InDesign How-to: Balance Columns with Vertical Justification

It’s not unusual for a layout to specify that all pages should start and end on common baselines. It’s standard practice in books and most magazines. InDesign’s not perfect at it, but using the following techniques you can do a pretty good job of it.

The main problem with evenly filling columns of text are those little devils known as widows and orphans, fragments of paragraphs that appear at the tops or bottoms of columns. The eye likes to see a column of text as a tidy rectangle, so having the first line of an indented paragraph at the end of a column looks bad; it appears as though a chunk of the text has fallen away. Likewise, the last line or two of a paragraph at the top of a column also disrupts the harmonious geometry of the page. A subhead as the last or penultimate line in a column is distracting and unattractive as well.

The trick to getting around these problems is combining InDesign’s Keep Options with its Vertical Justification settings. Just as text justification spreads the spaces between characters and words to fill a line of type from margin to margin, vertical justification spreads the spaces between lines of type to fill a text frame from top to bottom. While you can use vertical justification to solve specific problems on individual pages, it’s easier — especially in long documents — to use it to head off problems before they arise.

Keep Options are found in the Paragraph panel menu, as shown in Figure 1. You use them to control how many lines at the beginning or end of a paragraph must stay together as a unit and not be divided between columns or pages. You can also use Keep Options to glue selected lines of type (think subhead) to a specified number of lines of text before or after them.

Figure 1: In the upper part of the Keep Options dialog, you can specify that the selected paragraph be bound to any number of lines in the following paragraph. It’s good for gluing subheads to the text that follows them. In the lower part of the dialog box, you define how many lines at the beginning or end of the selected paragraph should be held indivisible at the beginning or end of a column.

The problem with Keep controls is that they oblige InDesign to set certain columns short of the bottom of the frame, because lines that must be kept together can only be shoved into the next frame or column.

This is where InDesign’s Vertical Justification controls enter the picture. Using them, you can force the program to stretch the leading in a short-setting column in order to fill the frame to the bottom. (You can’t squeeze the leading, only stretch it.) To find these controls, shown in Figure 2, head for the Text Frame Options in the Object menu and click on the General tab.

Figure 2: Choosing Justify from InDesign’s vertical justification Align pop-up causes the program to evenly stretch the leading among all the lines a frame. How many text lines are in the frame is determined by settings in the Keep Options. By changing the value in the Paragraph Spacing Limit field you can cause this justification to accomplished solely by feathering the leading between paragraphs.

Figures 3 through 5 show the whole process in action in a sample 3-column journal layout. First, in the Keep Options dialog, I told InDesign that I wanted no fewer than 3 lines of a paragraph to appear at the top or bottom of a column. I used the same restrictions for the subheads, by adding the proviso that they should stick with at least two lines of the paragraph that follows them. To automate things, I included all of this in their respective paragraph styles. The result, seen in Figure 3, is two columns that are set short to prevent orphaned lines or subheads appearing at their bottoms.

Figure 3: As shown here, using Keep controls avoids widows, orphans, and awkwardly placed subheads but only the expense of creating a “ragged bottom” layout, where text columns vary in length. Click on image for larger view.

Figure 4 shows the result of turning on Vertical Justification. This can be done in advance on your master pages by making it an attribute of all your text frames. But in this case I simply clicked in the text with the text cursor, typed Ctrl-A/Cmd-A to select all the text, and opened the Text Frame Options dialog box to make my settings.

You don’t have many options here. Under Vertical Justification, select Justify from the Align: pop-up menu. If given the chance, InDesign will try to vertically justify a column of type by expanding only the spaces between paragraphs. This is rarely useful, unless you’re setting listings, classified ads, or some kind of directory. You can specify a maximum value for the expansion in the Paragraph Spacing Limit field. In our sample page, I left this value at zero, obliging InDesign to fill the column by increasing the leading uniformly between all the lines.

Figure 4: Turning on Vertical Justification cured the short columns, but created some new problems. The first column on the recto page is clearly more loosely spaced than those on the verso, and the leading in the last column is out of control. Click on image for larger view.

To fix the slack leading in the first right-hand page column, I slightly tightened the tracking of the first long paragraph in the second column of the verso page, shortening it by a line and causing the entire spread to recompose. This drew lines from the last column into the previous one, so its overall leading feel was a better match.

