Pick a side: Do you indent the first line of your first paragraph?

It has been a while since I have taken a firm stance on some bit of typographic minutia that most normal people don’t care about, so today, I’m writing about whether you should indent the first line of the first paragraph when laying out narrative text. Get ready for a wild ride, similar to previous posts on drop caps, double spacing after a period, and the serial comma. (For those of you who are really into this sort of thing, I have created a category called “Typographic Minutiae” in our sidebar. Tell your friends!)

Not long ago, I was in a meeting with a freelance client whom I had not worked with before. I was nodding at comments and suggestions while going over the first draft of a newsletter: “Take all of the text from this Russian novel and put it on page 3.” Nod nod nod. “And in all the leftover space make this 50-pixel-wide photo huge.” Nod nod nod. “And use 17 different styles for these headlines.” Nod nod nod. “And indent the first line of the first paragraph in these blocks of text.” Screeching record-scratch sound.

To give you a visual of what I’m talking about, see the examples above. (Thanks to Bleacher Report for the text.) I have always set the first paragraph of a block of text, either at the very beginning of a passage or after a subhead, flush left, including the first line, as with the example on the left.

I remember a graduate school professor explaining it like this: You indent to indicate a new paragraph. There’s no reason to indent the first paragraph because it’s obvious that it’s a new paragraph since it’s the first one. Now go design a ball that is really a mask that will save the world. (Grad school was weird.)

Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typographic Style, which many designers consider the Bible of typography, says it like this:

The function of a paragraph indent is to mark a pause, setting the paragraph apart from what precedes it. If a paragraph is preceded by a title or subhead, the indent is superfluous and can therefore be omitted.

If Robert Bringhurst is not an authoritative enough source for you, Wikipedia says this: “Professionally printed material typically does not indent the first paragraph, but indents those that follow.”

As with all typographic styles, if you follow a specific style guide, you should defer to it. (And whatever style you follow, be sure to follow it consistently rather than mixing and matching.) There are some style guides that say you should indent the first line of all paragraphs, including the first one. For instance, most newspapers follow the Associated Press style guide, which calls for indenting the first line of all paragraphs. That said, I have always hated AP style because 98 percent of its guidelines are intended more for saving money on ink than actual clarity of language. (Most newspapers also fully justify (on the right and the left) narrow columns of text, which looks ridiculous, so if that’s your model for good design, best of luck to you.)

Ultimately, it’s not incorrect to indent the first line of the first paragraph of narrative text. People aren’t going to point and laugh if you do it. But in my estimation, left justifying the entire first paragraph is one of those subtle nuances that sets professional design apart from amateur design.

What Designers Want

Professionals in any field have hang-ups and annoyances that they deal with every day. Bank tellers have to deal with customers who want to deposit hundreds of dollars in nickels, firefighters have to deal with cats stuck in trees, and swimsuit models have to deal with sand.

As a graphic designer, my second-least favorite part of any project is the very beginning—the moment when I get my first look at the materials that have been delivered to me before I get started. (My first-least favorite part of a project is the very end—the moment when I open the box of advance copies from the printer and notice for the first time, after missing it on countless proofs, that the word “Public” on the front cover is missing a letter and that spell check didn’t catch it because it created another word.)

It’s rare that a graphic designer generates all of the text and images that he or she incorporates into a given project, so the collaborative process usually begins in the hands of someone who is not the designer. Any time I work on a new project, I try to outline how I’d like materials delivered. The longer I work with a given freelance client or contact at work, the more smooth that process becomes.

I don’t like to generalize, but graphic designers are cynical jerks who spend all day stroking their goatees thinking about how great the world would be if everyone would just listen to them. Chapter 7 of the book Interpretation By Design is called “Making the Collaborative Process Work,” which is code for “How Normal People Can Get Along with Cynical Jerks Who Spend All Day Stroking Their Goatees Thinking About How Great the World Would Be if Everyone Would Just Listen to Them.” On page 89, the subhead “What to Provide the Designer” is code for “Designers Will Moan and Roll Their Eyes About Whatever You Give Them to Work With.”

With that in mind, here are some of the points I try to emphasize when I work with a new client regarding the delivery of materials:

Text: Don’t Tab
Most of the time, the problems designers have with working files are the result of good intentions. In crafting the text for a publication, writers will format it in word processing documents—they’ll create tables and columns, place photos, and worst of all, use the tab key to create alignments. There’s nothing I hate to see more when I open a Word file than a bibliography or a list of works cited that an author has formatted using returns and tabs.

More often than not, your designer will not use the same program for page layout that you use to create the content, which means that all of that formatting you did in Microsoft Word will have to be undone by the designer before it can be re-done in page-layout software like Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress. As a designer, I’m much happier to receive text with no formatting at all (except bold or italics to indicate hierarchy) that includes notes to me with instructions. I’d rather see a note that says “Designer: this is a sidebar” than have to copy and paste text out of a box in a Word file.

Images: Original Files, Please
Again, the path to annoyed designers is paved with good intentions. If you want a photo cropped or otherwise corrected, most designers prefer that you provide instructions to that effect rather than manipulating the image yourself. If you do manipulate an image yourself, provide the original version along with the corrected version.

Also, your designer will prefer images as separate files rather than embedded in a word processing document. Personally, if a client has a specific place where they want an image to be placed, I prefer to be alerted with a simple note to the effect of “Hey goatee-stroking jerk: Insert image_name.jpg here.”

Provide Final Files All at Once
This point is really two points rolled into one. The important word in the first part is final. Most designers working on a freelance basis will incorporate one round of corrections into a bid before they add hourly surcharges. Significant changes to text that should have been finalized before it went to the designer will usually alter the layout and result in charges that could have been avoided—not to mention emphatic goatee stroking and muttering behind your back on the part of the designer.

The second part, all at once, means that most designers don’t want partial delivery of a project. When you say to a designer, “I’m giving you half of the text and 13 of 50 photos so that you can started,” he or she will stroke his or her goatee and say, “Okay,” which really means, “I’m going to eat Ding Dongs and watch the Cartoon Network instead of working on your project.” This is not because designers are jerks (which, I reiterate, we are), but rather because having all of the materials in front of us will allow us to make decisions about how to lay out a project.

We strive to make IBD a bridge between the fields of interpretation and graphic design. If you’re an interpreter who works with designers, I hope this post will help make some aspects of your projects go a little more smoothly. If you’re a designer who works with interpreters, lighten up a little, would ya?