There are plenty of good reasons to hire a design firm. For example, someone who's looking for a top-quality website for their new startup company would be well served by professional designers and engineers. Most of us, however, have far simpler publishing needs – a newsletter for the neighborhood association, a flyer for a church event, or a new menu for a family-owned restaurant. There's no need to spend money on design consultants when you can create these sorts of things yourself. That's what desktop publishing software is for.
Desktop publishing applications don't have the same features as professional layout software, because they're suited to different tasks. For example, layout software will rarely offer templates to help guide your efforts, but desktop publishing programs are packed with hundreds, if not thousands, of variants for any project you might be undertaking. That's why we've focused here on programs for the rest of us – software that's perfect for easy, everyday use.
Chief among these programs is PagePlus X7. It's one of the best pieces of publishing software available, as it has much of the capability of pro software. Microsoft Publisher is an excellent contender, and comes with the added bonus of being included with Microsoft Office. Xara's Page & Layout Designer, meanwhile, sports one of the sleekest interfaces you'll find. If you're wondering whether it might be worth paying the extra money for a professional app, check out our articles on desktop publishing software for some guidance.
Finding the best desktop publishing software isn't simply a matter of picking the one with the most templates. A wide template selection is nice to have, but you'll want an application that balances user-friendliness with powerful capability. Don't worry if you don't understand why a certain feature is valuable just yet; the finer points of desktop publishing aren't difficult to learn, and they'll make all the difference when you want those new business cards to shine.
Layout & Publishing Tools
Although you might not use them every time you work on a design, there are a few layout and publishing tools that are invaluable under the right circumstances. Master pages, for example, let you define pictures and text that will appear on every single page of a publication, much like master slides in PowerPoint or headers and footers in a text document.
Custom guides let you set snapping lines anywhere on a page, so you can easily align text, images, columns and more. Proportional snapping takes this feature to another level. Sometimes called "smart snapping," it automatically adjusts the width or height of something you're resizing to match the existing width or height of other elements on the page. Thus, if you already have a column of text and need to insert another one, you can start drawing a text box and the software will let you know when your new column reaches the same width as the old one.
CMYK optimization is a feature you won't find in many desktop publishing tools, but it's a necessity in any professional product and can be an invaluable addition. CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and black – it's the color format used by ink printers. RGB (or red, green, blue) is the color format used to display pictures on a screen. Where most products will just let your printer handle the conversion from RGB to CMYK, the best software has its own optimization settings and handles that conversion itself – which generally results in better-quality printing.
Whether or not you're an experienced graphic designer, a capable set of visual tools is essential to good layout – even if you're doing something as simple as replacing a solid color with a gradient. The best desktop publishers don't just offer quickshapes and transparency control; they have integrated vector graphics editors that let you build or modify logos for your business. Many have photo correction tools to smooth out blemishes or fix color problems, and a few even offer Photoshop-style filters, giving you full control over fun, interesting visual effects.
As important as graphics and visuals are to good publications, beautiful text ties a document together. Most desktop publishing software offers fun new fonts on installation, but it's what you can do with those fonts that sets the best applications apart.
The single most important typography feature to look for is text reflow: the ability to logically connect multiple columns of text together. When you edit the content of one column – say, by adding a new paragraph – your layout changes are reflected across all linked boxes. Text reflow is a necessity when you're working with any sort of newspaper- or magazine-like publication, since it lets you create articles that flow across columns and pages. However, while many desktop publishing programs offer it, some haven't integrated it very well. Generally speaking, the higher a product is on our lineup, the better its integration of text reflow and the easier it is to use.
It might seem like a simple thing, but only a few desktop publishers let you create tables and charts from within the software; most force you to save them as images in other programs and import them. This can make it difficult and time-consuming to change data in a table cell, or alter a chart that doesn't fit the aesthetic of one of your newsletter's pages. Publishers that let you create and modify tables and charts directly are well worth your consideration.
Projects & Templates
Project templates are the key to quickly putting together professional-looking publications. You can craft designs from scratch with any of the programs we reviewed, but it's far easier to customize something that's already been laid out. Don't assume, however, that better products will always have a bigger number of pre-built templates; when it comes to desktop publishing, quality trumps quantity.
Desktop publishing software is designed to make putting together calendars, brochures, newsletters and certificates a joy, rather than a chore. While there will always be a learning curve, the best products keep that curve gentle and help guide you with some of the most beautiful templates in the business. If you've looked through our lineup and still aren't sure which to choose, go right to the top of the list – we've tested every single one, and our rankings reflect those tests.