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DTP 1101: Desktop Publishing Basics

The idea of desktop publishing has broadened sizably since its introduction in the 1980s. This article will explore the modern meaning of desktop publishing and outline the standard features of the desktop publishing software of today.

What is Desktop Publishing?

In a nutshell, desktop publishing is the process of preparing documents for printing via special page layout software known as desktop publishing software. But actually, there is a bit more to the term than that.

The term entered the vocabulary of computer users in the late eighties after the development of one of the first desktop publishing applications — Aldus PageMaker. Until recent years, desktop publishing software typically denoted the top of the line professional programs used mostly by graphic designers to transform their ideas into the visual representation of a document meant for printing.

The introduction of desktop publishing presented marketing with a lot of scope and brought FYI enthusiasts and small businesses the means to take business promotion into their own hands without too much of a struggle. Perhaps this is why the term "desktop publishing" holds a slightly different meaning these days. Today desktop publishing encompasses any creative project meant for desktop and commercial printing or electronic distribution. This may include a greeting card to Grandma, a family scrapbook cover, or an electronic newsletter. In fact, desktop publishing today often refers to documents that are not at all meant for printing. This is due to developments in communication and promotion via the Internet.

This new paradigm has produced desktop publishing software that is specialized for a certain type of document (e.g. business cards or disc covers). Such software aims to simplify the user experience by eliminating tools unnecessary for that particular type of project. Though this has been the latest trend, there still exists a set of standard features for any type of desktop publishing software.

The Features

Below is a list and description of the most basic and essential features that any desktop publishing software should have. Some of them may prove more crucial than others depending on the type of print project you are working with. Though these features are important, the list surely does not end here.

Support for Numerous Project Types

The ability to create a variety of projects defines the flexibility of a desktop publishing application. The key to delivering this is by supporting an abundance of paper layouts and the ability to create custom page layouts without too many restrictions.

Layout Tools

The term “layout tools” involves a range of tools that help to place and align objects accurately. Such tools include but are not limited to rulers, adjustable and automatic guides, multiple editing layers, object snapping, and object grouping. The guides and snapping options offer a point of reference when placing images and text in the document. Multiple editing layers keep the workspace more or less uncluttered which helps to prevent selecting and moving the unintended object. Object grouping helps in a similar way by making sure that multiple objects remain positioned proportionate to one another.

The integration of so-called “master pages” in a desktop publishing application saves you from having to create the same background multiple times for a multi-page document. This option creates a type of template that can be applied to every page of a document.

Text Tools

Desktop publishing software should offer a wide range of text editing tools extending beyond standard operations on text. Linked text boxes are an absolute must in desktop publishing. Such text boxes allow text to flow freely within a network of text boxes. This make editing text content much easier since the text boxes automatically adjust the contained text.

Adjusting the text properties of headers and other portions of text can be quite tedious. Applications with styles sheets make that process much quicker. One can think of style sheets as customizable text templates that can be applied to any portion of text by selecting it and choosing the corresponding style sheet.

Other important text tools include circle text and artistic text effects.

Graphic Tools

The ability to edit images is also an absolute must for desktop publishing software. Ideally, an application should allow you to do more than just manipulate images (resize, angle, crop, or compress). It should give you a set of built-in image effects and filters as well as other functions related to design. Such functions may include adding shadows, controlling the transparency, and so forth. Highly professional applications may offer advanced drawing tools.

Printing and Sharing

Supporting a ton of paper layouts and printers is not enough to make a desktop publishing application great. If you are running an older printer, you will definitely need the ability print your project as a raster image since many old printers can not handle vector data. A person looking to send his document to the printshop will find that a variety of export options and the means to convert text to curves will turn out to be useful. Those who plan on printing any kind of booklet should look for an imposition functionality.


Desktop publishing has come quite a long way since its introduction in the 1980s. The process is basically the same but for a more broad range of results. The future will no doubt bring changes to both the process and result. This will probably bring about new tasks in the desktop publishing world, and hopefully, their solutions. For the moment, desktop publishing presents itself as a great solution for small business and even big business. It is as simple as identifying needs and areas where desktop publishing can provide a solution and finding the right software to help you get there.

Ray East III
Published: November 2009