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A tutorial for good typography in InDesign - Setting up a baseline grid

Good clean typography is a fundemental skill of any designer. Most designers believe they have good typography but in my experience it is something which is developed through time and experience. I think we all begin our design lives with a desire to be outrageously creative, and only as we mature, begin realise that simplicity and structure is just as, if not more important. In this article, I will go through some simple steps to acheive good clean well structured typography in Adobe Indesign.

The first step is to choose your typefont. In this case I have chosen a simple standard font of Helvetica Neue. I have set it up at 10pt size and 12pt leading. It is important to consider legibility at this point. I try not to go below 9pt for any brochure or printed material, but if the document is to be viewed digitally such as a pdf, it is worth doing it larger.

Next choose how many columns you want the page to be. Here you must consider aesthetics and legibility. Columns are important as they help give the page more structure, but also make a printed document easier to read. Studies show that 8-10 words per line is the most legible and I have tried to reflect this by choosing a 4 column layout. Also, consider border dimensions and the space between the columns. It is common for the space between columns to be half of the border length. In my example I have chosen a 10mm border and 5mm between the columns. Already we see that the page is taking shape. As I have already said, I believe structure is the key to good typography, and these four columns and borders will provide the structure for the entire document. If it is a brochure it will help bring consistency to the whole thing. Images and quotes could should all submit to this grid.

So we have set up a grid vertically, the next step will be to set up a horizontal or baseline grid, which all our text will stick to. This is a key factor to good typography and InDesign is a great bit of software as it has all the tools to makew this process simple. We have already chosen our leading (12pt) so we will set up a grid to reflect this. Go to the top bar menu InDesign>Preferences>Grid. This menu box should display.

Start the grid at 10mm in accordance with your borders. Type into the Increment Every box, 12pt in accordance with your type leading. Press OK. The grid is now set up, to make it visible, go to the top bar menu again, View>Grids and Guides>Show baseline Grid. You will now see guides running across the page horizontally at the same leading as your type. Now make your type stick to the grid. Bring up the paragraph display box, Window>Type and Tables>Paragraph. Select your type box and click on the Align to baseline grid button in the bottom right hand corner. All type lines should now stick perfectly to your grid lines. All further type we will insert from now on will also be made to align to this grid.

Now we will add a heading. The key here is to set the leading up that it will align nicely to our already set up baseline grid. I have set my title at 95pt with a leading of 72pt. Basically I have made the leading to be a multiple of the 12pt our baseline grid is already set up to. This way each line can naturally line up with a line of the body text. The title size also allows it to sit nicely and not overlap at all. If the tops of letters such as h is hitting a lower curve of a g it can reduce legibility and also make it ugly. Don’t forget to click the Align to baseline grid button on the paragraph formating box again. Also select a text wrap so the text will not overlap the heading but flow round it. It should look something like this.

I shall now add an introduction paragraph in the exact same way. This time I will select 24pt leading, again a multiple of our 12pt grid. Align it to the grid and it should look something like this…

As you can see, everything is aligning perfectly giving the page a neat structured feel. In most cases I try to keep the alignment consistent, but in this case I have been a bit creative and made the intro and title right aligned to stick to the body text paragraph and give a crisp centre line.

So thats it, I have waffled on long enough. Hope you enjoyed this tutorial.Typography is a massive subject, and this article just includes some of the things that have helped me. Please let me know if it has helped you at all. What can I do to make it better?


Wonderful! Thank for a very helpful read.



You could make the grid half the leading, that way you can avoid full returns. Also let people know how to set up their text frames, which are set to Ascent in InDesign by default. I always used Fixed frames if I am using a baseline, but maybe there is another way.

Baselines are good for some tasks, but sometimes I like to use cap height because it allows you to align an image with the type at the top of the text frame. That gets complicated though.

Feel free to correct me if I have led anyone astray, I'm a novice.



thanks for the comments guys. 1985, completely take your points. I was trying to give a few tips really without making it thousands of words :-)
Aligning the first baseline to cap height is a good tip when using images. I think aligning to a baseline is appropriate for heavy text documents and can also work over larger brochures.


oh right, just realised what handpicked means!
thanks Joe - thats great!!!!

