Software for Designers

Notice that we are discussing software before hardware. The personal computer industry has reached a point where any of a dozen different computer platforms support the same software. The big names in design software, with only one or two exceptions, publish the same software titles for the Macintosh and Windows families of operating systems.

A serious in-house designer wanting to use desktop publishing to the fullest needs software from each type of the following application groups. While we have seen programs used forcibly to create documents, that generally wastes valuable time.

One thing you should note is that design software demands a lot of computer hardware. Also, design software is updated as frequently as once every year. If you do not own the latest and greatest computer hardware, no matter the brand or operating system, you might find some of the software we suggest will not function acceptably.

Word Processing

A lot of basic in-house documents can be done using only a word processor. While word processors cannot truly be called desktop publishing programs, they are getting closer all the time.

On both the Macintosh and Windows operating systems, the word processor of choice in publishing is Microsoft Word. The second option, which has been more popular in traditional business settings, is WordPerfect, from Corel. Lotus Corp.’s WordPro is loved by its loyal users, but it is not widely used.

An option not always considered is Sun’s Star Office or its free sibling OpenOffice. Both work well with Word, but are a lot cheaper and available for more operating systems, including Linux and Macintosh versions. We work with OpenOffice quite a bit.

Few businesses rely on entry-level word processors. In fact, most entry-level software in this category is part of a “works” package, such as Microsoft Works or AppleWorks. If you are using a basic word processor, upgrade immediately to Word or WordPerfect.


From the viewpoint of professional designers, the limits of word processors are noteworthy. The primary issue is a lack of color separation support. Color separation is the ability to different print back and white pages for each color to be used in commercial printing. Without separations, large-scale color projects cannot be done using a word processor.

Another issue with word processors is the lack of fine control over measurements and typography. This lack of control will not matter to most in-house designers.

For documents demanding serious detail control or color separations, dedicated layout software is a better choice. If you start a document in a word processor and have to transfer it to a layout program, the process is less painful than you might think.


Illustration software creates vector-based images. A vector image is special because it looks good no matter how the image is distorted. This ability to scale images is the result of how illustrations are stored.

Vector images are stored as mathematical equations representing lines and curves. Special points, known as nodes, control where a line or curve changes direction or terminates. Because math is used, not absolute points of color, scaling the image does not result in the “jaggies.” When you change the size or distort an image, the illustration software merely recalculates the math.

Popular illustration software includes Corel Draw, Adobe Illustrator, and Macromedia Freehand. We use Corel Draw, since our clients favor the Windows operating system. Value is another reason we use the Corel Draw package. The Corel Draw “suite” ships with every type of application we need for in-house design, except a word processor.


While illustration applications produce the best possible scaleable images, they create inherently “computerized” images. Because every line is perfect, vector images often seem less artistic than more traditional forms of art.

We have seen illustration software used to create single page and even multiple page documents. One reason people resort to this self-torture is that illustration packages support color separations. Still, for best results, use illustration software for illustrations. Page layout software should be used for predominantly textual documents.

Image Editing

Image editing software is more familiar to most computer users than illustration software. Image editing software is often called paint software. Image editors modify individual pixels. Pixels are individual dots of color. Image editors are known as bitmap editors, referring to the method in which images are stored. Every dot is stored, unless special data compression techniques are employed.

Bitmaps are large images. Consider how an image editor stores a circle, versus a vector image. The vector image stores only the focus, or mid-point, of the circle and the length of the radius. Additional codes store color information. On the other hand, a bitmap must store every dot forming the circle. Once drawn, an image editor cannot resize a circle without distorting it.

Specialized image editors are indispensable tools for designers. Some of these programs are best at freehand sketching, such as Corel’s Painter. Other image editing software excels at modifying photographs or scanned images. These photo editors include Adobe’s Photoshop and Corel’s Photopaint.


Unless you have a limitless budget to buy computer memory and data storage, bitmap images should be reserved only for those times when no other art will do. One full-page bitmap can consume massive amounts of hard disk real estate.

Image editors are a poor choice for technical illustrations and other drawings requiring significant detail – and the ability to resize. When you enlarge a bitmap, jagged lines are the result. Advanced image editors can smooth lines, but they can never match the mathematical perfection of illustration software.

Document Layout

When you think of desktop publishing and design, document layout applications are most likely the first tools that come to mind. Using these programs, designers bring together the text entered in using word processors, diagrams created in illustration software, and photos touched up using image editors. Layout software is where it all comes together to form useful documents.

There are two very big guns in document layout: Adobe InDesign and Quark XPress. Corel Corp.’s Ventura Publisher was once popular among Windows users. There are several entry-level layout applications, but most designers eventually adopt one of the more powerful programs. The popular entry-level layout packages include Serif’s PagePlus and Microsoft Publisher.


Document layout packages are powerful and complex. The only real limitation is that layout packages are for bringing other elements together. They are lousy places to type text and seldom have more than the ability to crop or scale art.

Other Software

A carpenter must have a least a hammer and saw. Likewise, the software we have discussed to this point is essential for serious in-house design. Still, there are times when even the biggest and most popular software titles cannot fit your needs.

There are programs for logo design, three-dimensional effects, and other useful tasks. Many of these programs work from within other software. These additions are known as add-ons, plug-ins, or extensions.

Dollars and Sense

Software is not inexpensive – just more affordable now than in the past. In fact, during the useful life of your computer, you are likely to spend more money on software and add-ons such as fonts and art than you paid for the computer. Generally, only a printer and its supplies are more expensive.

Using street prices, the prices you are likely to pay in stores and through catalogs, several thousand dollars can be spent just for the basic set of applications.

Microsoft Word $295
Adobe Illustrator $595
Adobe Photoshop $395
Adobe InDesign $595

The preceding list assumes that you are buying each application for the first time and are not eligible for upgrade pricing. Add to the list the cost of fonts, clipart, and the little necessities you learn about as you work, and it is easy to spend $3500 or more on software. Actually, it is easy to spend that amount on fonts and artwork alone if you get serious about in-house design.

Word Processors
Microsoft Word $149–$295 Amazingly flexible, the most-used application sold.
Corel WordPerfect $149-$249 The one-time leader, still popular in some professions.
More to be added later!!!


Thankfully, you only have to pay full price for software once. After the initial purchase – or even if you purchase a competing product first – most publishers offer steep discounts on new versions of their software. Upgrade prices generally range from $50 to $200 per title, depending on the original purchase price.

When you purchase software, you are only purchasing a license for use of the software on one computer. You cannot buy one upgrade and install it on several systems.

The good news is that upgrades are priced reasonably. The bad news is that most programs are updated every 12 to 24 months, not counting “patches,” better known as bug fixes. We suggest budgeting at least $1000 per computer for software upgrades.


  • Software is expensive, but necessary.
  • Use professional tools, not low-end applications.


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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 08-Mar-2017
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach