What software is best for creating print-ready artwork? There’s no easy answer to that question. It depends on what you need to create, what software you have available, how familiar you are with each package, and possibly your budget.
We’ve put a few notes together highlighting the pros and cons of some of the most used programs, together with some tips on how to avoid common traps. Need more advice? Just call us on 01453 764251.
The industry standard tool for creating vector graphics and illustrations. It is perfect for laying out single-page documents, labels and packaging, but more limited when it comes to multi-page jobs. It has a relatively steep learning curve and is relatively expensive. Current versions are available on subscription either as a standalone program or as part of the Adobe Creative Suite. Seamless integration with PDF, as you might expect with Adobe being the format’s creator.
This comes from Serif, a UK-based company that has been producing competitively priced graphic design software for a number of years. We regularly print newsletters and brochures designed using their software. This program is a development of the earlier PagePlus and Serif Publisher; it has professional features and is a good choice for people looking for page layout software, but on a restricted budget. Like the Creative Suite from Adobe, there are complementary programs for photo editing and vector graphics.
Microsoft Office Excel
It’s a spreadsheet. If you need us to print documents containing spreadsheets, then of course use it. But don’t try to use it for anything else: it is not suitable for creating business cards, leaflets or newsletters. We’ve received “artwork” created in Excel and lived to tell the tale – these files inevitably require a significant time, and hence cost, to “sort out”.
Microsoft Office Word
It’s a word processor, rather than a page layout tool, but we have printed some fairly substantial books from Word files, and lots of shorter documents too. It works well with multi-page documents which are mostly text, but less well with graphics-intensive designs. A certain amount of skill is required to incorporate images reliably into the text. Creating pages that “bleed” is nearly impossible, so only use it for pages that have a white margin all round.
This is open source desktop publishing software, so its main advantage is that it is free. It has plenty of professional-level features, such as colour management and PDF creation, and although initially released for Linux/Unix, it is now also available for Windows and Apple Mac. As with all open-source software it has its limitations and you need to be comfortable with obtaining support form forums and other online sources.
Our own choice for a page layout tool, which has also been adopted by most of the print industry. It’s not too difficult to learn the basics, but an average user will probably only ever use 10% of the features. The package comes at a significant cost as part of the Creative Suite (unless you qualify for an academic subscription.) Excellent colour management and PDF creation facilities.
This is different: Canva isn’t a program, but an online design resource. There’s a free version and a paid-for “Pro” option. Like most services that operate on a “freemium” basis, you may well find that the free version doesn’t quite meet your needs. One thing to watch out for, like many online resources, is the American bias. This means that templates default to US sizes, for example 89 x 51mm for business cards instead of the more usual European 85 x 55mm. So check your page size carefully before starting to design, and make sure that “Print bleed” is selected. Finished designs can be downloaded as PDF.
Microsoft Office PowerPoint
This software is deceptive. It looks as though it should be suitable for creating print artwork, but sadly isn’t. The presentations it creates are generally designed to be viewed on screens. So many of the effects that can be applied just don’t work in print. Having said that, we do regularly print documents created in PowerPoint – mostly training material, but also A0-size conference posters – and we even convert some of our own print artwork into PowerPoint slides for use by clients. There are a couple of things to watch out for: the default page size is not A4, so your presentations may not fit neatly on a printed page; when saving a presentation as PDF, many of the effects involving transparency, do not save correctly. We can sometimes use a different PDF creation technique to preserve complex effects, so it is always worth asking.
This is Apple’s word processor, available on Mac computers and iOS devices. Like Microsoft Word, it isn’t really intended for the creation of artwork for commercial print. For example, it doesn’t have an easy way to handle bleed. So, as long as your document has a white margin, just export to PDF (at high quality) and send us the file. We’ll check it carefully as we have had some issues with the quality of PDFs from Pages.
It’s a great image editor. But it’s not a good choice as a page layout tool, despite the additional text handling features added to more recent versions. Having said that, many people do use it to produce artwork and we do print their creations. Because it isn’t orientated towards print it can be quite difficult to establish page sizes, margins and bleeds, so careful planning is required before starting to design. Whilst perhaps suitable for creating business cards and postcards, you would be well advised to look for an alternative if creating anything bigger. It can save print quality PDFs directly, but the files produced can be huge and/or horrendously complex.
One of the earliest PC-based drawing packages, even pre-dating Microsoft Windows! It’s never gained the same acceptance as Adobe Illustrator, except perhaps in the sign industry, but it is a very capable package and can easily produce print-ready PDF files.
Microsoft Office Publisher
Many printers complain about Publisher files, but we print from them a lot and rarely have significant problems. Microsoft have attempted to make the program easy to use, so some of the defaults and automatic features can be a bit frustrating. Most of the supplied templates are designed for use with a desktop printer, not commercial printing, so are best avoided. (The tri-fold leaflet templates that don’t make allowance for paper thickness when folding cause recurring issues.) So, as with most software, a little planning of page sizes, margins etc. is required before starting to design your pages.
It used to be the dominant page layout software in the industry, but has been eclipsed by Adobe InDesign in recent years. There are still plenty of Quark users, but it is unlikely to be the choice of someone new to designing for print. If you’re an experienced Quark user, then you will know how to produce print-ready PDF files. That’s all we need!