The Art of Type: Baseline Basics

Frames are handy, but for precise positioning, there’s nothing like a baseline

The best way to measure the relative positions of text blocks on the page is by reckoning from their baselines, those invisible lines upon which typeset characters appear to sit. A subtitle sits so many points base-to-base below its title; a byline sits so many points base-to-base below the subtitle; and so on. In the traditional typographic scheme of things, everything has a baseline. The bottom edge of a photo is its baseline; the bottom edge of a rule is its baseline; and of course, every text line has its own baseline.

This is logical and fine, but the scheme is complicated by frames, those computer-generated vessels that hold the type we set. By and large, when we align type on a page, we’re actually aligning the frame (snapping to a ruler guide, for example), and the type within it merely tags along. This is a problem because in doing this, we’re using the invisible to position the visible, and while the invisible may be precisely positioned, the visible won’t always look that way.

Control the baselines
The keys to having control over the positions of your text’s baselines are fairly well hidden. To find them in InDesign, click on a text frame, open the Object>Text Frame Options dialog, and click on the Baseline Options tab. In Illustrator, it’s in the Type>Area Type Options dialog. In both, your goal is called First Baseline. Here, you decide whether the distance from the baseline of the first line of text to the top edge of the frame will be equal to:

• the height of the ascending letters (Ascent)
• its capitals (Cap Height)
• its lowercase letters (x Height)
• the leading applied to the first text line (Leading)
• a distance of your choice (Fixed)
• a distance equal to the point size of the type being used (Em Box Height [Illustrator only]) or
• whatever was specified in an existing file (Legacy [Illustrator only]).

If you need your type to visually align at the top of the frame, you can choose one of the character-height-based measurements. But if you want your type to align with a page-based alignment grid—as is often the case—you should choose Leading. This is the only way to assure that the text in your frames will align according to the strictures of the grid. It also assures that you know exactly where that baseline is vis à vis the top of the frame.

This newspaper page shows a typical baseline grid at work (to see the baseline grid in InDesign, go to View>Grids & Guides>Show Baseline Grid). The page uses a six-column layout and a nine-point baseline grid, so each gridline will coincide with a text baseline. The baseline grid (tinted an appealing pink in InDesign’s Preferences>Grids dialog) supplies an underlying structure to the page and makes it easier to size and align things harmoniously. As you can see in the screen image of the page, every bit of type, no matter what point size, aligns on a baseline prescribed by the grid. I’ve tinted the text frames to make them more visible. The second baseline down from the top of the grid is the hang line, on which the articles and photos are aligned.

This x-ray view of the newspaper page shows all of its structures in color. By constructing a page using a baseline grid, and defining the position of the first line in each frame according to its leading, you always know precisely how each line of type is positioned relative to its neighbors.

By aligning the tops of all the content frames from the same hang line and specifying Leading as the position for the first baseline in each text frame, the baseline of each line of text falls on a gridline, assuring perfect horizontal base alignment from column to column. Caption frames and text frames below pictures also align on gridlines, assuring their horizontal alignment as well. To align text to a gridline, set the leading of the text to a multiple of the grid size. In this example of a nine-point grid, leading is set to multiples of nine (e.g., the leading of the main body copy is set to 9 pt, and the big headline at the top of the second and third columns is set to 45 pt [9×6=45]).


Creating a border
Here’s an important point to remember: If you create a border for a text frame using commands from InDesign’s Stroke palette, the thickness of the border will affect the position of the first baseline in the frame. That’s because the first text baseline will be positioned according to—you guessed it—the baseline of the rule that borders the frame. The default setting, as with other strokes in the PostScript world, is to build outward on both sides of the path. The Stroke palette calls this Align Stroke to Center. To make sure your text baseline is reckoned from the frame border itself (which is a path, with no width, just direction), click on the Align Stroke to Outside button in the Stroke palette, which will cause the top stroke’s baseline to coincide with the defined edge of the frame.

Finally, remember that because first-baseline position is a frame attribute, you can build it into an Object Style, which you can then apply to other text frames at the click of your mouse.