How can I make my document or template show a preview?
Many of the templates that ship with Word display a “thumbnail” or preview in the File | New dialog. Users often ask how they can make their custom document templates do the same. Although it is quite easy to add a preview to a document or template, it is not necessarily advisable.
How to add a preview to a document or template
That’s all there is to it!
Now let's look at some reasons why you really don’t need or want to do that in most cases.
Why you don’t want to add a preview picture
Although there are some situations where a preview picture of a template can be helpful, it is rarely helpful for documents and greatly increases the file size. (Note that the screen shots that follow are from Word 2003. The principles are unchanged in Word 2007 and above, but different handling of previews and “thumbnails” in Windows Vista and Windows 7 muddies the waters considerably; see discussion below.)
If you look at the templates that ship with Word, you’ll see that some of them, notably “Blank Document” (that is, Normal.dot), don’t have a preview picture (see Figure 2). The reason for this is simple: because there is no content in the file, the only thing a preview would display would be the general shape of the paper (without even giving an indication of the size).
Although there are previews for many of the specialized templates that ship with Word (see Figure 3), this is window dressing, designed to advertise the templates to prospective users. If you have created the templates yourself and given them sufficiently descriptive names, this should not be necessary. For example, Figure 2 shows templates for index cards in two sizes and for Letter and Legal size paper in portrait and landscape orientation. None of these needs a preview because their purpose is obvious (at least to me, their creator).
Preview pictures for documents are even more pointless. Compare Figures 4 and 5, which show the previews you get (in Preview view in the File | Open dialog) with and without a preview picture saved with the document. Figure 4 shows that if you save a preview of a text-heavy document, the preview is too small to be useful.
Without a saved preview picture, on the other hand, as shown in Figure 5, the preview you get is a scrollable window into the document, allowing you to actually read the text (all of it, from beginning to end, if you like). There are some limitations to this: paragraph text is wrapped to the window size; tables are not (and obviously graphics cannot be). Still, you can usually read enough of the text to determine the content. (You can also, in Word 2002 and above, increase the size of the dialog to make the preview window larger. You do this by dragging on the bottom right corner to increase the size or by double-clicking the title bar to maximize the window.)
It increases the file size
If the arguments above are not enough to convince you, perhaps you will be more persuaded by the fact that adding a preview picture greatly adds to the file size of the document or template. The amount of increase varies with the content, but it can be very dramatic. For example, an empty Word 2003 document is 19.5 KB with or without a preview picture. If you add dummy text (see Figure 6), the document is 28.5 KB without a preview and 39.5 KB with. (Note also the difference in file sizes for the same document as illustrated in Figures 4 and 5.) In Word 2003, the dummy text document without a preview is 10.6 KB; with a preview it is 21.5 KB.)
If you add a photo, as in Figure 7, the file size is 302 KB without a preview and 6.52 MB with one! (In Word 2007, the corresponding file sizes are 291 KB and 320 KB; here the preview might be worthwhile, since the document saved without a preview does not show a preview in the Open dialog.)
You may be willing to accept the increased file size for a template but not for the documents based on it. If that is the case, be aware that whenever you create a document based on a template saved with a preview picture, the document will, by default, also be saved with a preview picture. If you have “Prompt for document properties” checked on the Save tab of Tools | Options, you will have the opportunity to change this for new documents; just remember that you will have to do it for every document you create based on that template. There is no equivalent of “Prompt for document properties” in Word 2007 and above, making this even more complicated.
Changes in Word 2007 and above
The above was written for Word 2003 and Windows 2000. The game changes in Word 2007 and above and also in Windows XP and especially in Windows Vista and Windows 7. To understand the varying behaviors of various file types in all versions under both Windows XP and Windows 7, I created a suite of files as shown in Figure 8.
One striking fact that can be seen from the the listing above is that, while file sizes in Word 2007 and 2010 (all formats) are dramatically smaller than in Word 2003 (.doc and .dot formats), adding a preview picture does still make the file larger. The document used for these tests contains some text, a small graphic, a table, a text box, some footnotes—assorted elements that might be found in a general document. It does not contain any OLE objects or Smart Art or anything else that would change much between versions, but, because it is not entirely text, it does have some elements that make it somewhat recognizable in a preview.
Unlike Windows 2000, Windows XP provides, in Windows Explorer (My Computer), the option of viewing “thumbnails” of files saved with a preview, and that can have a bearing on a user's decision to save the preview picture, especially since the Thumbnail view is also available in Word's Open dialog as an alternative to the Preview or other views. Windows 7 also offers thumbnail views; these are available as Medium Icons, Large Icons, or Extra Large Icons. The last are more or less equivalent to the Thumbnails in Windows XP.
The results of my tests in Windows XP and Windows 7 (I do not have access to Windows Vista but believe results will be very similar to those seen in Windows 7) were so complex and confusing that I ended up drawing up an elaborate table to summarize them. I will not present that table here but will attempt to summarize my findings instead.
Under Windows XP, Word 2003, 2007, and 2010 all present the same Properties dialog shown in Figure 1, with the “Save preview picture” check box. All three versions also share the same Open and New dialogs.
Word's New dialog
Word's Open dialog
Windows Explorer/My Computer
Under Windows 7, Word 2007 and above present the Properties dialog shown in Figure 1b, with a check box is labeled “Save Thumbnails for All Word Documents” (despite the wording, this seems to be still a document-specific setting). There is also a “Save Thumbnail” check box in the Save As dialog, which is checked or clear depending on the Properties setting.
The New dialog is still virtually identical to Figure 2 except that the General tab is labeled “Personal Templates.” The Open dialog, however, is quite different. As an Explorer window, it (like Windows Explorer/Computer) has a separate preview pane that can be displayed in addition to the chosen view of files (List, Details, Tiles, Content, or Small, Medium, Large, or Extra Large Icons). Unfortunately, within Word, the preview pane does not work at all. Here's the rundown:
Word's New dialog
Word's Open dialog
So what can we conclude from all this? What is the “takeaway,” in the current jargon, or the moral to the story? Because adding a preview or thumbnail to a document still comes at a cost, however small, in added file size, I recommend it only when the first page of the document includes strong graphic elements that will be easily recognizable in miniature. For ordinary text documents, being able to view the file's contents or (if only an icon is visible) judging the content from a sensible filename should be satisfactory and sufficient.
This article copyright © 2005, 2008, 2011, 2014 by Suzanne S. Barnhill.