The last column, though, remained a problem. The two available solutions depend on your layout preferences. One is to let the last column set short, with its normal leading; the other is to divide the text evenly over all three columns on the last page. Which tack is easier depends on how the page was set up.

If the page was created with a single text frame and divided into three columns in the New Document or Margins and Columns dialog box, you can’t have one column vertically justified and the other(s) not — vertical justification is a frame-wide specification. If each column has been set up as a separate text frame, it’s a different story.

In the latter case, the easiest solution is just to select the last column’s frame and turn off vertical justification. The text will set short using its specified leading.

If the text columns are all part of the same text frame, you could recreate it as three independent columns, re-pour the text, and proceed as above. But the simpler solution is to select the whole frame and choose Align: Top as a Vertical Justification option, and then select Balance Columns at the top of the same dialog box. The text will then be divided evenly among all the columns on the page and set at its specified leading.

But unless by chance the number of lines of text on the page divides evenl
y by the number of columns, you’ll end up with final column that’s a line or two short. (Our sample layout failed this dumb-luck test, with the last column setting a line short.) This may not bother you. But if it does, simply shorten the entire text frame so it ends just at the bottom of the longer (or longest) column, and then select Align: Justify in the Text Frame Options dialog. As shown in Figure 5, this will cause all columns to vertically justify and end on the same baseline.

Figure 5: Simply balancing the columns of text in this single text frame or the recto page didn’t create columns of equal depth, but shortening the frame and vertically justifying the text did the trick. Click on image for larger view.

It’s important to keep in mind that when vertically justifying text, InDesign continues to follow your instructions for how the first baseline in each frame should be positioned (as specified in the Object/Text Frame Options/Baseline Options dialog box). In addition, if you’ve specified that your text aligns to a baseline grid, InDesign will grid-align only the first and last lines in each frame, with the others having their leading feathered as necessary.

Good Vertical Justification controls are a key to successful batch pagination: automated, rules-based page layout. InDesign isn’t fully up to it yet, but it’s getting there. The day of push-button pages might not be far away.


Posted on: February 27, 2012

James Felici

James Felici has worked in the publishing industry—in both editorial and production—for more than 30 years. A veteran journalist and former managing editor of Publish magazine, he has set type by hand as well as on systems from IBM, Linotype, Compugraphic, CCI, and Magna. His books include The Complete Manual of Typography (Peachpit Press), The Desktop Style Guide (Bantam/ITC), How to Get Great Type Out of Your Computer (North Light), and contributions to The Macintosh Bible (Peachpit Press). He has written for numerous publications, including PC World, Macworld, and The Seybold Report, and has been a featured speaker at Seybold Seminars, Macworld Expo, and other events worldwide.

7 Comments on InDesign How-to: Balance Columns with Vertical Justification

  1. This article is usefull for as layoutman to solve the problem of balanacing colomn. thankyou.

  2. In figure 3 there are no orphans – but there are 3 widows this method claims to avoid.
    Widows being a single word on the last line of a paragraph.

    • I see no single lines at the top of columns (widows having a past with their paragraph before them; orphans having a future with their para ahead), and I see the keep feature as working fine. Check out Nigel French’s “InDesign Type; Professional Typography” or Robert Bringhurst’s “Elements of Typographic Style”. Both are great reference books.

  3. Julian Doesburg

    May 16, 2013 at 11:47 pm

    Freehand was a lot simpler. You could have a text frame and specifiy the columns and gutter. Then you could select Balance and Modify Leading. Freehand would then make sure all the columns would finish flush on the baseline, no what proportions you made the text frame. It would also maintain the flush column baselines with text wrap boxes inside that text frame.
    Illustrator cannot do this, and Indesign still leaves a space at the end column if the number of sentences in the columns don’t match?

  4. Leigh Jeffery

    May 17, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    Thank you! i was in a pinch with a client that didn’t want any hyphens but full justify and i hand’t a clue to get that done:)

    Very helpful.. especially with the screenshots.

  5. how to do vertical justify in table option? 

  6. I was looking for this option (figure 3) for a long long time. 

    I received data from a designer before and didnt know why text doesnt fit the column anymore 🙂

    Thank you so much.. I send a huge kiss for solving my problem  🙂 

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