Nice tutorial, but I'd recommend using picas instead of millimeters since it's much easier to convert points and picas, as well as picas and inches. This way you can rely on math and understand how to use the baseline grid with point sizes. This also reduces the dependency on using the paragraph display box.

Great! Thank you so much! I've had to teach myself InDesign for my job, and so far it's just been me figuring out stuff as I need to do something. I don't have much control over typefaces and sizes for my current project, but on future projects I'll keep this tutorial in mind!



You could make the grid half the leading, that way you can avoid full returns.

What do you mean?

I think the half leading would be making it 6pt, rather than 12, is that right 1985?
it would indeed allow less space between paragraphs and give more control here, but may be more difficult to aligning type throughout the whole page to the same line.
thanks for the comments guys.

One question: is there a way to have more than one baseline grid setup for the same document? I have a project where most of the document can be aligned using the same grid, but the last part needs to have only about half a line space between two paragraphs, and the grid forces a whole space, which makes it go too long...I could just setup the grid with half the space between lines that I'll typically need, but all those lines would obscure my view, I'm thinking.

Anyway, just a question.


Hmmm, to be honest im not sure about this. I assumed there was a way, but I honestly have not found it. The way I get round this is to set up grids for different text boxes using text frame options, but it is not ideal. I have googled this problem before and not found any alternatives.
Anyone any better solutions?

I would personally just copy the original master page or make a new master page and create a different baseline grid on it. Then apply that to the last page. I never had to do this and I don't have Indesign open, so I greatly apologize if it doesn't work as well as it does in my head :-P


well the baseline grid is set up in preferences, so it applies it to the whole document rather than just the master. Dont know if you can change it specifically on masters...

I thought I’d add my two cents to this excellent explanation. My sample layout is based upon Josepf Müller-Brockmann’s book, Grid Systems in Graphic Design. I’ve included a screen capture of the final grid. The layout grid, combined with InDesign’s underlying baseline grid aligns the type perfectly within each unit. I’ve departed from the treatise by using the x-height and baseline to size my grid unit. It’s a visual alignment that is far easier to do now than when the book was written. The gutter allows for a single line caption under each image. The final product is an 8 by 10 inch proof sheet for 35 mm images. There are many products on the market that do a far better job of making a proof sheet. I was working at an understandable example of the underlying structure. It’s somewhat complicated to explain how I set this up, but if there is enough interest, I’ll give it a try.

-Bill Lomax

Through experimentation, I've found that using a three point baseline grid is ideal for most documents. Of course, this isn't true for all pieces, but it's a good default for newsletters, forms, and leaflets that employ a broad range of type sizes (i.e., cutlines, body copy, headlines, and footnotes).

My "base three" system has one mathematical advantage of being multiplied evenly into standard page sizes, which results in faster, cleaner layouts. I'm a workaday designer, and a majority of my typesetting is done at a mill pace--quick and dirty. This grid method is a lifesaver.

My two cents.

DOGG : : :

thanks for the comments guys, thats awesome. Bill, would love to hear more about how you set this up. Its actually quite difficult to find good articles/tutorials for this.

Dogg, thats really interesting, so the grid is just at 3pt always and you space the font size accordingly?
I shall give that a try. I run the design department of a PR company, so like you and im sure many designers we tend to have to work at a fast pace. I usually just set up my grid after I choose a pt size. But I shall try a 3pt one!

Very good tutorial and discussion! Thanx!

Three is the magic number. Like I mentioned, the "base three" grid system isn't a universal solution, but it sure seems to work well with so many documents.

DOGG : : :

JT, you can set a custom baseline grid for each text field in the Text Frame Options.

Very nice article. For anyone interested, I created a grid system for web work that incorporates a 10pt baseline grid. By setting the baseline to 10pts, you can multiple leading choices, as long as it's in increments on 5pts. You can read more about it on my blog.

Dogg, could you explain your system a little more. Why is 3 the magic number? By having a baseline grid os 3pts, wouldn't the leading have to be a multiple of 3?

