InDesign’s auto-numbering feature has really changed the way my team and I work on the One-on-One books. In the past, I had to manually type each and every step number (in a series designed—by yours truly—to be chock full of steps) and my editor Carol was constantly fixing my mistakes. The same was true for the hundreds of captions that appeared below the figures. But now that InDesign lets you create a numbered style that keeps accurate count across stories, or even documents, we were able to automatically address steps and figure captions in the latest book (Adobe InDesign CS3 One-on-One, appropriately enough). We still have to manually reference the figures and page numbers from the main text, but otherwise, numbering is InDesign’s job.


In this quick tutorial, I’ll show you how this works for creating automatically numbered figure captions. If you want to follow along, open up this sample spread from Adobe Photoshop CS3 One-on-One. You'll see that the top-left illustration sports one of our old manual figure numbers.

Figure One

Double-click the blue caption below the image to switch to the type tool and place the blinking insertion marker. Then Alt-click (or Option-click) the icon at the bottom of the Paragraph Styles palette. In the New Paragraph Style dialog box, name the style “Figure Number,” and turn on the checkbox that allows you to apply this new style to the text you currently have selected. Next, pick Bullets and Numbering from the left-hand list and choose Numbers from the List Type pop-up menu. InDesign adds a number to the beginning of the caption in the document window. This isn’t what we want at all, so let’s switch things out a bit. Below Format, the Number field currently reads ^#.^t, which is shorthand for “the next number in the sequence followed by a tab”—great for steps but bad for captions.

Click Number to select the text and replace it as follows:

  1. Type the word “Figure” and then press the spacebar to insert a standard space character.
  2. Click the arrow to the right of the Number field and choose Insert Number Placeholder’Chapter Number. InDesign adds the code ^H.
  3. In my captions, chapter and figure numbers are separated by a hyphen, so press the hyphen (dash)key to add one here.
  4. The last item we’ll add is the number that uniquely identifies each figure. Click the arrow again and choose Insert Number Placeholder’Current Level. The Number field now reads Figure ^H-^# without the closing period that actually appears at the end of each caption.

Figure Two

Why no period? InDesign requires some sort of manual text to accompany the frame; if the frame contains no text, it gets no numbering. All the other elements of our caption are going to be part of the assigned auto-number, so we’ll be entering that one character (.) manually. Thankfully, we need do it only once, as you’ll see.

Because we’ll be expecting InDesign to track figure numbers from one caption to another—without us resorting to threading the captions, which would be a pain in the neck—we need to establish a list. Go up a couple of options to the List pop-up menu and choose New List to display a small dialog box. Enter the name “Figures,” turn on Continue Numbers across Stories, and turn off Continue Numbers from Previous Document in Book. This restarts the figure numbering at the beginning of each lesson. When your settings look like those shown below, click OK in each of the two dialog boxes to create the new style.

Figure Three

The figure caption now reads Figure 1-1Figure 6-1, which is both repetitive and wrong. Here’s how to fix it:

  1. Delete the hand-typed Figure 6-1 (a holdover from the old, bad way of doing things), leaving just the final period as a placeholder. You’ll know you got it right if all that’s left is Figure 1-1.
  2. To fix the chapter number, choose Layout’Numbering & Section Options, set the Chapter Number value to 6, and click OK.

Figure Four

Now we have a caption worth duplicating. Get the black arrow tool and Alt-drag (or Option-drag) to copy the caption text block to directly below the image in the bottom-left portion of the page. (If you press W, you’ll see that I’ve provided guides to help you with alignment.) The new text updates automatically to read Figure 6-2. Duplicate the caption to the spot below the top-right image on page 199 and you get Figure 6-3.

The great news is, these numbers will automatically update to reflect other changes. For example, it just so happens that the first image should really be Figure 6-30. Double-click in the first caption to activate it with the type tool. Then click the icon in the control palette and choose Bullets and Numbering. Set the Mode option to Start At, enter a value of 30, and click OK. With no additional effort, all three figure captions update automatically, as I’ve circled in violet below.

Figure Five

Note: Auto-numbering progresses in the order that frames are added to the page. Moving a text block to the front or back has no effect. So if the numbers get out of order, cut and paste a text block to move it into the last position. Or just rearrange them.

The bad news is, you still have to enter all cross-references to the figures manually. I’ve provided three blue placeholders in the document. To update the placeholders, you will have to manually change the items that read Figure 6-X, Y, and Z to “Figure 6-30,” “31,” and “32,” as I’ve circled in yellow. That’s too bad, but there is a silver lining: Because we have the automatically numbered captions to serve as fact checkers, I rarely referenced a figure by the wrong number. Painful as it might be to enter the cross references by hand, doing it twice has got to be four times as bad. With the auto-numbering features that are new to InDesign CS3, we stay one step closer to sanity.