Desktop publishing (DTP) is the process of using personal computers and peripheral devices to produce professional-quality formatted publications. For many such publications, DTP encompasses all aspects of design, layout, and formatting before the publication goes to a printer. It originated in the 1980s with the advent of Apple Computer, Inc.'s Macintosh system, which featured a high-resolution graphical user interface that allowed users to see on screen the exact formatting they were using. By some accounts, the term "desktop publishing" was coined in 1985 by Aldus Corp., makers of the first desktop publishing program, called PageMaker. (In 1994 Aldus was swallowed by its competitor Adobe Systems Inc., which now markets PageMaker.)

Subsequent technological advances have greatly increased the repertoire and quality of desktop publishing. IBM-compatible PCs came closer to the Macintosh's performance level with the introduction and refinement of Microsoft Corporation's Windows operating system. However, Apple continued improving its product as well, and it has continued to enjoy greater popularity than Windows machines among many DTP professionals. The development of higher quality and lower cost peripherals like laser printers and color scanners was also crucial to DPT's emergence.

Hence, the hardware for desktop publishing was launched by 1985, the same year Aldus launched PageMaker. It was the first desktop publishing software package and became an enormous success. Soon competition led to a proliferation of desktop publishing software programs for both the IBM and Macintosh, driving down prices and resulting in more error-free, exacting programs.

By the early 1990s, buying a basic DTP system was only a modest investment of several thousand dollars. Moreover, there were low entry barriers in terms of training and marketing, and the highly fragmented market for DTP services ensured that entrepreneurs would not have too much trouble finding customers. Of course, DTP also appealed to larger businesses, too, because they could reduce their reliance on costly outside services—or at least expect a lower price on some of these services—to produce simple formatted documents or even the layout for whole books and magazines.

Thus two forms of desktop publishing can be distinguished: specialty services that do work for outside clients and in-house work done by the business that requires DTP. In both instances, though, the tools and methods may be similar or identical.


Depending on a business's needs, there are several levels of DTP software and hardware, ranging from very basic low-end products primarily for small businesses to elaborate and expensive products intended for high-volume professional settings. The typical DTP system consists of three machines: the computer, a color scanner, and a laser printer. Since DTP tends to be graphics-intensive, the most important features in a computer are its speed and memory capacity. Macintosh continues to be the dominant platform in DTP, but PCs have gained some market share in the field. With scanners, resolution and color depth are paramount so that high-quality images may be captured and reproduced with minimal degradation. Drum scanners tend to deliver the best quality, but high-resolution flatbed scanners are the most common choice for mid-level performance. Resolution and speed (the latter often dependent on memory) are the most important attributes in a printer. For black-and-white text documents with minimal gray scaling, a 600 dpi laser printer is the minimum requirement; despite their marketing claims, inkjet printers are almost never used in serious desktop publishing. Publishers who work with color are increasingly acquiring color laser printers for generating proof copies of their work.

Desktop publishers usually have at least three special software applications in their arsenal: a page layout program, an image editor, and a vector drawing program. In addition, most publishers require a library of commonly used font faces; Type I fonts (Adobe PostScript format) are the industry standard in professional publishing. Again, the options range from very low end software priced under $100 to elaborate programs that cost upwards of $ 1,000 for a single user license.


As the name suggests, page layout software is the tool for combining all design elements—text, graphics, and formatting—on the page. It can be used to produce single-page marketing pieces or entire books. The most common high-end page layout tool is Quark Inc.'s QuarkXpress. It is trailed at a great distance by Adobe's PageMaker. Adobe also produces a niche package called FrameMaker, which is designed for managing large publications, particularly those published in electronic formats, that are less graphically involved. In 1999 Adobe launched an attack on Quark with a new full-featured program called InDesign—nicknamed "Quark killer" by advocates—that was touted as the most sophisticated page layout program ever created. High-end programs like Quark and InDesign are also notable in their ability to support add-in programs and features that allow advanced users to customize and automate their work flow. Low-end offerings include Microsoft Publisher, Corel Corporation's Print Office, and PressWriter from Broderbund Software, Inc.


Image editors like Adobe's Photoshop, the most popular title, are used to manipulate scanned photographs and similar images. Advanced editors come with scores of tools for touching up, cropping, or otherwise altering photos to achieve the intended effect for the publication.


Vector drawing programs are used to create original illustrations and designs. They deal with lines, shapes, and sometimes text as discrete drawing components. This contrasts with image editors, which handle mostly flat images in which all visual elements are on one continuous surface and often can't be isolated as precisely. Adobe Illustrator is the most common vector program in professional settings. Other popular titles include Corel Draw and Macromedia's FreeHand.


For most professional applications the desktop publisher doesn't produce the final output that will go to customers or other end users of the publication. If the publication is a book or a magazine or a color marketing piece, it generally goes to a printer for higher volume and better quality printing than any desktop system is capable of offering. Particularly if it involves color, the publication may be routed through a service bureau or another intermediary that can provide color separations and file preparation so that the publication is in a format the printer can use. Color, in fact, can be one of the trickier parts of desktop publishing because designers must be conscious of what colors the printer can readily reproduce. The industry has color standards to alleviate this problem, but users of lower-end software may have trouble conforming to the standards.

One advantage desktop publishing has in this area is the ability to bypass some of the traditional processes leading up to printing. In offset and gravure printing, the two most common forms for professional work, plates of every page must be created. In the past this was done more often by photographing a physical copy of each page and using the film to generate plates. However, advanced computer techniques can eliminate one or more of these steps, sending computer output directly to film, or more importantly, directly to plate.


Blakely, Stephen. 'Logging On for Desktop Publishing." Nation's Business, February 1998.

Clark, Nick. Duotones, Tritones and Quadtones: A Complete Visual Guide to Enhancing Two-, Three-, and Four-Color images. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997.

Covington, Melody Mauldin. Dictionary of Desktop Publishing. Hauppauge, NY: Barron's Educational Series, 1995.

Dzilna, Dzintars. "Doing More but Spending Less." Folio, 1 October 1998.

Paonita, Anthony. "The Print Shop on Your Desk." Business Week, 1 February 1999.

Stonely, Dorothy. "Desktop Publishing Industry Evolves with Demand." Business Journal, 17 March 1997.

Toor, Marcelle Lapow. The Desktop Designer's Illustration Handbook. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1996.

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