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Compound paths and shapes

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About compound paths

You can combine several paths into a single object, called a compound path. Create a compound path when you want to do any of the following:

  • Add transparent holes to a path.

  • Preserve the transparent holes within some text characters, such as o and e, when you convert characters to editable letterforms using the Create Outlines command. Using the Create Outlines command always results in the creation of compound paths.

  • Apply a gradient, or add contents that span multiple paths. Although you can also apply a gradient across multiple objects using the Gradient tool, applying a gradient to a compound path is often a better method because you can later edit the entire gradient by selecting any of the subpaths. With the Gradient tool, later editing requires selecting all of the paths you originally selected.

Best practices for editing compound paths

Keep the following guidelines in mind as you edit compound paths:

  • Changes to path attributes (such as stroke and fill) always alter all subpaths in a composite path—it doesn’t matter which selection tool you use, or how many subpaths you select. To preserve the individual stroke and fill attributes of the paths you want to combine, group them instead.

  • In a compound path, any effect that is positioned relative to a path’s bounding box—such as a gradient, or an image pasted inside—is actually positioned relative to the bounding box of the entire compound path (that is, the path that encloses all of the subpaths).

  • If you make a compound path, then change its properties and release it, using the Release command, the released paths inherit the compound path’s properties; they don’t regain their original properties.

  • If your document contains compound paths with many smooth points, some output devices may have problems printing them. If so, simplify or eliminate the compound paths, or convert them to bitmap images using a program such as Adobe Photoshop.

  • If you apply a fill to a compound path, holes sometimes don’t appear where you expect them to. For a simple path like a rectangle, the inside, or the area you can fill, is easy to see—it’s the area within the enclosed path. However, with a compound path, InDesign must determine whether the intersections created by a compound path’s subpaths are inside (filled areas) or outside (holes). The direction of each subpath—the order in which its points were created—determines whether the area it defines is inside or outside. If a subpath is filled when you want it to be a hole, or vice versa, click Reverse Path in the Pathfinder panel to reverse the direction of that subpath.

Compound path containing two subpaths with same path directions (left) and opposite path directions (right)

Create a compound path

You can create a compound path from two or more open or closed paths. When you create a compound path, all of the originally selected paths become subpaths of the new compound path. The selected paths inherit the stroke and fill settings of the object farthest back in the stacking order.


If one or more selected objects have contents, such as text or imported images, the attributes and contents of a compound path are set by the attributes and contents of the object farthest back. Selected objects farther behind, without contents, won’t affect the compound path.

You can change the shape of any part of a compound path by using the Direct Selection tool to select an anchor point on one subpath.

  1. Use the Selection tool  to select all of the paths you want to include in the compound path.
  2. Choose Object > Paths > Make Compound Path. A hole appears wherever selected paths overlap.

You can fill a hole created by a subpath or turn a subpath into a hole. Using the Direct Selection tool, select a point on the subpath you want to change. Then select Object > Paths > Reverse Path or click Reverse Path in the Pathfinder panel.

Change holes to fills in a compound path

The direction of each subpath—the order in which its points were created—determines whether the area it defines is inside (filled areas) or outside (empty). If, in your compound path, holes sometimes don’t appear where you expect them to, you can reverse the direction of that subpath.

Two separate closed paths (left) and two subpaths of the same compound path (right); the compound path uses the center circle as a hole

  1. With the Direct Selection tool , select the part of the compound path to reverse (or a point on that part). Do not select the entire compound path.
  2. Do one of the following:
    • Choose Object > Paths > Reverse Path.

    • Click Reverse Path in the Pathfinder panel.

Break up a compound path

You can break up a compound path by releasing it, which turns each of its subpaths into an independent path.

  1. Using the Selection tool , select a compound path.
  2. Choose Object > Paths > Release Compound Path.

The Release command is unavailable when the selected compound path is contained inside a frame, or when the path contains text.

Change the holes in a compound path

You can eliminate a hole created by a subpath or fill a subpath that has created a hole by reversing its direction.

  1. Using the Direct Selection tool  , select a point on the subpath you want to reverse. Don’t select the entire compound path.
  2. Choose Object > Paths > Reverse Path, or click Reverse Path in the Pathfinder panel.

Create compound shapes

You create compound shapes using the Pathfinder panel (Window > Object & Layout > Pathfinder). Compound shapes can be made up of simple or compound paths, text frames, text outlines, or other shapes. The appearance of the compound shape depends on which Pathfinder button you choose.

