style sheets to CSS tags when you know what the source structure was by name. Also, that structure will help in unexpected ways. For example, when creating a PDF, that structure will make reading that PDF on a mobile a far better experience than without.

But Wait, There’s More

We have only scratched at the surface of the topic of styles and structure. Learning how to use them, applying them passionately, and creating workflows to support their use will pay enormous dividends as your work and your career matures. Some follow-up points:

  • InDesign supports this entire mentality with objects. It’s a whole new level of both time-saving and consistency in the presentation of graphic elements such as boxes.
  • Parent pages, headers, and footers. In Word, learn about how to properly use headers and footers, and in InDesign, learn about parent pages.
  • There are dozens of ways to use styles to streamline your work beyond basic formatting, so learn about those. They can be created such that you’ll never need to touch the mouse while typing.
  • Word isn’t generally good at layout, but InDesign can allow you to edit text more rapidly than you might realize. Learn about the story editor mode. It hides all of the formatting and most of the user interface, so you can type pure text. I am about 50/50 in using it. When I am acting like both a writer and a layout artist, I use InDesign. Otherwise, I write in Word.
  • It takes time and practice to set up a styles workflow that offers all of the benefits (and more), but I promise it’s worth it!

There’s plenty more to learn if you want to invest in yourself in a way that allows you to speed up your text writing, formatting, and layout work. So, style away!

Published June 16, 2022