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February 27, 2023

Why you can’t highlight or underline text in After Effects

When you think about, it’s pretty weird that Google Docs beats Adobe in text formatting features. Text is such a crucial part of design and motion design. And highlights and underlines seem to be a basic part of text formatting. After Effects has neither.

It’s not just After Effects missing features. While Photoshop, Illustrator, and Premiere do have underline – they’re all missing a highlight button too.

After I added features like highlight and underline to After Effects with my tool, Type, I’ve received dozens of “can’t believe these features aren’t native” comments. I take those as a great compliment. But I also have theories for why Adobe hasn’t added these features themselves.

The color problem

When you highlight something in Google Docs, you get to choose the color of the highlight.

Now imagine if you could highlight text in After Effects. This would create some design challenges Adobe. Where would you add these color controls? The Character panel is already pretty cluttered. Adding an additional color box might get people mixed up with the text color.

This isn’t an impossible challenge. But Adobe might want to prioritize overhauling their entire color management system within After Effects before adding a feature like text highlight.

The stroke problem

While other Adobe programs do have underline buttons, they don’t have all the functionality you might expect from a design application. In design, lines are typically strokes. And strokes come in different widths.

If After Effects did have an underline button, could you control the stroke width? And what about the space between the line and the text?

Once again, these aren’t impossible design problems, but they are more complex than adding a simple button.

The animation problem

If Adobe figured out how to manage color and strokes, they would still have a big hurdle to deal with: how to animate these effects in After Effects. Google Docs doesn’t need to worry about how a highlight or underline will come on to the screen since it isn’t an animation tool. But if you were highlighting or underlining something in After Effects, you’d probably want to animate it.

This would go beyond revamping the Character panel. Adobe would need to figure out an elegant way to deal with keyframes. And what if you wanted to highlight or underline multiple sections of the same text layer?

The best solution currently (and how I built Type) is to put each highlight and underline on their own shape layer. The user can easily adjust the color, stroke, and animate the trim paths. But if these functions were built into the character panel, you’d expect the effects to be built into each text layer. Getting a brand new shape layer any time you press the highlight button might be a jarring UX – especially for new users.

The Type solution

When it comes to text, After Effects is missing a ton of core functionality. That’s why I made Type. Type lets you highlight and underline text, add blinking cursors, format numbers, split text by words, and so much more.

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