Desktop Publishing Software (Detailed Guide + Comparisons)

by Stefano Bernardi 17 minutes to read

Are you dreaming of a more productive office environment? Do you wish for your company to produce better and more beautiful documents?  Wouldn't it be wonderful if all this also came with a decrease in production costs?

Maybe it's time you replace your word processor with a desktop publishing software.

There is no space for confusion. The simplest word processor is Microsoft Word - we all have it, we've all tried it! Type text, make it bold or italic, check spelling and grammar, click save as…and you are good to go, right? It's a no brainer!

However, what happens when you want to throw in a picture or two?

A blank page appears, the text goes everywhere, and your document ends up looking like a hot mess.

Luckily, this is where a desktop publishing software (or DTP) comes in.

Read on to find out everything you need to know.

Already know something rather than nothing? Skip to whatever section you might find interesting.

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What is Desktop Publishing Software?

I might have already given you an idea of what it is, but let's dig deeper:

  • Desktop publishing software or DTP is a practical and powerful tool. It is used by both graphic designers and non-designers to create printed and online publications.

The industry leader and first choice of DTP software is Adobe InDesign. It's the first and only choice for most professionals and teams around the world. If you are looking for a quick way to learn more about it, read our InDesign guide for beginners.

Of course, there are alternatives to InDesign. We will see later in this post how they compare, their limits, and when you might want to use them.

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The Features of DTP Software

DTP software exists to help you handle text, images, and tables together in an easy way. Unlike Word and other word-processors, this type of software lets you decide the position of the elements on the page and doesn't force you to follow the direction of the text.

Unlike word processors, DTP software involves the combination of a few essential features (mind you, there will be some explanatory links to the content on InDesign):

  • Text tools: choosing a specific typographic style and having full control over it (text-wrapping tool); using the timesaving paragraph styles to reuse text styles; creating artistic drop caps, adding text boxes; creating bullet points and numbered lists, spell-check, and other versatile text layout features;
  • Graphic tools: easy images insertion, effective manipulation and built-in image effects and filters, full integration with other graphic tools (like Illustrator and Photoshop in the case of InDesign);
  • Page Layout tools: the process of arranging the text and graphics on the page with the help of rulers, adjustable guides, multiple editing layers, object snapping and grouping;
  • Printing and sharing of the document: WYSIWYG - What you see is what you get; one look at your computer screen and you'll know what your published/printed content will look like.

For example, say you are trying to create an impressive brochure for your company that will "lure in" potential customers. You have this idea - three pages with plenty of images and text written in creative typographic style flawlessly wrapped around the images. Overall - an aesthetically pleasing layout.

In other words - you want to make a strong visual impact!

You assumed right, this is when you need (and should choose) a desktop publishing software!

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What can you create in DTP software?

Other than an impressive brochure, like the one in the example,  you can create:

When mentioned, Adobe InDesign and DTP software in general, are referred to as being for professionals. Yet, if you have the skills, you can use them for smaller and more personal stuff. You can even use one to create an awesome Christmas card or a dazzling flyer for your BBQ party!

How cool is that?

The options are limitless, all you have to do is be creative.

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The importance of DTP software

Before the invention of DTP, which was in the 1980s, printing newsletters, for example, was a painstaking process that consisted of physically designing each page. The text and graphics were printed separately with the help of large print presses, then cut out and taped on a single sheet, and finally copied and printed in larger numbers.

It was a rather difficult and expensive process and it was also the reason why, when desktop publishing software appeared - it was wholeheartedly welcomed.

The appearance of desktop publishing software made a few things happen:

  • It revolutionized the publishing industry.
  • DTP became a key-tool for creative minds across the globe. It allowed graphic designers to turn their innovative ideas into visual printable documents.
  • These DTP allowed small businesses and offices to take matters into their own hands. Companies were now able to create their marketing materials (such as brochures - read the 100 best brochure templates and find something for your company), and communication materials, easily and efficiently.

