Units & Increments and poetry

This week I figured out why, in InDesign, I might want to set my vertical and horizontal units differently. Previously I set them both to inches. Changing that under Preferences > Units & Increments is always the first step in my workflow.

I understand that some graphic designers are trained to think in pixels or picas, but I’m not. Those are basically a foreign language to me; I could get by passably in that country, but I’m not fluent.

Horizontally, inches make a lot more sense to me. When calculating a book’s spine width, for example, I’m very good at setting my vertical guides by inch marks. I even know my fractions.

Vertically, I hardly look at any measurements—until recently, when I decided it was time to finally conquer aligning paragraphs to a grid.

When laying out poems, I often recognize a need to have different spacing for stanza breaks or line height. Poets put meaning in the spaces. For instance, poems in Melissa Broder’s Scarecrone use three different line widths. They affect the pacing. Look at “Mud Rush” for the normal formatting, then “Sand Ceremony” for increased line height, and then “Power Nothing” as an example of the widest spacing.

Do you perceive a difference in how you read the poems? To put it more ephemerally, do the poems do different things?

And then there are stanza breaks, which in poetry are commonly input as one carriage return, which is styled separately. (This is a huge mistake when designing prose books; instead, savvy designers use “Space Before” and “Space After” in their paragraph settings.) I think there’s a way to layout stanzas without using carriage returns, eg. a deeper mix of paragraphs styles and the “first line offset” tool, but I haven’t explored this yet. (I never, ever use a forced line break. Do you?)

To the point I’m making now, about units and increments, I now recognize a need to set my vertical units to points instead of inches. It has to do with aligning across columns, or in terms of the traditional poetry book, across pages. Aligning each individual line is crucially important when doing magazine layout, say, where there can be numerous columns right next to each other. It’s also important across pages, but it’s easier to ignore.

But I’ve often been frustrated when a stanza break throws off an otherwise pristine two-page spread. This was brought to my attention by an important client this week, so I knew it was time to stop being lazy and figure out how to automate some stuff.

I thought the calculation would be much more complicated. In fact, it’s pretty obvious. Simply set the Space After of the break to the same point value, or multiple of same, as the leading of the lines. (This does not work if poems with different line heights are on facing pages, though. I haven’t figured that out yet. Tips?)

The easiest way to set the Space After to a ratio that works with the leading, is to set the vertical unit to points.

I’m curious if anyone uses a calculation of some sort to place the poem on the x axis? As you can see with Broder’s poems, the various line lengths make it necessary to shift them around. This is usually the last part of my workflow, and it’s pretty higgledy jiggled.