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(Not) Using Auto Leading

Auto Leading is a relatively new concept, emerging with desktop publishing in the mid-’80s. InDesign’s Auto Leading value is by default 120 percent of the type size, although you can change this in Justification options. You can spot Auto Leading on Control panel or Character panel because the value is in parentheses.

While Auto Leading just about works for body text, it usually looks awful applied to display type, causing the lines to appear too far apart. Auto Leading is one of those default, works-OK-most-of-the-time-if-all-you’re-doing-is-designing-a-newsletter-for-the-local-scout-troop features. It is not a tool of the professional designer.

The best thing you can say about Auto Leading is that it’s convenient. You can change your text size as often as you like and your type will always be readable. As your font size increases or decreases, so does your leading.



120% of what exactly? Because one character (a space at the end of line 5) is larger than the rest of the paragraph, the leading is inconsistent.


Click to view larger image

Typefaces with a larger x-height, like Helvetica, require more leading. Didone or Modern typefacesthat have a strong vertical stress, like Bodoni, require more leading to keep the eye moving along the line rather than down the page.

This may sound like a good idea, but Auto Leading is actually proportional to the biggest piece of type in the paragraph. This means that if you have just one character larger than the rest of the paragraph, your leading value will be 120 percent of that character. This problem most often occurs at the end of the paragraph. Here’s the scenario: The user selects the type by swiping, and unknowingly excludes the hidden paragraph mark at the end of the paragraph. They reduce the size of the type but not the size of the paragraph mark, with the result that the last line of the paragraph has more leading than the rest of the paragraph. You can avoid this by selecting paragraphs with four clicks, ensuring that the paragraph mark is part of the selection and so takes on the same formats. It’s also a good idea to work with hidden characters shown (Type > Show Hidden Characters, or Cmd+Option+I/Ctrl+Alt+I), to see exactly what is—and what isn’t—selected. Even with such precautions, it’s still best to avoid Auto Leading.



Even though Bernhard Modern has elongated ascenders, it has a low x-height and short descenders, and so can be leaded tightly (bottom).

In a nutsell, Auto Leading doesn’t give you the control that you need. If you’re using 10-point type, Auto Leading is 12 points, a nice easy number to work with. However, if you’re working with 11-point type, then your leading value is 13.2, which is difficult to calculate in multiples if you intend to work with a grid—see Chapter 16, “Pages, Margins, Columns, and Grids.”

Auto Leading and Inline Graphics

Auto Leading does have a legitimate use: when you’re using inline objects. These are frames (usually, but not exclusively, picture frames) that are dragged or pasted into a blank paragraph in the text and thereafter move with the text flow. If the text makes specific reference to figures above or below, those figures can be inline graphics, so that the relationship between text and graphic is never disrupted by edits to the text. Inline graphics are a hybrid of text and graphics: You control their vertical spacing with leading. Auto Leading ensures there’s always enough space for the graphic on the line, since the leading value increases or decreases according to the height of the graphic. When working with inline graphics, make a paragraph style with a leading value of Auto (you may wish to adjust the percentage of the Auto Leading) and apply this to the blank-line paragraphs into which the graphics are dragged or pasted.



A: By default the Auto Leading value (Justification dialog box) is 120% of the point size of the type.

B: When Auto Leading is chosen, the value appears in parentheses on the Control panel.

The “Apply Leading to Entire Paragraphs” Preference

Whether you’re working with Auto Leading or absolute leading, the height of a line is determined by the largest piece of type on that line. This can cause inconsistent leading if you mistakenly have one character bigger than the rest. You can change this behavior in your Type preferences by selecting Apply Leading to Entire Paragraphs. This means only one leading value can be applied to any given paragraph. Changing this setting does not affect the leading in existing frames.


The Apply Leading to Entire Paragraphs preference keeps the leading within a paragraph consistent.

This is arguably a useful “safety” feature, but I feel it gives too much control to the software. While we want only one leading value per paragraph most of the time, there are occasions—such as working with display type—when we need to control leading line by line. In such situations, we want mixed leading values to give the optical effect of consistency—something not possible with this preference turned on.


Good leading gone bad: The columns are balanced—but at the expense of inconsistent leading across the two columns.

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