First Baseline Blues
In every frame of text you set, it's vital that the alignment of your type gets off on the right foot, and that starts with the position of the first baseline. Most people just let their page-layout software do what it wants. By default, those programs position the first baseline according to the type's ascender height, so that ascending characters on that first line just scrape the top on the text frame. This begs the question of where, exactly, that baseline is. And the answer is, who knows?
Although you may know exactly where the edge of your text frame is located, you'll have a hard time figuring out where the baselines inside it are positioned if you're working without having defined a baseline grid first.
For this reason, you should always tell your program that you want the first baseline in every text frame to be positioned according to the leading of the text. If your leading is 13 points, then, your first baseline will sit exactly 13 points below the top edge of the frame.
Figure 1 shows one reason why this is important. It illustrates that the position of the baseline for a given typeface is defined in its font, and that baseline positions vary from face to face. This assures even more uncertainty about the position of a frame's first baseline unless you've defined it according to the text's leading.
Figure 1: This image shows characters from Helvetica and Centaur with their bounding boxes and baselines highlighted. Unless you specify the position of their first baseline in a frame according to their leading, these two faces will assume quite different positions.
This can have serious consequences. Figure 2 show what happens when two faces in the same point size but with different baseline positions appear in the same line when the baseline has been positioned according to ascender height. The program will not set the type on two different baselines; it will have to choose one or the other, and it will always default to the face with the taller ascenders (that is, the lower baseline). In this case, it means pushing the text down to accommodate the taller ascenders of the cut-in subhead. In a multi-column page, a column that starts with such a subhead line will set lower than its neighbors whose first lines are set solely in the text face.
Figure 2: The guidelines in red indicate the top of the two text frames and the baseline of the text with the cut-in subhead. The subhead face, with its lower baseline, forces the entire line in a lower position. In the sample from the adjoining column on the right, the first text line in the frame has no subhead, so the text sets higher and out of alignment with its neighbor.
None of these problems arise if you specify every frame's first baseline to be positioned according to the text's leading.
To do this in InDesign, with no documents open, choose Text Frame Options from the Object menu. Click the Baseline Options tab in the dialog box that opens and select Leading in the First Line Offset pop-up menu (Figure 3). Click OK. Now the leading value for the first line of a frame will define the position of its baseline in all new documents.
Figure 3: Defining the first baseline position in InDesign's Text Frame Options dialog with no documents open alters the program's default setting.
QuarkXPress handles this differently. You can specify a value for the first baseline offset (in this case your leading) but XPress has no generic "leading" option that will adjust the position of the first baseline if you change your text's leading later. To make the setting, select the frame(s) you want to affect, and then choose select Modify from the Item menu. Click the Text tab and in the First Baseline Offset field, type in your leading value. You can't make this value a default for future documents (you probably wouldn't want to anyway), but you can create custom grid styles in which you define first baseline position by leading value, and these can be easily applied to the text frames you create. You may prefer to define an Item Style for your text frames, defining the position of the first baseline by selecting the Text tab in the Edit Item Style dialog box (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Creating Item Styles in QuarkXPress allows you to create templates for text frames whose first baselines are located in predictable positions.
In both programs, make sure that there are no text insets specified at the top of the frame (also shown in Figure 4), as this will push the baseline down.
Some designers feel that baseline grids in page layout programs bind their hands, creating a morass of snap-to points that become bothersome. Aligning the first text baseline in a frame by its leading can free you from a reliance on baseline grids in many situations. To create consistent layouts, all you need to define are certain hang lines on a page to which you align the tops of text frames. After that you'll know exactly where all your text baselines will fall because they're rationally calculated from the hang line. Positioning captions under illustrations becomes easier too.
It's all a matter of exercising control, and it's easier to control the position of something when you know just where it is.
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