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By Mike Rankin |

Using InDesign Master Pages for Long Documents

InDesign master pages

Imagine you’re a designer laying out a 500-page book in InDesign, with all kinds of page types—various front matter, end matter, body text, chapter openers, etc.

Would you try to build each of those pages manually, starting with a blank page every time? Or would you reach for a tool that would allow you to easily create all those pages with the speed and consistency of professional-quality work?

Fortunately, just such a tool exists in InDesign: master pages.

In this article, I’m going to show you how InDesign master pages work.

You can also watch my lynda.com course Creating Long Documents with InDesign CC for a complete long-document workflow—including how to use master pages.

What are InDesign master pages?

Master pages (also called Master spreads) are page designs that you can create once and then reuse as many times as needed just by applying them to your document pages in InDesign.

They’re like individual page templates inside a document. Master pages provide structure for your document pages with margins and columns, plus content like images, text frames, or other page objects that you want to use repeatedly and consistently.

Then, on top of that background structure and content, you can add the text, images, and other objects that make each document page unique.

Understanding how master pages work

The foundation of the way master pages work in InDesign is the Based On feature. Every document page is based on a master, so when it is first created, a document page is identical to its master.

Then from that point, you can add more content to the document page, and change or remove the master elements if you want. You can also apply a different master to change the look of a page altogether with one click.

And it gets even better, because the way master page items work is wonderfully clever. To make changes to a master page item on a document page, you have to override it first by holding Command+Shift (Mac) or Ctrl+Shift (Windows) and clicking or dragging over the item(s).

Once an item is overridden, you can select it and edit it on the document page. But every attribute of that item you do not edit on the document page is still controlled by the master.

For example, say you have a text frame master page item. You override it on the document page, and type some text in the frame. At this point, every other attribute of that frame, except the text content is still controlled by the master page.

So if you now decide that your text frames should have a blue fill color, you can apply that fill color to the text frame on the master page, and it will be automatically applied to the text frame you just typed in—as well as every other corresponding text frame where you had not changed the fill color on the document page.

Coming up with a master pages strategy

When starting a new long document project, I first look at the design specifications, prototype, or previous edition, so I can understand all the page types I need to build.

Each one of those page types will become a master page. And in InDesign, each master page can be based on another master page. So if you have several similar page types, you can create one master with all the attributes those pages have in common, and then create variations by basing new masters on the original, and making changes to them.

For example, in the image below, there are three similar document spreads, based on three master spreads: Recipes, Front Matter, and End Matter.


Say I had to change the background color of all these document pages from tan to white. I would only have make that change in one place—the Recipes master—and it would automatically be repeated in the Front Matter and End Matter master pages (because they are based on the Recipes master), and on into the corresponding document pages, whether that was six pages or six hundred.

Compare that to navigating to 600 pages, one at a time, selecting the frame with the tan fill, and changing each one to white. Now do you see the power you can wield with master pages?

Setting up your document infrastructure strategically will allow you to build and edit pages with maximum speed and minimum effort.

Master pages tips and tricks

Now that you know a little bit about why InDesign master pages are so important in long documents, and how they work, here are a few extra tips for getting the most out of them.

  • When creating master pages, give them descriptive prefixes like “BT” for body text, “EM” for end matter, and so on. That way, you can tell which master has been applied to each document page just by glancing at the Pages panel.master-pages-2
  • To quickly apply a master page to a range of document pages, target the document pages by shift-clicking on them, and then Option/Alt-click on the master.
  • To make master items like page numbers always appear above document page items, use InDesign’s layers features. Create a layer for master items, and in the Layers panel, move it above the layer you use for document page items. master-pages-3
  • Have a document page you want to use as a master? No problem! Just drag a document spread into the master pages area of the Pages panel to create a new master spread from the document spread.
  • After you have overridden a master page item, you can detach it from the master, and make it fully independent. From the Pages panel menu, choose Master Pages > Detach Selection from Master.

Mastering master pages

To see these tips in action, be sure to check out the free video Using master pages from my lynda.com course Creating Long Documents with InDesign CC .

The course also includes free videos on


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