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Go Big Design

Design Software Roundup

Part 1 of 4

By Kim Crowley

The expression "go big or go home" is tossed around frequently—from sporting events to political commentary, from corporate boardrooms to Twitter pages. The line pushes a grand, all-or-nothing action to achieve success.

Creative professionals go big with large format print products that excite, add drama, beautify, promote, and drive spending. They work with sophisticated tools behind the scenes before large format billboards are printed, vinyl is cut, or banners hung.

Leading large format design software includes products from Adobe Systems Incorporated, Corel Corporation, SA International (SAi), and Quark Inc. There are several software options designed specifically to work with a particular printing device. There are also plug-ins and complementary software additions that enable special effects and maximum interpolation—an increased number of pixels in images for greater size prints.

Here, the software leaders and collaborators share highlights of the latest available options.

Adobe Systems Incorporated
Creative Suite 4 (CS4) Design Premium is the latest version from Adobe Systems Incorporated. The software is appropriate for those working in cross-media design and print production, including branding and marketing agencies, magazine publishers, and commercial printers. "It is the complete toolkit for crafting page layouts, achieving typographic finesse, creating digital images and vector graphics, and developing Web pages and rich interactive experiences," state David Macy, senior product manager, Adobe Illustrator and Bryan O’Neil Hughes, product manager, Adobe Photoshop.

CS4 Design Premium includes a number of new tools, such as multiple artboards in Illustrator and simplified animation in Flash. "Improved integration and more consistent interfaces among applications allow users accustomed to working within one medium to breakout of silos and create high-quality, cross-media campaigns. CS4 Design Premium also includes a new online service, AdobeConnectNow, for live remote collaboration with colleagues and clients," note Macy and Hughes.

CS4 Design Premium is available for $1,799. The upgrade price for owners of previous versions begins at $599. Products within CS4 Design Premium can be purchased separately. Macy adds, "A recent benchmarking study showed that productivity gains in CS4 translates into ROI of thousands of dollars per year per workstation."

Alien Skin Software, LLC
Alien Skin’s Blow Up 2 is intended for enlargements. Blow Up is a $249 Photoshop plug-in that resizes photos while maintaining sharpness and clarity. Owners of Blow Up 1 can upgrade for $99. "There is no substitute for starting with a high-resolution original image, but when you need to go large, Blow Up is ready," states Jeff Butterworth, founder and CEO, Alien Skin.

Butterworth says that traditional digital enlargement causes more blurring and stair-step artifacts the more extreme the enlargement. While Blow Up 2’s results are noticeably smoother and sharper than competitors’ bicubic enlargement.

"The big improvements in version 2 are automatic cropping, easy to use presets for standard paper sizes, batch processing, and output up to 300,000 pixels per side," he adds.

Alien Skin offers several other Photoshop plug-ins for photography and graphic design. Snap Art transforms photos into works of art that appear handmade with natural media application. Exposure applies effects to make digital photos resemble film. Bokeh simulates blurring caused by real lenses. Image Doctor removes blemishes and restores damaged photos. Finally, Eye Candy and Xenofex render special effects such as chrome, fire, and lightning.

Released Summer 2009, BenVista PhotoZoom Pro 3 enlarges digital images up to one million by one million pixels, available for Mac OS X 10.4+ and Windows. PhotoZoom Pro 3 features S-Spline Max, the latest generation of BenVista’s unique, patented S-Spline interpolation technology. S-Spline Max is designed to create sharp, clear, and true to nature image enlargements, preserving edges, details, and shapes.

PhotoZoom Pro 3 works as a standalone application or as an Automation plug-in and Export plug-in for Photoshop. The Automation version can also be applied as a Photoshop Action. Batch processing is applied from within the standalone version, allowing the user to resize large amounts of images at once.

New features in PhotoZoom Pro 3 include higher quality image enlargements, multi-processor support for increased speed, and film grain functionality for an increased natural look. PhotoZoom Pro 3 is $219. The upgrade price for registered PhotoZoom Pro 1 and Pro 2 users is $99.

"PhotoZoom Pro 3 is an ideal solution for enlarging digital images, both for printing and on-screen purposes. Besides enlargements of unequalled quality, it offers various professional functions and features and can easily fit into anyone’s workflow. PhotoZoom Pro 3 makes short work of notorious problems like jagged lines, halos, noise, and artifacts," says Hugo Eijkelhof, public relations manager, BenVista.

CADlink Technology Corporation
CADlink Technology Corporation’s SignLab Print and Cut V8 focuses on features for wide format printing. The integrated signmaking package—used by sign shops, service bureaus, and screenprinters—includes a feature-rich design front-end and a RIP back-end that supports most wide format printers.

SignLab Print and Cut V8’s integration of a design engine and a RIP make the solution stand out. "Unlike many desktop publishing programs, SignLab provides a seamless workflow from design to output. SignLab V8 includes complete bitmap as well as vector design tools, over 75 special effects plug-ins for bitmap/photo editing, automated masking/background removal tools, a vectorization wizard, and advanced text composition features," states Michael Chramtchenko, director of marketing, CADlink.

SignLab Print and Cut V8 is listed for $3,700. Crossgrades from other design packages to SignLab Print and Cut V8 are $1,850.

SignLab DesignPro V8 includes all the design features in Print and Cut and sells for just $500. This product does not include the RIP back-end.

Corel Corporation
Corel offers an affordable design software option with the flagship CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X4, with an MSRP of $429. Upgrade price for previous CorelDRAW Graphics Suite owner is $199. "CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X4 includes new tools that make it easier and quicker than ever to deliver any creative project—from layout and photo editing, to illustration, and bitmap-to-vector tracing," says John Falsetto, product manager, CorelDRAW Graphics Suite, Corel.

