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Producing professional DTP destined for commercial print

This tutorial was produced with PageMaker 6 but the advice  contained is still useful for more recent versions.

PageMaker 6.5


A few months ago I looked at the steps involved in the creation of a leaflet using the drawing program Corel Draw. I'm now going to look at what might initially seem like a similar project, the production of a one-page programme of events. In fact the project is entirely different and requires a completely different approach. The amount of information to get over in the leaflet was relatively small and, even then, Corel Draw's text handling was pushed to the limit. The amount of information to get over in the programme is far higher and so we must turn to the dedicated text-handling skills of a DTP program.

I've chosen to use the market leader, PageMaker, but the lessons and challenges involved are equally relevant to any of the professional DTP packages (see Professional DTP box-out). The fundamental lesson, and the basis of all successful work, is an understanding of what good design does. The purpose of design is to assist in the communication of information. This can be broken down into three stages: attract the reader's attention; help the reader to understand and assimilate the desired information; keep the reader's attention throughout the process. The ultimate test of a good design is if all the information it contains has been read and understood.

Design Principles

As such it's clear that simple legibility and clarity are essential, but they aren't enough to grab the reader's interest in the first place. This interest is attracted by variety, but it can also be lost by it. A pull-out quote, for example, can draw the eye to an article, but equally it can distract and disrupt the reading flow and so potentially lose readers. Good design accommodates this apparent paradox by playing off one element against another: consistency against contrast, boldness against understatement, symmetry against asymmetry, unity against division. you get the picture. Good design is built on this internal tension and the balance of opposites.

Coming down to earth with a bump, it's important to remember that good design doesn't exist in a vacuum, but is determined by real world considerations. The most important of these are the intended audience and the intended effect. If you are producing a mail-shot for a bargain-basement special offer, for example, a left-aligned mono-spaced letter that looks as if it has been knocked up on a typewriter will almost certainly be more effective than a lavish full colour brochure. Just as important are the practical considerations of time and money. The typewriter approach would not only be far cheaper to produce, but also far quicker.

For our project the parameters are clear. The publication is a programme of upcoming, mainly arts-based events organised by the French Institute in Edinburgh. It's therefore safe to assume that the intended audience is sophisticated and that, with the events' emphasis on contemporary art, the programme should be appropriately clean and modern. Budgets are tight, however, so all of the information must be fitted onto a single double-sided page. Full-colour is also out of the question, and in any case many of the supplied photos are black and white, so we'll have to try and maximize the impact of two colours.

OK, we know what we're supposed to do, so how do we go about it? Basically the process involves six separate stages (see Putting It Together walkthrough). First the layout grid is created by setting page size, margins and columns. Second the text is roughly laid up and positioned on the grid. Third the typography, the formatting of the text is determined. Fourth the graphics are introduced, sized and positioned. Fifth the overall effect of the combined text, graphics and colour is fine-tuned to create the maximum impact. Finally, when the design is complete, the separated output is proofed prior to sending out to commercial print.


The first decision to be made is the size and shape of paper to be used for the programme. Often no thought at all is given to this, which is why many beginners find that they have actually designed their masterpiece to the software's default of US Letter! In many ways, however, this decision is the single most important one we will make as it determines the canvas on which we are going to work. Psychological tests have shown that taller layouts tend to seem formal, while squatter designs seem more informal. They have also shown that a particular shape, the golden rectangle, tends to be selected as the most aesthetically appealing - a fact the ancient Greeks discovered long before market research.

This aesthetic ideal is slightly shorter than our typical pages - A4/A3/A5 - but there are practical reasons for the appeal of the ISO sizes. A0 is exactly twice the size of A1, which is twice the size of A2 and so on. What this means in practice is that an A4 sheet, for example, rotated on its side and folded in half will produce two A5 pages. This has huge advantages in terms of conserving paper and so in keeping costs down. Because the ISO pages are such universal standards they also have the advantage that they will easily fit into their corresponding envelope sizes - and into the post box.

