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Working withTabs and Indents in Adobe InDesign

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Robin Williams explains that tabs and indents in InDesign are extremely dependable and reliable and logical (yes, logical). So this chapter teaches you how to take advantage of their dependability.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

I realize that most people hate tabs and indents, mainly because they don’t quite understand how they work. You see, tabs and indents always do what you tell them to do! If you have trouble with tabs and indents, it is only because you don’t know what you are telling them! Don’t holler at those poor tabs—they are trying to do what you want; it’s your responsibility to figure out how to tell them what to do. They always work. They are extremely dependable and reliable and logical (yes, logical). So this chapter teaches you how to take advantage of their dependability.

Also check out ch05 about the table feature because some designers prefer to use tables rather than tabs and indents.

Things you should know about tabs and indents

You must first understand how tabs and indents behave.

  1. The Tabs panel is where the tabs and indents are set and displayed, and every paragraph has its own ruler settings.

    This is critical. Any tabs or indents you set in the Tabs panel will apply only to the paragraph that is currently selected; that is, tab settings are paragraph-specific, as explained on page ch02sec2lev10.

    Open the Tabs panel from the Type menu.

    Task 1 Experiment with the Tabs panel and paragraphs

    1. Create a text frame three or four inches wide and type several lines of text (do not hit a Return at the ends of the lines).
    2. After a couple of lines, hit a Return (which creates a new paragraph) and type several more lines of text.
    3. While the insertion point is at the end of the second paragraph, go to the Type menu and choose “tabs,” or if the tabs ruler is already on the screen, click the tiny magnet icon to snap it to the text frame.
    4. Find the triangle at the far right end (that’s the Right Indent marker) and drag it inward (to the left) about an inch.

      The right margin in the second paragraph indents an inch inward because that is the paragraph that is selected.

      Notice that the first paragraph did not indent its right margin.

    5. Now single-click in the first paragraph to set the insertion point within that paragraph.

      In the Tabs panel, you see that the Right Indent marker (the triangle) is back in its original position. That’s because every paragraph has its own settings.

    To change the settings of more than one paragraph at once, select all the paragraphs you want to change. (These paragraphs must be contiguous, or connected to each other, to select them.)

  2. The Tabs panel ruler has invisible tab settings every half inch.


    As soon as you set your own tab, every default tab setting to the left of that new tab disappears.


    Task 2 Experiment with a tab marker

    1. Make sure the Ruler across the top of the screen is showing (from the View menu).

      Make sure the Ruler is in inches for now. If it isn’t displaying inches, you can change it: Control-click or right-click on the Ruler; from the menu that appears, choose “Inches.”

    2. Create a text frame three or four inches wide.
    3. Hit the Tab key, then type a silly word, such as Dogfood.
    4. If the Tabs panel is open, single-click on its magnet icon to make it snap to the text frame you just made. Or open the Tabs panel (from the Type menu), and it will position itself directly over the text box. The word you typed is aligned with the half-inch mark.

    5. Single-click in the Tabs panel ruler near the 2-inch mark; the word you typed will instantly jump to that new marker because all the invisible default tab settings to its left have disappeared.

    Drag that tab marker left or right and watch the word snap to that new position.

  3. Tabs are cumulative, and they accumulate in the word you type after you hit the Tab key.

    Huh? Well, if you hit the Tab key three times and then type the word Rosalind, that word Rosalind holds onto those three tabs. Rosalind will jump over to the third tab she can find (which does not necessarily mean the third tab in the Tabs panel!).

    If you then hit two more tabs and type the word Celia, the word Celia holds onto five tabs—the tabs accumulate. And again, Celia will jump to the fifth tab she can find.

    I say “the fifth tab she can find” because perhaps Rosalind’s name is too long and extends past the fourth tab in the ruler; in that case, Celia doesn’t count that tab—she only counts two more beyond Rosalind, the two she can find.

    This is probably the most crazy-making thing about tabs, so spend a couple of minutes to understand it and control it.

    Task 3 Experiment with accumulating tabs

    1. Create a text frame four to six inches wide.
    2. Follow these directions precisely (that is, do not type more than one tab between words).

      Hit the Tab key once.
      Type Cat, then hit the Tab key once.
      Type Dog, then hit the Tab key once.
      Type Rhinoceros, then hit the Tab key once.
      Type Ape, then hit the Tab key once.

      Hit the Enter key to create a new paragraph.

      Hit the Tab key once.
      Type Rat, then hit the Tab key once.
      Type Bird, then hit the Tab key once.
      Type Shrew, then hit the Tab key once.
      Type Monkey (even if it doesn’t line up!), then hit the Tab key once.

    3. 3 To see the tab markers, go to the Type menu and choose “Show Hidden Characters.” You will see one tab marker before each word.


      Here’s the critical thing to notice in the example:

      Cat went to the first tab it could find, at ½ inch.

      Dog went to the second tab it could find, at 1 inch.

      Rhinoceros went to the third tab it could find, at 1.5 inches.

      Ape went to the fourth tab it could find. Now, the fourth (default and invisible) tab in the Tabs panel ruler is at 2 inches, but Ape couldn’t get to that one because Rhinoceros is in the way. Thus it had to go to the next one it could find.

      In the second paragraph, all four words are able to line up at the half-inch default tab markers.

      To make all four columns align so you can carry on with your lists, all you need to do is create new tab markers that replace the defaults, giving the words room enough. Follow the steps below.

    4. Select both paragraphs: With the Text tool, press-and-drag to select the text in both lines, or press Command A (PC: Control A). You don’t have to select every word in both lines, just a few letters in each.
    5. Make sure the left-aligned tab marker is selected, as circled below.

      Single-click in the Tabs panel ruler where you want the tab to be. For instance, put the first tab at ½ inch. Nothing will change.

      Put the second tab at about 1.25 inches. The words that have accumulated two tabs, Dog and Bird, will move to that new second tab.

      Put the third tab at about 2 inches. Put the fourth tab at about 3 inches. All of the words will instantly align with the tab they are looking for. They will go exactly where you tell them.


    Notice that as you manually set a tab marker, the default and invisible markers every half-inch to the left disappear (they remain every half-inch to the right of the last manual tab marker). You can tell they are no longer in place because tabbed text doesn’t stop there.

    Continue to experiment: Select both paragraphs, and drag the tab markers left and right; watch everything follow along. Hit Enter and type another line of four animals; adjust the tabs if necessary.

  4. You can remove extra tabs in the text just as if the tabs were characters.

One reason why tabs can be so confusing is that not only are the default tab markers in the ruler invisible, but the characters in the text are invisible. As you saw in Step 3, you can “Show Hidden Characters” to see them.


Even when you cannot see the actual tab characters, you can remove them just as if they were letters. If you had typed three periods in front of the words “James Clifton,” you know how to delete those periods. In exactly the same way, you can delete tab characters.

Task 4 Delete tabs from the text

  1. Create a text frame about four or five inches wide.
  2. Hit the Tab key three times, then type James Clifton. Hit the Tab key two more times, then type Ryan Nigel.
  3. Click to set the insertion point in front of James Clifton. Drag a wee bit to the left, just enough to select the chunk of tab. You will notice that you cannot select only a portion of that tab character—it’s all or nothing.

  4. Hit the Delete key. Watch how James Clifton now goes to the second tab he can find. When you delete one tab from James, notice that Ryan also has one less tab; he now goes to the fourth tab he can find.
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