Setting Type with InDesign

Despite its radical new architecture and the claims of advertising materials, Adobe InDesign is an evolutionary –not a revolutionary –advance in desktop publishing. But there is one area where its refinements represent a significant breakthrough: typography. I'm an old typesetting hand, and InDesign has features I only dreamed of seeing in a desktop-publishing program until now. InDesign is easily the best desktop-typesetting program available, and its release raises the bar on the competition.

Multi-line Composer

The jewel in this publishing program's crown is Adobe Multi-line Composer. Anyone who's serious about type knows that a large part of typesetting time is spent "walking the lines"–fixing bad line breaks and poor word spacing and letterspacing. These problems occur because every desktop-publishing program other than InDesign uses a single-line composer to compose lines of text. As such programs arrange characters on a line, they're considering only the spacing of that line. This means that the next line might have dramatically different spacing–and wide spacing variation between lines can make text hard to read as well as unappealing to look at.

InDesign's Multi-line Composer can examine up to 30 lines past the current line and evaluate up to 30 different ways of composing the text. It creates a list of possible break points in the lines it examines. It then ranks the different break points, considering the effect of each on spacing and hyphenation. Finally, it chooses the best alternative.

You'd think that this would take a lot of time, but when you use InDesign's default settings (6 lines ahead and 6 composition alternatives), you get composition speed equal to that of a single-line composition system and better-looking text. You'll still have to spend some time looking at spacing and line breaks, but it will be only a fraction of the time you have to spend with the text produced by the single-line composition system of any other program. For a closer look at Multi-line Composer, see "Tips for Using InDesign's Multi-line Composer."

New Kerning Methods

InDesign offers two automatic kerning methods, metric and optical (you'll find them on the Kerning pop-up menu in the Character palette). When you choose metric, InDesign reads the kerning pairs defined in the screen font and applies them to the selected characters. The problem with this method is that most fonts have very limited sets of automatic kerning pairs–few fonts contain more than 128 defined pairs, barely enough pairs to cover the most-common letter combinations.

InDesign's edge is its optical kerning method–an option that is lacking in QuarkXPress and is slow and awkward in Adobe PageMaker. When you choose optical kerning, InDesign analyzes the shapes of the characters themselves and applies kerning to evenly space the characters (see "Optical Kerning"). After that, you can range-kern the text to produce looser or tighter spacing. Optical kerning, like multiline composition, sounds as though it would slow composition to a crawl, but it doesn't. I use optical kerning without noticeable effects on speed. Older Macs may suffer a slowdown.

Hang It All

The edges of a text column can sometimes look ragged–even in fully justified text–because of the shape of the characters beginning or ending the lines of text in the column. Some desktop-publishing applications have a feature called "hanging punctuation," which attempts to make the edges of text columns appear more regular by placing a limited set of punctuation marks outside the column.

InDesign's Optical Margin Alignment goes further to improve the look of a text column. It adjusts all characters at the beginning or end of lines in a text column (see "Optical Margin Alignment"). It looks odd on the screen, but on printed pages, you'll see a subtle improvement over the results that other publishing programs produce.

Character Styles with a Difference

Like QuarkXPress, InDesign offers character styles–styles that can be applied to a range of text smaller than an entire paragraph (if you want the formatting to apply to the whole paragraph, use a paragraph style). And, as in QuarkXPress, the easiest way to create a character style is to select a range of text that has the formatting you want and then base your new character style on the selected example. In QuarkXPress, this results in a style that has all the formatting attributes of the selected text. InDesign, however, records as part of the character style only the formatting attributes that differ from the default formatting of the surrounding text. This is a feature–it's not a bug–that lets you create character styles that affect only the font and color, say, while leaving all other attributes unchanged.

If you want your InDesign character styles to work like character styles in QuarkXPress, you could walk through all the panels of the Edit Character Style dialog box to fill in the missing formatting information. But there's an easier way–the Adobe Technical Information folder on your InDesign installation CD contains a Scripting folder, where you'll find a script named Create Character Style. When you define a character style with this script, it will record all the formatting attributes of the selected text, à la QuarkXPress.

InDesign's Leading Grids

A leading grid is a grid based on the leading of your publication's body text. It's a very powerful design tool, because it can give structure to a layout. Leading grids make production decisions easier–no more worrying about how and where to fit images or text–and prevent leading creep (a typographic gaffe in which the baselines of body text in adjacent columns don't line up). Readers can perceive the underlying structure imposed by a leading grid even when the grid is not immediately obvious. Leading-grid-based layouts "feel" more solid and consistent than designs that are not based on a grid. PageMaker and QuarkXPress both include tools for "snapping" the baselines of text to a leading grid, and InDesign follows suit in providing these essential features. For details on working with leading grids, see "Take Advantage of Grids and Guides."

