It’s surprisingly quick and easy to create illustrated graphics in InDesign, without the need for dipping into vector software or splashing out on stock images.
In this tutorial you’ll learn how to draw shapes and silhouettes in InDesign, and apply stylistic effects, like noise, shadows and gradients, to create a vintage-inspired, screen-printed effect.
Suitable for beginners, this is a handy little introduction to drawing with shapes in InDesign.
Why Draw in InDesign?
InDesign isn’t always the first software option that springs to mind for creating vector graphics, but it’s actually a fantastic choice if you’re looking to create quick illustrations to incorporate into other InDesign layouts, such as flyers, magazines or posters.
InDesign brings together the best of both worlds for illustration—a set of vector drawing tools you would normally find in Illustrator as well as the advanced effects you would usually only be able to apply in Photoshop.
Geometric shapes, simple silhouettes, logo designs and patterns are all easily achievable with the tools available to you in InDesign. You’ll also end up with a vector (not raster) graphic, which means you can scale your design as you wish without compromising on quality.
Here, we’ll work towards creating this winter tree illustration, to demonstrate a range of handy drawing techniques. You can apply the same techniques and principles to your own designs—the only limitation is your imagination!
Ready to get drawing? Awesome, let’s go!
1. How to Draw a Shape
Open up InDesign and go to File > New > Document, creating a document at any size you wish. If you’re creating your illustration for print media (e.g. flyers, stationery etc) set the Intent to Print. Want to create a design for social media or attaching to an email? Choose Web instead.
With the document created, you’ll need to get familiar with the Tools panel to create your illustration. This is docked over on the left side of the workspace (or go to Window > Tools).
Even if you’re not using a graphics tablet, using the Pen Tool (P) to create shapes on the page will give you a high level of control. Click onto the page and move around to create your shape, before connecting the silhouette at the first anchor point.
You can switch to the Direct Selection Tool (A) to select individual anchor points and tweak their position.
Once you’ve clicked onto an anchor point (it will switch to white once accurately selected), use your mouse or the arrow keys to shift the position of the anchor point, perfecting your shape.
For illustrations made up of separate lines (i.e. not a complete shape), it’s best to use the Line Tool (\).
Click onto the page once, then twice, to create a single line. To create a completely straight horizontal or vertical line hold down Shift while you drag.
Here I’ve created a single central branch for the tree using the Line Tool, before creating individual branches reaching from the trunk to the outer edge of the tree using the same tool.
I switch to the Direct Selection Tool (A) to select individual anchor points and move them until I’m happy with their position.
2. How to Add Color and Effects
Once you have your shape in place it’s time to get creative with color!
If you’re creating a simple logo or icon design you may want to use just one or two colors, but more complex illustrations might benefit from a palette of colors. To create a variety of color swatches to work with, go to the Swatches panel (Window > Color > Swatches) and choose New Color Swatch from the panel’s top-right drop-down menu. Play around with the CMYK (for print) or RGB (for web) percentage levels, before clicking Add and OK to add it to the Swatches panel.
Select the shape you’d like to apply the swatch to and set the Fill to your chosen swatch from the Swatches panel. For larger shapes it almost always looks best if you set the Stroke Color to [None].
Now you’re ready to start applying effects to your illustration to bring in texture and depth.
If you have a group of elements you want to apply the same effect to you may find it easier to first Right-Click > Group them together, as I’ve done here with the branches of the tree.
Then head up to Object on the main menu bar running along the top of the workspace, and choose Effects and then select any option from that menu. Whichever option you click on will open the Effects window. From here you can apply all sorts of effects to your design, such as shadowing, gradients and glows.
Below you’ll find highlighted some of the effects which I think have the potential to bring out the best in your illustrations…
Adding a shadow to your graphics can give the design more depth and body.
Apply the effect subtly by adjusting the Effect Color from Black to be a closer match to the background color below (here, I’ve opted for a dark green to complement the tree foliage below). You can also bring down the Opacity and adjust the Distance, Size and Spread to make the shadow more subtle.
Copying and pasting (Edit > Copy/Paste) certain elements on your design and shifting their position slightly can give your illustrations an authentic screen-printed or letterpress look. Here I’ve pasted a copy of the tree branches to create that effect.
In this design I’ve used the Pen Tool (P) to create individual sections of color across the tree.
Selecting each colored section I can also adjust the transparency settings by once again heading up to Object > Effects and choosing Transparency.
Applying a Transparency effect to some or all of your illustration can really help the design to blend together and look more professional.
Choosing Normal from the Mode menu and reducing the Opacity will simply fade the element selected, allowing details from other elements sitting below to become more visible.
Applying an Overlay blending mode is a great way of preserving the impact and color of the element while still making elements below more visible.
You can make vector graphics look more hand-drawn by adding grainy texture. The best way to do this is with the Inner Glow option in the Effects window.
You can apply a glowy, light-up effect to the inside of your shapes by adding Inner Glow, but I tend to use this option for applying grainy noise instead.
To do this, adjust the Mode to Normal, and choose a color that is similar to, but not the same as, the color of the shape you are applying the effect to. Increase the Size and Choke to extend the effect across the whole shape, and then adjust the level of Noise until you are happy with the amount of grain.
You can also make shapes appear as if they are glowing on the outside, which is a lovely effect for adding a lit-up effect to elements like stars, lightbulbs, suns or moons. Once you’ve created your shape (here, I’ve created a star shape using the Pen Tool), head up again to Object > Effects, and choose Outer Glow.
With the Mode set to Screen, adjust the Size and Spread of the effect until you’re happy with the amount of glow around your shape. Adding a little Noise will soften the effect.
Conclusion: Illustrating Made Easy in InDesign
In this tutorial we’ve looked at a simple three-step process for creating illustrations in InDesign. Let’s take a quick recap:
- First, use the Pen Tool and shape tools (e.g. Line Tool) in the Tools panel to create simple shapes, lines and silhouettes.
- Next, create a range of color swatches in the Swatches panel and apply your palette to your drawing.
- Finally, style your illustration using the options available in InDesign’s Effects window, such as glows, shadows, noise and transparencies.