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The best desktop publishing software in 2021

best desktop publishing software
(Image credit: Adobe )

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 or 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 already got your heart set on InDesign, the current industry standard, check out our Adobe Creative Cloud discount page, or see our guide to how to download InDesign. Meanwhile read on to see the other options available.

The best desktop publishing software in 2021

InDesign screengrab

(Image credit: Adobe)

01. Adobe InDesign

The best desktop publishing software overall

Specifications
Developer: Adobe
Payment model: Subscription
System: Windows, Mac
Free trial?: 7 days
Reasons to buy
+Industry standard +Feature-rich+Integrates with Creative Cloud 
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive

If you work in media or publishing, you’re probably already using Adobe's InDesign. It’s the indisputable industry standard for desktop publishing, whether you're laying out pages, designing a brochure or creating a poster. It’s perfectly suited to any design work that requires you to combine images and text.

InDesign has been the go-to software for print professionals for over a decade now. In recent years, Adobe has also added lots of useful digital publishing tools, making it a great choice for e-zines, e-books and pretty much anything else you can add an ‘e-’ to. The software is 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 that you 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 you work for yourself, you may want to investigate some of the alternative apps on this list before making your decsion.

Affinity Publisher screengrab

(Image credit: Serif)

02. Affinity Publisher

The best desktop publishing software for value

Specifications
Developer: Serif
Payment model: One-off purchase
System: Windows, Mac
Free trial?: 90 days
Reasons to buy
+Cheap +Generous free trial +Plays well with Affinity apps 
Reasons to avoid
-Lacking some pro features

Serif's Affinity range of apps unashamedly offers cheap, subscription-free alternatives to Adobe tools. They match most of the features of Adobe's software while also including some of their own unique tools. Affinity Designer is, therefore, a close match for Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Photo for Photoshop and, launched in 2019, Affinity Publisher is a direct rival to Adobe InDesign.

Affinity Publisher doesn’t quite match up to InDesign's feature set. 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. But in all honesty, the differences are quite minimal, and if you’ve not spent a lifetime using InDesign, they probably won’t matter to you too much. 

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 to allow for a smooth workflow. 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. It's well worth checking out. Given the cheap price, it may well even be worth buying it and using it alongside InDesign, as many designers say they find it faster and more efficient for particular tasks.

best desktop publishing software: QuarkXpress

(Image credit: Quark Software)

03. QuarkXPress

Well-established rival to InDesign

Specifications
Developer: Quark
Payment model: One-off purchase
System: Windows, Mac
Free trial?: 7 days
Reasons to buy
+Feature rich+Works with InDesign files+Use for apps and websites
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive

Back in the 1990s QuarkXPress was the market leader in desktop publishing software. That was before Adobe launched InDesign at around half the price, and publishers voted for their wallets. However, Quark, as it's often known as, is still used in many companies. Since InDesign is now subscription-only, it may be worth considering if you don't want to pay monthly. 

First launched in 1987, QuarkXPress is still being updated on an annual basis and it remains a very capable, high-end too, both for print media and digital publications. Available for PC or Mac, it can also import InDesign files and it can also now design functioning web pages and even iOS apps. It's still not cheap, but if you want a one-off purchase, then it’s a good option.

Microsoft Publisher

(Image credit: Microsoft)

04. Microsoft Publisher

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

Specifications
Developer: Microsoft
Payment model: Part of 365 subscription or one-off purchase
System: Windows
Free trial?: 1 month
Reasons to buy
+Good range of templates+You may already have it
Reasons to avoid
-Only for Windows-Lacks pro features

First released in 1991, Microsoft's tool for desktop publishing puts more of a focus on page layout and design than you'll find in Microsoft Word, which is squarely focused on text composition and proofing. Nonetheless, Microsoft Publisher has been a little neglected in recent years. As a result, it's lagging behind rivals.

However, if you already pay for a Microsoft 365 subscription, then you have this software along with Word, Excel and others, so it's worth giving it a try (as long as you have Windows that is; there's no version for Mac or Linux, and no mobile apps). Despite its lack of pro features, there is a lot to like about it, including some useful templates and preloaded colour presets. 

All files are automatically encrypted and stored in your Microsoft OneDrive, which adds a nice layer of security. Customer support is usually very good, and we like the Design Checker feature, which can help you make sure your documents are printer-ready before you send them off. Note that if you want Microsoft Publisher without Microsoft 365, you can buy a standalone licence.

