Most of Adobe InDesign's preferences are fine just the way they're set up. Very few people ever change theirs. However, there are some settings that can greatly improve InDesign's usefulness for production purposes. Here are some recommendations.
InDesign's main preferences are found under InDesign>Preferences. But there are other preferences throughout the program; the headlines will indicate where.
Important: If you have all your InDesign documents closed when you make the following changes, they will apply to all documents you create from here on out. If you don't, they'll only apply to the document you're creating. If you get documents from other people, the embedded preferences will be their preferences.
Leave this setting at Apply to Content; you just want to be aware of how it works in case it gets changed. The problem is, for production, you really want the results of Apply to Content for text and Adjust Scaling Percentage for images, but you can't do that, so keep Apply to Content checked. You can find the current scaling percentage for your images, along with it’s effective ppi, in the Link Info section of the Links pallet.
Check this on, and you can place your cursor anywhere in a paragraph and use your option-up and down arrows to change your leading. If this is clicked off, you can select a single character or line and change it’s leading from that in the rest of the paragraph; to change the whole paragraph, you have to triple-click on the paragraph to select it all. This is a source of confusion when left unchecked.
If you are using master text frames in your document, selecting this feature will add or remove pages from your document as the text changes. Sometimes this is annoying, and then this can be unchecked.
You can change the units of your rulers here. It's best for Americans to start out with inches to create a document with, then change your units to picas when you start working with type. To change your units once you start working, come back to the preferences and change them here, or control-click on your document's rulers.
Here you can control how key commands affect objects and text. Change to:
Check on Enable Dynamic Spelling and your document will be automatically spell checked as you go. (Useful unless you are using greeking, when it's not a help).
InDesign's standard is to show images at lower resolution than they are. So you wonder why your images look so bad on screen when you know they're better than that. (Also, lower resolution can cause Illustrator files to appear to have white backgrounds.) Unless you are doing a long document with lots of images — when the lower resolution will help InDesign's performance — set:
Black printed alone on a printing press really looks dark gray.
You have to create a CMYK “rich black” (Photoshop says 75% cyan, 68% magenta, 67% yellow and 90% black for web offset printing) to get black to look really black on a page. Because ink is expensive (and it's hard to get all 4 printing plates to line up exactly for 6pt. type), we usually only use rich black when there are large solid areas of black that would look obviously wrong as dark gray. (Ask your printer if you think there’s going to be a problem.)
Therefore, it is better to set On Screen to Display All Blacks Accurately so you can tell on screen if you're using Rich Black, and set Printing/Exporting to Output All Blacks Accurately so nothing goes wrong when you are exporting pdfs.
IMPORTANT NOTE: In the swatch pallet, there is a black called “Registration.” This prints 100% of all colors being printed in the document. It is NOT "Rich Black." It is used for crop marks/registration marks ONLY. You need the crop marks to appear on every printing plate so they can be used to align those plates on press. DON’T use Registration as black in your document, because 400% ink (100% cyan, 100% magenta, 100% yellow and 100% black) will smear on press and worse.
Clicking this on and text and spreadsheet files act like graphics; they appear in the Links pallet, and if you update the original text file, the text or spreadsheet in your InDesign file will be updated.
Use the “Typography” workspace. This will give you some of the pallets you'll regularly use. But know that you can open up new pallets under the Windows menu, drag them over and dock them with the pallets that are open, and you can save them as a custom pallet with Window>Workspace>New Workspace.
I recommend a pallet list something like this:
Go to the options list in the upper-right of the pallet
Change size to 10pt and leading to 12pt.
Size: 12pt, the default text size Adobe sets InDesign to, is appropriate for web design, and looks fine on your screen, but is about 2pts too large for standard body text for print design. Changing this preference starts you out at the right size for creating print documents.
Leading: Leading in InDesign is set to “auto” by default, which is 120% of the body size. (So 10pt body text would have 12pt leading). You can tell that the leading is being set to auto because the value will have a parenthesis around it (12pt).
The problem with using auto leading is that sometimes auto leading can cause the last line of a paragraph to have different leading than the rest of the lines in the paragraph. If you specify your leading, this shouldn't happen.
Also, if you are adding space before and after subheads while still trying to keep the text lined up across columns, the math is much easier if you use whole numbers for your leading instead of the fractions that 120% can often leave you with.
You do this because, if you are justifying type (making it even on both the left and right sides), InDesign's preference is set to only open up space between words. When it does that, you are often left with "rivers" (areas where the spaces of words end up in a line from one line to another, creating a false, jagged column in your text). Allowing 5% letter spacing allows InDesign to use less word spacing, and your text will look nicer.
You could make these changes to your Basic Paragraph Style, but I don't recommend it; if you start exchanging documents with people who haven't changed their Basic Paragraph style (and they won't have), you can create all kinds of problems when you start cutting and pasting with their documents.
Once you've created this style, you can click in a paragraph in your document, click on this style in the pallet, and the paragraph will change to match the style. It's a quick way to style a lot of type quickly and accurately. If the paragraph doesn't completely change to match the style, option-click on the style and it should.
Use "Body" style as the basis for all your future styles. (You can change them slightly, go to create new styles, and create a new style based on whatever change you made.)
Go to Window>Output>Separations Preview. Go to the options in the upper-right and select Ink Manager. At the bottom check on Use Standard Lab Values for Spots. This will give you the most accurate color value for your Pantone ink previews onscreen. (This way they will be as good as your monitor will allow.)
There are a lot more preferences, and a lot more that can be explained about styles, but these settings will oversome some of the problems with InDesign's standard preferences.