Friday, 16 October 2015

Desktop publishing with Quark DesignPad

Desktop publishing with Quark DesignPad

Is an iPad really up to the demands of desktop publishing? Ben Pitt takes Quark’s design app for a test drive to find out

Incredibly, Microsoft Windows has been around for 30 years, and some of the stalwarts of media-production software – Photoshop, Cubase, QuarkXPress – aren’t much younger. Some people would argue this maturity makes them refined and packed with useful features, but to others they’re bloated, overly complex and set in their ways. There’s some truth to both viewpoints.

Creative apps for iOS and Android are rarely stuffed with features, but this often works to their advantage. They can distil the production process down to its fundamental components, and reinvent the user interface to give a much shallower learning curve. The fact that the apps only cost a few pounds adds to their appeal, too.

DesignPad ( is a case in point. It’s a desktop publishing (DTP) app for the iPad from Quark, the company behind QuarkXPress. QuarkXPress costs £799 and is designed for professional publishing. DesignPad is free, but a £7.99 in-app purchase is required for PDF exports. This also unlocks a few extra functions, but the free version is fine for casual use, with PNG exports at 150dpi – not quite enough for high-quality prints, but fine for viewing onscreen. It also serves as a working demo for the app.

DesignPad isn’t merely a consumerorientated app. Quark suggests that it could be used by QuarkXPress users to try out layouts quickly, perhaps in collaboration with a client. Even without the in-app purchase it’s possible to export in native QuarkXPress format for further editing on a Mac or PC.

Most importantly, DesignPad helps less experienced users achieve polished results with remarkably little effort, while still affording precise control as and when it’s needed. Various basic principles of design are built into the interface, and users can generate attractive layouts simply by adjusting sliders.

The app can handle multiple-page documents such as newsletters, but it’s not so good at text that spans multiple columns (more on this below). It can also be a little slow to respond. It’s compatible with any iPad running iOS 7.1 or later, but we found it a little lethargic on our third-generation iPad, and we wouldn’t recommend it on first- and second-generation models.

It’s not perfect, then, but there’s a lot that this little app can do. So without further ado, let’s take it for a test drive.


The app starts with a file-management page where you can create, duplicate or delete documents. Tap the + icon to start a new design and you’ll be greeted with 11 types of printed document to choose from, including brochure, business card, letterhead and poster. Each one has a single default layout, but these can be customised. Each document type comes with various preset size options; tap the Size button near the bottom-left of the screen to see these. You can also enter a size manually with the sliders or by typing in a value. It’s useful to choose a reasonably large template to give some space to experiment with the app’s features; we’ve gone for Newsletter, A4 Portrait.

Tap the Layout button to start working on your design. Rather than adjust text and image boxes manually, the layout is defined using 16 sliders and switches. In the top-left corner there’s a button to randomise the controls, plus another to remove all content from the current layout. The latter is useful to help see how the various controls work. Over to the right, the grid icon toggles the guidelines on and off. Showing them makes it clearer what’s going on as the layout is adjusted, but hiding them gives a much neater view of your design.

The top slider on the left sets the margin width in inches, and the next two set the horizontal and vertical gaps between columns and rows. Next up is the number of columns per page, followed by the number of rows.

As a rule it’s best to break A5 and bigger pages up into multiple columns. Don’t divide the page into rows just yet; that can happen as content is added.

The next set of controls defines the text and picture boxes that are inserted into the grid. The first control, represented by a box with an X inside, is for a background image or colour fill, which can either be full- or half-page. Next comes the header size, where the main title for your document would go. Paragraph text boxes can also have headlines, but we’ll get to that later. The header only appears after you’ve added some text and picture boxes. The layout automatically changes to accommodate the number of boxes you request, although the app can behave a little erratically and not give you exactly what you asked for.

The single switch toggles between images that stop at the margin and that extend all the way to the edge of the page. Next there’s an opportunity to set the size and position of caption boxes. The remaining four controls shuffle the existing content in various ways, making boxes span multiple columns or rows and changing the layout of the boxes. These controls are dynamically linked to the numbers of grids, rows, text boxes and picture boxes. Sometimes they throw up odd results but with a bit of experimentation it’s possible to generate something that’s smart and functional. If you’re particularly pleased with the result, tap the folder icon towards the top-left to save your layout as a Layout Preset.


