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The best desktop publishing software in 2021

Magazine fashion spread about men's watches - best desktop publishing software
(Image credit: Serif)

The best desktop publishing software makes it easy to create both printed and digital publications, from newspapers and magazines to ebooks and e-zines, as well as marketing assets including brochures, flyers and more.

Whether you're a professional designer, an enthusiastic amateur, or somewhere in between, there's a range of desktop publishing software to choose from. But what's the right choice for your needs and your budget?

In this article, we’ve gathered together the very best desktop publishing software available today. We explain what each tool has to offer, what makes it distinct, and all the details you need to choose between them. 

If you've got your heart set on InDesign, however, then make sure you check out our Adobe Creative Cloud discount page, or see our guide to how to download InDesign.

The best desktop publishing software in 2021

InDesign screengrab

(Image credit: Adobe)

01. Adobe InDesign

The best desktop publishing software overall

Developer: Adobe | Payment model: Subscription | System: Windows, Mac | Free trial?: 7 days

Industry standard 
Integrates with Creative Cloud 

If you work in media or publishing, you’re probably already using InDesign. It’s indisputably the industry standard, whether you’re laying out pages of a magazine or book, designing a brochure, or creating a poster. In short, it’s perfectly suited to any design combining images and text.

For decades now, InDesign has been the go-to for print professionals, and in recent years Adobe have added lots of useful digital publishing tools, making it a great choice for e-zines, e-books and pretty much anything else you can append an ‘e-’ to. It’s also fully integrated into the Creative Cloud, making it easy to pull in Adobe Fonts, Adobe Stock images, and work you’ve created in other Adobe apps, such as Illustrator or Photoshop. 

The one big downside to InDesign is the need to pay a monthly subscription, either for the single app or as part of an All-Apps subscription to the Creative Cloud. If your company is paying for that, then no worries, of course. But if the money’s coming out of your own pocket, you might want to investigate some of the other apps on this list too.

Affinity Publisher screengrab

(Image credit: Serif)

02. Affinity Publisher

The best desktop publishing software for value

Developer: Serif | Payment model: One-off purchase | System: Windows, Mac | Free trial?: 90 days

Generous free trial 
Plays well with Affinity apps 
Lacking some pro features

The Affinity range of apps unashamedly offer a cheap, subscription-free alternative to Adobe tools, while matching most of their features, and including some of their own unique tools. Hence Affinity Designer is a close match for Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Photo for Photoshop and most recently of all, Affinity Publisher is a direct rival to Adobe InDesign.

Launched in 2019, Affinity Publisher is still finding its feet, and doesn’t quite match up to InDesign in terms of its full feature set; not yet anyway. For example, it lacks document setup presets on launch (although you can find third-party templates for this elsewhere) and the way it works with layers can take some getting used to if you’ve been using InDesign for years.

Quite frankly, though, the differences are pretty minimal and if you’ve not spent a lifetime using InDesign, they probably won’t really matter to you. Crucially, Affinity Publisher allows you to work with Adobe file types, including the ability to import IMDL files, documents created in InDesign. 

It works on Mac and Windows, and there’s interoperability across all three Affinity apps for smoother workflow too. While there’s no iPad version yet, you can open, edit and export Publisher documents in the iPad version of the other two Affinity apps. 

All in all, Affinity Publisher is well worth checking out, particularly given the generous 90-day free trial offered at the moment. Indeed, given the cheap price, it may well be worth buying it and using it alongside InDesign, as many designers say they find it faster and more efficient for particular tasks. 

QuarkXpress website homepage

(Image credit: Quark)

03. QuarkXPress

Well-established rival to InDesign

Developer: Quark | Payment model: One-off purchase | System: Windows, Mac | Free trial?: 7 days

Feature rich
Works with InDesign files
Use for apps and websites

You have to feel for QuarkXPress, popularly known to users as Quark. Back in the 1990s, it was the market leader in desktop publishing software, but then Adobe launched InDesign at around half the price, and publishers voted for their wallets. QuarkXPress is still in use in a lot of companies, though, and now that InDesign is subscription-only, it may well be worth investigating once more. 

First launched in 1987, QuarkXPress remains a very capable, high-end tool to this day, whether you’re creating print media, digital publications or a bit of both. And yes, it can import InDesign files. Available for PC or Mac, it continues to be updated on an annual basis, and the latest version is Quark XPress 2020. 

But why should you choose it over other desktop publishing software? Well, for a start it’s subscription free, so if you prefer to buy something for a one-purchase then it’s a good option, if not particularly cheap. Plus, as well as being suitable for print and digital publications, it’s now also capable of designing functioning web pages and even iOS apps.

Microsoft Publisher

(Image credit: Microsoft)

04. Microsoft Publisher

Part of the 365 suite, this tool for amateurs and semi-pros is worth a look

Developer: Microsoft | Payment model: Part of 365 subscription or one-off purchase | System: Windows | Free trial?: 1 month

Good range of templates
You may already have it
Only for Windows
Lacks pro features

First released in 1991, Microsoft Publisher is the company's tool for desktop publishing. It has more of an emphasis on page layout and design than you'll find in Microsoft Word, which is squarely focused on text composition and proofing. However, Publisher has been pretty neglected in recent years, and hasn't really caught up with rivals in terms of pro features.

However, if you pay for a Microsoft 365 subscription, you'll already have it, along with Word, Excel and other software. And so it's worth trying it out; well, as long as you have Windows, as there's no version for Mac or Linux, and no mobile apps either.

If you do, there's lots to like here. Microsoft Publisher comes with some useful templates and preloaded colour presets. All files are automatically encrypted and stored in your Microsoft OneDrive, adding a nice layer of security. Customer support is generally excellent. And we like the Design Checker feature, which will help ensure your documents are printer-ready before you send them off. 

