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Option-Dragging Back to Default Formatting

Last Saturday, I witnessed a UFO. No, not the things from Area 51 and/or outer space. I mean an InDesign UFO, an Unexpectedly Formatted Object. Specifically, I stumbled on a weird phenomenon regarding object formatting and the Direct Selection tool. Under certain circumstances, if you attempt to duplicate an object by Option-dragging it with the Direct Selection tool, the formatting of the new object changes to match the default formatting for that type of object in the document.

If you Option drag lines, open paths, rectangles, ellipses, and polygons, the new object will take on the stroke, fill, corner options, effects, opacity, and object style that you see in the Control panel with nothing selected.

If you Option drag a frame containing a placed graphic (not the graphic itself), or an object made with any of the 'Frame' tools (Rectangle Frame Tool, Ellipse Frame Tool, Polgyon Frame Tool), the new copy will have the default fromatting for those objects, which is no formatting: no stroke, no fill, etc.

As I mentioned above, the default formatting doesn't always happen when you Option-drag. You can usually tell what will happen by your cursor when you mouse over an object. If you Option-drag when your cursor is a white arrow with a line, the new object will have default formatting. If you Option-drag when your cursor is a white arrow with a point, the new copy will have the same formatting as the original object.

To illustrate the phenomenon, try this test for yourself. Draw a rectangle and give it some interesting formatting.

Then deselect everything (Command-Shift-a). Now go to the Control panel and change the document's defaults to something else very different from your rectangle's formatting.

With the Direct Selection tool, click in the very center of the rectangle, so the control point is filled in.

Hold Option and drag the center point. Voila, the copy has default formatting.

If you Option-drag just a segment of the rectangle, then it will be duplicated and have the default formatting.

I don't know if this is a Mac-only issue, or if the same things happen when you Alt-drag on the PC. Also, while it was news to me, this has been around for a while. I get the same results with CS3, 4, and 5. Makes me wonder what else has been lurking under my cursor all these years. Keep watching the skies, er, screens.

Mike Rankin
Editor in Chief of, InDesign Magazine, and Author of courses on InDesign and Illustrator. Husband. Dad. Dog walker.
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6 Comments on “Option-Dragging Back to Default Formatting

  1. This is incredibly weird. Thanks for writing it up!
    As it turns out, an indesignsecrets reader named Kevin M. wrote me about this a while back and noted that it had been talked about in the Adobe forum:
    He pointed out that you get a slightly different cursor icon when hovering over the segment. He wrote: “If you hold the direct select tool over the line you will see the icon change from having a little square to having what looks like two show lines, when the cursor is a square the line is copied exactly like it is, when it is the other icon it defaults the line back to your defaults.”

  2. What you see here is the difference between an Object and a Path.

    An object can have content or a fill color. A path cannot. A path is an element of an object and defines nothing more than the position of the anchor points and if the path is closed or not. Apart from those two a path has no properties.

    Thus when you copy just the path (and not the entire object) you get a new object with no properties. Since that is not possible, you get an object with default properties.

    The direct selection tool’s purpose is to work with paths not with objects. The conceptually weird thing about the above behaviour is that in some cases the direct selection tool works with the object, e.g. when you drag inside the fill colour.

    One could also argue that a duplicated path should not create a new object but a new path inside the existing object. Think shapes with holes. But while conceptually sound, most users would be freaked out even more by this, I suppose.

    Fun experiment: alt-drag the stroke of a circle without selecting it first.

  3. Gerald-

    That’s a great explanation, and it sways me toward seeing this is a feature and not a bug.

    A use case could be when you have a placed graphic. If you want a copy of just the frame to use elsewhere, click on the center point, then option-drag with the Direct Selection tool. If you want a copy of the graphic in a new frame, with zero for all crop values, option-drag from anywhere else inside the frame.

  4. Actually I’m starting to think the same way Mike, after reading Gerald’s note.

    That it is a feature (even though my original thought was also ‘it is a bug’) …

    Considering also that to copy an object we no longer require the use of the Direct Selection tool… (which as Gerald says would copy the path ;-) not the object, hence the different behaviour)

    Even when the object is part of a group, we can “Alt/Option” copy the object using the Selection Tool and in that case this reset to default appearance will never occur.

    By the way have you noticed that when you copy a path with rounded corners, the path ‘expands its corner appearance’ ?

  5. “Fun experiment: alt-drag the stroke of a circle without selecting it first.”

    Gilbert, that is just too cool! Add my thanks to the list for the lucid explanation, which opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities.

  6. Do you know how to fix my moving selection on CS4? I reset my preferences, I have another computer with cs4 installed and comparing both are the same settings.

    It was working fine suddenly stoped working

    thank you!!

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