Looking Good In Print

Desktop publishing software makes quality work simple

April 30, 2001|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

Sure, the computer age was supposed to bring us less paper, but no one counted on desktop publishing.

Today, just about anyone with a PC and a $90 inkjet printer can produce visually stunning church newsletters, books, restaurant menus, business cards, fliers, personalized stationery, posters and gift certificates.

To get your story out or to make a better birthday card than Hallmark, you have a choice of nifty programs - starting as low as $20 - that can work their magic with minimum horsepower from your computer.

Things weren't always so good. Two decades ago, an inexpensive neighborhood news-letter had to be produced on a typewriter and run off on a copy machine. If you wanted photographs, you had to cut out and paste the images and text onto a piece of paper, and run that through the Xerox.

Then Apple introduced the Macintosh computer in 1984 and changed publishing forever. Its graphical, point-and-click interface encouraged Aldus Corp. to create a desktop publishing program called PageMaker, which put the mouse to work by allowing you to point and click your way through laying out a page of type and images.

Adobe's creation of the PostScript graphics computer language made it possible for a printer to do the work of a typesetter, and the Apple LaserWriter made the output difficult to distinguish from the work of a professional printing house.

With all the elements in place by the end of 1985, anyone with an inkling of self-expression, some technical know-how and deep pockets (about $8,000 at the time) could go into the publishing business.

Since then, computers and printers have become faster, cheaper and more powerful, and the number of programs available has exploded, bringing publishing power to the masses, most of whom use PCs running Windows.

Most desktop publishing programs that sell for $100 or less have nearly flat learning curves as well. They rely heavily on templates, sample documents created by professional designers that you can adapt to your own purposes. You can easily insert photographs and other images that come with the program or import your own digitized pictures. Some allow you to "jump" text from a frame on one page to a frame on another, a must for newsletters, magazines and books.

If you have a more creative streak, you can start from scratch and design your page by pointing and clicking to insert images, text boxes and artistic elements such as color bars.

Almost all of the programs available will turn the documents you create into Web pages. But beware. You won't have the control that a dedicated Web site-development program offers, and some documents look distinctly different when converted to Web pages.

Inexpensive desktop publishing programs require a Pentium-level processor and 16 megabytes of memory, while more expensive programs might ask for a 300 MHz Pentium II with 64 MB of RAM. A mid-level graphics card capable of displaying at least 256 colors will support your efforts.

On the downside, some desktop publishers can hog hard drive space to the tune of 800 megabytes if you want to load the clip art library accompanying the software. It's better not to do that - most programs offer a function that allows you to browse the clip art library or search it by subject and transfer the image you select from a CD-ROM.

Low-end programs are more than adequate for experimentation, and they work well with inkjet or laser printers. More expensive desktop publishing programs make it easier to take your work to copy shops and commercial printers for quality and quantity reproduction.

That said, here are a few desktop publishing programs for different tastes, experience levels and budgets:

The latest release in SierraHome's series of Print Artist programs is a $60 edition called "Grande Suite 12," which is bundled with 200,000 clip art images. Less-expensive Platinum and Gold editions of Print Artist cost as little as $20 but limit your choice to a mere 100,000 images.

If you're interested in simple home projects, Print Artist is a respectable choice - especially if your pre-teen wants to put out a neighborhood newsletter on the PC. The program offers 11,000 templates in a number of categories, including brochures, certificates and party favors.

A selection of quotes from famous people and literary references comes with the program, and SierraHome's bundled Snapshot Express will handle basic photo-editing chores.

Print Artist is not for professional work and doesn't offer support for the PostScript output devices that professional printers use. Check it out at www.sierrahome.com.

With its extensive collection of templates and wizards to walk you through the process, Microsoft Publisher (www.microsoft.com/ office/publisher/) makes it nearly impossible to produce a bad-looking flier, brochure, business card or newsletter. If you have $100 and simple-to-moderate demands, buy Publisher and forget cheaper or more expensive alternatives.

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