Publishing Tools for the Masses

by Edwin Powell

There once was a time when typesetting and page layout were arcane arts practiced by highly trained professionals, but the PC revolution has changed all that. Today, the ability to create professional-looking publications is within the grasp of just about anyone with the right hardware and software, along with a side order of creativity.

Although there's certainly still a place for the talents of a graphics professional, many businesses find it liberating to be able to produce attractive documents quickly and inexpensively in-house. Documents that don't necessarily require offset printing, such as brochures, forms, fliers, newsletters, and reports, are well suited for in-house production, especially pieces that need to be updated frequently.

The nice part is that office employees can achieve impressive results with software costing far less than the tools the professionals use. Word processors such as Microsoft Word or WordPerfect are quite handy for such tasks as today's versions are capable of handling more than simple text. Tools for handling text in multiple columns and text boxes, and inserting and scaling images allow today's word processing software to function as a multipurpose publishing tool.

Unfortunately, like many other general-purpose tools, word processors short on some areas. Controlling text flow between columns, for instance, is imprecise at best. Often, one needs a specialized tool to accomplish a specific job. While the high-dollar tools used by graphics professionals may be out of reach for most office workers, there are less expensive alternatives that can fill the bill without breaking the bank.

To understand how to make the most of low-cost alternatives, it's helpful to have an understanding of the tools the pros use. At the heart of the process is a page layout package such as QuarkXpress or Adobe InDesign. This software provides the on-screen equivalent of cut-and-paste page layout, allowing the user to place and manipulate text in ways a word processor couldn't begin to handle. As the name suggests, Adobe Photoshop allows users to scan and retouch photographs, fixing defects in the originals or even turning them into pieces of artwork. Adobe Illustrator brings the artist's palate to the computer screen, allowing users to create original artwork.

This trio of professional graphics tools can run well in excess of $1,000 at full retail, but office employees can achieve impressive results with a variety of less expensive alternatives. The pros use the tools they do because they need to be able to control various elements in minute detail, prepare files to output to film for color separations (breaking color images into the four basic ink colors-cyan, magenta, yellow, and black), and ultimately create plates for offset printing presses. If you only intend to print your publication on a laser or color ink jet printer, you can do without many of these features.

Since office employees would most likely rely on clip art and scanned images for their graphics, the functionality offered by Illustrator is readily dispensable. Not so with that of Quark and Photoshop. Page layout and image manipulation are at the heart of the operation.

There are several good alternatives for page layout that offer the essentials at a price the boss is likely to find fairly palatable.


The software that put desktop publishing on the map in the mid-'80s is now in version 7 and has been repositioned in the marketplace as a business publishing tool to make room at the top for Adobe's new flagship page layout package, InDesign. But that doesn't mean PageMaker has been stripped of its functionality. Available for both Windows and Macintosh, it's as powerful as ever and now comes bundled with a set of templates and tools to make it more user-friendly in an office setting, as well as offering a more purchasing department-friendly price tag. Because it's been a standard tool in print shops and service bureaus for so many years, PageMaker is also a good bet for more ambitious projects that go beyond the scope of the printer and copier.

Microsoft Publisher

A Windows-only adjunct to the MS Office productivity suite, Publisher is designed with the desktop printer set in mind and priced accordingly. While it's well suited for smaller projects and maybe supported by some service bureaus, it lacks many features essential to graphics professionals.

Corel Print Office

For users who appreciate the cut-and-paste approach, Corel PrintOffice offers a palate of simplified tools to meet basic business publishing needs including business cards, letterhead, brochures, forms, and labels. It includes a collection of business-oriented clip art images and customizable templates for polished results with a minimum of effort.

Deneba Canvas

This graphics and publishing tool takes the Swiss army knife approach, offering professional-grade page layout, photo editing, and illustration tools that essentially duplicate much of the functionality of QuarkXPress, Photoshop, and Illustrator and throwing in a few exclusives like some nifty transparency tools called Sprite Layers. The software is available in a professional edition, priced comparably to any one of the aforementioned software packages, as well as a home and office-oriented special edition, priced below $100. Canvas is available for Windows or Macintosh. In an effort to build market share and support its base of end users, Deneba offers prepress services to its users, creating film output of documents. Deneba also makes free licenses available to qualified service bureaus and print shops through the Deneba Authorized Service Bureau program.

In addition to Photoshop and Canvas, there's a plethora of photo editing packages available with varying sets of functions and features. The software is often bundled with scanners, digital cameras, ink jet printers, and other hardware peripherals, and there are even a few excellent pieces of shareware out there.

Photoshop Elements

Perhaps the first place that warrants a look is Photoshop's low-priced sibling, Photoshop Elements. Designed for amateur photographers, hobbyists, and business users, it offers an easy-to-use, yet powerful digital imaging solution with state-of-the-art image editing tools to edit, manipulate, or retouch photos taken with digital or traditional cameras to create images for print, e-mail, or posting on the Web.

Graphic Converter

This Macintosh-only shareware package is considered indispensable by many because it offers the ability to open and save to more than 140 graphic file formats. Coupled with robust image enhancement capabilities and the ability to expand its functionality with plug- ins, GraphicConverter is more than just a master key to unlock graphics files.

Corel PhotoHouse

Bundled with packages like CorelDraw and WordPerfect Office, this Windows-only application brings basic photo enhancement to the desktop without straining system resources or budgets.

As the tools at our disposal become more sophisticated and the technology becomes more affordable, there's still one piece missing from the puzzle of putting together attractive and useful publications. Although it can't be found in a box or ordered off the Internet, creativity is a vital component of any such project. It's the spark that lets one think outside the proverbial box, or the predesigned template, and try the tools available in a particular software package, achieve unexpected results, and go with what works. Those types of decisions, creatively inspired, are what make a publication as enjoyable to put together as it is to read.

Edwin Powell ( is managing editor of OfficeSolutions.