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The Advantages and Disadvantages of Desktop Publishing Software

Now that you do know more than a thing or two about DTP software, it's time we talk about all the advantages and disadvantages that come with it.

The Advantages of DTP Software

If you are still wondering about whether or not to replace your word processor with a desktop publishing software such as InDesign - read what advantages will come of it, and think again.

  • Improved and more professional appearance of your documents

Creating your documents in Word means letting your business take the toll because of your low tech-savviness. It's almost like letting your competition win.

Now, of course, you wouldn't want that.

Using a desktop publishing software will allow you to create documents with a superior visual appearance and effective design that will grab the attention of your readers.

Today's business world is all about strong and bold visuals, so why not take advantage of it?

Turning your creative ideas into smart designs and memorable campaigns will increase sales and revenue.

  • Reduced marketing and production costs

Business cards for all the employees, brochures to explain all the products, annual reports, posters for events...this list can go on forever, especially in a larger company.

Luckily, instead of hiring a third-party printing company and a graphic designer to create all of the above, you can choose and use a desktop publishing software. Besides being a cheaper alternative, top desktop publishing software is also more convenient, user-friendly, and you don't even have to "know it all" - there are pre-made templates that you can edit to fit your company's needs.

  • Easier and Faster Customization of Documents (especially multi-page ones)

Not only can you improve the appearance of your documents, with the help of DTP software, you can also customize them easily.

Found the perfect brochure template? The layout is perfect and the color palette matches your company's brand? Add the needed text, images, and logo - easy and fast customization with a few clicks, and you will be good to go.

Now, consider that in a larger company you have "tons" of different documents, and by making customization easier, desktop publishing software will dramatically speed up the process. It will save you so much time, and reduce costs.

Bottom line, desktop publishing software will increase the productivity and creativity in the office, reduce production costs, and most importantly - improve the document's appearance affordably and quickly.

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The Disadvantage of DTP Software

Yes, there is only one disadvantage of the desktop publishing software, and I don't even consider it as such but rather, a setback.

Owning a page layout software that is user-friendly, cost-and-time-effective, comes with the responsibility of learning it properly.

Let's take for example the adobe desktop publishing software (InDesign), since I have quite a lot of experience with it. It is a professional-level software packed with powerful versatile tools that are not hard to master, when done the right way.

Clueless on where to begin?

Here is how to kick-start your InDesign journey:

The only thing you need to have is an average computer; patience and passion for learning new things.

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Free and Paid DTP Software

Now that you've read all about the DTP software features, importance, and advantages, it's time we talk a bit more about the top desktop publishing software.

I am hoping that my descriptions will allow you to make the best possible choice for your needs. Want to read more about one software in particular?


Hop on to whichever one you might be interested in.

Adobe InDesign - the market-leading DTP Software

Invented by the pioneers themselves, Adobe, InDesign is the industry-leading layout and page design software, for both printed and digital media.

Make no mistake, it's not first on the list because I personally use it, it's the first one we should talk about because it is the most powerful tool on the market.

Packed with a lot of features and unparalleled functionality, Adobe InDesign is available for both Windows and Mac, has more than 20 years of existence, and millions of users around the globe.

Adobe InDesign is the gold standard for design and layouts.

Wondering why?

Of course InDesign has all the above-mentioned desktop publishing software features, but what makes it stand out are the practical tools and features that are impossible to find in any other DTP software.

