Getting To Grips With InDesign Part 4: Working With Color

This article/tutorial is the fourth in the series. In this chapter of the Getting To Grips series we will be covering the following topics:

  • Adding new colors to the Swatches panel
  • Applying colors to objects
  • Creating strokes
  • Creating and applying gradients to objects
  • Creating a spot color

Printing Requirements

I’m not going to go over printing requirements in huge detail here, as it pulls away from the fact that series of articles and tutorials is about InDesign, not printing. I will, however, briefly explain a few things that you’ll need to keep in mind when designing using InDesign, or any other piece of software that you plan to commercially print.

There’s no need to worry if you’re just printing from your home/office printer – as I’m sure you know they read RGB color models perfectly well. However when designing commercially, for, let’s say… a brochure, which you plan to get printed 10,000 times, you definitely need to pay attention to your files’ color models and other printing requirements such as using the right color model and setting up bleeds and crop marks.

Unfortunately all commercial printers require different print settings, although the chances are a lot of them use the same or at least similar document set-ups.

In the UK for example (which is where I am based), most printers will require a 3mm bleed, whereas some will occasionally request a slightly larger bleed, so be sure to check with them before you start work! Chris Spooner has written a superb article on how to set up bleed and crop marks.

Color Models: RGB vs CMYK

This is one a lot of people getting into the design industry are never too sure about – you’ll probably be surprised how many pre-press departments at commercial projects receive “print-ready” PDF’s that aren’t print-ready at all – biggest reason being that they have been exported using the RGB color model rather than CMYK.

RGB stands for red, green, and blue, which are then added together to create lots of different colors, the same way you would mix paints together to create a new color, although RGB uses light rather than paint. RGB is used for on-screen design, such as websites or graphics that aren’t intended to leave your display.

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and black, and is the color mode used when designing for print, known as four-color of process-color. When designing for print using the CMYK color mode, there is actually four different channels, one for each color. Your artwork will be automatically separated into the channels: one for cyan, one for magenta, one for yellow and one for black. When the artwork is printed, each color is printed separately. Cyan will be printed onto the page, followed by magenta, then yellow, and finally black. Black is last because it is the darkest color, and obviously overprints all the other colors.

How you design your work is up to you; you could either design in RGB and then convert it, or design straight into CMYK. Both options have their advantages.

You may want to read some of the following to increase your knowledge on the different color models:

Adding Colors to the Swatches Panel

After covering a very small portion of things to keep in mind when designing for print, it’s time to move on to working with color in InDesign. I won’t teach you how to set-up a document, as you can refer back to previous InDesign tutorials/articles in this series for that! So set yourself up a simple document and let’s get started. I’m just going to use a single page document, as I am just going to show you how to work with color in this tutorial, rather than actually producing a ready to export document. Here are the document settings I used:

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Open up your Swatches panel. For this tutorial, I’ve dragged it out from my side panel so I can enlarge it. If you can’t find your Swatches panel, go to Window > Swatches to open it back up. If it wasn’t there, it just means you’ve clicked the cross on it and closed it – it’s always very easy to get back, though!

Getting To Grips With InDesign

With your Swatches panel now open, click on the New Color Swatch icon at the bottom of your panel. If you can’t click on the icon, just select one of the pre-existing color swatches and you should then be able to click it. You should see a new swatch in your panel, it will default to “black copy” if you had your black swatch selected previously.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Double-click on your new swatch to open up the Swatch Options window. You should be presented with a new window, similar to the screenshot below.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

From here you can rename your swatch, and select the color you want. Make sure you keep Process and CMYK selected – this is the standard color model for print – we will learn about spot colors later on. Play around with your cyan, magenta, yellow and black levels until you find the color you want – my settings can be seen below.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

If you don’t want to name your swatch, you can name it with the color value by ticking the box directly beneath the swatch name field, as seen below.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Hit the OK button when you’ve done creating your swatch, and you’ll see that it has now been added to your Swatch Panel.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Repeat the step again to add another color.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Swatches allow you to quickly apply the same color to different objects, which we will learn how to do in the following step.

Applying Colors to Objects

There a few different ways in which you can apply color to your objects. You can either click on your object (shape or text) and then select your color swatch, select your object and then select your color swatch from either the fill or stroke drop-down menu in the tools panel, or drag the swatch on to the object you want it to color. What option you choose is completely up to you – it’s all down to personal preference. None are really much quicker or longer than the others.

First of all, we need to draw some shapes to color! Grab the Rectangle Tool and draw out a few shapes. The default color will be set to the swatch you currently have selected, in my case, that’s black.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

The first thing we can do to color one of our shapes is to select it, and then simple click on one of your swatches.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Next, we can drag a swatch onto our second shape. By simply dragging and dropping the swatch, we will apply the color of the swatch to our shape.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Changing the color of both the shapes (or more, if you have more!) is just as easy. Select one shape, and whilst holding down the shift-key, click on the second shape. Keep on doing this until all of your shapes are selected, and then click on a color swatch, or drag it onto one of your selected shapes. This will change the color of all of them.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Creating Strokes

Creating strokes is once again reasonably easy. Select one of your shapes, and increase the weight of your stroke in the settings panel above your canvas, as seen below. I changed my stroke to 10 pixels.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Now lets change the color of our new stroke. With the shape selected, locate the fill/stroke symbols in your toolbar, once located, double-click on the stroke symbol. Then locate the swatches in your toolbar. The easiest way is to just drag one of your swatches onto the icon to change it, and kaboom! You’ve set your strokes color!

