Quantum mechanical calculations have been used to investigate the molecular conformation of the Hoechst family of DNA-binding dyestuffs. Compounds in which the phenolic substituent adopts either a meta or para position were studied. Two different environments have been considered, which are the gas phase and aqueous solution; the conformation in aqueous solution has been modeled through a self-consistent reaction field strategy. The results clearly indicate that Hoechst dyes do not adopt a planar conformation and that the degree of planarity is controlled by the external environment. A comparison with experimental data reveals that the conformation of Hoechst dyes in the gas phase is similar to that observed in DNA complexes by X-ray crystallography. In aqueous solution, the conformation deviates from planarity more than in the gas phase, since non-bonded interactions with the solvent offset the loss of conjugative interactions. The role of the drug conformation in the binding mechanism with DNA is discussed.