Some layouts will require some manual tweaking. For example, we placed a background image on the bottom half of the page but it doesn’t align neatly with the boxes. These kinds of changes are possible at the next stage of editing, but it’s not possible to come back and amend the layout using these sliders. As such, it’s worth getting the design to a reasonably complete state before tapping the Add Content button.

After you’ve clicked Add Content, boxes can be moved freely by dragging them around the page. However, it can be tricky to keep everything aligned to the grid. We found it easier to use the control that appears in the bottom-right corner when a box is selected. This moves boxes around by default, but tap the centre and it switches to resizing them. This control makes it easier to perform precise adjustments compared to dragging.

It’s also possible to add more boxes using the + button at the top, to delete them with the dustbin icon at the bottom, lock their size and position (but not content) with the padlock, switch between text and image content and reset their size and position using the crosshair. There are buttons to change the layer order, too.


A consistent layout is one key ingredient for a professional-looking document. Another is consistent formatting of text. DesignPad offers three ways to manage text: Style, Pattern and Custom. Tap a text box to select it and then tap the button marked T to see these options.

The Custom tab provides direct access to the font, size, space between lines, space at the end of paragraphs and justify settings. However, if you want to maintain consistency across the document, it’s best to use the Style tab and tap Edit Styles. Here you’ll find the same options, but adjustments are applied to all text boxes with the same Style applied. It’s also possible to define new styles if you need more than the six that are supplied.

Some text boxes require a mixture of styles – perhaps a headline and body text. These are created using the Pattern tab. Again, various preset combinations of styles are provided, and you can make your own using the Pattern Editor.

Once your formatting is done, it’s time to import or type in your content. Tap to select a text box, then tap the Pen icon to enter text. Where a Pattern has been used, there will be separate sections to enter text for each Style.

One weakness with the app is that it lacks the ability to link text boxes so the text flows from one box to another. Hopefully this will be resolved, but in the meantime it’s easiest to have a single text box per article rather than have them span multiple columns. That’s usually not an issue for flyers, business cards and so on but could be a pain for newsletters.

It’s also frustrating that text isn’t edited in place. Instead, a pop-up editor shows the raw text, so it’s only after you finish editing that you see how well it fits the text box. It’s good practice to make text fill the box so the bottom edges of multiple boxes are aligned, but achieving this via the pop-up editor isn’t easy.

One saving grace is the red button that appears at the bottom of boxes where the text overflows the box. Tapping this button resizes the text to fit, but the downside is that font sizes in different text boxes will no longer match. If you have the patience to edit the words so that they fit the box perfectly, you’ll end up with the best results.


Virtually any document will benefit from some colour on the page. DesignPad supports coloured boxes, simple drawings and photos, with the latter imported from the Camera Roll or the app’s library of stock photos.

Tap a picture box and tap the cloud icon for stock photos or the flower icon for your own from the Camera Roll. Images are sized automatically to fill the box, so you’ll lose some of the photo if it’s a different aspect ratio to the box. To pan and zoom the photo without changing the box dimensions, tap and hold the image until a tick icon appears. We found moving and resizing images to be temperamental when attempting to drag and pinch them. The control in the bottom-right corner is easier and more precise.

Boxes can also have a colour fill. Select a box and tap the square icon to set a fill, outline, transparency and a drop shadow. These are available for text boxes as well as image boxes, which can help text stand out from the rest of the page. It’s worth revisiting the text-formatting options and applying a margin to the text box so the coloured background extends beyond the text itself.

Boxes aren’t limited to being rectangular. Tap the pentagon button for options to create boxes with curved or stepped corners, triangles, ellipses, speech  bubbles, polygons and wavy-edged shapes. As a rule, the more unusual shapes are less useful if you want to keep things looking professional. Boxes with curved corners can work well, though.


For documents with more than one page, tap the icon towards the top-right corner that shows two overlaid rectangles. This takes you back to the Layout Designer, where you can define the number, size and distribution of text and image boxes for an additional page. The settings for the previous page are loaded up by default, but you may want to shuffle the order or lose the main heading.

Exports are via the top-left button, with options to save as a PDF (with an in-app purchase), PNG image or in native QuarkXPress format. The exported files can be emailed or saved to the Dropbox or Box cloud storage services.

That’s pretty much the extent of the app. As we mentioned at the start, DesignPad doesn’t try to be all singing and dancing, and instead delivers simple design tools that help people get presentable results quickly. Its text input has some room for improvement, but otherwise DesignPad is an impressive and innovative app.