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Scribus: Worth the Effort for the Linux-Loving Desktop Publisher

By Jack M. Germain
Jun 9, 2010 5:00 AM PT

Note to those avoiding Linux: Yes, you can do desktop publishing. You can do it with Scribus.

Scribus: Worth the Effort for the Linux-Loving Desktop Publisher

One of the most frequently recurring comments I hear about why somebody -- especially in a small-business environment -- will not migrate to Linux is the alleged absence of a desktop publishing (DTP) application. I think this is one of the most under-reported aspects in using Linux instead of Microsoft Windows or Mac computers.

Scribus desktop publisher
Scribus desktop publisher
(click image to enlarge)

Let's be clear here: Windows-based commercial-strength page design and illustration programs far outnumber what you will find for Linux distros. Some of the Windows-based DTP programs you won't find in Linux are Adobe's Quark Express or Pagemaker, Microsoft Publisher and Broderbund's Print Shop. These and numerous other programs are in popular demand by consumers looking to make brochures, posters and greeting cards.

What you will find for Linux, though with much fewer choices, are solid contenders for doing these same tasks, whether for business or personal use. For instance, Grasshopper's Pagestream is a multi-platform DTP program that sells for US$99. Oftentimes, a specialty DTP app is just a luxury. The same DTP tasks are handily done with full-powered word-processing suites such as OpenOffice Writer.

Perhaps the most well-known page design app for Linux is open source Scribus. This is a professional-strength page layout application with a user-friendly interface. Scribus has essential publishing features such as CMYK color, separations, Spot Colors, ICC color management and versatile PDF creation.

Not the Same

Using page design apps such as Scribus is not the same as using word processors like Open Office Writer or AbiWord (See my review here. With a word processor, you directly type text onto a blank page and insert graphics elements such as photos and graphs into the word flow. Wrapping text around the graphics and setting font and column sizes are done by adjusting settings that are usually a right click or drop-down menu away.

That is not the case with DTP apps. The interface is different. That often generates criticism from new users that Scribus is confusing to use. Do not fault Scribus for an interface standard that is endemic to DTP apps in general. It is not Scribus or Linux. It is the way page design programs on any platform work. Once you approach Scribus with that mindset, the logic behind using Scribus falls into place.

Before you can add text to a page, you must first create a text box. Then you can create text live by typing it into the box or using the copy and paste function from a text file. You make headlines and captions the same way.

Quirky Interface

Before migrating to Linux, I was a frequent user of Microsoft Publisher, Print Shop and Pagemaker. So I expected that working my way through Scribus would be old hat instantly. It did not completely work out that way.

DTP programs and learning curves go hand in hand. The concept is similar as you move from app to app, but the process of putting the page elements in place can vary. They vary unexpectedly in some areas within Scribus.

Not All Bad

Scribus taps into features found in other open source apps. For instance, it is easy to load documents created from the OpenOffice.org suite -- Writer, Spreadsheet and Presenter. This cuts down on designing pages for new projects from scratch if preliminary materials are already available.

To do this, click on the Page menu and then select Import. This opens a dialog box to point to the file location. The next line in this box allows a number for how many pages to insert from this document. A final line lets you choose whether to insert the pages before, after or at the end of the current location.

Another piggyback feature in Scribus uses GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) to edit graphics placed on a Scribus page design. See my review of GIMP here. Selecting the edit image option after right-clicking on a photo or other graphic loads the item into GIMP. When finished editing, save the image in GIMP and exit. Then right-click on the image on the Scribus page and select the Update image option to refresh the page.

Powerful Menu Options

Any doubts that Scribus lacks professional-strength features are dispelled by browsing through its menus. Clearly, Scribus does plenty of business publishing tasks, such as creating stationery, fliers and brochures. It handles color separations and color management for PDF files and other page formats to send to commercial printers.

For example, the Item menu includes controls for locking/unlocking image attributes, PDF options and photo levels. The Insert menu has options for tables, shape, polygon, line, Bezier cure and Freehand line.

The Character options under the Insert menu show careful attention to publishing needs. These choices include the application of smart hyphen, non-breaking dash, bullets, middle dot, em and en dashes and quotation dash. Similar options exist for quote mark variations, space and breaks as well as ligature.

Fully Functional App

Scribus provides features that typically are not found in most other page-design products. For example, the Extras menu lets you manage images, hyphenate and dehyphenate text under certain conditions, generate a table of contents and create a barcode.

The Script menu has nearly one dozen font, text and color options to apply to a page design on its Scribus Scripts sub-menu. Also, a Script console is built in.

Similarly, The Windows menu is loaded with a dozen more design options. The Style menu offers a range of features under font, size, effects, alignment, color, shade and tabulator choices.

More Needed

Much of the burden for page designing rests with the user. Scribus could be enhanced if its development community provided more support for additional templates for a variety of publishing projects.

The included set offers a brochure, newsletter, presentation and text-based designs. Free third-party templates are available online for those who spend some time looking for them.

Despite an interface anomaly here and there, Scribus is not challenging to learn. Its features include the ability to lay down text and graphics frames, link text to flow from frame to frame, create outlines and design master pages for repeating page elements and design grids.


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