Fitting Text in Shapes

This is one of series of posts on typography in PowerPoint.

Text always comes in a shape, although the shape may be invisible (that is, with no fill and no outline). The default shape is a rectangle although any shape can contain text.

Text box options control the relationships between the shape and the text; they are:

  • Layout – vertical alignment and text direction.
  • “Autofit” and text wrap – these interact.  I don’t use the options that automatically change the size of the text or the size of the text; I want to control both.  Turning text wrap off is useless.
  • Internal margins.
  • Multi- column format – occasionally useful for a list that you want to extend to two columns; tables are easier for most other cases.

PowerPoint provides “shape effects” and “text effects” (the next post will cover text effects).  For example:

Text and shape effects

All of the usual effects may be applied to the shape containing the text (fill, line, shadow, etc.). These attributes behave as you might expect and do not usually affect the text.

However, when you apply a shadow to the shape (a “shape effect”), the text is shadowed as well as the containing shape fill and outline. This text shadow is not usually visible if the shape is filled.  Applying a shadow to the text separately (a “text effect”) can lead to some unexpected results:

shadow effect

The shadow offset (distance) has been exaggerated in these examples to make the results clearer. The extra shadowing is usually not a problem with filled shapes and modest offsets.

There is another case where the text is affected by a shape effect:  when you apply a 3D rotation to a shape containing text, the text is also rotated. However, there is an option to keep the text “flat.”

The text in a shape is always rectangular, regardless of the shape – for example, the text for a triangle shape is a rectangle that fits in (mostly) the triangle. Depending on the shape, this can be troublesome because you can’t take full advantage of all the space in the shape. For example, the corners of a triangle can’t be used for text using the associated text box.

Here are some examples; autofit is off, wrap is on and margins are zero.  The small numbers compare the number of characters that will fit inside the shape boundaries:

Sometimes, the text collides with the shape:

text in shapes

You can overcome some problems with text fitting in shapes by adjusting the margins and the character spacing. It is usually simpler to create the text separately and overlay the text on the shape.

Here is a simple but typical design problem that demonstrates the techniques:

Suppose your client wants to present his typical project management timeline at the top of several slides and provide the details of each step on each slide. I want to fit the timeline within the width of the slide and leave room for the details below. Of course I want to keep the text legible.

The first attempt at the timeline:

I would like to avoid hyphens and abbreviations if possible. Adjusting the margins helps a little:

Making the shape a little less pointy gains some additional space:

It’s clear I’m not going to make it with a uniform shape size, so we “cheat” the sizes a little:

This approach can be an issue since size can denote importance – an object should be big because it is important, not because it has a big label.  This size adjustment doesn’t seem to be excessive.

Next, I adjust the character spacing in some of the shapes:

Finally, this will look a little better without the outline and I can highlight the appropriate step on each slide:


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