Free Desktop Publisher Scribus Is Worth a Look

Adobe Systems created a media tsunami earlier this month when it released its Creative Suite 3, a two-year project designed to roll all the company’s formidable software packages for creative types into an integrated monolith. Needless to say, since the package costs more than US$1,000, it isn’t something for tinkerers. Given my experience with Adobe’s software, there would be much fun in tinkering with the suite in the first place.

What the release of CS3 did do for tinkerers, though, is provide a launchpad for talk about how a lot of the functionality found in the Adobe suite can be found in programs being offered to the public for free. For instance, applications like Paint.NET and GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) can be, for some users, serviceable alternatives to Photoshop; Inkscape for Illustrator; KompoZer for Dreamweaver; and Scribus for InDesign.

Scribus is particularly interesting because low-cost desktop publishing programs aren’t as easy to find as they once were. During the salad days of desktop publishing, it seemed as though new layout programs were introduced every day, or about as often as new digital photo organizing applications are announced today. Now, with a lot of publishing moving to the Web and a lot of layout functionality being incorporated into word processors, the breadth of the desktop publishing market has shriveled.

Open Source Options

Scribus is an open source program. That means it was created and is maintained by a community of volunteer programmers. One of the best known open source programs is the Linux operating system.

Like many open source applications, Scribus has versions for most popular personal computer platforms — Linux, Macintosh and Windows XP.

Although Scribus is designed for professionals who want to produce “press ready” documents, an amateur can pick up the program’s essentials with a minimum of effort.

Ghostscript and PostScript

Before installing Scribus — especially if you’re a Windows user — it’s recommended that you install a free program called Ghostscript. The software is a PostScript interpreter and needed for importing EPS (Encapsulated PostScript) files into Scribus.

If you don’t know what PostScript and EPS files are, chances are you can get along without Ghostscript, but Scribus behaves better with Ghostscript installed.

Nevertheless, I had no trouble printing documents directly from Scribus to my laser printer or exporting them as PDF files without Ghostscript installed.

Elemental Tools

Once you install Scribus, creating new documents is a straightforward process.

On launch, you’re presented with a three-tab document window — tabs for creating a new document, opening an existing document or accessing a recent document.

If you’re creating a new document, you’re given some basic choices about the layout — single page, double-sided, three-fold, four-fold; paper size; number of pages in the document; default measurement unit — points, picas, inches and such; and the location of guidelines for framing the page.

With your new document open, you’re ready to start adding elements to it.

The essential tools for laying out your publication are located on a tool bar at the top of the program’s interface.

Beyond Word Processing

There are tools for creating text and image boxes, tables and shapes. To use a tool, you click on it, place your cursor on the document and size your element. If you’re not satisfied with your initial element, you can reform it by tugging at the “handles” placed at convenient points along its perimeter.

If blank document pages are as paralyzing as blank typewriter pages used to be to writers, Scribus includes a handfull of templates for newsletters, brochures and presentation slides to help jump-start your document creation.

If you’re perfectly happy with the layout capabilities of your word processor, then a design program like Scribus isn’t for you, but if you need more flexibility in your layouts and more precise control over the typography in your documents, then it’s worth giving this software a spin before burning $700 on Adobe’s InDesign.

John Mello is a freelance business and technology writer who can be reached at [email protected].

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