Mind The Gap: Planning your InDesign pages using Margins and Columns


This is an excerpt from Nigel French’s book ‘InDesign Type: Professional Typography with Adobe InDesign’. These principles apply to all versions of InDesign and any page layout software.

Determining Margins


Margins often aren’t given enough consideration. It’s easy to fall back on even margins of half an inch, but in doing so you miss an opportunity to establish the margins as an integral design element of your document. Look at any page and you’ll notice that margins are the first space you see: They are vital in determining the reader’s initial impression of the page. Margins serve the following functions:

  • Margins separate the content from the edge of the page, framing and defining the type area of the page. If you’ve ever done any picture mounting you’ll appreciate how much a good mount can increase a picture’s impact.
  • Obviously, but quite profoundly, margins are where you hold the book or page — they are a place for readers to put their thumbs, hopefully without obscuring the content on the page.
  • Historically, margins have been used as a space to write notes (wide outside margins are still referred to as scholars’ margins), and in certain types of publication they continue to serve this function.

Margins are also a place to put the page numbers (known as folios) and publication information, in either the top or bottom margins of the page, outside of the type area.

While margins define the type area, they are not absolute. Certain text elements, like drop caps, pull quotes, and captions, may hang outside the type area and into the margins — as will punctuation if you are using Optical Margin Alignment. Pictures frequently break out of the type area, disrupting the rectilinear nature of the page and — potentially — making for a more dynamic layout.


Making all the margins the same for facing-pages documents can look static. When two pages are adjacent — such as in a magazine or book — they share an inside margin broken only by the spine.  This double margin means the spread will be perceived as a single image with a middle margin.

Margins typically progress from smallest to largest in the following order: inside, top, outside, bottom. There are no cast-iron rules, but a popular ratio for determining margins is 1:1.5:2:2.25.  is produces margins that are generous yet look familiar to a 21st-century eye.


Setting Up Columns

The type area can be subdivided into columns. In setting up your columns, be sure that the text frames that will contain your body text are wide enough, either as a single column or in multiples, for the text to be readable. The relationship between type size and text frame width is the column measure.There’s no cast-iron rule for the size of column measure. Some jobs lend themselves to generous columns; often economy dictates narrower columns than are optimal.

  • As a rough guide, aim for 45 to 70 characters (including the spaces) per line. That’s a big range, so there’s plenty of scope. Another commonly used standard is a minimum of six words per line; another still is to use two alphabets, or 52 characters.
  • If the measure is too wide and you have too many characters on your line, “doubling” can occur — the eye returns to the left column edge only to read the same line again. If you’re obligated to work with such a measure, you can improve its readability by increasing the leading of your type. If your measure is too narrow — especially if you’re working with justified type — getting evenly spaced type will be next to impossible.
  • To change the number of columns for all the pages based on a specific master page, you should edit the master page itself.


Determining Gutter Width

In multicolumn documents, the separate columns of type should appear parts of a unified whole. If the space between the columns (the gutter) is too wide, those columns will look like they bear no relation to each other. If the gutter is too narrow, though, the reader’s eye may mistakenly cross over from one column to the next.

Gutter widths should relate to the body text leading value. To achieve uniform spacing, set your gutters to the same value as, or a multiple of (1.5 or 2, for example), the leading of the text. The wider the column, the bigger the gutter.

Nigel French is a graphic designer, author, artist, and trainer based in Lewes, East Sussex, UK. He is author of InDesign Type: Professional Typography with Adobe InDesign, published in its third edition by Adobe Press, and more than fifty titles in the Lynda.com library. He also writes an occasional type-related column for InDesign Magazine. His website is nigelfrench.com—one of these days he’ll update it.

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  1. Nigel has kindly offered to allow further extracts to be taken from his rather splendid book ‘InDesign Type: Professional Typography with Adobe InDesign’, so if you like this article do let us know and we’ll give you more!

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