Slightly reluctantly then, I think we should fall into line with the vast majority of users and select A4 as the page size. At least by selecting a landscape orientation we can break out from the absolute norm. The next step is to set up the grid onto which we will fit our text and graphics. With a number of separate categories of events to include, together with background information on the Institute and an eye-catching cover, our single A4 sheet will have to be divided into sections. Folding in two would only give us four A5 pages, but folding into three will give us six taller sections. These will be slightly out of the ordinary, slightly formal and well suited for carrying large amounts of information.

To set up the grid we have to set up the margins and columns. Again many users treat the software's in-built defaults as if they are givens, but each publication will demand different settings. The general rule for multiple page layouts is to have a wider bottom margin than top and a wider inside margin than out, although like most design rules these can be broken for effect. It's also important to be as generous as possible with margins as the resulting "white space" should not be seen as wasted, but as a crucial part of the overall look of the document. Without decent margins your design is always going to feel cramped.

In fact it's often worth shrinking your body copy's point-size to gain space to add to margins, but that's a luxury we're not able to afford. Instead we're going to have to be comparatively mean with left, right and top margins of 7mm and a slightly larger bottom margin of 1cm. The next step is to set the number of columns - three - and the "gutters", the space between columns. Because each gutter is actually going to be a fold we have to make the width exactly twice the size of the left and right margins - 14mm - to ensure that each panel is correctly centred.

Text Handling

With the basic grid ready, we can load up the text to see just what we've got to deal with. PageMaker automatically picks up styles from supported word processors so features like the headings are already picked out. With frame-based packages like Ventura, the text would automatically flow through the columns from beginning to end. That would be fine if we were producing a book, but for a folded leaflet we need to paste the text in non-consecutive order so that the pages read correctly when folded. PageMaker allows this to be done easily with its freeform text blocks which are positioned and sized manually. The process demands more intervention, but allows more control.

By sizing each text block so that the right text is positioned on the correct panel even if it runs over the bottom of the page, we can get a good idea of what's involved. At the moment the text blocks are all linked so that if I drag up the window shade on one block the overflow text will automatically flow into the next. To break the links, it's necessary to select each block, cut it and then immediately paste it back. It's an unnecessarily nerve-wracking process and PageMaker's default of slightly offsetting pasted objects is infuriating - though this can be avoided by using the power paste shortcut Ctrl + Alt + V.

With all the text in place, it's a good idea to load up all the graphics (shortcut Ctrl + D) onto the surrounding pasteboard. This is important as we need to know roughly the amount of space they are going to require before we take the next crucial step of choosing our body typeface. This decision is determined by a combination of factors. The typeface has to be appropriate to the intended audience, but also suited to the particular circumstances. In our case this means a typeface with a contemporary but classic feel which reads well at small point-sizes. The solution I came up with is the sophisticated but highly legible Optima which is a modern interpretation of the Roman lettering on triumphal arches - if only it was the Italian Institute!

With the typeface chosen the next step is to choose the point-size and the interline spacing or "leading". For easy reading of long sections of text, point-size should be between 10 and 12. Unfortunately even at 10 point it's clear that there would be no room for white space - or even the pictures - so I settled on 9.5. In fact on text-heavy jobs like this that's by no means bad going and it also means that each line contains around 55 letters, within the accepted maximum for comfortable reading of 65. In terms of leading PageMaker defaults to 1.2 x the point-size which would be 11.4 points. With our relatively long lines I'd prefer larger leading to make the travel easier for the eye, so I can afford to round it up to 12 points.

This body copy leading is particularly important because it sets up the horizontal structure of the grid. To tie the separate columns/panels of our spread together it's important that the lines of body text actually align across the design. The reader probably wouldn't consciously notice if they didn't - so long as the bottom of the columns lined up - but subliminally the design is tighter and has greater internal logic if they do. In other words, if I want my design to win an award it's a must. The problem is that, as the grid is invisible, it's very hard to work to. However, this can be overcome with a bit of effort and with the help of PageMaker's Grid Manager utility to add repeating baseline guidelines (see this month's Real World Publishing article).

The formatting of our body copy is almost complete with only the indents and alignment to be decided. In terms of first line indents these are only really necessary to indicate paragraph breaks, which will be clear enough anyway in our freeform layout, so they can be dispensed with. Setting the text to be justified produces a more block-like and so modern look and has the added advantage that it fits in slightly more copy into the given space. It will also allow us to add variety and to highlight information by using left-aligned bullet points and dates.

