Formatting elements: Alignment (About direction and orientation)

This week I’m going to discuss the last two aspects of alignment: text orientation, and text direction. It’s easy to get these two confused, but if you don’t remember which is which it’s not like it hurts anything to try one. I often end up trying both to see which will look better, anyway.

Text orientation
lets you rotate the text. Some programs let you specify the full 360 degrees in a circle, and others can only go between positive and negative 90 degrees, which covers the same space as 0 to 90 degrees and 270 to 360. If you rotate it 90 degrees, it’s as if you had rotated a piece of paper 90 degrees clockwise (a quarter of the way around), written on it, then rotated it back to normal to look at it. Likewise if you rotate it -45 or 315 degrees, it’s as if you tilted your paper to the left, wrote, then straightened it again. If the numbers are confusing, don’t worry — most programs have a dial that lets you rotate the text graphically. As you might note you don’t have to stick with 45-degree increments in most programs. I just did that for easy illustration.

Text direction, sometimes called “Vertically Stacking” lets you change how the characters relate to each other. In traditional English writing the 2nd character is immediately to the right of the 1st, and the 3rd is immediately to the right of the 2nd, and if you run out of room on the line you go to a new one. However, the text direction option lets you change it so that the 2nd is immediately below the 1st, the 3rd is immediately below the 2nd, and if you run out of room in the column you go to a new one.

So why would you use either one?

The easy explanation is that rotated text is is both thinner and taller. Taller can be helpful if you’re labeling a multiple rows, and want the label to cover more of them. Thinner, however, is more commonly useful. If you’ve got a table with a lot of columns, and the column headers are noticeably wider than the contents of the column, you can get more columns to fit on a page by rotating the headers.

Most commonly, if I’ve got headers at the top of the column, I’ll rotate them by changing the text direction between 45 and 90 degrees counter-clockwise, but if I’ve got the labels at the bottom of the column I’ll change the orientation instead. That’s because I want to keep the start of the label — which is where the eye naturally wants to start reading — closest to the data it relates to. It would also work to rotate the text 90 degrees clockwise at the bottom — just experiment and figure out what works best for you.

There’s also a nifty trick you can do to create regular geometric figures — that is to say things like equilateral triangles, squares, pentagons, hexagons, octagons, etc. It’s a bit complicated though, so I’ll discuss it next week.