Pathfinder panel

A. Original objects B. Add C. Subtract D. Intersect E. Exclude Overlap F. Minus Back 


Traces the outline of all objects to create a single shape.


Objects in the front “punch holes” in the backmost object.


Creates a shape from overlapping areas.

Exclude Overlap

Creates a shape from areas that do not overlap.

Minus Back

Objects in the back “punch holes” in the frontmost object.

In most cases, the resulting shape adopts the attributes (fill, stroke, transparency, layer, and so on) of the frontmost object. When you subtract shapes, however, objects in the front are deleted. The resulting shape takes on the attributes of the backmost object instead.

When you include a text frame in a compound shape, the shape of the text frame changes, but the text itself stays the same. To alter the text itself, create a compound path using text outlines.

Compound shape used as a text frame (left) compared to one created from a text outline (right)

Create a compound shape

You can work with a compound shape as a single unit or release its component paths to work with each separately. For example, you might apply a gradient fill to a part of the compound shape, but leave the rest of the shape unfilled.

Gradient applied to a compound shape (left) compared to gradient applied to one part of the compound shape (right)

  1. Choose Window > Object & Layout > Pathfinder to open the panel.
  2. Select the objects you want to combine in a compound shape.
  3. Click a button (such as Add) in the Pathfinder section on the Pathfinder panel.

You can also choose a command from the Object > Pathfinder submenu.

Release paths in a compound shape

  1. Select the compound shape. Choose Object > Paths > Release Compound Path. The compound shape is separated into its component paths.

    To regroup component paths without losing changes you’ve applied to individual paths, choose Group in the Object menu, rather than Compound Paths > Make.

Create paths from text outlines

Use the Create Outlines command to convert selected text characters into a set of compound paths that you can edit and manipulate as you would any other path. The Create Outlines command is useful for creating effects in large display type, but it is rarely useful for body text or other smaller-size type.


If you simply want to apply a color stroke, or a gradient fill or stroke to text characters, you don’t need to convert the text to outlines. You can use the toolbox and the Swatches, Color, or Gradient panels to apply colors and gradients directly to the strokes or fills of selected characters.

The Create Outlines command gets its font outline information from the actual Type 1, TrueType, or OpenType files. When you create outlines, characters are converted in their current positions, retaining all graphics formatting, such as stroke and fill.


Some font manufacturers block the information needed to create outlines. If you select such a protected font and choose Type > Create Outlines, a message will explain that the font cannot be converted.

When you convert type to outlines, the type loses its hints—instructions built into outline fonts for adjusting their shapes, so that your system displays or prints them optimally at small sizes. Therefore, type converted to outlines may not display as well when rendered in small sizes or at low resolutions.

After converting type to outlines, you can do any of the following:

  • Alter the letterforms by dragging individual anchor points using the Direct Selection tool .

  • Copy the outlines and use the Edit > Paste Into command to mask an image by pasting it into the converted outlines.

  • Use the converted outlines as text frames, so that you can type or place text in them.

  • Change the stroke attributes of letterforms.

  • Use text outlines to create compound shapes.

Working with text outlines

A. Type character before conversion to text outline B. Text outline with image pasted into it C. Text outline used as a text frame 

Because converted text outlines become sets of compound paths, you can edit individual subpaths of converted outlines by using the Direct Selection tool. You can also break the character outlines into independent paths by releasing them from the compound path.

Convert text outlines to paths

By default, creating outlines from type removes the original text. However, if you prefer, you can make outlines appear over a copy of the original text, so that none of the text is lost.

When you select type characters in a text frame and convert them to outlines, the resulting outlines become anchored (inline) objects that flow with the text. Because the converted text is no longer true type, you will no longer be able to highlight and edit the characters using the Type tool. In addition, typographical controls will no longer apply. Make sure that you’re satisfied with the typographic settings of the type you convert to outlines, and be sure to create a copy of the original text.

  1. Use the Selection tool  to select a text frame, or use the Type tool to select one or more characters.
  2. Choose Type > Create Outlines.

Convert a copy of text outlines to paths

  1. Use the Selection tool  to select a text frame, or use the Type tool to select one or more characters.
  2. Hold down Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac OS) as you choose Type > Create Outlines. The copy is created exactly on top of the original; use the Selection tool to drag it away, if you like.

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