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Text Wrap: Awesome or Evil?

The following is an email exchange between David Blatner and Olav Martin Kvern, two friends and early adopters of publishing technology who started with Pagemaker in the late 80s and have been laying out pages ever since.

Ole and David both agree on a lot, but when it comes to text wrap, the two just don’t see eye to eye. We think the interchange proves that there is no “right” way to do anything in InDesign… instead, there are many different ways, and often conflicting opinions on best practices. Plus, in the middle of all this bickering, there are some excellent educational nuggets to be gleaned!

On the Topic of Text Wrap…

David:

Ole, ever since I met you in 1989, you’ve had this thing about text wrap. I remember you working on the seminal Real World Pagemaker with Steve Roth, and you two hand-flowed every page… without text wrap. Instead, you’d make multiple text blocks on the page. You did the same thing with Real World Freehand.

And then, around 2001, when you let me co-author Real World InDesign, you did so with a stipulation: That we lay out the pages without text wrap. So every image in the book (and there are a lot of them!) is above or below a text frame. That means there are hardly any text frames in that book that reach all four margins! I have to admit this has been frustrating over the years, as I think text wrap (or “runaround” as we used to call it, back in the old QX days) is awesome.

What is it about text wrap? Were you attacked by a text wrap as a child?

Olav Martin Kvern:

First, I think we can agree that non-rectangular text wraps are an abomination. Not only is it ugly (in every case I have ever seen), but it actively works against the function of the text. In left-to-right text, the reader’s eye returns to the left edge of the text column after scanning each line. If the reader has to search for that location, it decreases the readability of the text. People might not notice this in a conscious way, but it has an effect on the way that they experience the text, and might even cause them to stop reading.

Second, even a rectangular text wrap that intrudes on the left edge of a text column causes the same problem—at the transition from one column width to another, the reader’s eye has to search for the new left edge of the text. It’s less bad than an irregular wrap—where the column edge can change with each line–but it still leads to unconscious frustration on the part of the reader.

That leaves us with only two acceptable forms of text wrap in InDesign: Jump Object and Jump to Next Column. The rest can and should be removed from the application.

I’m sure that last line will upset some folks—and it’s true that I’m at least partly kidding. But think about it: text is there to be read. It’s not, for the most part, a decoration. Steve and I said this in Real World PageMaker, and I believe that I’ve repeated it in other books: the entire point of your eye-catching layout is to get people to read the text. You don’t want to draw them in, only to make them stop reading before they’ve got the message you’re trying to convey. Or, worse, form a poor impression of your message. Bad typesetting can make people hate the product, service, event, or ideas that you’re trying to communicate about.

If the Jump Object text wrap is not harmful, why don’t we use it in our book?

The design of Real World InDesign is layout-driven, rather than content-driven. If it were content-driven (which would mean that we didn’t care about widely varying amounts of space at the bottom of each page), we could anchor the graphics in text and be done with it. That’s a pretty common approach for technical books. It’s just not one that I like, or that I feel is appropriate to a book about InDesign. They can take away our color section, and print the book on toilet paper, and ask us to squeeze more and more features into fewer and fewer pages, but we can still have a pretty good book design.

To make text wrap work, given our design, we’d have to group the illustrations, then apply text wrap to the group. I don’t know about your experience with laying out Real World InDesign, but I find I’m always working on the content of the illustrations. Very few of the figures in that book are a simple screen shot—a single image. Most of them are complex constructions of screen shot fragments, callout lines, and text frames. When doing pagination (fixing bad page breaks, avoiding uneven space at the bottom of the page, etc.), it’s handy to be able to edit an illustration to make it take up, say, two more lines, or two fewer. In a typical walk through a chapter for final pagination, I’ll probably touch the content of every illustration at least once.

If we group and wrap the illustrations, the process of doing this becomes much harder. First, we’d need to ungroup the illustration–at which point the text will run over it and need to be dealt with. Then we’d need to group and wrap the illustration again, resize the text frame, and so on.

