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Scribus – a viable dtp tool?



Learning to learn again

The release of version 1.4 of Scribus was the trigger for an entire series of blog posts („Krieg der Welten — War of the worlds“), because I wanted to know if I’d be able to create a printed version of a flyer that I can easily set up from scratch in InDesign within about an hour or two.

And yes, it is very much possible to go to press with Scribus. My test showed only two major shortcomings during testing:

  1. There are no true transparencies.
  2. I can’t get a quick print on my home inkjet printer.

All  other stuff works; pretty well, actually. After holding the printed flyer in my hands I even have to conclude that RGB to CMYK transformations are very nice and neutral. And on top of that Scribus can do some things that make it a very interesting tool for some special use cases.

After all, Scribus is  very n interesting tool for every dtp user – since you can get  and use it for free as it is OpenSource software. Development cycles are rather long but the software is continuously improved. Today Scribus presents itself as a powerful and stable tool.

Scribus comes with a Mac installer that simplifies getting the software to work. If you need to perform professional work with Scribus – Postscript-related stuff like rendering PDFs – you will additionally have to install GhostScript. Scribus‘ help system explains how to get it.


Originalscreenshot Scribus.

Working on my test flyer in Scribus. The many tiny rectangles show the layer order of objects – this can be turned off.

You’ll see from the first start that Scribus is different from XPress or InDesign. Its development obviously lies in the hands of rather tecchie people and it doesn’t have the streamlined interface and functionality of a commercial program. Or put differently: it doesn’t hurt to have a lot of screen real estate to make effective use of all the palettes if you still need to see some corners of your document …

When creating a new document, Scribus offers a very powerful dialogue box which offers far more options than InDesign does. From there the user can switch to a settings dialogue — I strongly recommend consulting this dialogue; especially first-time users should take time to look around. Because new users can learn a lot about the handling of Scribus and the many different approaches the software takes on various functions InDesign users may otherwise find tough to reach if they skip this part of the document setup. Frustration will rise quickly if these first steps go wrong. Take your time!

But if you are willing to learn the mechanics of the settings, you will find yourself repeatedly nodding in front of your screen and realize, that many of the approaches Scribus takes are well thought and worth a try. From there on you will likely only run into lamenting the not-so-finetuned user interface of Scribus.

To make a long story short: If you have accustomed to the user interface, you will see quick progress and learn that Scribus can be handled very swiftly and well. Most values that are directly connected to the objects on the page can be changed or selected in the huge main palette. But some values that are offered here have to be set at other places in Scribus — try not to fight this; you will lose. Most of the times I finally understood why me being used to the InDesign way is rather the problem than Scribus‘ approach to change and offer preconfigured values. I guess users of XPress will probably fight less with this than InDesign folks.

Scribus works very precisely and offers a lot of useful tools that, in many cases, go further than similar functions in InDesign — you only need to find them. An example:

I was very impressed with the vector tools in Scribus. They are powerful and easy to use; at least if you give yourself some time to learn. Without these tools I wouldn’t have been able to build the complex text boxes on the outside of the flyer. Creating this it was very useful that Scribus — like InDesign and CorelDRAW — let me decide which corner point I wanted to chose for manipulating the object.

Scribus‘ text tools I found to be way less impressive. Most formatting tools I needed and looked for are there – but they work in a way that reminded me strongly of the old-fashioned way XPress 3 rendered text. Letting copy text run into a box does not look too fine and a lot of manual work is needed to make it look presentable. This especially shows that InDesign is amazingly powerful at handling text.

When I started working with layers, I nearly freaked out. Scribus works completely different than InDesign. When I cooled down and realized that I need to activate the layer I want to work on, everything worked out fine. It was another point that primarily showed how extremely accustomed I am to InDesign workflows.

Basically I learned throughout the process that almost every function I needed was there. I just needed to find it – and understand how it works.

For instance: Scribus did import the Apple Cube image without problems. But it stumbled and failed to use the knockout path because of the complex inner areas. Fiddling around with the text runaround tool I learned how powerful Scribus‘ path tools actually are …

Color management worked very smoothly and the overall precision of Scribus went right down to the final print PDF. The handling of RGB objects didn’t pose a problem. And all this without annoying the user with detailed, puzzling questions about how to handle output. Since Scribus doesn’t offer transparencies the complexity factor is not as high as in InDesign – but nonetheless; well done!

Finally I preflighted the Scribus PDF in Acrobat and exported it as a PDF/X-1a. Doing this, Acrobat threw a glyph problem I could not explain – but it may be related to using a very old font. Since Scribus let me convert the affected text to paths this problem could be solved and I got a valid X-1a in the end:

Testflyer Scribus Seite 1

Test flyer Scribus – outer pages

Scribus was the only software in my test that perfectly matched the 12% RGB field to the 12% K background color. Very nice!

PDF Flyer Scribus S.2

Test flyer Scribus – inner pages

What I didn’t like:

  • Very steep learning curve coming from XPress and InDesign.
  • Scribus doesn’t like my inkjet printer.
  • The documentation needs work – although I finally found everything.
  • Scribus‘ handling of overprints leaves room for improvement.


If I needed to produce print products on no budget, every second invested in learning to handle Scribus would pay off a hundred times:

Scribus unter Normlicht

Printed Scribus flyer under D50 light




different, compact functionally, huge screen needed


smooth and quick most of the times


versatile, interesting features – not very pleasant to look at
Inkjet printing:

couldn’t make it work
PDF export:


good quality, only slight errors


unbeatable bang for the buck




0,– EUR

Reminder: you need to invest time rather than money!