Hello Roger,

What’s different about my sample grid is that it is specific to the body copy font. Helvetica Bold Condensed would be a horrible choice, but it works for this one task. If I substitute Garamond, it will not fit the grid correctly.

The short version of how is that you need to know the exact x-height of the font. Most commercial fonts have a UPM of 1,000. If your font has an x-height of 395 (Arno Pro regular), then at ten points the x-height is 3.95 points. My example row is eight lines deep. The height of a row is: 7x leading (12 pt) + x-height = 87.95 pt. The horizontal alley (gutter) is: 2x leading (12 pt) – x-height = 20.05 pt. Set Preferences > Grids > Baseline Grid > Start: 3.95 pt (x-height) | Relative to: Top Margin | Increment Every: 12 pt (leading).

Then it’s a question of using the numbers to set up rows and gutters.

You can make a very close approximation of the x-height by turning an “x” of your choice of font, at size, to outline. Then ungroup it and use the Direct Selection Tool to draw a marquee around the “x”. Drag ruler guides to snap to the x-height and baseline. Measure the distance between and you have your number.

-Bill Lomax


Three isn't necessarily THE magic number, but rather a catchy reference to the old School House Rock jam. Anyway, the base three approach is essentially the same rationale as your base 5 or 10 system for web.

Since there are 72 points in an inch, 12 points in a pica, six picas in an inch, etc., the math rounds out nicely. You need to be judicious with type, but the base three system can be quite effective at slaying massive, disorganized, beastly documents.

Imagine a newsletter that utilizes a variety of type styles: headlines of varying size, subheads, body copy, bulleted lists, bylines, and cutlines. Column widths aside, you can start by establishing body copy with, say, Adobe Garamond, 10/12. Pretty standard so far. Move on to small headlines: Trade Gothic Bold Condensed, 16/18. Large headlines: Adobe Garamond 36/39. Cutlines: Trade Gothic Medium 7/9.

You get the idea. The base three system is really no different than using any other baseline gridwork, just that it seems especially versatile. Actually, the sample grid system in this tutorial could just have easily used a three point baseline grid.

DOGG : : :

Dogg, makes perfect sense now and I think you might be right, 3 might be the magic number. My 5 point system is the same idea as this but less flexible than the 3 point system. With my system you can set leading in increments of 5, so between 0-20 you only have 4 leading options, 5-10-15-20. With your 3 point system you have 6 options: 3-6-9-12-15-18. I'm going to try that out and see how it works.

DOGG, I tried your system out and it works great. It gives a ton of leading options and on a letter size paper, with .5 inch margins, the grid fits the page perfectly. The only downside is that the baselines are hard on the eyes since there are so many of them. It's hard to see when zooming out, even at 100%.

@ jayyy

Sometimes full returns can look a bit clumsy and disrupt the flow. If that's the case you can use half a line of leading (in this case 6pts). The text will line up again the next time you break. This bothers some people and not others.

@ chasteauneuf

Setting up a baseline grid in preferences applies the grid to the whole document but you can change the baseline options within a frame.

Object> Text Frame Options> Baseline Options (or command b)

Check 'Use Custom Baseline Grid'

Great little article.

Just being trying out the 3pt system and worked a treat for a text heavy invite.
thanks for the explanation Grid. Makes sense so far I think, but want to spend some time trying it properly. Cheers guys.

Thanks for the info, YOTS. I'll be sure to keep that in mind. I'm managing to work with a 4pt grid (all of my leadings are multiples of 8), but for future reference, that will certainly come in handy.


YOTS thank you for that info on the text frame options for custom baseline grid. i was trying to figure out how to put text on the baseline grid upside down. this works great. :)

The most important thing is to find a common multiple, whether using base 3 or something else. Always start with the text size, but if you need smaller captions, footnotes etc, you need smaller steps than 12pt. If your captions would be 7/8pt, you could use a 4pt baseline grid, if you need 7/9pt, a 3pt baseline is good.

