Dave came to me the other day with a problem. His boss had asked him to develop a newsletter to keep the company's clients informed of industry trends, offer advice and, naturally, promote the firm's latest services and products.
"He didn't want something simple. He'd been getting all these newsletters from our suppliers, with the fancy headlines, charts, graphs and pictures, and he started to get jealous. So he wants us to look like them," Dave said.
"I said, 'Fine, we'll hire a printer.' But you know old Harry. He doesn't want to spend a dime. He said we could do desktop publishing on our own computers. Of course, that's easy for him to say. He doesn't have to do it. I've used a word processor, but just for basic reports and that kind of stuff. This looks really crazy, and I don't know where to start."
Welcome to the new world, Dave. With the advent of powerful, inexpensive computers and sophisticated software, virtually anyone who's willing to put in the effort can turn his desktop into a printer's shop.
In fact, desktop publishing has turned into a virtual epidemic. Thousands of otherwise normal people have been turned into strange creatures who babble about point sizes, fonts, rules, boxes, kerning, jumps and other bizarre terminology. Even the PTA newsletter may look like it came from a fancy publisher.
If you've never tried it, desktop publishing can be daunting. But if you're willing to spend a few hours learning the basics, it doesn't have to be overwhelming.
First, some basic terminology. The term desktop publishing refers to creating complex documents with multiple elements, including text and graphics, often in multiple columns. Desktop publishing documents can range from simple newsletters to entire illustrated books. More than a few newspapers today are published on personal computer-based systems using desktop publishing software.
The Apple Macintosh computer, with a graphical operatin system that shows documents exactly (or almost exactly) as they'll appear in print, first made desktop publishing possible back in the mid-1980s. But since then, desktop publishing software has appeared on all platforms.
Today it doesn't matter whether you have a Mac or a IBM-compatible, as long as it's fast enough and has enough hard disk space. A Mac with a 68030 processor or an IBM-compatible with an 80386 or better will make the job easier. Heavy-duty hardware is a necessity if you're dealing with scanned
Aldus has best seller
Aldus Pagemaker is the granddaddy of desktop publishing programs and remains a best seller today, although the incredibly powerful Quark Express has become the program of choice for sophisticated work. Both are available for Macintosh and IBM-compatible computers, and they're both expensive ($400 to $800).
Unless you're doing long, complex documents with colo separations, you may not need them. Less expensive alternatives such as Express Publisher, Microsoft Publish, and Publish It can handle most basic desktop chores for a lot less money.
You may not have to spend anything. The word processing program you're using -- Word Perfect, Microsoft Word, AmiPro or WordStar for Windows -- may have all the features you need.
Whatever program you choose should have certain basic capabilities. It should allow you to create multiple columns and separate frames for headlines, text boxes, graphics, captions and other objects.
It should also have the ability to "flow" text around these objects, allowing you to move and resize them and adjust column widths. Low-end programs will treat a graphic object as a square frame. More sophisticated programs will wrap text around the actual boundaries of irregularly-shaped graphics.
One difference between desktop publishing programs and word processors is their ability to "link" text between frames. This allows you to start an article on Page 1 and "jump" it to Page 3 without worrying about cutting and pasting. As you adjust the size of the text frame on each page, the program will automatically figure out what text goes where.
This is where things get a little strange. For example, the best high-end word processors don't have this capability. But some others, such as the otherwise undistinguished WordStar for BTC Windows and the elementary word processor that comes with the integrated Claris Works program, do have it. If you're planning documents that will have articles jumping from one page to another, text linking is a major advantage. Your program should also have the ability to import text created by other word processing software, preferably with the choice of leaving the formatting (typeface, point size, etc.) intact, or stripping it away so that you can apply your own. If you're working with numbers, you should also be able to import tables from spreadsheet programs such as Lotus 1-2-3 or Microsoft Excel.
Most desktop publishing and word processing programs today have basic drawing tools built in to produce lines, boxes, circles and irregular polygons. But they should also be able to import graphics created and stored in the formats used by popular drawing and painting software. If you're dealing with scanned photographs, you may also need sophisticated tools for dealing with color separations, halftones and other image processing issues.
Learning can be daunting
Learning how to use all these features can be daunting, particularly if you're unfamiliar with layout, typography, graphics and other tools of the printer's trade. Luckily, most programs come with predefined "templates" for reports, newsletters, ads and fliers that can help you get started.
And while you may be tempted to jump right in, I'd suggest looking to your local community college for help before you start. Most of them offer quickie courses in desktop publishing.
(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Sun.)