Here they are as follows:

  • InDesign is the software that bridges together the greatness of both Photoshop and Illustrator. Said in the simplest way possible:
    • Photoshop is for creating raster images.
    • Illustrator for vector images.
    • InDesign is used to put everything together (if you're uncertain about when to use what - read our InDesign vs Illustrator Guide).
  • Adobe Stock assets and Adobe Fonts come together in InDesign. This means an entire fonts library at your fingertips. You will never have to pay for a single font in a file again. You'll also have the latest font technologies such as InDesign variable fonts. This is a feature with which you can easily customize your fonts and edit attributes such as weight, width, slant, etc.
  • Possibility of creating different styles such as character styles, paragraph styles, and object styles. These game-changing styles allow consistency and standardization throughout large multi-page, text-heavy documents. Ultimately they allow a more efficient and time-saving workflow.
  • Master pages allows easy edits on multi-page documents. It's a tool that allows you to automate pages to have the same appearance and layout.
  • Unlimited control of elements. There are practical page layout tools such as The Adjust Layout feature  that will allow you to adjust the page size, margins, and amount of bleed simultaneously with altering versatile page elements, text frames, and images. Trust me when I say this is unachievable in any other desktop publishing software.
  • Large range of presets and the chance to create custom sizes on top of pre-made InDesign templates that are easy to customize. For example cookbooks, magazines, brochures, flyers, annual reports, business cards, and InDesign catalog templates.
  • Creative Cloud Advantages. This means extra support, and seamless sharing of files with colleagues and in collaborative workflows.
  • Versatile exporting functions. Among these are PDFs and tagged accessible PDFs too. I cannot forget to mention InDesign's ability to import Acrobat's PDF comments within the documents.
  • Ability to work on multiple layers with great ease. This allows flawless structure which is key in the publishing world. InDesign and XPress are, in my opinion, the only tools in this list that actually deal with layers in the correct way.

InDesign will never cease to surprise you with the thoughtfulness of its tools.

Once you learn how to use InDesign, going back to working with Word, will seem like a punishment!

InDesign plays a key-role for professionals and it is an inseparable part of their everyday life. On the other side, if you are just a beginner, reading these 20 most common InDesign mistakes might be just what you need.

On top of all the features that InDesign has, there are other advantages connected to having a huge independent community behind a software, such as:

  • Teaching resources: tutorials, videos, courses, blogs. If you search for blogs on any other competitor, chances are you won't find any.
  • Scripts and advanced automation options such as the GREP that will do the boring, repetitive tasks for you. Here are 200+ InDesign scripts for example. There are also many plugins that will come in handy when a certain feature is missing. One of them is our very own StockSolo which lets you search for images to use in your document without having to leave it.
  • InDesign templates. These are easy-to-customize and will save you a lot of time.

InDesign is the tool I would strongly suggest you to go with, but there are other alternatives you might want to consider.

Why do I suggest you learn InDesign?

Adobe InDesign, with its helpful tools and features, is the industry-leading software on the market.  Chances are that every single marketing department, or graphic department, or even client, will require you to have knowledge of InDesign. This means that by learning how to use this tool you can open yourself to a lot of opportunities, such as versatile projects or job positions.

However, if you prefer to use a different tool for your projects, read on, I've described four more alternatives. Even though my tool of choice would definitely be InDesign, I cheer for each and all of them. More options and healthy competition are good things, they pushed the market forward, inspire innovation, and in the long run, lead towards better and cheaper tools.

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InDesign Alternatives

Microsoft Publisher

Developed by Microsoft in 1991 this desktop publishing software is an entry-level DTP Software. It can be bought individually or as part of Microsoft Office Package.

Watch this informative Beginner's Guide to Microsoft Publisher but also read all of the following paragraphs to find out important information on it.

Unfortunately, among the first things I have to explain are its drawbacks.