Of course all of these formatting decisions could be being applied directly to selected text, but far more powerful is the ability to group attributes as named styles that can easily be applied and edited. The easiest way to apply styles within PageMaker is by clicking on the style name on the Style palette (Ctrl + B). Local overrides can always be added and are then marked in the palette by a plus symbol after the style name. Existing styles can be edited by Ctrl-clicking on them in the palette, while new styles can be created with the Ctrl + 3 shortcut.

Apart from the body copy, the most important items of text in the design are the headings. Their relative difference and significance has to be identified which is most easily done by increasing their point-size, emboldening, and centring. This has to be done while still ensuring that the following paragraphs fall back onto the interline grid. This means ensuring that the combination of each heading's leading and its above and below spacing adds up to a multiple of the 12-point body leading. We also need to clearly identify the separate category headings but, with absolutely no room for manoeuvre, have to find other ways of marking them off.

One of the most obvious ways to do this is by using upper case, but this is generally frowned upon because it interferes with the recognition of word shape that is the basis of easy reading. For single word category headings, however, this shouldn't be too much of a problem. I've also marked off the headings from the body copy by using a ruling line below - perversely this is hidden away as a sub-dialog in PageMaker's Paragraph command (Ctrl + M) - and by introducing a second typeface, Gill Sans. Used in its bold condensed form this will give the category headings considerable weight while opening up some surrounding white space.

Graphics Handling

With the grid set up and text formatting established, we're now ready to complete the layout by bringing in the graphics. It's often said that a picture is worth a thousand words and it's true that without them it would be very difficult to catch and keep the reader's attention. Even so there are limits, and I'm baffled by the urge to introduce lame-brained, badly-drawn clipart on the slightest pretext. If the image adds nothing, drop it. Fortunately that's not a problem as we have a good range of photos and line art covering a wide range of subjects.

In terms of positioning and sizing the graphics a number of factors come into play. Obviously the pictures have to be positioned next to their relevant text, but it's important to try and disperse them equally throughout the spread both horizontally and vertically. Image type - line art and photos - and image subject - people and buildings - should also be mixed to give as much contrast as possible. To achieve this it is often necessary to reorder the text. The size of each image is largely determined by the grid, with graphics either scaled to the full width of the column or, if text is going to flow around them, to half or a third of the column width. To get an immediate idea of the impact this will have, make sure that Text Wrap is on (Alt + Ctrl + E).

At the same time, the actual subject of the images must be taken into account. Don't blow up a boring photo just to fill up space. On the other hand if you've got an intriguing photo, as we do for the cover, don't waste it. Mug-shots of people's faces might be commonplace, but they actually play an important role by humanising a layout. Even so they should only be used at relatively small sizes. Also think of any subliminal messages the graphics might be giving. If faces are looking out of design, for example, your readers might well follow suit.


Ultimately what we are working towards is a layout where all the text and graphics are seamlessly combined together in a balanced and internally logical whole. In the meantime we will be happy if we can get them all to fit on the page! In fact there are a number of copy-fitting tools and options at our disposal. The amount of space an image will take up depends largely on its orientation, for example, so if we have a choice of portrait and landscape this gives huge flexibility. Even if we only have one image it's amazing what a difference cropping can make. Moreover, by intelligent cropping we can often increase the image's interest.

On the text side too we also have considerable flexibility. If copy seems short on a page that's not a problem at all as it allows us to add white space around headings and images and generally to let the design breathe. If we have the odd line or two too much, we still have a number of options. The spacing around headings can often be squeezed. Text can normally be slightly rewritten without affecting the meaning though this will generally have to be approved. Otherwise, if only the odd word has crept onto a new line, this can often be massaged back onto the line before by adding discretionary hyphens (Shift + Ctrl + -) or by kerning. Never kern by more than 0.01 of an em (Alt + Left arrow) and make sure that this is only applied to individual lines not to whole paragraphs.