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Give your second shape a 10px stroke too, and then select the Eyedropper Tool from your toolbar. With the Eyedropper Tool selected, click on your first shapes stroke – this will automatically apply the same color, an easy way to speed up your workflow.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Select both of your shapes, and in the settings panel above our canvas, click on the drop-down menu directly beneath your stroke weight. You will be presented with a handful of different stroke types.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Select one of them – I chose Japanese Dots. The weight here will determine how big the dots are – I changed my weight to 25px, and ended up with this…

Getting To Grips With InDesign

If you want some more advanced stroke settings, you can open up the Stroke Panel by going to Window > Stroke. From here, you can change the alignment of your stroke (such as center, inside or outside), as well as the join and cap type, specifically useful if you are working the Pen Tool and want rounded ends rather than sharp, pointed ends.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Creating and Applying Gradients to Objects

A gradient, as you probably know already, is a combination of two or more colors gradually merging into one another. You can get linear gradients, radial gradients, and, in other applications, several more different styles, such as diamond.

To create a gradient in InDesign, we need to follow a similar process to the one we took earlier to create a swatch. Open up your Swatches Panel, and click on the drop-down options menu.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Select New Gradient Swatch, you will be presented with the following window.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

After renaming your new gradient swatch, select linear, and select swatches from your stop color drop-down menu. This basically means we can create a swatch from two or more of our existing swatches, to save you recreating those same colors again. Of course if you want colors that you haven’t previously used in your design, you can select CMYK (or RGB for on-screen design) and create some new colors.

Click on one of your gradient ramp swatches, and then select a color swatch from your stop color area in the gradient swatch window. Repeat the step for the second ramp swatch.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

To add a third ramp swatch, you can simply click just beneath your gradient ramp where you want a new ramp swatch to appear. You can drag the swatch about if you want to reposition it on your ramp. You can also reposition it using the location field, which allows you to position it via a percentage; 0% being the far left and 100% being the far right – making 50% smack bang in the middle.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Change your new ramp swatch color. The handles (diamond shapes) above the gradient ramp allow you to spread the distance of the selected color – have a play around with this to make the white take over the green on the left side of your ramp, as seen below. Again, when a gradient handle is selected, you can use the location field to reposition it.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Making sure you have renamed your swatch, click the OK button to save the gradient. It should now appear in your Swatches Panel.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Create a new shape using one of the shape tools, and then drag your new gradient swatch onto it to apply the gradient. You can apply gradients to any of your shapes in the exact same way as we applied colors earlier on in the article.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

One great thing about swatches is that they allow you to automatically change the colors of all the objects that have that swatch applied. So, if you had 50 objects throughout your document with the same swatch applied, but the client wants to change that color from green to blue, you can simply change the swatch color in the Swatch Options window to update all of those objects automatically, instead of going through the document and changing each object one by one, which could take hours if you’re working on a long document such as a magazine or book!

Double-click on your gradient swatch to open up the Gradient Options window and change the type from linear to radial. By clicking on the preview button, you’ll be able to see the shape be updated as you update your swatch settings. Play about with the colors and positioning in the gradient ramp, and click OK.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Creating a Spot Color

A spot color, for those that don’t know, is a completely separate color that isn’t made up from any other colors from the CMYK color model. So, on top of a four-color process (CMYK) you would have an additional color printed, usually a very specific color, or even a special ink such as a metallic or glossy color. So, in a single sentence: a spot color is used to create a consistent, individual “special” color outside the CMYK color model.

To get started with creating a new spot color, open up your Swatch Panel. On the drop-down options menu, select New Color Swatch.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

When the new color swatch window pops open, rename it, and select Spot from the color type drop-down menu.

Getting To Grips With InDesign

From the color mode drop-down menu, you can either select a CMYK color, an RGB color, or one of many HKS or PANTONE spot colors. Choose a spot color – I’m going for PANTONE Metallic Coated 8725C. On the screen, it’ll just look like a color, but when printed, it’ll be a nice shiny spot color. I do, however, recommend asking your printers to view the color on stock before asking them to print it!

Getting To Grips With InDesign

Click OK, and tahdah! – you’re now all set to start applying your spot color to your objects. Do keep in mind that spot colors can be very expensive to be print – even if you just use one – so only use one if you really need to!

Getting To Grips With InDesign


You should now know how to create swatches, and use them throughout your document to help speed up your workflow. In the next article we will be covering how to work with styles, so keep an eye out for that!

We’ll be back soon with part five of the series. In the mean time, why not check out the others:


  1. says

    Thank you for sharing.I learn something from this blog.And know how to create swatches, and use them throughout document to help speed up workflow.

  2. says

    Thank you so much for this post, I’m learning a lot from your blog also. I’ve had problems with bleeds with printing before, sadly you don’t learn this until you try different printers.


  1. Getting To Grips With InDesign Part 4: Working With Color…

    In this fourth chapter of the Getting To Grips series we will be covering topics such as: Adding new colors to the Swatches panel, applying colors to objects and creating strokes….

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