Do you want to create a monthly newsletter, a formatted report, thank you cards, or an event invite? You need a page layout tool. Top-end software solutions can be complex, but there are simpler solutions as well. We spoke to five nonprofit technology and creative professionals about the layout tools that have worked for them.

Do you want to create letterhead for your nonprofit, or lay out a monthly newsletter or report? Send thank-you cards to donors? Create an invite for your next event?

All these tasks fall under the umbrella of page layout.

If you have a complicated project or need a polished result, it probably makes sense to hire a freelance designer. Professionals in that field have an eye for design and a broad knowledge of page layout, typography and graphic arts, plus the skills to combine those elements into visually aesthetic materials. But if you just need to put something basic together, or if you find your organization needing more and more layout or design work, it might be time to take matters into your own hands.

Much of what used to be the realm of specialists now is in reach of almost anyone with a computer – as long as you have the right software, a little tech savvy and some basic design skills.

Top-end software solutions can be complex – and, in some cases, expensive. Many presuppose an understanding of the professions they were designed for and won’t immediately make sense if you don’t speak the language. But you don’t need such top-shelf solutions for basic needs – there are simpler solutions out there as well.

We spoke to five nonprofit technology and creative professionals about the page layout tools that have worked for them and their organizations. We’ve consolidated their advice to help you find a tool that might work for you.

What Makes a Good Page Layout?

Page layout involves the arrangement of design items – text, images, colors, lines – to create materials such as newsletters, posters, reports, invitations or more. It’s what makes a magazine page, for example – with a story, photograph and caption, headline and other elements such as pull quotes or sidebars – more visually interesting and appealing than just a page of straight text.

If you’re going to use professional design software, you might as well design like a pro, too – or at least, follow basic design elements to lend an air of professionalism to your materials. Professional materials can help in many ways, from attracting donors to establishing a brand identity for your organization. Think of it as an investment in your image.

When designing materials like brochures, posters or invitations, don’t be afraid to try out new fonts. But choose them carefully – some look more professional than others – and don’t use more than two or three at the most. Don’t use all capital letters, and don’t use stock clip art – it can look amateurish.

Choose your color schemes carefully. Some colors are more appealing than others, and some clash with others. There are Web sites that can help you pick color schemes – some of them are listed at the end of this article. If you have a Web presence or a brand identity, consider choosing a color scheme to match. While you don’t have to stick with the same color scheme every time, it can lend an air of familiarity and trustworthiness.

In short, good software gives you more control over the final product, but it’s good design that is going to make it pleasing to readers.

Word Processing Applications

If your needs are straightforward – for instance, a text-based poster or a report layout – the package you already use for word processing might work fine. Most organizations already have one of these software packages, like Microsoft Word, OpenOffice.org Writer, or Apple Pages, and they provide more control over layout than you might think.

For instance, all three allow control over font style and size, header colors, columns and lines. You can insert images and have some basic control over how the text flows around them. They allow you to export your documents to PDF format – an industry standard for sharing designed documents.

These packages also provide preformatted templates for everything from business letters and stationery to calendars, reports, invitations, newsletters and more. Templates make the design easier by giving you the basic formatting, which you can customize to fit your needs. However, despite their relative ease of use, predesigned templates can lack creativity or professionalism, and the final products can tend to look “canned.”

Word-processing software can do a lot, but it’s not really designed for complex, highly designed documents. If you find yourself working on layouts that require complex multicolumn layouts or text routing, or a high degree of control over how text and images interact, word processing applications likely won’t suffice — it becomes difficult or impossible to manage layouts to that level of control. In particular, there are a few things word-processing applications simply won’t do:

  • Bleeds. Many professionally designed layouts have color blocks or other visual elements that run to the edge of the page, called bleeds. Most word processing programs don’t allow this. Every layout must have a white margin all the way around each page.
  • Font and word spacing control. Professional layout programs offer a high degree of control over text, with the ability to “squish” words or lines slightly to make them fit, have text flow around images that aren’t square and more. Word processors are much more limited in this area.
  • Color separations. If you plan on using a professional printer, these applications won’t suffice. To ready files for press, offset printers break images down into four separate colors and print each individually. This process is not supported by word processing software.

Word processing software is available and familiar, but it has some significant drawbacks as you try to design complex layouts. If you just need a simple flyer or report, they might work perfectly well. But if you want to create highly designed and polished layouts, you’ll likely have to look further.

Specialty Page Layout Software

Unlike word processing applications, layout software treats pages as a series of distinct elements, which lets you format, edit or rearrange them independently of one another. Users have much more control over text and graphical objects. Being able to completely control the final layout rather than just approximating it to the limits of the software leads to a more polished, professional product.

But the complex menus and tools make these packages difficult to learn. In many cases, you’ll need a solid foundation in graphic design lingo to understand the terminology they use. You’ll almost certainly need to invest in a good book, or you might be able to find a class at an artist’s collaborative or a continuing education program nearby. If your organization’s needs are ongoing rather than one-off, the initial investment in training is likely to pay off over time.

