Document/Template Previews

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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

  1. Access the Properties dialog:

  • Word 2003 and earlier: File | Properties.

  • Word 2007: Office Button | Prepare | Properties | Document Properties | Advanced Properties…

  • Word 2010 and 2013: Go to File | Info, click the arrow beside Properties on the right side and choose Advanced Properties.

  1. In the Properties dialog, select the Summary tab.

  2. Check the box for “Save preview picture” (see Figure 1a) or

Word 2003 File Properties dialog showing "Save preview picture" check box

Figure 1a. Word 2003 File Properties dialog showing Save preview picture check box

Word 2010 Document Properties dialog showing “Save Thumbnails for All Word Documents” check box

Figure 1b. Word 2010 Document Properties dialog showing “Save Thumbnails for All Word Documents” check box

Important Note: Despite the wording, the “Save Thumbnails for All Word Documents” check box seems to affect only the current document, but you actually don't need to open the Properties dialog at all since you can check the “Save Thumbnail” box in the Save As dialog the first time you save the document.

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.)

It’s pointless

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).

File New dialog showing "Blank Document" without preview

Figure 2. File New dialog showing Blank Document without preview

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).

File New dialog showing "Brochure" template with preview

Figure 3. File New dialog showing "Brochure" template with preview

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.

File Open dialog showing text document saved with a preview

Figure 4. File Open dialog showing text document saved with a preview

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.)

File Open dialog showing text document saved without a preview

Figure 5. File Open dialog showing text document saved without a preview

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.)

Preview of dummy text document

Figure 6. Preview of dummy text document

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.)

Preview of document with photo

Figure 7. Preview of document with photo

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.

Figure 8. Test suite for preview pictures

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.

Windows XP

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.

  • In Word 2003 the New dialog is accessed via File | New...

  • In Word 2007, it is Office Button | New | My templates..., and the General tab is labeled “My Templates.” Users who want direct access to this dialog can add the “New Document or Template” command to the Quick Access Toolbar.

  • In Word 2010, it is File | New | My templates, and the General tab is labeled “Personal Templates.” Users who want direct access to this dialog can add the “New Document or Template” command to the Quick Access Toolbar.

  • In Word 2013, there is no direct access to the Templates folder. You can use File | New | Personal, which will show recently used templates, but if you want access to all your personal templates, you will have to add the “New Document or Template” command to the Quick Access Toolbar.

Word's New dialog

  • As expected, thumbnails are shown for files saved with a preview; templates saved without a preview show “Preview not available.”

  • In Word 2003, only .dot templates are displayed; Word 2007 and 2010 display all templates (.dot, .dotx, and .dotm).

Word's Open dialog

  • Word 2003, as expected, shows a preview for .doc and .dot files saved with a preview and scrollable content for those saved without a preview. It recognizes only its own files, however; for .docx, .docm, .dotx, and .dotm files, it shows a dialog box saying, “Because this file was created in a newer version of Word, it has been converted to a version that you can work with. However, the following items have been affected,” and so on. If you click okay, you see scrollable content for all file types regardless of whether or not they were saved with a preview.

  • Word 2007 and 2010, as expected, show a preview for .doc and .dot files saved with a preview and scrollable content for those saved without a preview. They also show a preview or scrollable content, as expected, for .docx, .docm, .dotx, and .dotm files saved in Word 2007.

  • Word 2007 and 2010 show only scrollable content for .docx, .docm, .dotx, and .dotm files saved in Word 2010, regardless of whether or not they were saved with a preview.

  • If Thumbnails view is selected instead of Preview, previews or icons are displayed for all file types, as expected, depending on whether or not they were saved with a preview.

Windows Explorer/My Computer

  • If Thumbnails is chosen as the view type, Windows Explorer/My Computer, as expected, shows a preview for all file types saved with a preview and the appropriate large icon for files saved without a preview.

  • Previews are also shown for graphics (GIF, JPEG, TIFF, PNG) and for PDFs.

Windows 7

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

  • As expected: templates saved with a thumbnail display a thumbnail; templates saved without a thumbnail show “Preview not available.”

  • In Word 2003, only .dot templates are displayed; Word 2007 and 2010 display all templates (.dot, .dotx, and .dotm).

Word's Open dialog

  • The preview pane, displays the message “This file can't be previewed because of an error in the Microsoft Word previewer” for all file types (.doc, .dot, .docx, .docm, .dotx, and .dotm), whether saved with or without a thumbnail. (Ironically, you can preview the content of Word documents in the Excel Open dialog.)

  • Graphics (GIF, JPEG, PNG, etc.) can be previewed, but PDFs display the message “This file can't be previewed because of an error in the PDF Preview Handler for Vista [sic].”

  • If Medium, Large, or Extra Large Icons is chosen for the primary view in the Open dialog, thumbnails will be displayed for those saved with a thumbnail, and appropriate icons are displayed for those saved without a thumbnail.

Windows Explorer/Computer

  • If Medium, Large, or Extra Large Icons is chosen for the primary view, thumbnails are shown, as expected, for files (all types) saved with a thumbnail; icons are shown for files saved without a thumbnail.

  • The preview pane does not show thumbnails for any file type: it shows content for .doc, .dot, .docx, and .dotx file types (regardless of whether or not they were saved with a thumbnail); for .docm and .dotm file types (with or without thumbnail), it displays “No preview available.”

  • Graphics can be previewed, but PDFs give the message “This file can't be previewed,” and PDFs display only a generic PDF icon even when Extra Large Icons is selected as the primary view.

Conclusion

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.