Nested Styles with InDesign

Posted by in Design, InDesign, Mapbook

Nested Styles in InDesign is a pretty cool feature. Using nested styles, you can tell InDesign to automatically apply specific styling upto or until a certain character (and that includes hidden characters) then another style up to the next character and so on. So instead of highlighting the first line, enlarging the type size, changing the typeface and changing the color manually, you can set up a nested paragraph style. With a nested style you select a text box and apply the paragraph style to automatically format a series of character styles to your text. The source text needs to be designed and formatted in a way that matches the settings of the nested paragraph style properly which can be tricky but I’ll show you how I’ve set up an example from my work.

I have used nested styles with hidden characters in maps, map indexes and other documents to create a consistent and useful style that saves major amounts of time and saves me from some tedious cartography/typography work. Imagine needed to style text on one hundred different pages manually. This technique is especially useful for a map series where there are many separate occurrences of text that need the same formatting.

Here is the example I will be working with. I am using InDesign CS4 in these examples. This text reflects a nested style that has been applied in InDesign, this nested paragraph style consists of three different character styles (you can download the source/example files at the end of this article).



Here’s the same text showing the hidden characters.



You can see that there is a line break character (not a paragraph return) at the end of the first header line, then there is body text, a line break, the Actions heading, then more body text only after the end of this sequence is there a paragraph return which tells the nested paragraph style to restart. There are three different character styles incorporated into the nested paragraph style. There is one character style for the blue header [RP Event Header], one for the body text [TEXT – 8 – A,n – RB] and one for the Actions header [RP Header]. This nested paragraph style applies these character styles based on the positioning of hidden characters. The sequence defined in the nested style is [RP Event Header] up to the first line break, then [TEXT – 8 – A,n – RB] up to the second line break, then [RP Header] up to the next line break, [TEXT – 8 – A,n – RB] until the paragraph return, after which the nested style is repeated with the same sequence.

To build the nested style you must first build the character styles utilized in the nested paragraph style. A character style controls typeface, leading (line spacing) color and a few other things. Here’s how the header character style is set up in the example (to access character styles in InDesign go to Window>Type & Tables>Character Styles; to create a new character style hit the character styles flyout

and choose new character style).

Once you’ve added a new character style you can either double click the name in the list or click once to highlight the name then hit the character styles flyout and choose Style Options…. Under the general tab, you can rename the style to something descriptive. You can see the name I have been referencing here [RP Event Header].

In the Basic Character Formats tab, you can see the properties of this character style including the typeface used, the size, leading, kerning and case settings.

The only other tab with settings for this character style is the Character Color tab where the typeface color is set to cyan.

The remaining character styles needed to complete the nested paragraph style should be created in the same way. Once the character styles are ready, you can move on to the paragraph style. I usually keep notes on how I want my nested style to work so. Having notes and a plan will help get the proper results when you are building the nested style.

To start the nested style, open the paragraph styles window (same procedure as the character style window but choose paragraph styles). Next, create a new paragraph style the same way you created a new character style – but in the paragraph style window. Now visit the Drop Caps and Nested Styles tab. This is the control center for the nested style and you can pretty much ignore the other tabs. You will see there are many settings for paragraph styles and I encourage you to explore them but I will focus on the Nested Styles tab here.

This is how the nested styles are set up for the text in this example.

To add a style in the nested style configuration hit the New Nested Style button. This will bring up the list of Character Styles in your document. Choose the character style to use then tell InDesign how far to take it. You can see for this nested style the [RP Event Header] is applied up to the first forced line break character. There are similar settings for the remaining character styles. Notice that the [RP Header] must be set at up to 2 Forced Line Break though it looks as though it should be up to 3 Forced Line Break. I believe the count is from the previous nested style, which means the [RP Header] is applied from the end of the previous nested style (forced line break 2), counting that Forced Line Break character, up through the next Forced Line Break character. I don’t think the counting here quite make sense, which can get frustrating, so it may take some trial and error to set up a working nested style.

To apply the nested style, place a text file with the appropriate hidden characters using File>Place or Ctrl+D on the keyboard.

You will notice that the text file may have a character style applied and you must change it to none. Then you can apply the nested style to see the formatting in action. If there is a character style applied to your text then you apply your nested style, the text will reflect the character style – make sure there is no character style applied when using a nested paragraph style.

You can download the files that I have used in the example to try this yourself. The zip includes an InDesign CS4 file with character and paragraph styles preloaded along with a properly formatted rich text file for use with the nested style.


Nested Styles



Here’s a visual explanation of how the nested style is set up.


  1. Sue Spade
    July 8, 2013

    I’m not finding how to create leading between forced line breaks anywhere! Could you advise me on how to lead out between forced line breaks, please?

  2. Brian
    July 22, 2013

    Hi Sue, if you are using nested styles, you should be able to control this in the character styles.

  3. Ashok Panda
    August 8, 2013

    Hi Everyone, I have a table header with 2 words and i just want to break the words into 2 lines through styles, means the 2nd word should go to next line. Can any one help me out in this through styles.

    • Brian
      August 8, 2013

      Can you post a pic of what you’ve got and what you’re trying to get? There might be a couple of ways to approach this..

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    January 15, 2015

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