Choosing the best desktop publishing and web design software: Buyer’s Guide review

Getting the best deal on creative software for publishing and web design
Photo of Choosing the best desktop publishing and web design software: Buyer’s Guide

IT Reviews has recently updated its Buyer’s Guide content. If you’re looking for information on vector drawing and image editing software, visit our new dedicated guide to image manipulation software here.

If you need to design or create content such as web pages, flyers, catalogues or newsletters, there’s every chance you’ve found yourself getting to the limits of what you can achieve with a simple word processor like Microsoft Word. Creating the layout you want isn’t easy using such office software, so you need something else. Quite what that ‘something else’ is depends on what it is you’re trying to produce. IT Reviews talke you through the choices…

If you’re going to be creating content for print, you’ll want what’s known as a ‘desktop publishing’ or DTP package. If you’re aiming for an on-line audience, you’ll want a web design package. There’s a great deal of similarity between the two: unlike word processors, web design and DTP packages put a far greater emphasis on the layout of a ‘page,’ making it easier to align things just so and create precisely the layout you envisioned.

Before you rush out and buy the most expensive package you can find, it’s worth getting your requirements down on paper. While software exists that does both tasks, it tends to do either one or the other well – but rarely both. As a result, you’re best off figuring out which is more important to you: online content or print. If both are equally important, it’s worth investing in a specialist tool for each rather then getting a single disappointing package that promises much and delivers little.

Whether you’re an amateur on a budget or a professional designer, there’s a wealth of software out there to help you out.

If you’re looking to create something that’s destined to be reproduced on paper – whether it’s a magazine, a leaflet, flyer or just a local newsletter – you’ll need a good desktop publishing package under your belt. While the basics can be achieved using word processing software, creating complex layouts isn’t easy without the right tools.

Free alternatives
At first glance, the world of desktop publishing can look like an expensive place. Thankfully, there’s plenty of free software around to try out. Perhaps the most famous of the cost-free DTP packages is Scribus, an open-source project which has been around for a number of years now.

Scribus is an excellent free DTP program with a range of professional-level features.

The Scribus program is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, and the project’s creators are justifiably proud of its remarkably user-friendly interface. Despite its free nature, the package is remarkably powerful and includes many of the tools you would expect from a commercial program such as the ability to create the CMYK colour separations and spot colours used in professional printing, as well as ICC colour management profiles, plus the facility to export files in PDF format.

Home users
The power of Scribus can be overwhelming to some, however. Many of its features are of little or no use in a home environment, and can simply confuse users with much more straightforward needs. For those who are looking for something simpler, there are low-cost commercial packages available.

Publisher 2010
Microsoft Publisher comes bundled with a number of versions of its Office suite.

The most famous of these is Microsoft Publisher, a DTP package that’s available separately or bundled with some versions of the company’s popular Office suite. While it lacks the high-end functionality of Scribus, it is remarkably user-friendly and offers the basic features that a home user would require of a desktop publishing package.

Another alternative is the PagePlus package from Serif Software, which is available as a low-cost commercial product or a slightly limited freeware program called PagePlus Starter Edition. Designed to be as easy to use as possible, its intuitive interface and accurate text handling make it a great starter package for DTP beginners on a budget.

Professional users
For professional users, there’s something of a price gap between packages like PagePlus and Publisher and the high-end, professional DTP software that’s a fundamental tool for anyone making a living from such work.

As with image editors, your choice of desktop publishing package will largely be informed by the format your clients use: the most common DTP package of choice is Adobe InDesign.

Built to offer every function that a professional designer could need, Adobe InDesign is generally considered to be the ultimate desktop publishing package – but it isn’t alone at the high end. For those who aren’t limited by the requirement to offer files that are guaranteed compatible with InDesign, Quark offers an alternative in the form of QuarkXPress – itself once the standard choice among publishing professionals.

Both have one thing in common, however: they’re extremely expensive, costing hundreds of pounds. If you’re not at the professional level yet, it’s definitely worth checking out some of the alternatives first. Scribus is especially worth a look, as it includes many high-end features that are otherwise only found in InDesign and QuarkXPress.

While some desktop publishing tools can create web pages from your designs, the majority – especially at the cheaper end of the market – make a very poor job of it. If you’re going to be creating content for the web, it’s a good idea to get a dedicated tool.

Software for beginners
For those who are just starting out in the world of web design, there are plenty of choices that don’t cost a fortune. One of the most powerful is Aptana, an open-source package for Windows, Linux, and Mac which is available completely free of charge.

The free Aptana web design program offers some powerful features – but may confuse novices.

While Aptana isn’t the most user-friendly package around, it is one of the most powerful. It offers high-end features similar to that of Dreamweaver, a package that carries a price tag of hundreds of pounds. For those looking to create professional web pages with the minimum of expense, it comes highly recommended.

What You See Is What You Get
For those who prefer a more DTP-like approach to web design – known as the WYSIWYG approach, standing for ‘What You See Is What You Get’ – there are some low-cost options available. The best of these is Serif’s WebPlus Essentials, a simple editor that includes everything you need to get started, including web hosting and your very own Internet address.

If you’re looking to create a simple website for personal use, it’s possible you don’t even need a dedicated web design package. As we’ve seen with office suites, there’s a growing trend to move the work of creating a website off the desktop and into the browser. Sites like Blogger, WordPress, and SquareSpace all offer free or low-cost hosting with in-built design tools that allow surprisingly complicated websites to be created in minutes without installing any software.

Professional web design tools
For those looking for a more professional approach, however, there is one undisputed king of the hill when it comes to web design: Adobe’s Dreamweaver. While its high price places it out of the reach of non-professional users, there’s no denying that Dreamweaver has some impressive power under the hood. Sadly, with the basic package costing hundreds of pounds, most users will be forced to open-source alternatives like the aforementioned Aptana.