The smaller you get, however, the more difficult it gets for the reader to discern the inherent discipline a grid brings. Based on multiples of 3pt, headlines have a lot of flexibility, more than you’d want for a newspaper. If you work in metric, remember that 3pt is just over 1mm – a grid unit that Müller-Brockmann et al would have considered to fussy. Sometimes it is easier to work with metric grids, especially as the page size would also be metric.

Unfortunately for us European mm-heads, both Indesign and Quark quietly convert metric input for leading (which isn’t leading, but line-spacing) back to points and you end up with strange decimals in the menu. But you can ignore them.

The size of your baseline grid can help lining up type (and images), but it can also be a style issue. If your grid is coarser, increments will be more noticeable and the grid will become a design feature. working with a small common unit of line-spacing is like constructing a building with bricks: while they are too small to count, all the features (windows, doors, transoms, steps) of the facade are multiples of a brick, the baseline of the building, as it were. That gives it an honest, quiet authority that we seem to respond to. This also works with other materials, but like a coarser baseline grid, building with larger concrete slabs or glass panels would become more of a style than using those small bricks.

The space between columns also depends on the way you set text. If you justifiy (which i wouldn’t do for narrow columns with less than 35 characters) the type, the channels need to show more white than for unjustified text where only a few lines will ever make full measure. I never draw space between columns, but indent my text from the right, so i can adjust that space between columns individually. That way, i can also cheat and sometimes widen a column by a fraction in order to bring over the occasional word – widow or orphan. So far, nobody has noticed that little trick in any of the work i have done.


Excellent analogy comparing a building to a baseline grid. Very Bauhaus. Nice tip on gutter spacing as well.

DOGG : : :

Just one observation, personal though. You've used helvetica neu for example, but you must be sure to calculate the best leading considering the x-height of the typeface. In terms of readibility, I think that Helvetiva in copy size should be extra leaded, 10/13pt for instance, since it has a tall x-height. The other rules are deductable but the relationships should be based in the baseline. Good intro though. I find it monstruous to work without a baseline grid. Obsession? ;)

Quick question for chasteauneuf:

I'm having a go at this, and I'm curious to know what you have Units and Increments set to in preferences.
In the step where you specify Grid start and increments, you have it starting in mm and increments in pts, which I can't seem to get Indesign to let me do.

if I have units set to mm, indesign not only forces me to specify increments in mm, but doesn't calculate in mm what i've asked for in points. Am I making sense? How did you get around this?


Jennifer, you may work inside InDesign using whatever units you want, just by writing them. (example, in the top you've got the units you set in the preferences menu, but you can work in the boxes directly, or even make calculations with it. Draw a square 10x10mm. Them go to the "h" box (height) and type "10+25%". You'll get a 10x12,5mm rectangle, because you told InDesign to calculate 25% of the hight and add it. That works in every unit, namely points in the bodies of typefaces and leading.)
Imagine you set a 10/13pt text as a base text to build your baseline. For captions, deducted from it, you can calculate a leading ratio for the body of the caption, like 6/13-25%pt. This will result in a caption text 6/9.75pt and you be sure to align the grid in every four lines.
Summary: write down the units you want in the boxes: pt, mm, cm, p
calculate by association 12+25%,12*1,25pt (multiply by 1,25, which is equal to add 25%), 12/2 (divide by 2), etc. You will see how helpfull it is.
Hope it helps...

This is a great thread. I was dealing with similar issues recently when designing a book and decided to write a little Python program to do the job for me. Admittedly, it has a lot of shortcomings as it was built for a very specific task. That being said, I've since used it to set up grids for other print projects and it works well-enough.

You can see a bit of it on my website www.sincerelyross.com/ (under Grid Generator)

It does essentially what is described above and is also based first and foremost around the choice of leading (thus typeface and size). One difference at this point is that it is not as concerned with the x-height, though I can see from Grid's comment why this might be a valuable thing to incorportate. It started out as a means to create totally proportional grids and page formats (according to Van de Graaf and Tschichold's analysis of traditional page models) though I have since added the ability to specify things like margins, page format, etc manually.

I'll try to post back as it develops. I'm sure I'll have a lot more questions as important decisions arise.


