A few weeks ago, I confessed that I still hadn’t fully moved to the paperless utopia I had imagined I would be living in by this point.
As I’ve thought through it more, it’s the long tail of paper that’s holding me back. Sure, almost all of my communications are electronic these days, and my scanner makes quick work of almost everything that comes to me in a dead tree format.
But as I look around my home office and wonder why there are still stacks of paper here and there, I realize there are some things that just make more sense to have physical copies of, at least for some part of their existence. I see calendars and brochures and instruction guides. I see posters from events, and even a piece of origami. While you could argue that some of these items could be obsoleted by their digital equivalents, they haven’t been, and digitizing them myself is more work than the payoff would justify.
There’s another part of the equation, too. Just because I may prefer a digital experience for consuming information, doesn’t mean everyone I interact with shares that preferences. Considering the needs of your audience is critical to anyone with a message to convey, and in a world crowded with so many distractions competing to receive the attention of your readers, you have an obligation to meet them more than halfway if you expect your message to be heard.
And so despite so many options existing for distributing your message electronically, the need for for printed collateral isn’t going away any time soon. Whether you’re producing a button or a pamphlet or a bumper sticker, you need an effective way to lay out the design and blend your text with your images and other brand assets.
The world of proprietary software has brought us many tools for designing layouts, including QuarkXpress and Adobe InDesign among the better known. And Microsoft Publisher still may take the prize, at least for small businesses and individuals, as one of the most-used publishing platforms, owing to its low cost and ease of use to people already familiar with the Microsoft Office suite. Many a church bulletin and nonprofit fundraising letter have been put together in Publisher, or even Word.
But you don’t need a proprietary tool to design a great layout. Whether you’re using Linux, or still stuck on Windows or Mac OS X, there are great free and open source options. So let’s look at some open source alternatives to Microsoft Publisher for designing your next print layout.
Scribus is the gold standard when it comes to open source desktop publishing. With over a decade of active development, you’ll find pretty much all of the features a basic user would expect inside. It can import from a wide variety of formats, and a user-friendly interface makes it a great choice for beginners. The large user community also means that there are many great resources out there for those who need additional help, from books to forums to many templates available for download to fit almost any need.
Don’t want to learn a new program? LibreOffice provides excellent design capabilities across several of its components. While Writer can provide basic layouts, Draw expands the capability even further and is probably the best choice for semi-complex layouts like newsletters or brochures. I even managed to use Impress to produce a scientific poster for a class project in grad school, using a template originally designed for PowerPoint which imported just fine.
The third option, and, hear me out, is to use a markup language. No, it’s not as user friendly. No, it’s not always WYSIWYG. But if you’re already familiar with a markup language, why not make use of that skill? And I don’t just mean LaTeX—for many projects, HTML and CSS will work just fine, and let you use your existing tools, whether a text editor or a more full-featured tool just for working with web pages, and you can use one of many tools for converting to a print-ready format like PDF. Maybe it’s an alternative to a professional design application, but it works fine for many purposes.
But why use a markup language for print design? A few reasons. One, it’s plain text, so you can version it in git to track all of your changes and use many different tools on the files directly, even from the command line. Two, it can reduce your production time if you’re creating the same documents for web and for print. Three, and this is what I like most about markup languages, they’re human-readable. I get what I expect when I write code.
Do you still produce layouts for printed collateral? What program do you use? Is it one from this list, or do you use something else, perhaps a tool more optimized for graphics editing like GIMP or Inkscape, or another choice entirely? Let us know in the comments below.