Close up of facepainted woman

(Image credit: Viva Designer)

05. VivaDesigner

The best desktop publishing software for Linux

Specifications
Developer: Viva Distribution GmbH
Payment model: One-off purchase
System: Windows, Mac, Linux
Free trial?: Free demo version
Reasons to buy
+Available for Linux +Cheap +Free version
Reasons to avoid
-Complex to use

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

There’s a free version that’s very capable, while the paid version offers a wider range of file formats for import and export, and more advanced features such as preflight settings, font embedding, smart guides, bullets and numbering. This is certainly the closest thing to InDesign that runs on Linux, but at such an affordable price it’s worth considering for other platforms too, especially as there’s a free demo version of the full software so you can see what you'll be buying.

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

Specifications
Developer: Xara
Payment model: One-off purchase
System: Windows
Free trial?: 7 days
Reasons to buy
+Cheap +Easy to use +Windows only 
Reasons to avoid
-Lacks pro features

For newcomers to desktop publishing software, Xara Page & Layout Designer is worth considering for its cheap, one-off price and easy-to-learn interface. There are also some good tutorials to follow, which makes learning the ropes even easier. It also offers some decent royalty-free templates to help you create letterheads, brochures, business cards and other common designs.

Note that this is not fully featured professional desktop publishing software by any means, but it's not entirely amateurs either. Sitting somewhere in the middle, it allows you to create both single- and multi-page documents. The ‘Snap Lines’ tool lets you attach elements to existing objects, while the Page and Layer Gallery gives you a good overview of how everything’s looking. There are no tools for creating tables or graphs, however, so you would need to design those manually and then import them into your documents. Overall, while Xara Page & Layout Designer lacks many features you’ll find in other apps, the upside is that the interface is less cluttered, creating a shorter learning curve. 

Fan of different Pantone colours

(Image credit: Scribus)

07. Scribus

The best free desktop publishing software

Specifications
Developer: The Scribus Team
Payment model: Free and open source
System: Windows, Mac, Linux
Free trial?: Free tool
Reasons to buy
+Free and open source +Works on all desktop platforms +Includes templates
Reasons to avoid
-Can’t import InDesign files

If cash is short, then Scribus may be the solution you need. It’s open source and completely free, plus it also has a good range of features. Available for Windows, Mac and Linux, Scribus takes an InDesign-like approach in terms of frames and layers, and packs in some professional-level tools. It can handle CMYK and spot colours, directly create PostScript and PDF files from documents, and it can perform pre-flight checks to make sure your files are good to send to the printers.  

The drawing tools 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 cost, that’s a compromise most people will be willing to make. And overall, this is a great choice for anyone who can't spare the cash for a paid desktop publishing software. Since it’s been around since 2001, Scribus also has an enthusiastic community around it, so it's easy to find advice and tutorials if you get stuck on how to do something.

Screengrab of Swift Publisher in use

(Image credit: Swift Publisher)

08. Swift Publisher

Cheap desktop publishing software for Mac

Specifications
Developer: BeLight Software
Payment model: One-off fee
System: Mac
Free trial?: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Cheap +Range of templates +Mac only
Reasons to avoid
-Lacks many pro features

If you're interested in cheap desktop publishing software for the Mac, Swift Publisher is another option that's worth a look, especially for beginners. It's not free, but at $19.99 it's a very low price for an easy-to-use platform. This is by no means a pro tool, but rather a good starter app for people new to desktop publishing and who need a guiding hand. 

It comes with more than 200 templates to help you create designs quickly, and 2,000 clip art images. If that’s not enough, you can also buy an ‘Extras Pack’, which Includes over 40,000 royalty-free clipart images and 100 Open Type fonts. It's 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. If clip art isn't you're thing, then Swift Publisher probably isn’t for you, but if you need the guiding hand, this is a nice package.

Screengrab of Lucidpress in use

(Image credit: Lucid Software)

09. LucidPress

The best desktop publishing software that’s browser-based

Specifications
Developer: Lucid Software
Payment model: Free or subscription
System: Web browser
Free trial?: 7 days
Reasons to buy
+Nothing to download +Easy to download +Free version limited 
Reasons to avoid
-Not feature-rich

If you like browser-based software that you can use on any of your devices with no need to download and install anything, meet LucidPress. This intuitive desktop publishing software works with all major web browsers and is a great option for non-designers who want to create and share marketing assets like flyers, brochures, business cards, invitations, leaflets, newsletters, magazines, and photobooks and more. 

LucidPress comes with both free and paid-for templates so you don’t have to design everything from scratch. It works nicely with Google Docs, YouTube, Dropbox, Flickr, Facebook and Unsplash, making it easy to import text and images. And once you’re done, it's easy to share assets to social media, download them as print-ready files, or send them straight to the LucidPress print shop. There is a free version, but it limits you to three documents of up to three pages each per month, and doesn't include many of the best features. The paid versions start at $10 / £8 per month.

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Tom May

Tom May is a freelance writer and editor specialising in design, photography and tech. He is author of Great TED Talks: Creativity, published by Pavilion Books. He has previously been editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine.