Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 158 / NOVEMBER 1993 / PAGE S2

How to choose a desktop publishing program. (Compute's Getting Started With: Desktop Publishing)
by Bill Harrel

Desktop publishing is, of course, electronic page layout. Since the last "COMPUTE's Getting Started with Desktop Publishing" a few years ago, the page layout software market has exploded. In just a few short years, your choices have leaped from two high-end, expensive packages (Aldus PageMaker and Ventura Publisher) to well over 10 programs--targeted at a variety of computer users.

However, what hasn't changed are the documents people lay out. Some are short; others are long. Some are graphics intensive; others use few or no graphics. Some documents contain color; others are simply monotone. The trick is to buy the desktop publishing package that will enable you to lay out the type of documents you need. The program also should be easy to learn and use, as well as fit your budget.

The last three requirements--learning curve, ease of use, and price--are all relative. Professional desktop publishers, for example, spend a lot of money on their software. Their programs (PageMaker, Ventura, FrameMaker, and Quark-XPress) have powerful features, which become easy to use only through familiarity. However, they are willing to sacrifice price and the time needed to learn a program, to get a dependable page layout package with the power to do everything they need.

If, on the other hand, you lay out only an occasional document, such as a monthly newsletter or brochure, you would benefit little from a complicated program requiring a substantial commitment to learn. And it makes little sense to lay out $600 or $700 for a program you won't use often.

Long and Short Documents

Long documents consist of two or more document files, and short works are contained in one file. Software proficient at laying out long documents should help you manage all the files in your book or manual, and short document software should provide flexible tools for moving and placing text and graphics on individual pages. A short document program also should have color processing prowess.

There are long documents, and then there are long documents. The distinction lies in how they're laid out. Newsletters, for example, can be long, but most publishers don't lay them out in sections, or chapters, with each section being a separate document file. Books, some proposals, catalogs, and product documentation, on the other hand, usually are laid out one section at a time and then compiled.

To compile a long document, page layout software must be able to combine several chapters and treat them as one continuous book, repaginating them in sequential sections. Good long-document layout software also should provide a way to generate tables of contents, indices, and other lists that include data from all the sections in the work.

A truly proficient long-document DTP package will let you update figure and table numbering automatically, rather than force you to open each chapter separately and renumber them manually.

Some long documents, such as catalogs, proposals, and directories, have data that changes often and requires updating. These projects benefit from a software program that uses variables, which allow you to place markers in text and change data globally with a few mouse clicks, rather than doing search and replace routines in each section.

Short documents--flyers, posters, brochures, and newsletters--usually are more design intensive than books. The emphasis is on placing, moving, arranging, and resizing objects, rather than flowing text from page to page and chapter to chapter. In desktop publishing packages strong in short-document layout, it should be easy, for example, to rotate text and graphics, crop photographs, or more elements off the page (onto the "pasteboard") to get them out of the way while you experiment with your layout.

Color Documents

For the sake of this discussion, there are two types of color layouts: those reproduced on a color printer and those reproduced at the print shop. How you plan to reproduce your documents is an important consideration in the page layout package you buy.

As a rule, almost any program, including word processors, can successfully create documents for reproduction on a color inkjet or color laser printer. The problem with this type of reproduction is that you can't really print in volume, page sizes are limited, and you can't get the best quality.

Since supplies for color laser printers are expensive, you can pay as much as five times or more for copies, which is prohibitive for reproducing more than 100 copies. Inkjets are slow, and you can't really print on both sides of the page and keep the paper crisp and clean. Paper sizes usually are limited to 8 x 11 inches, and you can't get print shop quality when you cut and fold your documents by hand.

Furthermore, inkjets and lasers are low-resolution devices--you don't want to use them when you need high-quality color documents. Colors are dull, and graphics and text don't print sharply and cleanly.

Print shop reproduction is another story. To reproduce color documents, print shops require color separations, or one plate for each color in your document. Each color is printed separately. In a two-color newsletter (black and blue), you need one separation for the black elements (the text) and one separation for the blue elements (a logo, rules or lines between columns, shaded sidebar boxes, and so on).

Furthermore, there are two types of color documents: spot color and process color. Spot color is the type described above--when a second or third color shows up sporadically here and there throughout a publication. Print shops use process colors to print full color photographs and drawings.

When looking for a desktop publishing package, determine whether it supports color separations and what type. All of the high-end, professional packages--PageMaker, Ventura, FrameMaker, and QuarkXPress--support spot colors. They also support process colors, but to limited degrees. Ventura, for example, doesn't separate CMYK TIFF graphics, the format used for many full-color photographs.

Only a few of the economy DTP packages support spot color, and only one--Serif's PagePlus--supports process color separations.

If you plan to reproduce color documents, color separations are a must. Don't be fooled by software packaging boasting sharp, clear color documents. Check the documentation to make sure separations are supported.


In general, DTP packages fall into two categories: professional and economy programs. All the economy programs cost less than $200, while all the professional packages list for more than $700. While in many software genres you get what you pay for, that isn't necessarily so with DTP packages. You may be able to find relatively inexpensive programs that do everything you need. A mistake many of us make when buying software is buying less software than we really need. By trying to save a few bucks, we actually lose money with inept software that ends up wasting our time.

Do you need a high- or low-end program? Evaluate your use. If you plan to start a DTP business, you need a professional layout package--unquestionably. Most desktop publishers have at least two programs, one for long documents and one for short. I use three: one for long documents, one for process-color documents, and one for spot color and monochrome documents.

If you plan to do only an occasional layout, such as your church or school's monthly newsletter, your requirements are less ambitious. You can get by with a less-expensive, easy-to-use program. Finally, if you have a good word processor or draw program, you may not need a DTP package at all.