desktop publishing software as it was (1997)

Reviewed by Roger Frost TES, 1997

A railway platform is an unusual place to find a computer that does desktop publishing but the local station has this business card making machine that does quite whizzy things like letterheads and cards. True I’ve not seen anyone brave or sad enough to use it, it’s surely a symbol that ‘dtp’ or putting together words and pictures to create an impression, is for anyone.

Desktop publishing is also a skill for the curriculum. It is moving fast from Kings X into the home as there is a rich market of home creativity packages. Last Christmas one of the top electrical appliances sold was a colour inkjet printer – a clue if needed – that the key tool is a printer. It need cost only £250, be colour or plain vanilla, it just needs to print a gratifying page. Next, though it should be first, you need a purpose: it can be a sign or project, a poster or newsletter that deserves the extra effort.

Before today’s railway revolution, desktop publishing happened around a program now called Adobe PageMaker. You hopped between different programs for making pictures and writing text and intuitively arranged things on a page. As this first happened on an Apple Mac computer, this is how lots of Mac people grew up. In fact they’re still doing it, in the design studios, newspapers and magazines they’re using PageMaker and another called Quark Express. What has changed is that lots of other packages have appeared since.

If you were producing a serious school magazine, you would use these great tools too. You might relish the idea that colours can be tweaked to match the school tie or that text can be positioned in tenths of millimetres. You would appreciate that they can handle many pages and the printing trade knows how to handle your work too. If ‘DTP’ is about producing a picture, these tools equal a top-end camera. For the classroom you would look for a snappier, point and shoot device.

Word processors, like the one you may use, not only process words but also pictures too. Few of us like change and if they work, they work. But if what you are making involves too much of a fiddle, you look for better tools. Acorn users tell how they’ve had happy enough times using Textease. They say it is powerful enough, and has the brilliant classroom feature that it can talk what you write. PCs and Mac users have Claris Works, which is replete with ready-made project outlines or templates for making newsletters or displays. At the risk of producing something like everybody else’s, these templates are there to be used: you replace their words with yours. That way, you spend time adapting a design, rather than trying to improve on nothing.

Take Microsoft Publisher, a point and shoot package bundled with the Research Machines Window Box. Instead of a blank screen it starts by asking what sort of project you want. Templates for posters, certificates, tickets and the rest are all here. It gives you a list of things you might want to do and tells you how. It knows which projects you’ve not done, so it gives step-by-step instructions your first time through. While the amount of hand-holding here would embarrass a hippie, for children who read OK this is very good. (((And incidentally, for those balking at putting their work on the Internet, this brings the information highway closer. ))

Microsoft has a couple more packages each targeted slightly differently, but both excellent. Creative Writer 2 is aims to get juniors writing at home and with its mass of fun and stimuli it actually succeeds. Greetings workshop again for the young, helps to bash out thousands of things you would buy in a card shop. If that is not exactly ‘school’, it is worth seeing for how easy, or almost mindless doing smart things, like scanning a photo to drop on the page, has become. As with most packages of this sort, you will find a healthy library of pictures built in, all displayed in thumbnail previews to save scampering over the hard disc to find them.

Today Packages do so much that you often don’t know what there is to know. I’ve learned to avoid asking for help, lest the screen be splashed with the help box from hell. Publisher is no problem, but if reading is a barrier or you want driving along, Mindscape’s PrintMaster Suite is interesting. Not only does it have 5000 images, a 1000 cards, banners and more but you’re guided through each stage of the making with spoken help. Dropping in the disc for the first time, the voice explains how to install it, and soon asks which project you want to start. While you can’t talk back, the sound track is on two levels – one with more help and one with less help. As you use features, or show your expertise it switches to the terse help and making this an excellent taster of tomorrows software. There has to be a couple of caveats: the first is that it is aimed at a family setting so many projects are for just that. The second is that the spoken help spoils you: when you’re told to “press OK to continue” you wonder why the machine doesn’t do it for you.

There’s one more in this bracket, Sierra’s Print Artist (PC/Mac) is not only brim filled with pictures and designs, it distinguishes itself by having loads of printable foldable models. There are hats, boxes, and masks. There are envelopes, disk mailers and photo frames. There is even a whole town with a church, station and pizza shop. It’s on the edge of the curriculum, but to see what is possible when you put card and transparencies into a printer this is pure inspiration. Again, there are caveats: it’s very American, and it’s often ‘Mom’ centred.

Like having a clever camera, the test of a program is whether children can use it to create a picture that ‘works’. DTP might one day happen more to the sound of trains than the classroom, there are programs around to use and be thrilled with.

Capable word processors for projects with plenty of text
Claris Works, Microsoft Word and Works (PC or Mac, retail), Impression Style (Acorn, Xemplar) Write Away! (PC, BlackCat)

Easy publishers for rich, mixed layouts
Microsoft Publisher, Serif Page Plus Home/Office Edition, GST Pressworks (all PC, retail), Textease (Acorn, Xemplar), Pendown DTP (Acorn/PC, Logotron), Ovation Pro (Acorn, Xemplar)

Home packages for cards and creativity
Sierra Print Artist, Mindscape PrintMaster Suite, Microsoft Greetings Workshop and Creative Writer 2. (All on PC, from retail outlets)

Serious desktop publishing for cutting edge work
Adobe Pagemaker, Quark Express (PC/Mac) or Impression Publisher (Acorn, Xemplar)