If we didn’t care about bad page breaks, blank recto pages, or uneven space at the bottoms of facing pages, this wouldn’t be an issue. But we do. That means that we’re going to be forcing page breaks. To do that, we can a.) adjust the height of text frames, b.) use paragraph breaks when the page breaks between paragraphs, or c.) enter break characters in the text. We chose (a) and (b), so we’re going to be adjusting text frames anyway. It’s not as if it’s hard.

I guess that’s the tl:dr—yes, we could use jump over wrap, but it really wouldn’t save us much time and effort, if any.

Historically, there were good reasons to avoid text wrap. At least in the days of Real World PageMaker, it didn’t always work (in fact, it was pretty spectacularly bad), and it always slowed the layout process to a crawl. At that time, we didn’t have a Jump Object wrap type that would keep text following the wrap on the baseline grid. Remember, we were doing most of the initial layout in PageMaker 3.x—the first version with the text wrap “feature.”

I think text wrap is sloppy. It’s a hallmark of the “it’s close enough, no one will notice” school of page layout. I want to know exactly where each text frame starts and ends, and that every element is precisely where it’s supposed to be, on the leading grid. Not a point off, but exactly there. If I don’t know that, or don’t feel that I’ve done my best to live up to that standard, it’s hard to sleep at night. Consider it a personal failing.

David:

This really helps me understand you and your take on text wrap. But I’m not even really going to argue about whether non-rectangular text wrap is an abomination or what kinds of wrap are good or bad. I think those decisions are aesthetic, and depends on what the designer is trying to communicate. I see, though, that you’re focusing on book design and production, so let’s stick with that.

I want to argue two points: First, that text wrap of multiple objects requires a difficult-to-manage group. There’s no doubt that many of the images in Real World InDesign are made of a lot of objects, and that they need to be edited up until the last minute. But I rarely group objects and then apply text wrap to the whole group because—as you pointed out—if you ungroup you lose your text wrap. Instead, I find it’s far more efficient to create a non-printing object (typically just a graphic frame with no fill or stroke) and apply the text wrap to it. That object can sit below all the other objects in the illustration and act almost like a frame to keep the text from flowing over it.

And normally I would also group that text-wrap-object with the other objects in the illustration. That way, the arrangement is never messed up. If I do need to ungroup, the text-wrap-frame still works just fine.

However, groups aren’t hard to edit, and you don’t need to ungroup in order to edit items in the group. I know you know this but: InDesign has, for the last several versions, allowed you to “enter a group” by double-clicking any object in the group with the Selection tool. Once that one object is selected inside the group, you can click on any other object inside the group to edit it. When you’re done, you can press the Esc key to select the group as a whole.

The second point I want to argue is that using text wrap means you don’t know where every line is positioned on the page, or leads to sloppy typesetting. This just isn’t true.

First, there’s the Skip by Leading feature, which is enabled by default in the Composition pane of the Preferences dialog box. This feature means that whenever text wrap causes text to jump over an object, the next text baseline will land in the same place it would have if there was no text wrap. This works even if you have Align to Baseline Grid turned off. (That’s good, because I don’t like locking paragraphs to baseline grids—they’re too limiting most of the time and end up causing more headaches than they’re worth.)

Second, you can always ensure the text is at the right place by setting the First Baseline setting (in the Baseline Options tab of the Text Frame Options dialog box) to Leading. When you do that, you know just where the text baseline will sit from the top of the frame—and you can position the frame precisely where you want it. (In fact you were the one who taught me that trick!)

Using text wrap is far more efficient than creating multiple text frames on the page and threading them together, spanning over illustrations. And that’s true whether or not the page design is content driven or layout driven. That increased efficiency pays off for most InDesign users, so they can get more work done in less time.

In fact, I think much of our disagreement comes down to one comment you made: that text wrap “really wouldn’t save us much time and effort.” I believe text wrap is all about user productivity… it can save a lot of time for users, and it doesn’t take away from quality at all.

Olav:

I’m not going to buy “far more efficient” here. How can adding another, invisible page item to the layout be more efficient? Also, this smacks of the “draw a white box over it” approach to suppressing the printing of master page items. Or using zero-point leading, or putting invisible paragraph rules above a paragraph to force it down when it appears at the top of the frame. These are all ugly workarounds.