Also note that if you want Microsoft Publisher without Microsoft 365, you can buy a standalone licence instead.

Close up of facepainted woman

(Image credit: Viva Designer)

05. VivaDesigner

The best desktop publishing software for Linux

Developer: Viva Distribution GmbH | Payment model: One-off purchase | System: Windows, Mac, Linux | Free trial?: Free demo version

Available for Linux 
Free version
Complex to use

Working on Linux? Then we recommend VivaDesigner, as the best desktop publishing software for that platform. This little-known German software has a surprisingly impressive range of features, and works as both a desktop app and a web app. 

There’s a totally free version that’s very capable, while the paid version offers a wider range of file formats to import and export, and more advanced features such as preflight settings, font embedding, smart guides, bullets and numbering. 

It’s certainly the closest thing to InDesign that runs on Linux, and at such an affordable price it’s worth considering for other platforms too, especially as there’s a free demo version to trial all the features. 

Screenshot of Xara Page & Layout Designer in use

(Image credit: Xara)

06. Xara Page & Layout Designer

Cheap desktop publishing software that's simple to use

Developer: Xara | Payment model: One-off purchase | System: Windows | Free trial?: 7 days

Easy to use 
Windows only 
Lacks pro features

If you’re new to desktop publishing software, it’s worth considering Xara Page & Layout Designer. It’s available for a cheap, one-off price and the interface is pretty easy to learn, with lots of good tutorials to follow. 

This is not full-on, professional desktop publishing software and nor is it totally for amateurs; it’s somewhere in between. So for example, it allows you to create both single- and multi-page documents, the ‘Snap Lines’ tool lets you attach elements to existing objects, and the Page and Layer Gallery gives you a good overview of how everything’s looking. On the downside, though, there are no tools for creating tables or graphs: you’d have to design those manually and then import them into your documents.

Xara Page & Layout Designer comes with some decent royalty-free templates to help you create letterheads, brochures, business cards and other common designs. And overall, while it lacks many features you’ll find in other apps, that does mean the interface is less cluttered, making for easier use and a shorter learning curve. 

Fan of different Pantone colours

(Image credit: Scribus)

07. Scribus

The best free desktop publishing software

Developer: The Scribus Team | Payment model: Free and open source | System: Windows, Mac, Linux | Free trial?: Free tool

Free and open source 
Works on all desktop platforms 
Includes templates
Can’t import InDesign files

Short of cash? Then you’ll be pleased to know that Scribus is not only feature-rich, but it’s open source and totally free. Plus it’s been around since 2001 and has an enthusiastic community around it, so if you’re stuck on how to do something, it’s easy to find tutorials, help and advice.

Available for Windows, Mac and Linux, Scribus takes a similar approach to InDesign in terms of frames and layers, and is packed with professional level tools. It can handle CMYK and spot colours, directly create PostScript and PDF files from documents, and perform pre-flight checks to make sure your files are safe to send to the printers. 

The drawing tools, in particular, are surprisingly versatile, and there are some decent templates too. The main downside is that you can’t import files from other apps like InDesign or QuarkXPress. For zero pennies, however, that’s a compromise most people will be willing to make. And overall, this is a great choice for anyone lacking the cash for paid desktop publishing software.

Screengrab of Swift Publisher in use

(Image credit: Swift Publisher)

08. Swift Publisher

Cheap desktop publishing software for Mac

Developer: BeLight Software | Payment model: One-off fee | System: Mac | Free trial?: Yes

Range of templates 
Mac only
Lacks many pro features

Interested in cheap desktop publishing software for the Mac? Then take a look at Swift Publisher. Selling for just $19.99 at time of writing, this is a nice little app for designing printed or digital assets such as flyers, booklets, newsletters, posters, brochures, CD and DVD labels, business cards, menus, facing pages and Facebook/Twitter covers. 

It comes with more than 200 templates to help you create designs quickly, and 2,000 clip art images. If that’s not enough, then for an extra few dollars you can get the ‘Extras Pack’, which Includes over 40,000 royalty-free clipart images and 100 Open Type fonts. 

Not the kind of person to get excited over clip art? Then Swift Publisher probably isn’t for you. Rather than a pro tool, this is essentially a good starter app for people new to desktop publishing, who need a guiding hand to help them design. If that’s you, then this comes highly recommended.

Screengrab of Lucidpress in use

(Image credit: Lucid Software)

09. LucidPress

The best desktop publishing software that’s browser-based

Developer: Lucid Software | Payment model: Free or subscription | System: Web browser | Free trial?: 7 days

Nothing to download 
Easy to download 
Free version limited 
Not feature-rich

Do you like software that works in the browser, so there’s nothing to download and you can use it on any of your devices? Then meet LucidPress. This easy to use desktop publishing software works with all major web browsers, and is a great option for non-designers looking to create and share marketing assets, such as flyers, brochures, business cards, invitations, leaflets, newsletters, magazines, and photobooks and more. 

It comes with both free and paid-for templates so you don’t have to design everything from scratch. It plays nicely with Google Docs, YouTube, Dropbox, Flickr, Facebook and Unsplash, making it easy to import text and images. And once you’re done, it makes it easy to share assets with social media, download them as print-ready files, or send them straight to the LucidPress print shop.

There is a free version of Lucidpress, but it limits you to just three documents of up to three pages each per month, and you’re locked out of many of the best features. The paid versions, meanwhile, start at £8 per month.

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Tom May
Tom May is a freelance writer and editor specialising in art, design and travel. He has been editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. He has also worked for a wide range of mainstream titles including The Sun, Radio Times, NME, Heat, Company and Bella.