How-to: Nested Styles-An InDesign Secret Weapon

Mix it up in the nuts and bolts of character styles, then put the pieces together for power.
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In layout, it goes without saying how important styles are; without them, layout artists would be reduced to formatting text paragraph by paragraph and character by character. The idea is almost enough to make one want to go back to hand typesetting, or even breaking rocks on the chain gang. But ever since the advent of modern-day electronic layout, the immense power of software have continued to deliver design muscles only dreamt of even a decade ago. Every professional-grade tool (and even some home-user tools) provide paragraph and character-level styling; enabling instant styling of body text, captions, kicker paragraphs, and other things.

But think about removing one more level of drudgery; think about applying a paragraph style and automatically having character styles applied to designated parts of the paragraph. Only InDesign gives you this level of control in nested styles.

What exactly is a nested style?

When we say nested we mean in the manner of putting things in other things; nested graphics are graphics inside of other graphics, so a nested style is a style within a style, an inner style that is applied whenever the outer style is called.

To be more precise, a nested style is a character style contained inside a paragraph style. Controls within the application allow the user to define a range over which the nested style applies, and a number of nested styles can be sequenced within the paragraph style itself, specifying ranges as one goes.

Drop Caps and Nested Styles PaneThe Drop Caps and Nested Styles pane of the Paragraph Style Options dialog. Note the Nested styles list in the right hand side.

To access and enable nested styles one goes to the Nested Styles and Drop Caps pane of the Paragraph Style Option dialog of the paragraph style which one wants to nest styles within (double-click on the paragraph style to bring that dialog up, or simply create a new paragraph style from the flyout menu on the Paragraph Styles palette). The lower half of the pane shows the Nested Styles list. Nested Styles are defined by clicking the New Nested Style button, cleared out (if necessary) by the Delete button, and can be shuffled about by clicking on a style then clicking on either arrow button.

Now we know where it is, but what goes in there? Let’s back up a step. Nested styles are character styles within paragraph styles; let’s set up some of each.

The Situation

We will take, as a for-example, a publication that wants to have a page of nature outings. One could simply list out the events one by one in a standard, readable font (such as Times New Roman), but this bothers us designers; unless there’s a good reason, we don’t want that “I didn’t design” it that default styles give us. Moreover, we may have graphic standards we need to comply with. So, let’s take it apart just a little.

Above is the unstyled paragraph. Below is the same paragraph, with embedded paragraph styles applied in one step with the assistance of nested styles.

Up on top is what we have. Below that is what we want. We can set up character and paragraph styles to give each paragraph the look we want, put the paragraph styles on all the body text, and then go through and pick out the individual details we want.

Doing that bit-by-bit with character styles is better than nothing but InDesign gives us even more power. With nested styles we can specify the headline as Myriad Pro Condensed Semibold; the event rating as the italic semibold, and the outing leader name and email address so that they jump out for quick referral.

Marking the boundaries

In the editorial process, we’ve defined that we want the event name separated from the description by a forced line break, the event rating without any spaces, so we can treat it as a word, The leader name and email address as always being the last two items in the paragraph and always preceded by a colon. These are basic landmarks we can give our nested styles to guide by.

After much experimenting we’ve decided that the best formats for our event listing are as follows:

  • The event headline, which is always between the very start of the paragraph and that first force line break, will always be 10/12 Myriad Pro Semibold Condensed.
  • The event rating (a quick description of the difficulty level of the outing) is the very next string of characters after that, and will always be 9/10.8 Myriad Pro Semibold Condensed Italic (we left the leading on auto here to keep things simple).
  • Everything else is going to have no specific character styling until we get to the event leader’s name, and email address, which are always going to be 9/10.8 Myriad Pro Bold Condensed Italic, which also closes out the paragraph.

Also, we’ve decided our overall paragraph style is going to be 9/10.8 Myriad Pro Condensed.

So now we know what we want. How do we get it?

Doing the sequence

The best approach to using nested styles in your layout is a four-step process:

  1. Define your Paragraph Style
  2. Define or decide on the Character Styles you’ll be nesting in the Paragraph Style.
  3. Identify the boundaries of the nested styles.
  4. Assemble the nested styles in order.

To carry out the first step, format the paragraph as 9/auto Myriad Pro Condensed, then create a new Paragraph Style based on that formatting called “Event Listing”.

Now, step 2. We don’t have the individual styles defined yet, so we’ll have to create them; we style the text appropriately and create three Character Styles from them: “Event Headline”, “Event Rating”, and “Event Email Contact” (we’ll make that last one do double-duty on the name and the email).

Step three is performed by noting the appropriate points in the type. Event Headline will style the text from the start of the ‘graph to the forced line break; Event Rating will style the text string immediately after, there will be no character styling from there to the leader’s name or between that and the email address; both those bits of information, however will be styled similarly.

At last we get to step four, where the rubber, as they say, meets the road.

Piecing it together

Defining a nested style means you’ll start looking at paragraphs in something of a new way. We’ll look at our first definition in detail.