Jennifer, did seml answer your question here?
I dont think you can get it to read one part in mm and one in pts, but you can type it in manually? In this instance, as I am using it in reference to the type size, I type it in as pt...and InDesign recognises this. As seml says, InDesign understands this and you can even specify measurements by adding % and also just typing +10 or something.

milne.ross, this looks amazing. Know nothing of Python myself but know developers and will definetely show them this. Great work! and you will be able to implement this into InDesign?

Chasteauneuf, thanks for comments.

The program allows you to specify page format ratios, baseline increments, columns, rows, and margins and then outputs a string of text giving the resulting values for gutters, baseline margin from top, etc. Those extraordinarily long decimal numbers on a few of the slides on my site are the values (in mm) that the program outputs. These can be used to set up the document and grid in InDesign. The graphic on the left is just to provide a little visual clue about what all the values will end up looking like.

I am going to start reading through this great post, but will this system work with 8.5x11 page sizes? does page size matter? Or is all this based on an A4 size?

thompson, it works great on 8.5x11.


For those who haven't heard of Keith Chi-Hang Tam he's got some good information on grids too.



Chasteauneuf, This post was very helpful.

I love this post... still struggling with a specific document at the moment, it's got slightly irregular dimensions (it's an 8 x 10 doc in InDesign). Aside from my current document, I think I can understand now how to get a nice grid working.

can you/we make this a downloadable/prinatble document?

Paul Ducco
Design Studio Melbourne

Now how do you deal with photos/art with a text wrap butting into the columns of text? Haven't been able to find anything dealing with that problem specifically.

What do you specify for text wraps? Does it cleanly push text in accordance with the baseline grid? Are the columns still even at the bottom of the text box?

A very enjoyable read, most appreciated this thread of info.

In the past I had been trying to create text styling all based on using the same ratio for leading, eg, 3pt 6pt etc but the addition of aligning to a baseline grid sharing the same pt size or a multiple of it has helped get my head around it, thanks again everyone.

I've read this thread with great interest but still struggling to work out how I can reconcile this with working in mm - it seems perfectly geared up to working with inches. I suppose like everyone using metric measurements as default, I'm looking a standard way of setting up documents in InDesign based on working with DIN-standard paper sizes, but keeping points as the units of measurements in the baseline grid and gutters ;o)

To me, 6pt baseline grids look like the way to go - I think there's enough flexibility there but visually I don't think there's enough visual structure in using less than 6pt. I just don't like full line paragraph breaks, I think the distance looks too wide IMHO.

I reckon the best way seems be to set document sizes and margins(possibly?) in mm and everything else in points? To me this logically seems the best compromise. That would mean ignoring Picas though as 1 pica = 12points, I might as well set up a 6pt document & baseline grid in points not half-picas?

I wonder if anyone can shed some light on how publishers in Europe handle this, given the amount of content they have to order and structure with DIN-page contraints.

Anyone any ideas - is there a better way to do this?


I guess it depends how happy you are working with different units, do you mind seemingly random values in mm when working in points/do you like to work to three decimals places etc. I don't think there is a way to reconcile DIN paper size with the point system exactly, no magic math as such, but you can make strong layouts with a bit of tolerance between the two systems. I usually do as you say and have the document set in mm and the type in points, I wouldn't worry about picas.

If you base your grid on metric measurements it will result in long values when converted into points, but really that's not a problem for a complicated job as you can quickly add these values to style sheets, save you typing them. It is possible to have atom splitting measurements in InDesign which allow the paper size and point sizes to come together with very very small discrepancies.

The best book on grids and baselines IMHO is Raster Systeme/Grid Systems by Josef Müller-Brockmann. It took me a long time to get into it but it does have fantastic advice on dividing up pages precisely. The example he employs is a DIN page and the type is in points, so it might help you with your question.

Hope this helps

@1985 - Thanks very much for the explanation - having played around with grids on my latest project, there doesn't seem to be a good way to reconcile points and the DIN-standard. I compromised by keeping text and baseline grid in points, and document size and margins in mm. Pragmatically, that seems to be the way to go.

Thanks very much for the book recommendation - it looks great, so I've ordered it!


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