Unpacking the Common Tools Found in Desktop Publishing Software

Unpacking the Common Tools Found in Desktop Publishing Software

Self-publishing has come a long way. In its early days, publishing took monstrous, elaborate machines and hours of labor to produce paper with words. Today, we can design and print whatever we so imagine (and more) from the comfort of our bean bag chairs without a single metal slab or crank of a lever.

Modern print-minded teams and individuals have obscene advantages when it comes to publishing, and it’s easy to take them for granted. If Jonathan Swift were alive today, his “Modest Proposal” might have had some killer clip art or diagrams — the potential of which we’ll unfortunately never know. It’s only right that, in honor of those pioneers and their limited tools, we take full advantage of desktop publishing software and its unlimited possibilities.

For startup newsletters, independent magazines, event flyers or personal pet projects, desktop publishing tools are invaluable gadgets, combining utility and creativity with an incredible set of useful features. Products like Microsoft Publisher and Adobe InDesign are used for everything from textbooks to newspapers to interactive online news sources, reaching millions of individuals in the process. But like any breed of design software, the learning curve can be an intimidating one. Many of the companies that already use the software probably don’t veer “too far from the sidewalk,” and only use the most basic features. Others might avoid desktop publishing software entirely, electing instead to outsource graphic design services or multilingual desktop publishing services to local providers.

There’s certainly nothing to be ashamed about in either case here. But it behooves these budding publishers to know that these tools don’t bite — and any effort to understand their purpose will only serve to benefit their craft, team, brand and audience. It can even be fun along the way! I’d reckon that mezzotint and lithograph publishers of old would’ve had a ball with this software, and there’s no reason why you can’t as well.

To help you get started or dig deeper into these technologies, below are some of the common tools you’ll find in a desktop publishing platform, with a brief explanation and some use case examples. You can then read reviews of the best desktop publishing software on G2 Crowd to see what real users think are the best and worst features of different products on the market.

microsoft publisher template desktop publishing software

Microsoft Publisher templates, courtesy of Pat Hogarty

Before getting too overwhelmed with a blank canvas, explore the prebuilt templates in your chosen publishing software. Out of the gate, you may find templates for the specific kind of print material you’re planning (e.g., brochure, magazine, etc.) with the industry-standard dimensions and layout quirks (e.g., margin size, divider lines) conveniently waiting for you in the document

To take it one step further, certain products offer a sweet variety of template designs within selected print types. For instance, you may have 10 different newspaper templates with different color schemes, text settings and image placements that are both technically and aesthetically pleasing. Choose one of these templates and just replace the stock elements with your own. There’s no shame in taking advantage of the developer’s hard work and creativity as a great jumping off point. You can even create your own templates, or tweak a template if you like certain aspects but have inspiration for more. In addition to out-of-the-box templates, some software vendors offer downloads of additional templates, and you can also visit developer communities around the web for ideas or unique downloadable/purchasable templates designed independently.

microsoft publisher shapes desktop publishing software

Microsoft Publisher shapes, courtesy of Techwalla

There’s a good reason shapes are the first thing we learn, right after primary colors and how to say “mama” and “dada.” They’re kind of a big deal. With desktop publishing software as well as other graphic design software, the shapes tool has limitless value. You can insert and transform those childhood shapes we all know and love — there’s nothing square about that — or, depending on the software, go nuts and design custom shapes that can be stored and reused to your heart’s content.

Your collection of shapes, both stock and custom, can fuel your future design choices and help define your aesthetic. The Twitter bird is a prime example of what shapes can do — it’s just a series of circles, after all. You don’t need to be da Vinci to use geometry and a little bit of experimentation to create a timeless work, or at least the beginnings of one.

microsoft publisher rulers desktop publishing software

Rulers on Microsoft Publisher, courtesy of TechTutor.TV

Zooming in and out of a work-in-progress allows you to modify the tiniest details or, conversely, get a bird’s-eye view for larger edits. It’s all a matter of perspective. While you do that, the ruler tools serve as a reminder of how the finished product will measure. If you’re creating a poster, for instance — with a specific idea of the wall space you want it to cover — you can use rulers to lock in the dimensions and use them as reference points while you do the bulk of the design work.

