Review: Is Scribus the Open-Source InDesign?

I’ll kill the suspense by answering the title question right now. Yes, Scribus is the open-source InDesign. It is a full-featured page layout program capable of handling anything from a business card design to a lengthy, hyperlink-filled, interactive PDF publication. It lacks the fit and finish of its commercial brethren Quark Xpress and Adobe InDesign, particularly in the areas of precision and flexibility, but overall it’s an exceptionally impressive piece of software. And, of course, you can’t beat the price … Scribus is available free of charge for Mac, Windows and Linux systems.

Here you see Scribus 1.3.7, as it appears on the 10.1″ screen of my HP Mini 5103. The document you see there is a Montessori elementary curriculum outline that I transcribed from a hand-written original for my wife. Although Scribus does have the capability to create tables, this particular diagram was so complex that I decided to create it from scratch. I also figured that this would be a better test of the program’s real-world performance than a brochure or other document with relatively few separate elements. For this project, each line is a separate element, and each subject heading and curriculum component is a separate text box.

At this point, I should mention that I make no claims to significant design ability. In college I worked as a graphic designer for a Sir Speedy print shop, and doubled as the layout monkey for the college newspaper I edited, but for the past twelve years, I have focused on commercial video and photography, so I don’t exactly have a design portfolio. However, I’ve been using page layout programs since the early 1990s (since about PageMaker 3.0, if memory serves), and am familiar with the toolset of both Quark and InDesign, as well as the general workflow of document design.

The learning curve for Scribus is quite reasonable. The program feels as though it is designed by the people who use it, meaning that the most commonly-needed navigation tools (e.g. layers, zoom in/out) are accessible and conveniently located. Drop-down menus conform to industry standards, and provide the functionality I expected. (One exception is the Step and Repeat or Multiple Paste edit function, which Scribus called “Multiple Duplicate” and puts under the Item menu).

In Quark or InDesign, you can use a control palette that dynamically adjusts to context: if you select an image box, it will show you image controls, and if you select a text box, it will show you text controls. Scribus doesn’t have this feature. Instead, it uses a multi-function ´╗┐Properties box that requires a lot of manual switching between tabs (geometry, text, line, etc.). On the plus side, virtually every control function is available through this one window, which is actually a lot more convenient than the multiple palettes and tiny sub-menus I’m used to working with in InDesign.

Working with text in Scribus – particularly numerous small text boxes, as in this test document – is a bit of a chore. Scribus has a story editor function, which probably works very well for long-form text, but since I was only typing a couple of words at a time, I didn’t want to use it. Typing directly in a text box though, I found that my cursor would disappear if I used the arrow keys to move backwards (to correct a typo, for example). More annoying still, font attributes set for text would disappear if the text was overwritten, meaning that I had to continually reapply styles, or take care to leave a letter of the old word in place before typing the new one.

I also noticed that the frame edges of selected items disappeared when I tried to align guides to them (for example, once I got one text box into position, I wanted to snap a guide to it, so that I could snap all the other text boxes in that row to the guide). This is a minor detail, but since guides are one of the few elements that I didn’t see any way to position numerically, it caused some headaches.

Scribus offers character and paragraph styles, but they’re a tad buggy. For example, I created a paragraph style for the curriculum text boxes, and assigned a hotkey to it. When I selected some text and pressed the hotkey, nothing happened. When I clicked on the style in the style palette, nothing happened again. Finally, when I went into the Properties dialog, clicked on the Text tab, and selected the style, it was applied.

The biggest shortcoming of Scribus is precision. In page layout, a milimeter is a mile, and – to Scribus’ credit – the program offers numeric positioning of elements to four decimal places. Unfortunately, for everything other than manually typing in coordinates, there’s a degree of slop that will be quite disconcerting to anyone accustomed to InDesign or Quark. For example, in the image below, the rules had all been snapped to the guides, and the text had been centered. Notice that the rules aren’t actually on the guides at all, and the text is not actually centered.

Trying to get text to center properly was really frustrating. In some cases, a space left at the end of a line would throw it off visually (InDesign and Quark compensate for this automatically), but in other cases, there were no spaces at the end of the lines, and the text still refused to center properly. Also, Scribus doesn’t offer any function to align text vertically within its box, which meant that each row of text boxes for this chart had to be more or less eyeballed into place. For this project, I can live with it, but for a more demanding client, this lack of precision could easily turn into a nightmare.

Once the project was finished, I was very pleased to see how easy it was to export. Scribus offers extensive pre-press options, and comprehensive PDF capabilities. The option to export as an image directly from the main menu is most welcome as well.

All in all, I was very impressed with Scribus, and look forward to using it more. Everything important – i.e. the ability to freely manipulate text and graphics – is in place, and I suspect that the technical shortcomings I struggled with will be ironed out in future updates. Indeed, as I mentioned, I’m running the Linux version of Scribus on a netbook, so I don’t know if these bugs appear at all on other platforms, or on more powerful systems.

As of right now, because of the precision issues, I would still classify Scribus as the low-budget alternative to the big pro apps, rather than as a fully competitive alternative. But that shouldn’t be taken as a slight or dismissal; Adobe and Quark have spent many years and untold dollars developing their software packages. The fact that a group of volunteers have gotten together and made something that’s 90% as good is quite remarkable. More to the point, for the many students and aspiring artists who can’t afford name-brand products, Scribus offers a truly viable means to realize design concepts. Some kid in the middle of the Third World who might be using an ancient school computer can now download some free fonts, a full-featured page layout program, and put together a design portfolio. In an industry in which tools have largely defined the quality of work for 500 years, the fact that the barriers of entry have now fallen to level of a basic computer and a few minutes of internet time is remarkable. I commend the Scribus team for their hard work, and I would encourage anyone with a need for page layout software to check it out, and to spread the word of Scribus.

To try Scribus for yourself, visit the official website: http://www.scribus.net.

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4 thoughts on “Review: Is Scribus the Open-Source InDesign?

  1. Pingback: Page Layout Tools: Adobe InDesign vs. Scribus | Tech Communication Pro

  2. Alex:
    I do like your article. It’s a very interesting review.
    I’m an Scribus user and I like it a lot.
    I am from Uruguay (South America) and I have a blog about free software and graphic design (javiersam.blogspot.com), among other topics.
    I would like to translate your entry into Spanish (my mother tongue) and publish it in my blog, if you don’t mind.

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