Inching toward Perfection

InDesign has room for improvement. There are lots of typesetting features I'd like to see in it, and parts of the program aren't up to the standard of its type controls. But with its excellent manual control and intelligent automation, Adobe's new entry makes it easier to set good type.

OLAV MARTIN KVERN is an illustrator, graphic designer, software developer, and writer. He is the author of Real World FreeHand 8 (Peachpit Press, 1998).

January 2000 page: 108

Tips for Using InDesign's Multi-line Composer
Single-line composition
Multiline composition

The most powerful feature in Adobe InDesign for improving the look of your text is Multi-line Composer. The proof is in the spacing. These examples use identical spacing settings, but InDesign's Multi-line Composer reduces variation in word spacing and letterspacing between adjacent lines.


Press command-M to display the Paragraph palette, and choose the composition system you want to use. Multi-line Composer is the default composition system. (You can use single-line composition in InDesign, but I'm not sure why you would want to.) To turn hyphenation on or off, click on the Hyphenate check box (A).


The options in the Composition panel of the Preferences dialog box control Multi-line Composer settings. You can enter a number from 3 to 30 in either field. Don't change these settings unless composition seems unusually slow. In such a case, try decreasing the value in the Consider Up To n Alternatives field (A), although the problem is probably due to some other factor. If you're working with paragraphs longer than seven composed lines, you can increase the value in the Look Ahead n Lines field (B). You want Multi-line Composer to be able to evaluate every line in a paragraph.


To have InDesign highlight lines that violate your spacing settings (the values you entered in the Justification dialog box), turn on the H&J Violations option in the Highlight section of the Composition panel of the Preferences dialog box. InDesign uses three shades of yellow to indicate violations--a light shade indicates a minor variation from your spacing settings; darker shades indicate greater variation.


Whether you want to use multiline or single-line composition, you'll need to provide the spacing settings you want applied to your text, in the Justification dialog box (choose Justification in the Paragraph palette). The values you enter in the Minimum and Maximum fields (A) set the ranges you'll allow InDesign to use when composing justified copy.

If you enter 0% in all three Letter Spacing fields (B), InDesign will never apply letterspacing to the selected text (as XPress will). Instead, it will make spacing adjustments by using word spacing. This approach makes sense, because even a minuscule amount of letterspacing can make your text more difficult to read, but it means you'll have to watch for overly loose or tight word spacing.

Watch out! Entering a value other than 100% in any of the Glyph Scaling fields (C) tells InDesign that it's OK to stretch and squash the characters in a line. This can make for interesting special effects, but you shouldn't use it for everyday text composition--varying character shapes in body text makes the text difficult to read.

The value you enter in the Desired fields (D) sets the spacing for nonjustified text.

Take Advantage of Grids and Guides

You will find the settings that control the leading grid in the Grid and Guides Preferences dialog box (choose File: Preferences: Grid and Guides to display this dialog box). You can control where InDesign begins marking off the leading grid by using the Start field (A). Set the distance between grid lines in the Increment Every field (B). For a page layout using a leading grid, set this value to the leading of the publication's body text or some even multiple thereof.

Align to Baseline Grid off

Align to Baseline Grid on


To "snap" the baselines of text in a paragraph to the underlying leading grid, select the paragraph and turn on the Align to Baseline Grid option in the Paragraph palette. InDesign moves the baselines of the selected paragraph to match the leading grid, which does not have to be visible.


Choose View: Leading Grid to display the publication's leading grid. If the grid does not appear, it's because your current magnification is lower than the leading grid's view threshold. Zoom in or change the view-threshold value. When you turn on the Snap to Guides option (on the View menu), InDesign snaps objects to the leading grid as you draw or drag them.


To control the location of the first baseline of text in a text frame, select the text frame and press command-B to display the Text Frame Options dialog box. Then choose Leading from the Offset menu in the First Baseline section. When you do this, the first baseline appears one leading increment from the top of the text frame–regardless of the size of the characters in the line.

Optical Kerning

The text above shows the metric method of automatic kerning; the more evenly spaced text below was produced with the optical method. The red numbers show the automatic kerning adjustments in thousandths of an em.

Optical Margin Alignment

Optical Margin Alignment close-up

Optical Margin Alignment off

Optical Margin Alignment on

In the text sample at the upper right, Optical Margin Alignment is off; in the sample below it, Optical Margin Alignment is on. In the close-up view, you can see how InDesign adjusts the characters at the edge of the text column. Punctuation (A) is placed outside the column, and some characters (B) hang outside it, whereas others (C) are located farther inside the column.

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