Using InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop Together: Getting the Most From the Interface


When Adobe first created the concept of a “Creative Suite,” they wanted to make all the applications work and look as much alike as possible. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” It’s just not possible for the three applications in “InDe-Illu-Shop” to work exactly the same, despite the best intentions of the Adobe software designers.

However, that’s not to say that the applications don’t have their similarities. You just have to know what’s similar and what’s not.

50 Shades of Interface

There are two types of InDe-Illu-Shop users: those who love the dark interface and those who can’t see anything in the dark. I’m one of the latter, which is surprising since I live in New York City, where everyone wears black.

When switching back and forth between the three programs, it is sometimes a little confusing to tell which program you’ve jumped into. Yes, there are plenty of clues, especially in the tools, to tell you which program is which, but Adobe has done such a good job of standardizing the icons for various panels, that it isn’t always immediately obvious.

Before I could set a custom interface color theme, I used to play with the Tools panel to let me know which program I was working on. I put InDesign’s tools on the left; Photoshop’s tools on the right, and I set Illustrator’s tools in two columns.

But now I simply set the color theme for each program to a different shade. InDesign gets the lightest shade because I use it the most; Illustrator gets the next lightest; and Photoshop gets the darkest. You can set the interface to whatever shade you want for your favorite program.

You would think that all three programs would use exactly the same controls to set the interface appearance. But each engineering team has its own ideas of what makes the best controls.

InDesign’s Appearance settings

To set the interface theme in InDesign, choose Preferences > Interface and then set the color theme. You can choose one of the four pre-set colors or use the slider to set a specific level of brightness.


Illustrator’s Brightness controls

To set the interface theme in Illustrator, choose Preferences > User Interface. You can then choose one of the four Brightness settings or use the slider to set a custom shade. This is exactly the same functionality as InDesign’s controls. However, the slider in Illustrator has little tick marks to indicate the amounts shown in the menu. But don’t let those tick marks fool you. You can set the slider anywhere along the path.


Photoshop’s Color Theme

Finally, in Photoshop, choose Preferences > Interface. Then click on one of the four interface color swatches. You only have the interface swatches as controls; there isn’t any slider.


With each application using a different color theme, it’s easier for me to recognize where I am. As you can see, Illustrator’s Medium Light is a quite similar to InDesign’s Light. So I still use a double column Tools panel in Illustrator to help differentiate the two programs. Meanwhile, Photoshop’s black hole of an interface makes it instantly obvious where I am.


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Sandee Cohen is a New York City-based instructor and corporate trainer in a wide variety of graphic programs, especially the Adobe products, including InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Acrobat. She has been an instructor for New School University, Cooper Union, Pratt, and School of Visual Arts. She is a frequent speaker for various events. She has also been a speaker for Seybold Seminars, Macworld Expo, and PhotoPlus conferences. She is the author of many versions of the Visual Quickstart Guides for InDesign.
  • Eric Henao says:

    Interesting thing I noticed in the interface colors, each one lists a CUSTOM field that for all of them is greyed out (except Photoshop). Will this be where we can, as some time in the future, maybe actually select/set a COLOR?

  • Jen01 says:

    I had to get in the habit of checking the icon in the upper left corner every so often when I’m switching among the 3, to be sure I’m in the right place!

    And I get it – some differences are necessary because of the nature of the programs. BUT, the most basic navigation should be the same. My #1 InDe-Illu-Shop pet peeve: the spacebar is used for panning, EXCEPT when you’re in the text tool in Indesign, then it’s the ALT key (but in Illustrator ALT does nothing, and in PS it moves the center point of the text box instead). Why can’t it always be the ALT key – all the time, in all 3 programs? I’ve been using ID since 2.0 and this still trips me up.

    A close second peeve would be zoom: with an object selected in ID, zooming is centered on the object. I understand why this might be difficult in PS, but really, shouldn’t Illustrator be able to do this too? It’s vector-based, after all. Nope, it zooms based on the center of the visible area.

    And for what it’s worth, I’m no fan of the dark interface either.

  • SandeeCohen says:



    Custom doesn’t indicate the potential for color. It’s simply the label that pops up if you choose an inbetween amount on the sliders.

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