Ruler settings can be adjusted to your measurement system of choice. You can also use these guides, set along both X and Y axes of your project, as aides in resizing images and chunks of text, as well as starting points for lines and grids. The ruler is your best friend, and don’t you ever forget it.

adobe indesign grids desktop publishing software

Grids on Adobe InDesign, courtesy of Linked Learning Solutions

Grids are to publishing as steel frames are to architecture: skeletons that shape the course of everything to come. Awkward or nonexistent grids are a harbinger of disorder for printed materials. Fortunately, grid tools are designed to set users up for success.

You can insert grids by selecting measurements of rows and columns, along with numbers and arrangements. As with most tools in desktop publishing software, you can toy with the settings as much as you need to get the perfect result, and can even adjust grids late in the game.

Once grids are in place, you can write or paste text to stay within their walls, like a runway for words. A newspaper is a perfect example of grids at work, guiding the reader’s journey through the page and breaking up the stories in the ideal fashion. You can fill grid sections with blocks of spot or background color, or use grids as dividers between images and text. LinkedIn Learning Solutions offers a helpful video guide on the different parts of grids, using InDesign to explore this anatomy for viewers.

Text wrap
adobe indesign text wrap desktop publishing software

Text wrap on Adobe InDesign, courtesy of Adobe

A cardinal sin of some publishers is thinking that a showy design will make up for the lack of quality content. But long, uninterrupted blocks of text run the risk of growing tiresome even with the liveliest prose, and this can be an equally sinful mistake in publishing.

The text wrap feature is standard in popular desktop publishing products; it’s designed to make page layouts more pleasing, help stimulate the reader in subtle ways, and allow everything to fit where it needs to. Applying text wrap does exactly what is sounds like: wrap words around pictures, shapes, other words and invisible guides to give it a flowy feng shui across the page.

Have a near-completed page but decide to shove a picture in the middle? Text wrap allows you to do so without needing to start from scratch. Apply the feature to your selected area and the words will scoot over as needed, until they sort of “hug” the photo’s borders. Depending on your project, you can also take more liberties with the feature, having words bend around curves and zig-zag through your layout. The text wrap tool is a go-to for high school yearbook editors and gives each headline and pull-quote the required pizazz readers expect.

adobe indesign shadows desktop publishing software

Shadows on Adobe InDesign, courtesy of Code Travel

Speaking of yearbooks: No superlative page is complete without some perfectly executed shadows. After all, the only thing cooler than words is words clouded by shadows. This feature adds depth to text, shapes, and to the entire page, for that matter. You can choose the direction, angle, size and shading of shadows — another opportunity for some trial and error in your creative process — to trick the eye and give certain elements the illusion of mass or elevation. Also called “drop shadows,” these little nips and tucks may seem minor at first, but the overall impact is surprisingly substantial.

Opacity, transparency and layers
adobe indesign opacity desktop publishing software

Opacity on Adobe InDesign, courtesy of O’Reilly Video Training

Quality publishing is like any dish at a fancy restaurant: What appears simple at first is actually a nuanced, complex assembly of ingredients, layered together to appear as though they were made for each other.

Basic arrangement commands (e.g., send to back, send to front) make it easy to stack various elements as you see fit. But the X factor in layering is the opacity/transparency function — the ability to make objects “see-through” to varying degrees. Within a desktop publishing solution, opacity is typically adjusted on a sliding scale; you can make certain images appear faint in the background, and blend text into different environments to create a beautiful, balanced visual.

There’s an old scene in the “The Simpsons” where Bart rubs a fish sandwich on a wall to gauge its oil content. It winds up turning the wall translucent — so much so that a bird confuses it for a window and crashed into it. The opacity tool is like rubbing a fish sandwich on your document, with none of the mess or smell.

This post scratches the surface of tools you can find in desktop publishing software. Both vendors and enthusiastic users have tutorials littered around YouTube and the rest of web, and watching the platforms in action can give you a better idea of their potential. If you’re the hands-on type, though, you may consider requesting a demo or trial version of a well-reviewed publishing tool. Swift Publisher and iStudio Publisher are just two examples of products with a free trial option, giving small businesses and independent designers a chance to unpack these toolboxes and explore this technology.

2018 is as good a time as any to realize your company’s visions, and getting familiar with tech like desktop publishing software can have a domino effect of untold ingenuity and productivity. New software might be intimidating — especially with products as feature-rich as these. But when you examine them one by one, you’ll realize that each is an opportunity, rather than an obstacle.

Further reading: Desktop publishing software

There are plenty of benefits to desktop publishing software — take a deep dive and learn more about them here.