InDesign FX: Creating cast shadows

Published by | Thursday, April 5th, 2012

When it comes to judging graphic effects, sometimes I think shadows have an unfairly bad reputation. Sure, the quick and dirty, default InDesign drop shadow is almost always ineffective, sloppy, and easily spotted. It’s too big, too dark, and always protrudes equally from the bottom and right sides of an object. Pick up any magazine, and I bet you’ll find five of them within a minute. But beware, once you start noticing them, it’s impossible to stop.

When you take the time to think about what shadows really look like, and then apply that knowledge to your effects, your shadows can enhance your work in a way that no other effect can. Shadows can add dramatic depth or subtle realism. Plus, for my money, they’re the fastest and easiest effect to use. When a deadline looms and you need to enhance a design as quickly as possible, a well-placed shadow is your best bet.

One of the biggest obstacles to making great shadows in InDesign is the seeming lack of cast shadow controls. InDesign makes two kinds of shadows: drop shadows and inner shadows—and that’s it. There’s seems to be no way to make a shadow that doesn’t match the original size and shape of the object. Or is there?

Sure there is! You just have to think outside the (shadow) box. Up in the Control panel, you have tools for scaling and shearing objects. These kind of controls are perfect for creating cast shadows, you just need to make an object that looks like a shadow first. To do this, you employ a simple blend mode trick that involves filling an object (or text) with the [Paper] swatch and setting it to the Multiply blend mode. This makes the fill of the object disappear, but you can still apply a visible drop-shadow to this invisible object.

InDesign cast shadown example.

That drop shadow’s connection to its invisible-object owner will also allow it to mimic any scaling and skewing you apply to the invisible object. Add a little gradient feather to add some realism and voila! A cast shadow that you can position and tweak to your heart’s delight.

InDesign cast shadow with slant

Put it behind a copy of the original object and you have the cast shadow effect.

inDesign cast shadow finished

For members, I also have another new video this week in the online training library called Exploring Outer Glow Settings. In that video I show the basics of Outer Glow, as well as some of the more advanced techniques you can use. As an example, here’s a sample of an eerie alien effect you can create by combining two outer glows.

InDesign alien effect created with outer glow effects
Another advanced trick is to combine outer glow with bevel and emboss in a way that makes the glow actually color the embossing. Usually you can only add color to the shadows and highlights in embossing, not the entire thing. In this instance, the glow yields softer edges than you could get with a simple stroke.

Combining outerglow effects with emboss in InDesign

See you here again in two weeks with another InDesign effect!


Interested in more?
• The complete InDesign FX course
• All InDesign courses on
• All courses by Mike Rankin on

 Suggested courses to watch next:
• InDesign CS5 Essential Training
• Creating Long Documents with InDesign
• InDesign Styles in Depth

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