What Is Desktop Publishing Software?

Publishing software is a crowded field with only a few standouts

Desktop publishing software is a tool for graphic designers and non-designers to create visual communications such as brochures, business cards, greeting cards, web pages, posters, and more for professional or desktop printing as well as for online or on-screen electronic publishing.

Programs such as Adobe InDesign, Microsoft Publisher, QuarkXPress, Serif PagePlus, and Scribus are examples of desktop publishing software. Some of these are used by professional graphic designers and commercial printing technicians. Others are used by office workers, teachers, students, small business owners, and non-designers.

The term desktop publishing software among professional designers refers primarily to high-end professional page layout software applications including Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress.

Industrial designers at the office discussing project on the computer
Xavier Arnau/Getty Images

Desktop Publishing Software Becomes a Catch-All Phrase

Other applications and utilities often included in the desktop publishing software category are better classified as graphics, web publishing, and presentation software. Nonetheless, they play an important role in print and digital media. The DTP programs covered in this article do the core task of desktop publishing — composing text and graphics into page layouts for publishing. 

Desktop Publishing Revolution Increases Home Software Options

An explosion of consumer programs and the associated advertising hype stretched the use of "desktop publishing software" to include software for making greeting cards, calendars, banners, and other crafty print projects. This resulted in a wide range of low-end, low-cost, easy-to-use software that doesn't require traditional design and prepress skills to use. The primary page layout software applications in use by professional graphic designers and commercial printing prepress technicians are Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress.

Who Makes Desktop Publishing Software?

The main players in the field are Adobe, Corel, Microsoft, Quark, and Serif with products that stick close to the original use of desktop publishing software for professional page layout. Additionally, Microsoft, Nova Development, Broderbund and others have produced consumer or print creativity and home desktop publishing software for many years.

  • Adobe makes many professional software packages used by designers. You've probably heard of Photoshop and Illustrator, for example. The company's other programs are not page layout software applications for print publishing; they are graphics software, web design software, programs for creating and working with the PDF format, all of which are important adjuncts to the publishing process. Adobe InDesign dominates the field of professional page layout software.
  • Corel is best known for its graphics suite that includes CorelDRAW and Corel Photo-Paint. In the past, it produced creative printing or home publishing programs used for desktop publishing too, but the primary page layout software from Corel is CorelDraw.
  • Microsoft produces Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and various consumer graphics and creative printing programs used alone or in conjunction with other applications to do some form of desktop publishing. Microsoft's entry into page layout for print is Microsoft Publisher.
  • Quark has other software, but the one most closely associated with desktop publishing is QuarkXPress and its many XTensions that enhance and expand the basic capabilities of QuarkXPress.
  • Serif produces a suite of applications for graphics and web design. The core desktop publishing software application is Serif PagePlus.

Types of Software Used in Desktop Publishing

In addition to the sometimes fuzzy division of desktop publishing into professional, home and business categories, there are other types of software closely associated with desktop publishing. Of the four types of software for desktop publishing — word processing, page layout, graphics, and web publishing — each is a specialized tool used in publishing, but the lines are blurred.

Much of the best design software is used for both print and web and sometimes doubles as both page layout and graphics software, creative printing and business software or other combinations.