Working With Bulleted and Numbered Lists in InDesign

Maybe it’s just a sign of our shortening attention spans, but these days we seem to want more and more of our information in quickly-digestible bullet points. And then there’s our insatiable need to quantify. We absolutely love lists: the Top Ten this, the 100 Greatest that, 12-step programs, 50 ways to leave your lover, and so on. Lists have gotten so popular that they’ve spawned a whole new journalistic category: the listicle, and judging from its power to get people to buy magazine and read blog posts, it seems like it’s here to stay (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Just a tiny sample of the evidence that we have become addicted to lists.

So with all these lists to work with, we can be thankful that InDesign has robust tools for creating bulleted and numbered lists.

The mechanics of creating bulleted and numbered lists are straightforward, but what about the design considerations—and those quirky problems that sometimes arise when working with numbered lists, like how to align the number, how to continue numbering across stories or documents, and what to do if you need to export your lists and retain those bullets or numbers?

Before we dig deeper, here are the basics:

Bulleted and numbered lists are formatted with automated hanging indents, with either a bullet character or the number as the first (hanging) character(s).

To apply either a bulleted or numbered list format to selected text, Option-click (or Alt-click) on the Bulleted List or Numbered List icon on the Paragraph Formats level of the Control panel to open the Bullets and Numbering dialog box (Figure 2), and then choose the list type, the bullet or numbering style, and the alignment. As always, select Preview to see how any changes affect your selection. Conveniently, you can select a character style to be automatically applied to the bullet or number; if you don’t have one already made, choose New Character Style and make one on the fly. Once you’re satisfied with how things look, click OK, and then capture the formatting in a paragraph style by choosing New Paragraph Style from the Paragraph Styles panel menu.

Figure 2: The Bullets and Numbering dialog box, where you specify the numbering or bullet style as well as the list’s alignment and amount of indent

Bulleted lists

So far, so good, but here are some things to consider when making bulleted lists, a veritable list about lists:

If you’re tired of using the same old circular bullet character, use the Add button to choose a glyph from a different font. This is handy, especially if you’re after a dingbat that’s unavailable in your text font—checkmarks (4)and pointing hands (+) are best avoided unless you’re after a retro look—but sometimes your chosen bullet may not vertically align perfectly with the rest of the text. The solution? Apply a character style to the bullet character, and adjust the baseline shift and possibly the font size for that character style. If your text begins with a cap, align the bullet vertically to the cap height. If the text begins with lowercase characters, align the bullets to the x height (Figure 3).

Figure 3: In the top example, the bullet is out of vertical alignment with the text that follows. In the second example, the scale and position of the bullets has been adjusted to the x-height—applicable since the text is lowercase. In the bottom example, the position of the bullet is adjusted to the cap height of the text.

Typically, bullets use hanging indents, so you’ll need to make the first-line indent the same as the left indent but negative; for example, if your left indent is 11 pt, then make the first-line indent –11 pt. When you plug in a negative first-line indent, the Tab field automatically becomes blank, the
tab being set at the left indent value. An em space is usually a sufficient amount of indent when working with hanging indents, but you will need more if you’re working with a numbered list that includes two- and three-digit numbers.

If you prefer your bullets to be flush rather than hanging, you’ll probably want less space after the bullet. You can replace tab character (^t) in the Text After field in the Bullets and Numbering dialog box with a space or an en space from the drop-down menu to the right of the field (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Flush left bullets with a word space after the bullet character

Keep punctuation to a minimum while adhering to the house style. Unless the bullet point is a full sentence, don’t end it with a period.

Add space before the first and after the last item in the list (Figure 5). After you’ve made a bullet paragraph style, make two variants based on it: bullet_first with extra space before, and bullet_last with extra space after.

Figure 5: A bulleted list with a half-line space before the first and after the last bullet item

Presumably you want your bullet and number styles to be stylistically the same except for the list type, so base your number list style on your bullet style or vice versa. That way, if you need to change paragraph style specs, you’ll need to make only one change.

Indenting the text after the bullet means you lose the strong flush-left alignment of your text, so some people prefer outdenting the bullet to strengthen the left axis of the text (Figure 6). This requires indenting the body text by the same amount that you indent the bullet.

Figure 6: Outdenting the bullet character maintains the flush-left alignment of the text.

Because they tend to be short and pithy by nature, bulleted lists don’t do well with justified alignment. With lines that are inevitably short, there will be big word spaces that make an even type color impossible. For this reason, even if your body text is justified, your list paragraphs will work better ragged. p>

If you opt for ragged alignment with your bullets, you’ll need to be vigilant about uneven rags. It’s tempting to use the Balance Ragged Lines feature, but this will likely create as many problems as it solves. It’s up to you to fix the rag manually by applying No Break to phrases you want kept together or adding some forced line breaks.

For bulleted lists in instructional-type texts where “bottoming out” of columns may not be necessary, consider using Keep Options to keep all the lines in the paragraph together. That way, you can avoid orphaned lines ending up at page or column top.

Bulleted lists don’t fare well with Optical Margin Alignment. If you’re using Optical Margin Alignment on your story (a good idea in my opinion), choose Ignore Optical Margin Alignment in Paragraph Style Options to make exceptions of your bullet and number lists.

For longer lists, consider using the Split Column feature to divide the list into two sub-columns (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Splitting a bullet list into sub-columns

Posted on: October 23, 2013

Nigel French

Nigel French is a graphic designer, photographer, author, and teacher living in Lewes, UK. He is the author of InDesign Type and Photoshop Unmasked, both from Adobe Press, as well as several titles in the online training library, including InDesign Typography.

3 Comments on Working With Bulleted and Numbered Lists in InDesign

  1. Mary Rhatigan

    April 7, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    I would have liked to see information about putting a space after on bullets and numbers. It creates a subtle break and gives separation to each point. If the leading and space after are the same it all looks like 1 paragraph to me. It’s a pet peeve of mine. Thanks for letting me rant.

    • Mary yours is exactly the same point I am searching for!! If you find out how to do it please post! Also a pet peeve of mine too!

  2. Mary I found out how to do it. Go into Paragraph Style Options then Indents and Spacing. Click on Space Before and enter how many mm you want between your bullet points. Note if you tick Preview first you can then see how many mm you need to make your Bullet points shine! It’s the little things!

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