This newest version offers market-leading file compatibility for collaboration, text and layout enhancements, a step-by-step Hints Docker, and new tutorials written by experts.

Falsetto says the CorelDRAW Graphics Suite is ready right out of the box for designing large format applications. "To maximize the performance of the software for this purpose, users should change the color mode to RGB, set rendering resolution to 150, and change the default color palette to RGB. When outputting a file, send the file to the RIP either as a RGB, TIFF, or PDF using the document distribution PDF style," he notes.

He adds the CorelDRAW Graphics Suite is suited for large format designing. "As an industry standard design suite, it has a large number of supported import/export file formats as well as the ability to create large document sizes—up to 150x150 feet. This, as well as excellent layout and creative tools, printing features including layout and imposition tools, and excellent color support, make CorelDRAW Graphics Suite the ideal choice for large format applications."

QuarkXPress 8 is used for high-end page layout; print, Web, and Flash authoring tools; design-driven typography; and global publishing capabilities. QuarkXPress 8 is $799 and an upgrade is $299. Education and government institutions are eligible for discounts.

QuarkXPress 8 offers intuitive user interface that allows designers to access the tools they need quickly. "One advanced tool is the new Bezier Pen Tool. Designers of large format output rely on Bezier tools to create vector illustrations, which is critical because vector illustrations maintain fidelity and quality when scaled—versus raster data. With the Bezier Pen Tool, designers easily create detailed illustrations by turning corner points into smooth points or grabbing segments to drag them around. The tool acts much more like the Bezier tool within Illustrator, making it easy for designers to design with both applications," says Kaoru Uno, senior product manager, QuarkXPress.

QuarkXPress 8 also includes native Illustrator file import to complement the existing native Photoshop support, WYSIWYG font menu rendering, advanced guide management with Guide Manager Pro, and Item Styles to enable simultaneous control of formatting for multiple items.

Uno says that QuarkXPress is the easiest and most flexible page layout tool on the market. "With the new Native Transparency output option from QuarkXPress 8.1, users now defer flattening of transparent objects until later in production allowing more flexibility and control," states Uno.

SAi offers Flexi Family 8.6.v. The Flexi Family includes six different products for professional sign making—from simple text layout and vinyl cutting, to high production features with cutting and printing tools.

Highlights of the newest Flexi 8.6 for Windows include SO Diffusion dithering technology for greater speed and accuracy of ink placement and variable dots, and gradient smoothness. SAi’s SO diffusion dithering pattern not only uses enhanced algorithms to control variable dots, but it also introduces a 16 bit linearization workflow. "The end result speaks for itself—smooth printouts," says Donald S. Feagan, president, SAi.

FlexiSIGN-PRO, SAi’s flagship product, offers a complete set of design, cutting, ripping, and printing tools for maximum productivity.

FlexiSIGN is a mid-level signmaking package, with tools to produce high-quality signage without a large initial investment. In addition to design, vinyl cutting, scanning, and tracing capabilities, FlexiSIGN includes Job Statistics and Text Styles.

FlexiDESIGNER is used as a second, design-only station. It includes the design, layout, and image editing features of FlexiSIGN-PRO, as well as file preparation for output on another Flexi Family station, without the full price investment.

Feagan says SAi software has the easiest and most complete print and cut workflow, with tools like multiple contour cut, which allows the user to assign different cut types to different contours, coupled with support for virtually every cutter in the market.

Serif PosterDesigner Pro design software is created exclusively to work with Hewlett-Packard (HP) Designjet printers, including the HP Designjet Z6100.

"Serif PosterDesigner Pro is full of the tools needed to achieve professional-quality designs and results," says Ashley Hewson, sales director, Serif. He says the software—recommended price is $595—is appropriate for anyone with an HP large format printer who wants to create high-quality, attention-grabbing posters, including professional print shops, restaurants and retail outlets, non-profits, and other organizations.

Serif PosterDesigner Pro has more than 200 high-resolution, customizable templates ideal for fast turnarounds and small sign shops. Built-in photo editing enables users to make adjustments to photos or add special effects without the need for an additional photo-editing suite. Text handling capabilities include text wrapping, placing text within a shaped frame, and typing text on a curve.

"Any images developed within PosterDesigner Pro are created as vector graphics, meaning they are scalable and can be enlarged for even the most sizeable poster," adds Hewson.

Xara Group Ltd.
Xara offers new releases of graphics programs Xara Xtreme and Xara Xtreme Pro as of June. The $249 software features more than 100 improvements from the last major version. New highlights include improved photo handling with intelligent image scaling and image masking features, a text tool with real-time spell check, and new Web export capabilities.

"Xara Xtreme Pro handles huge files in real-time, even on a modest PC, and generates ultra-high resolution images. Most modern large format work includes a mix of text, vector artwork, and photo composition. Xara Xtreme handles all areas in one completely integrated way," says Nova Fisher, communications manager, Xara.

Fisher adds, "Xara Xtreme excels at handling high-resolution alpha channel images, vector transparency, and soft vector features such as feathering and soft shadows in a resolution independent way."

Go Big Design
Countless design software products are available to large format graphic designers. As seen here, many solutions offer bundled design and RIP functions—a great option for any end users looking for an all-in-one solution. Others are perfect for a small shop just entering the business.

In future parts of this series, software vendors share tips for designing large format projects with the aforementioned tools.

Click on the link above to get more information on the vendors mentioned in this article.

Aug2009, Digital Output

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