With no nested styles defined, we see this:

Nested Styles with none yet defined

So to start things off, we click “New Nested Style” and get this:

New Nested style with no specification set

We see that the display has changed: a line has been generated in the window with four columns, and the first one has been turned into a drop-down list which, in the first position, is character styles available. This is why we constructed the character styles before we got to this point; now they are available. Since we’re styling the event headline, we choose the Event Headline style

Choosing a character style for the first nested style from the drop-down.Clicking on the first drop-down in the nested style dialog reveals the list of available styles. We are about to choose “Event Headline”

Now click the next column, the one that has the word “through”. This becomes a drop-down offering either “through” or “up to”. The next two columns will define the end of the range (which we will specify in the fourth column) and we can either make it inclusive (through) or exclusive (up to). This first style range will include only the next forced line break character, so we choose “through”.

The next two columns work together to define the end of the range over which the nested style will apply. The number, which clicked on, becomes an input box in which any other number can be typed. We type a “1” here. Clicking on the next column (which contains “Words” at this point) we get an input box/drop-down combination. We could type a character (or characters) to define the end but what we’ve done here is to choose “Forced Line Break” from the dropdown.

First nested style definedThe first nested style, completely defined: from the beginning of the paragraph, apply the Event Headline style up to and including the first forced line break.

After this, the first nested style is defined: In this paragraph, apply the Event Headline style from the beginning (because that’s where nested styles begin applying) through the first Forced Line Break character.

Using the same process, we define the next character string as Event Rating by specifying in “through 1 Words”; it will apply to the next word (as defined by the next space-nested styles don’t attempt to make sense of the actual word) only.

The rest of the paragraph up to the leader’s name will have no styling, and we specify this so that we can tag those styles on after. We do this by specifying the next nested style as “[None]”, “through” and “1”, and instead of picking a specific character from the drop-down, type a colon in the input box.

Nested Styles with the first three specified. After the Event Headline, Event Rating covers the next text string up to the next space (through 1 Words) and there is no special styling applied to the paragraph until the next thime a colon comes up ([None] through 1 :)Nested Styles with the first three specified. After the Event Headline, Event Rating covers the next text string up to the next space (through 1 Words) and there is no special styling applied to the paragraph until the next thime a colon comes up ([None] through 1 :)

Styling the name and email address is just a little more complex, but not much. We’ll be using the Event Email Contact style for both name and email We could style the name as “through 2 words”, but not everyone uses two-word names (Just ask Prince [is that what he’s calling himself these days?]). The choices in the drop-down allow many ways to specify this; in this case we choose “up to 1 Digits”, which will apply up to but not including the phone number (which we can depend on because we’ve standardized the phone to come always after the name). Whatever text that happens between the first colon and the first digit of the phone number will now be boldfaced and italic. To finish out the sequence (at long last) specify [None] as the style “through 1 :”, which brings us to the email address, then specify “Event Email Contact through 1 Words” to bring the email address on board (remember, words are defined by spaces).

Last three nested styles definedLast three nested styles defined. These take up where the last of the first three in the previous illustration left off.

With that last style, we’ve come to the end of the paragraph. We’ve had to go to the end of the paragraph because we’ve had two bits at the end to style, but if our needs were less demanding, say, if we only wanted to style the headline and event rating, we could have just left it off at two.

Now, To Review…

In the beginning I noted that this was a “nuts and bolts” sort of thing. By now, you, the reader, are probably feeling like you’ve been repairing a Diesel engine with a toothpick. But consider that we’ve created a unique paragraph style with the following character styles contained within:

  • Event Headline, styling the headline of the entry
  • Event Rating, styling the rating information uniquely
  • Event Email Contact, which highlights the name and email contact of the outings leader.

In order to apply all this formatting with one deft motion, we’ve created a paragraph style (Event Listing), nesting those styles in thusly:

  1. Apply Event Headline from the beginning to the first forced line break;
  2. Apply Event Rating from that point over the 1st word only from there;
  3. Apply no special character styling from the end of that word through the first colon we come to;
  4. Apply Event Email Contact from there up to but not including the first digit we come to;
  5. Apply no special character styling from that digit out to the next colon;
  6. And, finally, apply the Event Email Contact style again to the actual email address, ending the paragraph.

All that styling will then be applied automatically whenever any paragraph is styled with the Event Listing paragraph style. No additional moves are necessary.

The true power in nested styles is that each style will be ruthlessly and consistently reapplied instantly with a single click every time one uses the paragraph style. On layout that involves complex formatting over large ranges of text, the savings in effort and time down the line as opposed to manually applying character styles (even with InDesign’s wonderful “Quick Apply” feature) should be obvious.

No tool is, of course, perfect; the most effective use of nested styles comes from a workflow which understands what its type requirements are at the basic level. But for those who look for formatting long standard lists of things, or even if what is wanted is a consistent approach to small things, nested style is InDesign’s secret power tool.

Go ahead, get your hands dirty. Dive in.

Suggestions For Further Study

Create a few sample paragraphs or clip some paragraphs from other InDesign files to give a sense of realism and go to town on them. Give them a basic paragraph format, build character formats then compile these into a new paragraph style containing nested styles.

More detailed information on the topics not covered in this how-to can be had quickly to hand in InDesign help, which has a good list defining the various range marker characters available

In particular, play with the many variations of terminating characters. Particularly note the “End Nested Style Character” item. This character, available from the Type>Insert Special Character menu, can be dropped in the paragraph wherever desired and can be used as a range-ending mark regardless of what else is going on in the paragraph.