Scribus, Another Alternative to Quark and InDesign

Another alternative to the big boys of design – and this one is free.

This week The Low End Designer is taking a break from the beloved Macintosh to have a quick squint at what the open-source world of Linux has to offer designers.

In terms of software, these are interesting times for designers. Not only has Adobe ramped-up development of InDesign, but Quark has come back with XPress version 6.5 – and a new entrant has come into the field in the form of MLayout.

All good news. In the software field, competition is a healthy thing that brings lower prices and more features.

But there’s more.

Linux Eats Adobe’s Lunch

Scribus logoThe last place one would expect to find professional-level design applications is in the open-source world, but with a lot of hard work and collaboration, a free, powerful layout application has finally arrived: Scribus.

Adobe has been busily gobbling up as many of Quark’s customers as it can, but it may be facing some competition soon. Not only is Scribus easily capable of even midrange design work, given time it looks like it will be a credible challenger to Adobe InDesign and Quark XPress.

At present, it is lacking some niceties such as Word file import, Quark import, and Pantone support, but none of these will pose a problem to a designer on a budget. This week we’re testing it using Linux.

Heresy, you say. Well, yes, but in a week or two we’ll be checking it out under Mac OS X.

Using Scribus

The first step in DTP is to define the shape and size of your page, along with some common parameters: margins and columns.

As Scribus cannot import Quark or InDesign documents, it is necessary to set up the pages manually. The developers themselves say, “DTP file formats are very complex internally – probably the most complex on a PC. Creating import/export filters is a task far more complex than importing a spreadsheet or simpler word processing file formats.”

This is something of an impediment, but it is not an uncommon problem. Adobe InDesign can open files from Quark 4, but not Quark 5 or 6. Quark cannot open any InDesign files whatsoever, nor can version 6 “save down” to version 4! Showing a degree of forward thinking and openness to competition that neither Quark nor Adobe display, Scribus uses open standards for its native file format, meaning that Scribus files may eventually turn out to be openable in other layout applications.

When testing Scribus, I set up a 297mm x 386mm document; this page size slightly squatter than most tabloids and roughly analogous with the size of the UK’s Independent newspaper.

The margins are set unevenly in order to create a box of 265mm x 340mm – this is the minimum printable area on each page. On some pages, items can be outside this central rectangle, on others it would result in items not being printed.

Within this central rectangle, I went on to define the main layout. Scribus handles columns in a slightly different manner from other DTP apps, but it is efficient and very useable. Earlier editions of Scribus could not handle multi-columnar text frames; the designer was forced to use text frame linking, a technique for running text from one frame to another that is more usually employed when spreading text across two separate pages.

Adding text or images is a simple case of drawing a frame on the page and importing the relevant plain text or image file.

Color Management

Color accuracy is one of the major advantages of the Macintosh as a print production platform – and one of Linux’s major disadvantages.

For years now the Mac OS has included Apple’s own color management software, ColorSync. Color management standards are dictated by the International Color Consortium, and now Linux has a compatible solution in the form of LittleCMS. Some users may not need to install LittleCMS, but for professional output it is a must.

With LittleCMS installed, PDF files produced in Scribus should be printed just as they appear on screen. Without it, you’ll be guessing how any given color will come out in print.

Once the design was finished, it was a simple case of export to PDF. You don’t expect the local bureau to support Scribus, do you?

In a few weeks time, Low End Designer will be running a Mac OS X test of this application. Stay tuned.

Low End Designer Mailbag

From Bob Russo:

I bought ThinkFree a couple years ago after a positive review in Mac Addict magazine. I was looking for an alternative to buying Office X since switching completely to OS X. It was horribly slow and unable to correctly open and often would crash on many Word documents. I found that using Office 2000 running in Classic was better.

I went back and forth with ThinkFree’s technical support. They asked me to send them an example of a document that would crash the application, which I did. They didn’t have any answer except to wait until ThinkFree 3.0 was released. Was it ever released? I don’t know, I had to buy Office X.


Thanks for your comments. I think we’ll be advising against ThinkFree Office until we’ve seen some of these problems fixed!


From Dan Wilson:

I thought the article about Quark Killers on LEM was really interesting. I used to be a Quark user, but I migrated over to InDesign. Adobe had a very attractive upgrade price for Photoshop users.

One layout app you overlooked is PageStream. It was originally developed for the Atari ST in 1986, then ported to the Commodore Amiga. I was a beta tester for version 3; at the time, it included a Quark import feature which worked well.

PageStream is a full-featured layout app, and it’s available for Mac, Windows, Linux, and Amiga.


Thanks for the email.

I have looked at Grasshopper’s website and requested a copy of PageStream for review. Nothing as yet, but if I get it I will certainly share my experiences with LEM readers.

The ST had some good layout apps – hardly surprising, since the ST was more-or-less a Mac-clone. I remember Calamus from the ST days also, but getting it to run on a Mac is unnecessarily complicated, requiring MagiCMac, the TOS emulator.

All the best,

PREVIOUS: Richard Hunt, Low End Designer and Mac Lover
NEXT: ThinkFree Office: Slow and Unpolished, Yet Useful

Keyword: #scribus

Short link:

searchword: scribus