For more major problems, more extreme measures must be taken. For two pages in the programme I had to make unwelcome compromises. In one of the events panels I had to run a number of short separate paragraphs together, marking them off with a Zapf Dingbats bullet character. At least this ensured that the interline grid was maintained. However, for the page of general details about the Institute, the sheer amount of text meant that the horizontal grid had to be sacrificed with 9pt text on a 10.5pt leading. I can live with this as the back panel is not really part of a spread, but there goes my award!


Eventually, using all the tricks available - and compromises where necessary - a working layout is achieved. Now we can concentrate on fine-tuning and refining the design to make it more effective. In particular we want to add impact to both graphics and text to help them to catch the reader's eye. The cover image of a building sloping at an incredible angle is already striking, but the effect can be highlighted further by angling the two items of cover text in the opposite direction. The only way to do this is to skew the text blocks using PageMaker's control palette.

The same cover image is used again on the main spread's centre panel, but simply repeating the photo would be a wasted opportunity. Instead new life can be breathed into the image by, for example, cropping in hard to the image's centre of interest, the building. Instead I decided to literally give the image a different spin by rotating it which immediately grabs the eye by breaking out of the grid. Even better, by straightening the building and rotating the surrounding image, the photo is given a new internal tension and intriguing logic of its own.

Another eye-catching image effect is achieved with the Christian Dior fashion image. Originally this was a rectangular photo but the image's centre of interest, the figure, is a much more interesting shape. If the shape was regular, such as triangle, we could isolate it by drawing a polygon and combining it with the image using PageMaker's masking command (Ctrl + 6). In fact as the shape is very irregular, I have had to use Photoshop's more advanced masking controls. To get the text to then flow around the figure, new points can be added and repositioned on the text-wrap boundary by clicking and then dragging with the select tool.

Looking at the text to see if we can add impact is less fruitful. Normally I would consider adding dropped capitals or emboldened introductory paragraphs to add interest and colour to the layout. Each of these "text breaker" features would usually act as entry points, enticing the reader to start reading. However, as our layout is already broken into sections and full of interest, they would be more likely to act as distractions and so give an excuse to stop reading. The one feature I have used is a couple of bullets to mark off small exhibitions. These have to be added with PageMaker's Bullets and Numbering command - a dialog so clumsy and dated that it would embarrass a shareware word processor.


Apart from the management of text and graphics, the designer's third tool for grabbing, keeping and controlling the reader's interest is colour. Of course full colour opens up the full armoury, but there's still a lot we can do within our two-colour budget. In fact even if the budget doesn't stretch this far, there's still a lot that can be done with single-colour printing. For example, rather than black and white, the publication could be printed in a coloured ink or on coloured paper. In both cases though you should bear in mind that black and white offers the most contrast and so the easiest read - in other words avoid lime green on fluorescent yellow.

Colours are most easily defined with the New command at the bottom of the Colours palette (Ctrl + J). However, as onscreen hues are never absolutely accurate and cannot show the important difference between printing on coated (glossy) or uncoated (matt) stock, the colour should actually be chosen from a swatch book. Almost certainly this will mean choosing from the thousand or so approved Pantone colours. These can then be simulated within PageMaker by selecting from the relevant drop-down library list.

Eventually I chose a blue, Pantone 3015. The advantage of a strong colour like this is that it can be used solid for text, for example, to highlight the category headings and dates. It also offers enough contrast to enable white dropped out from it - as in the bars on the top of each spread - to effectively act as another colour. Finally it produces attractive and practical tints. The fact that black text remains very readable over a 20% tint means that I can break up the main spread with a central coloured panel and also add colour to the back panel. By turning the main cover image into a duotone, mixing blue into the black, we really are making the most of the two colours available to us.

Preparing for Print

The layout is now complete, so the next stage is to prepare it for commercial print. Eventually the design will be output as colour-separated film from an imagesetter. These imagesetters are all built on the Postscript page description language so for accurate proofing you really need to have a Postscript printer. With PageMaker, colour separations are created by selecting the Print dialog's Colour command, selecting Separation and choosing from the colours found in the publication - in our case Black and Pantone 3015. You should also ensure that Printer's marks are on in the dialog's Paper option - you might have to temporarily shrink output to see these. These crop marks enable pages to be easily overlaid to check colour registration and bleeds.

