All aboard the PC publishing revolution

A railway platform is an unusual place to find a computer that performs desktop publishing, but the local station has this machine for making business cards that does quite whizzy things. True, I've not seen anyone brave or sad enough to use it, but it's surely a sign that DTP, or putting together words and pictures to create an impression, is for anyone.

DTP is also a skill for the curriculum. It is moving fast from Kings Cross into the home where there is a rich market of creativity packages. Last Christmas one of the top-selling electrical appliances was a colour inkjet printer, a clue, if one were needed, that the important tool is a printer. It need cost only Pounds 250, be colour or plain vanilla - it just needs to print a gratifying page. Next, you need a purpose: it can be a sign or project, a poster or newsletter that deserves the extra effort.

Before today's railway revolution, DTP happened around a program called Adobe PageMaker. You hopped between different programs for making pictures and writing text and arranging things on a page. As this first happened on an Apple Mac, this is how lots of Mac people grew up. In fact, they're still doing it: in the design studios, newspapers and magazines they're using PageMaker and another program called QuarkXpress. What has changed is that many other packages have now appeared.

If you were producing a serious school magazine, you would use these great tools, too. You might relish the idea that colours can be tweaked to match your school tie or that text can be positioned in tenths of millimetres. You would appreciate that they can handle many pages and that the printing trade knows how to handle your work. If DTP is about producing a picture, these tools equal a top-end camera. For the classroom you would look for a snappier, point-and-shoot device.

Word processors not only process words but pictures, too. Acorn users tell how they've had happy enough times using TextEase. They say it is powerful enough, and has the brilliant classroom feature that it can talk what you write. PCs and Mac-users have ClarisWorks, replete with ready-made project outlines or templates for making newsletters or displays. These templates are there to be used: you replace their words with yours. That way, you spend time adapting a design, rather than trying to improve on nothing.

Take Microsoft Publisher, a point-and-shoot package bundled with Research Machines' Window Box. Instead of a blank screen it starts by asking what sort of project you want. Templates for posters, certificates, tickets and the rest are all here. It gives you a list of things you might want to do and tells you how. It knows which projects you've not done, so it gives step-by-step instructions your first time through.

Microsoft has a couple more packages, each targeted slightly differently, but both excellent. Creative Writer 2 aims to get juniors writing at home, and with its mass of fun and stimuli it actually succeeds. Greetings Workshop, again for the young, helps to bash out thousands of things you would buy in a card shop. As with most packages of this sort, you will find a healthy library of pictures built in, all displayed in thumbnail previews to save scampering over the hard disc to find them.

Today's packages do so much that you often don't know what there is to know. I've learned to avoid asking for help, lest the screen be splashed with the help box from hell. Publisher is no problem, but if reading is a barrier or you want driving along, Mindscape's PrintMaster Suite is interesting. Not only does it have 5,000 images, 1,000 cards, banners and more but you're guided through each stage of the making with spoken help. Dropping in the disc for the first time, the voice explains how to install it, and soon asks which project you want to start. As you use features or show your expertise, it switches to the terse help, making this an excellent taster of tomorrow's software. There have to be a couple of caveats: the first is that it is aimed at a family setting so many projects are for just that. The second is that the spoken help spoils you.

There's one more program in this bracket. Sierra's Print Artist (PCMac) is not only brim full of pictures and designs, it distinguishes itself by having loads of printable foldable models. There are hats, boxes and masks. There are envelopes, disc-mailers and photo frames. There is even a whole town with a church, station and pizza shop. It's on the edge of the curriculum, but to see what is possible when you put card and transparencies into a printer is pure inspiration. Again, there are caveats: it's very American and it's often Mom-centred.

Like having a clever camera, the test of a program is whether children can use it to create a picture that works. DTP might one day happen more to the sound of trains than the classroom, but there are programs around you want to use and be thrilled with.

The DESKTOP PUBLISHING package for your needs

* Capable word processors for projects with plenty of text ClarisWorks, Microsoft Word and Works (PC or Mac, retail), Fireworkz (Acorn, Colton), Impression Style (Acorn, Xemplar), Write Away!(PC, BlackCat) * Easy publishers for rich, mixed layoutsMicrosoft Publisher, Serif Page Plus HomeOffice Edition, GST Pressworks(all PC, retail), TextEase (Acorn, Xemplar), Pendown DTP (AcornPC, Logotron), Ovation Pro (Acorn, Xemplar) * Home packages for cards and creativity Sierra Print Artist, Mindscape PrintMaster Suite, Microsoft Greetings Workshop and Creative Writer 2 (all on PC, from retail outlets) * Serious desktop publishing for cutting-edge work Adobe Pagemaker, QuarkXpress (PCMac, mail order) or Impression Publisher (Acorn, Xemplar) * Contacts BlackCat Tel: 01874 636835 Colton Tel: 01223 311881 Logotron Tel: 01223 425558 Research Machines Tel: 01235 826868 Xemplar Tel: 01223 724724.

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