Rather than extolling the virtues of these inelegant solutions, we should recognize them for what they are: occasionally necessary evils. At the same time, we should agitate for better features in InDesign, or write them ourselves. What we really need for our book layout are a.) better, more flexible rules for anchored graphics, and b.) better ways to edit anchored graphics. Oh, yeah, and automated side headings as a paragraph-level attribute.

re: “However, groups aren’t hard to edit…”

It’s not nearly as easy to edit items in a group as it is to edit items on a page. Simply editing text in a group is no problem, but try repositioning some of our callouts, changing the location of the end of the line, etc. Again, it’s not terrible, but certain things, like drag-selecting, for example, are a problem inside the group.

re: “First, there’s the Skip by Leading feature…”

I have to say: “in theory.” It’s probably because of my experiences 20+ years ago, but I just don’t trust it.

re: “…setting the First Baseline setting…”

That does tell us where the first baseline will fall, and it’s required. But that doesn’t tell us what happens when a text wrap intrudes on the frame. And, there, again, I’m skeptical. Or maybe just battle-scarred.

For me, there’s a lot about text wrap that I don’t understand, and a lot I don’t know. Did you know that the corners of a rectangular wrap of a rectangle are rounded? I didn’t, until I wrote the OffsetPath.jsx script. It’s not a big deal, but it might make a difference in composition. Where, exactly, does the edge of a jump over wrap have to fall, relative to the baseline of the following line of text, for it to push the text to the next line? Is it the leading value? The font ascent? I don’t actually know, because I’ve never had to care about it, but it might be good to find out. And, yes, we’re talking about fractional points, here—but I care about fractional points.

re: “Using text wrap is far more efficient than creating multiple text frames…”

The “far more efficient” part is what we call an unsupported assertion. Nothing that you’ve cited so far would back it up. I think you could say, “slightly more convenient, some of the time,” and you’d be on more solid ground. I will cede that point. But “far more efficient?” No.

re: “…it can save a lot of time for users, and it doesn’t take away from quality at all.”

That might be true. Again, I think that the time/effort savings of using text wrap are slight, or even illusory. I cannot count the number of documents that I’ve been called in to troubleshoot that are an incredible mess of overlapping text wraps. It’s one of the first things I look for when I’m confronted with a document that’s behaving badly.

For me, it comes down to this: are the advantages of using text wrap sufficient to outweigh the inconveniences—in our specific book design—and my general lack of trust in the feature? For me, they’re not. For you, possibly because you lack my painful experience of the early versions of the feature, it’s easier. I think we just need to agree to disagree. You drive a car with an automatic transmission. I never will.


David and Ole co-authored a number of editions of Real World InDesign (Peachpit Press). Ole worked at Adobe for a while (he was the mastermind behind IDML for example), and now works at Silicon Publishing. David is the co-founder of InDesignSecrets, and continues to use Text Wrap happily.

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2 Comments on “Text Wrap: Awesome or Evil?

  1. I don’t mind grouping things and then anchoring them and adding text wrap, in fact you can’t avoid grouping objects if you need them anchored.

    Although, you can add to the group using the Layers Panel to drag the items to and from the group – meaning you won’t lose text wrap settings.

    Same goes for effects applied to a group.

    Anyway – this all seems like a personal preference and how you prefer to work.

    I’ll use text wrap and anchor images in a book, and I’ll have 1 text frame per page on the margins.

    I’ve never seen the need to introduce additional text frames on a page – or to shorten a text frame to make things fit.

    Nor would I ever introduce a non-printing element to a page layout – I simply don’t see the need with all the Special Keep Options that are there for Paragraph settings.

    In short – 1 text frame per page – build character/paragraph/object/table styles – work with groups through the layers panel.

  2. The real problem—for me—with using text wrap has emerged with the requirement, if you are going to produce an accessible pdf or repurpose the document into an ebook etc., of anchoring objects into the text flow so that they remain with the text that references them.

    As soon as you anchor an object, the text wrap on the object is ignored by any copy that is before the anchor in the flow. When working with two or three column layouts, complicated and kaaky work-arounds occur.

    I don’t share Olav’s distaste for text wrapped around objects, but dispensing with text wrap altogether will solve the issue I just outlined. As a solution, though, it is also complicated and messy.

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