That's not quite the end of the road, because we need to get the file to the typesetter in a form from which they can print it. We could simply redirect the Postscript print to disk and then send the resulting file to be output. The problem is that there's no flexibility in the system. If there were any problems with the file, such as the dreaded missing font error, we'd only find out when the film had been output in Courier. Equally, if there were any last minute changes there's absolutely no scope for correction, we'd have to recreate the file from scratch.

Instead it's much better to send the bureau the actual PageMaker file. We'll have to make sure that they have the same, or later version, of the program and also that they have the same fonts. It's also necessary to make sure that all graphics files are included or they might print at low resolution. This is most easily done by copying the publication and its graphics into a new directory with the All Linked option in the Save As dialog. Users of PageMaker 6.5 can use the Save for Service Provider to automate this final process and copy their masterpiece to removable media. Either way it's now over to the printer to do their worst.


Tom Arah

Top Ten Tips

  1. Always think of your design from the reader's point of  view. Would you be attracted by a given layout, keep reading it and understand  it? If not start again.
  2. Don't try too hard. DTP offers so many design tricks  that it is tempting to include them all, but too many effects are often  counter-productive. Generally speaking, less is more.
  3. Good design is not about covering as much of the page  as possible. Don't be frightened of white space.
  4. Make the most of the images you are given, but be wary  of turning to clipart. A good image can make a design, a weak one can ruin it.
  5. Get to know your fonts. You probably have hundreds on  your system, each with different effects and different practical uses, but how  many do you actually use?
  6. Within any single job, however, you should stick to  only two contrasting but complementary faces. Use different styles of these  fonts (italic, bold and compressed) to add variety.
  7. Get the right hardware. You'll need a powerful  computer with plenty of RAM and disk space. For proofing commercial print  you'll also need a Postscript printer.
  8. Get the right software. Each DTP program has its own  strengths and weaknesses and caters to a slightly different market (see  Professional DTP box out).
  9. Time spent on setting up templates and styles will be  saved many times over.
  10. Be wary of rules and prescriptions (including those above). Design rules are there to be broken - intelligently.

The Professional DTP Competition

In the master class I've concentrated on using PageMaker because it's pretty dominant on the PC, but it's by no means the only option. The program's main strength is the simplicity of its working method. Essentially this is a computerised version of the old manual process where typeset text and screened images were pasted onto a pre-designed grid. Its other main strength is that, as the original and current market leader, it is well supported by outputting bureaux and commercial printers. This reliability is helped further by the fact that PageMaker's developer, Adobe, is the company behind the industry-standard Postscript publishing language.

PageMaker used to face severe competition in the early days from the PC-based Ventura. Rather than offering freeform placement of text and images this took a much more structured frame-based approach. Combined with a strong emphasis on styles rather than local formatting this gave Ventura a huge advantage in terms of the automation of document layout. Over the years both programs have copied features from the other, but the hands-on versus hands-off approach still separates the two.

Sadly Ventura has had a hard time of it over recent years with unhappy moves first to the Windows environment and then between various developers. The result has been a lack of direction, a lot of uncertainty and a haemorrhaging of its previously loyal supporters. Those users looking for a reliable platform for the production of long structured documents have tended to turn to FrameMaker. This is also now developed by Adobe and, with features like conditional printing and in-built drawing tools, it is particularly well suited to the production of technical work.

Other users, looking for a combination of design-intensive features with strong frame-based control have turned to Quark XPress. On the Mac, where Ventura never really found a home, XPress is far and away the professionals' choice. However it was generally felt that the first PC implementation - version 3.1 - needed to bed down in its new environment before it was completely reliable. This was especially unfortunate as no major new release has appeared on either platform for the last three years. All that is about to change, however, with the imminent and eagerly awaited release of version 4.0.

Overall, it's a simplification but still generally true to say that, while PageMaker is ideal for publications made up of a few design-intensive pages, for longer work such as books, manuals and magazines it's better to turn to the likes of Ventura, FrameMaker and XPress.

Tom Arah

July 1998

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