Mastering Adobe InDesign's Pathfinder Tools

By Galen Gruman

Dateline: November 11, 2005
Version: InDesign CS

Chances are, your InDesign layouts will eventually use more complex shapes than the standard rectangles, ellipses, and polygons. You could create them from scratch using the Pen tool as if you were in Illustrator, but there’s no need to bother when InDesign CS gives you the option to combine existing shapes with Pathfinder tools.

Note that the Pathfinder tools are not the same as compound paths (Object > Compound Paths > Make), which is InDesign’s approach to joining lines together so they become one object for editing and manipulating. You’ll still use compound paths in InDesign CS to combine multiple paths into one.
Create shapes using InDesign’s Frame or Shape tools. Shapes can also contain images or be text converted to frames (Type > Create Outlines). Be sure to not create lines using the Line tools—use thin rectangles instead—since InDesign CS can’t combine lines with shapes. (It will instead apply the line as a stroke to the selected shapes or ignore the line, depending on what action you take.) Also, be sure no objects are grouped—the Pathfinder tools will also ignore grouped objects. Here, I’ve created molecular shapes with a series of circles and thin rectangles.
Select the shapes you want to work on, and open the Pathfinder palette (Window > Pathfinder). Apply one of the five options from the Pathfinder palette to the shapes. To combine shapes into a single shape, click the Add button (left icon). InDesign will convert the separate shapes into one shape, making it a Bézier object. Notice that the top shape’s fill, image, or text will become the fill for all. The other icons, from left to right, act as follows: Subtract removes the front object from the object(s) behind it, cutting out the back shape(s) as needed; Intersect deletes all the selected objects except for the parts that overlap, merging the overlapping portions into one object; Exclude Overlap merges the selected objects and removes any overlapping portions, creating holes; and Minus Back acts like Subtract except it removes the back object from those above it.
To really take advantage of the Pathfinder tools, you’ll need many overlapping shapes, since that gives you more possibilities for interesting effects. For example, using Subtract can create abstract designs, while Exclude Overlap can create kaleidoscopic ones.
Here, I took the four large circles and combined them into one shape with the Add tool, then placed a photograph in it. I then selected the molecular shape above it and used Exclude Overlap to cut it out of the background shape.
The final layout is shown at left (click to enlarge).

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Galen Gruman is a veteran desktop publishing expert and author of the “InDesign CS Bible” and “Face to Face: QuarkXPress to InDesign.”