Design software buyers guide

Design software used to imply paper-based documents pretty exclusively. Whether it was desktop publishing or the photos and illustrations used to brighten the pages, the finished document was likely to end up in print. While this is a still an important medium, design for eBooks, video or the Web is now just as important and many applications can handle more than one type of output.

Here we review the design areas of print, video, photos, illustration and the Web.

Print publishing

Despite many predictions of a screen-based society, a vast amount of information is still published on paper. Desktop publishing (DTP) applications are ideal for putting together anything more complicated than the internal report which can be knocked up in Microsoft Word. These are essentially assembly tools, taking words, graphics and photos and laying them out on a page.

Having said that they’re largely about designing for paper, most DTP programs can also be used to repurpose material, allowing you to use the same content and design for electronic distribution on DVD or on the Web.

Video production

Editing film or video electronically is a key part of film, TV and corporate presentation production alike. Video editors import unedited video clips of all lengths and present them on a time line or storyboard, showing separate lines for video clips, titles, sound tracks and stills.

Combining all these elements creates the finished video which can typically be output in a variety of formats and to DVD, CD or directly online to services like YouTube.

Photo enhancement

The increasing use of photographs in all forms of media has boosted the importance of photo editing software, so it is one of the key tools in a designer’s kit. From the basic ability to resize and crop images, modern tools can often take the place of camera settings to enhance or apply effects to photos. They can be stitched together to make panoramas and objects can be removed by ‘airbrushing’.

More recently, the ability to edit RAW photos, which take data directly from a camera’s sensor without applying any compression or other modifications, has made the digital darkroom a reality.

Illustration software

Drawing or illustration software is different from photo editing software in several respects. The main one is that photos are raster graphics, defined by the colours of the rows of pixels that make them up, while drawings are vectors, controlled by the coordinates of their nodes and the equations of the lines that connect them. Vector images can be resized to any level, without affecting their sharpness – they never pixellate.

Drawings are more often created from scratch within an illustration program and are usually used by designers who have artistic training. Illustration applications are often used with graphics tablets, which provide more natural interaction than using a mouse.

Targeting the Web

Designing Web sites is very big business, but there are several different approaches, from hand-coding of HTML and CSS to big database tools which are all about displaying goods online. In between these are Web design tools which work much more like DTP programs. These applications aim to make Web design a matter of choosing and positioning elements on a page, with all the hand code kept behind the scenes. Many can handle simple e-commerce, too, in the form of shopping trolleys and access to PayPal and credit card payments.

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