These are the crucial ones that will make the most difference when choosing the best desktop publishing software to use:

  • The interface of this software is a rather basic one. This can be an advantage as well as a disadvantage. It's an advantage for beginners with zero experience in the designing/publishing industry. This is because of the uncluttered and straightforward overall look. It's a disadvantage for professionals. They need more features and tools.
  • Template-related:
    • There is a limited collection of templates available. There are 700 hundred in total. On the other hand, InDesign has thousands and thousands.
    • Most of them are outdated and hard to customize. This means you will have a hard time achieving your creative idea. You might end up with a product that feels generic. In comparison, InDesign templates are visually appealing, technically well built, professional, and most importantly, they can be easily customized.
  • Poor text and image formatting tools. There are limited automatic spelling and grammar checks. Also, tables imported from Excel are converted in images meaning you will have an extremely hard time changing the information if needed.
  • Lack of compatibility with other software including Adobe's software. The inability to extract content elsewhere is a huge drawback.
  • Creating a multi-image document in Microsoft Publisher will result in heavy file size that will cause additional issues further down the road. Furthermore, there is no option to add a video or audio elements.
  • It is a PC-only product. There is no online version nor mobile application. It has a Windows version only, so it's not available for Apple's products.
  • Last but not least, is the lack of resources and negligence from the Microsoft team. Microsoft Publisher has been forgotten about in the past few years. The updates and improvements are close to zero, the Microsoft support pages are blank, and the tutorials are outdated. Basically, if you run into an issue, you would have no one to turn to for help.

On top of all these weaknesses, I must also mention that Microsoft Publisher is in this weird "grey" area in the publishing industry.

A lot of its tools are matched by Word's features, so most people choose Word over Publisher for basic publishing tasks. At the same time, though it has a lot of other helpful tools, they are still not enough to make it a software used by professionals.

Ultimately, this InDesign alternative is a small-scale desktop publishing software that is suitable for very small companies (for the administrative personnel) or personal purposes (in-home creative projects).

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Scribus

My second InDesign alternative is this open-source and free desktop publishing software called Scribus. Created in 2003, this DTP Software is available across all operating systems (Linux, Microsoft Windows, and Mac OS X).

With this software, you will be able to create layouts for manuals, reports, newsletters, magazines, leaflets, PDFs, and other digital and printed publications.

Most people that use Scribus prefer it because it's free, but the way that I see it, using it comes with a "price". Here are the most important setbacks:

  • First of all, this open source desktop publishing software lacks help, practical resources, and has a smaller community. Of course, reading this and you are thinking that it's not a big deal as long as you don't have to pay for a monthly subscription. But, once you are working on an issue that you cannot resolve, trust me, you will need assistance.
  • Underdeveloped tools, difficulty controlling elements, outdated interface, and serious limitations. For example, the confusing management of master pages.
  • Inability to flawlessly import Illustrator/Photoshop generated files. Also, the inability to work with other desktop publishing software. Remember that the entire industry uses mainly InDesign.

Besides these three key-points, I must also mention that in the design and publishing industry, it is not really about doing something, but rather how you do it. InDesign is all about that.

Here is what I mean.

InDesign and Scribus (and all of the other desktop publishing software I've mentioned) have the same purpose - the creation of publishing materials, therefore, it's no wonder that they all have similar features and tools.

However, besides the powerful tools, what makes InDesign stand out from the crowd is the simple User Interface and User Experience (UI/UX). These are what make InDesign very intuitive and allow you to save time, be more efficient, and have a more fluent workflow. Something I would say is key for every profession.

I would suggest Scribus for non-professional creative minds who want to deal with minor desktop publishing tasks (and are on a budget).

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QuarkXPress

Back in 1987, Quark Inc. created QuarkXPress and made it available for both Windows and Mac. This desktop publishing software allows you to create brochures and flyers, newsletters, annual reports, and other printed and digital publishing materials. It also let's you create some responsive HTML5 web pages such as banner ads, landing pages, and more.

Now, after decades Quark's team is back, with a software upgrade that shook the creative world - in a positive way. This is great news for the industry because currently the entire competition, as I mentioned, lags behind Adobe InDesign.

An interesting fact would be that back in the early 90s QuarkXPress was the leader in the publishing industry. Then in '99 InDesign arrived and changed the game. Boring tasks were sped up and automated, so as to allow creative minds to do just that - create.

This latest 2019 upgrade presents all the improved features and tools, but, more importantly, they've made it possible for users to produce cross-platform media and web design. I must say this is a big step forward not only for Quark but for the entire industry. Quark's team is trying their best to catch-up with InDesign. And remember, healthy competition leads towards innovation and improvements.

If by any chance you are not satisfied with InDesign, this desktop publishing software is a great alternative. It is as close as possible to being as technically solid and professional as InDesign). Before purchasing QuarkXPress, I recommend viewing this video about QuarkXPress's major features and using their free trial in order to easily make a decision.

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Affinity Publisher

The last desktop publishing software on this list also happens to be the newest developed. This software is part of the three-member family invented by Serif including Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer. These are the so-called alternatives to Adobe's Photoshop and Illustrator.

Some critics say this software is a suitable InDesign alternative. Yet, according to the opinions of other industry experts, Affinity Publisher has a long journey ahead before it can replace InDesign.

At the moment, Affinity Publisher is at InDesign's 1.0 level. I am somewhat doubtful that they will meet the same standards of InDesign. Of course, I cheer for them. More options in the market are definitely good for us because they translate into better and cheaper tools.

Here are some of the things I found and realized while reviewing this software.

  • Lack of community of any kind. There are no must-have guides, tutorials, or practical templates. If you want to try Affinity Publisher, you might have a hard time. You will find no resources to help you understand how its tools work, what their limits are, or how can you use them better. Ultimately, these resources don't exist because the software itself has little to no market. Again, I wish they had more users and resources because, in the end, a competitive market means better and cheaper tools for all of us.
  • There are no third-party plugins or helpful scripts. Affinity Publisher doesn't support these.
  • Unreliable export to PDF. It also lacks the ability to create Tagged Accessible PDF's.
  • Fonts are not included. This means that they must be individually bought.
  • Affinity Publisher's master page tool cannot contain editable text frames or images. This will make a huge difference because if you need to change the layout of your document or change its format (from A4 to US letter), you will have to change the entire document by hand. Trust me when I say that it will take a lot of time.
  • The hidden flaw of their StudioLink feature. Affinity team takes special pride in intertwining the Affinity family programs by sharing the same file format. For example, you could be editing a photo in Affinity Photo and still see the entire page layout. The idea behind this tool is to have a mix of page layout features; and vector and image editing tools regardless of the Affinity program you are working in. While "on-paper", this sounds great, it is not when you actually use it. Because of this feature, Affinity doesn't have a global layers feature, which is crucial, especially when working with multi-layered documents. Without layers, you won't be able to follow some basic DTP practices that every good teacher must have taught you. For example: how to structure the page numbers, background, images, text, interactivity, in the different document's layers. And even more importantly - you won't have control over all the elements. No control means that it's easier to make mistakes.

Even though it is not a high-end desktop publishing software, Affinity Publisher might be a good choice for retired, hobbyists, and occasional users. If you are in this group - it's the DTP software for you.  If, however, you are planning to have a career in graphic design or marketing, then InDesign is probably the only tool to take in consideration.

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Conclusion

Well, there you have it, everything you need to know about the best desktop publishing software. All the crucial information carefully packed.

I've tried my best to show you the right path, and I hope you now have to "right tools" to walk it! One last tip would be to always think about your needs and wishes, and act accordingly.

Are you just beginning your journey? Starting your career? Or working on some basic in-home project?

If you have questions or doubts, feel free to reach out in the comments!

Also, what is your preferred software and why have you chosen to use it?

I am looking forward to reading about your experience.

Until next time,

Stefano

Stefano Bernardi
Stefano Bernardi

Stefano has worked on numerous mid to large–sized InDesign projects for Alstom, DeLonghi, Philips, and many others before starting Redokun in 2015.
As Redokun’s Co-Founder, Stefano spends most of his time helping customers to optimize their InDesign work-flow. He also holds in-house InDesign courses for companies in the Venice, Italy area.

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