And, of course, knowing how to use the software is useless without a basic knowledge of graphic design skills – or at least a good eye. A good option is to hire a freelance designer to build a few simple templates for your organization – say, for a regular newsletter or a monthly flyer – and have them train someone on staff in the basic skills needed to update them.

So what packages are available?

Microsoft Publisher

Considered an “entry-level” layout package, Microsoft Publisher bridges the gap between word processing and high-end layout software. Design elements are more manageable than in Word, and there are libraries of templates and predesigned color schemes, eliminating some of the guesswork. It ships with some versions of Microsoft Office, and can be purchased separately, but it cannot be used with non-Windows operating systems.

For projects like creating stationery or letterhead, business cards or simple text-based layouts, Publisher is a viable option. Beyond that, however, it falls short. It handles PDF files awkwardly. And the latest version of Publisher supports color separation, but historically, the software has not been well received by printers – file types are unsupported and incompatible with other software. Extracting information like text and images from Publisher files can be difficult or impossible. If you plan to use Publisher, make sure in advance that anyone who needs to edit the file can work with it in Publisher.

Publisher retails for $169, but is only $7 for nonprofits through TechSoup Stock.

Adobe InDesign

Adobe is a force in the graphic design software marketplace. Its Creative Suite bundles InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator – Photoshop is the photo editing package, while Illustrator is a vector graphic and drawing package useful for logo creation or complex typesetting work, and probably best-suited for use by professionals. Like its siblings, InDesign, the layout package, is powerful but complex. It was designed to produce the sophisticated page layouts required by magazines, newspapers, catalogs and similar printed materials.

If you’re familiar with Photoshop or Illustrator, InDesign will feel familiar. However, nearly everyone will require at least a book, and likely a class, to effectively use the complicated feature set.

In addition to the cost of the software, you’ll need to consider the hardware on which you’ll load it. InDesign is compatible with multiple operating systems, including Mac and Windows, and can run on Linux with a little work. However, it requires a fairly up-to-date computer, with about a gigabyte of RAM at a minimum, and benefits from even more RAM or an advanced video card.

InDesign retails for $699, or is $60 for many nonprofits through TechSoup Stock.

Scribus

Scribus is an open-source page layout application for multiple platforms, including Linux/Unix, MacOS X, OS/2 and Windows. It supports press-ready output and other professional publishing features, such as color separations and PDF creation. What this means, essentially, is that Scribus offers many of the same features as InDesign, but for significantly less money – in fact, it’s free.

Scribus is under active development, and improves with each regular release. It’s stable, and because of its wide user base, support can be found in online forums. Several large corporations have invested in its development, and it has a large following among fans of community-based open-source software.

The goal is to reach the full feature set of InDesign. Scribus is not there yet, but well on its way. Aside from that, the only main shortcoming is unfamiliarity – the user interface is different from Adobe’s, so if you are familiar with Adobe’s products, Scribus may take some getting used to. But if you are completely new to page layout software, the interface will be no more confusing than any other.

QuarkXPress

Quark is InDesign’s direct competitor, and tends to be more popular with newspaper and magazine paginators than with graphic designers. It boasts many of the same features and capabilities as InDesign, but a different user interface. If you’re looking to invest in a new piece of software, InDesign or Scribus probably makes more sense – especially when you consider the price. Quark’s retails for $799, but offers nonprofit pricing of $299. However, if you already have Quark, it will almost certainly do what you need, if you invest in training. It runs on both Macs and PCs, but the Mac version appears to be better supported.

Making a Decision

For some organizations, software is not the solution to their graphic design needs – hiring a designer on a per-project basis is. There are plenty of good designers out there who can help you create or maintain a brand identity and add an air of professionalism to materials to help attract or retain donors.

For others, software is exactly what the doctor ordered. Just like many offices have an accidental techie – someone whose computer skills are better than average who finds themselves either volunteering or drafted for advanced computer-related projects — some offices also have an accidental designer. Make it more official, and invest a little time and money in resources and materials to help that person do a better job.

Maybe the best option is the middle ground – hiring a designer to create a few templates and teach you or someone on staff how to update, customize and maintain them. It’s easier than starting from scratch and will produce more polished end results at a more affordable cost.

Figure out what your needs are now and what they’re likely to be in the future, and hold them up against other factors like budget, staff and timeframe. You’ll figure out which is the best solution for your organization’s graphic design needs. Whether you choose to purchase dedicated software or learn to bend existing applications to your needs, in the end, your materials will look better — and, by extension, so will your organization.

For More Information

Graphic and Web Design Toolkit

TechSoup has a resource-rich graphic design toolkit full of tips, tricks and instructions.

Choosing a Color Scheme

There are a number of Web sites that can help you choose a color scheme for your designs, including Kuler, WellStyled, ColorSchemer, and WebsiteTips

Thanks to TechSoup for their financial support of this article, as well as to the nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations, advice, and other help: