Work smarter with DTP style sheets

Take the mind-numbing drudgery out of complex text styling jobs by preparing style sheets for your layouts.

Today I’m going to talk about style sheets in print design. Excited? I doubt it. But hang in there, this just might make your work easier and get you home or to the pub more quickly.

How plain can I make this? If you don’t use stylesheets in your DTP work you’re wasting your time. I know this is like backing up; even if you understand the benefits it is usually something that hardly anyone actually gets around to doing. But this is another of those ‘stitch in time saves nine’ things. If you put in a little effort early on in a project to set up and use some basic styles you will find that your life gets easier throughout the project. Also, when you find you have to make changes further down the line (yes, when not if – let’s be realistic here), rather than spending hours hunting through your pages and making sure you apply all the adjustments every time, you just have to edit your saved styles directly and everything follows suit. When this works well it is like sheer magic. In fact, there have been times when I felt I should be muttering a J. K. Rowling-like incantation as I click the final OK button and a complete publication jumps to my bidding.

This style lark isn’t only done in case you need to make broad changes across many pages after loads of work has already been done. It also speeds up the whole normal production process, and it makes it much easier and safer for freelancers to be brought in to help finish projects. Half a dozen ready-made styles should normally cover all requirements, and a few examples of what to use where is all that normally needs to be given to someone fresh to a project.

So, are you ready to give it a shot? The first thing to consider when approaching a new project is what the default, base-level style should be for text. In QuarkXPress there are Normal styles for character and paragraph work, InDesign has something called Basic Paragraph, and Illustrator calles this the Normal Paragraph Style and, for good measure, includes a Normal Character Style as well. (Nothing like consistency, eh?)

Most people miss this trick completely, but defining what goes on in the Normal or Basic styles means saving yourself a certain amount of work right off the bat. Start by formatting the body text until it looks right, then update or redefine the Normal/Basic style to make it take on these attributes. Text that comes in with no predefined formatting will automatically take this on, so get it right from the start.

From here, think about what custom formatting needs to be added to different portions of type. As you’ve used the Normal style to start things out, just set up each new style so it just controls only what needs to be different. Character Styles can apply to arbitrary selected chunks of text, Paragraph Styles always apply to whole paragraphs at once even if they’re just clicked in. Styles can be based on other styles, and if so they’ll change with those if they’re edited. Watch out for the Next Paragraph feature; this only works if you’re typing fresh copy – not if you apply it to existing paragraphs. So far this is largely obvious. But InDesign has a particularly nifty trick up its sleeve, and it doesn’t take much effort to make use of it.

Nested Styles is an InDesign-specific paragraph style feature that lets you string together a number of different character styles and have them apply automatically to text according to the structure of the content itself. Or, to put it more simply, you can make a style that will apply another style until, for example, a set number of words is reached, or perhaps a tab character is encountered. Then it switches to a different style automatically. This style nesting can get quite sophisticated. Okay, there’s no provision for ‘if-then-else’ logic structures, but that would start to get more like programming. With a bit of forethought you can prepare text so that it has just the right kind of structure, or prepare your nested styles to cope with an existing text structure if that’s simpler.

Some of my publishing students are working their way through a big magazine redesign and relaunch project, part of which involves rethinking the entire layout structure of their chosen title. More than one has expressed complete horror and disbelief at how much work goes into formatting a standard listings page. But once a magazine redesign plan is finished, all that hard work and effort is built into clever style constructions… or at least it should be. Take a magazine or newspaper TV listings page; the text will always follow the same basic structure, issue after issue, for example time, title, description, rating. Make sure that the items are identifiable in some consistent way, such as always being the same number of characters or words, or separated by a tab, an em or non-breaking space,  an explicit End Nested Style character, or whatever single character you type into the Nested Styles identifier. A bit of time spent creating some nested styles in InDesign will turn a mind-numbing afternoon’s effort into a ‘click and move on’ moment.

QuarkXPress doesn’t have this feature (NOTE: since I wrote this QuarkXPress 9 introduced a very powerful version of this, called Conditional Styles), but you can get even more of the work done ahead of time if you like. It is possible to take word-processed content that’s styled already and map those styles to styles in your DTP software. The problem with this is that it relies on people doing that work properly. As this normally means content prepared in Word, and because Word likes to muck around with type formatting when you drag or copy/paste text from one part of a document to another, I find it can be more miss than hit. But if you have diligent people creating your word-processed content, give it a whirl. When importing text, click Show Import Options (InDesign) or Use Stylesheets (QuarkXPress) to gain a certain level of control over the incoming content. Quark’s approach is to import the embedded styles directly to its Style Sheets lists, where you can then adjust them as you like. When this works it can save you from even having to select and click your way through the text, let alone having to apply individual formatting choices.

Most of the time, in most applications, you’ll use styles to control your type. But it isn’t just text that can be controlled with saved settings. Objects on the page can be styled in pretty much the same way; look for Item Styles in QuarkXPress, Object Styles in InDesign, and Graphic Styles in Illustrator. (Again, nothing like consistency…)

Draw out a box and set it up the way you want. Then, with it selected, use the Item/Object/Graphic Styles palette options to save a new style. QuarkXPress’s Item Styles can include width, height, position and more. This can be a boon, but don’t forget to turn off the options you don’t want or things will start behaving oddly when you start using your new style. Whichever app you prefer, styles can make setting up things such as boxouts or picture frames with consistent, repeated settings an absolute doddle. Perhaps in an effort to make up for the lack of an equivalent of InDesign’s Nested Styles, QuarkXPress has styles for grids as well. This takes more than a little getting used to but, again, it is well worth the effort.

The usefulness of styles is often overlooked, especially when the pressure is on. It isn’t relevant to every job, but whenever you have a multiple-page product to produce or you will need to create new versions or editions of something, use styles. For further InDesign reading see, and for a 20MB QuarkXPress PDF guide see As the saying goes, work smarter, not harder.

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