Graphic Design without an Art Degree

By Jamie Bsales | Posted February 21, 2006

Your business cards, letterhead and marketing brochures communicate a lot about your company. But be warned: They also communicate how much you were able to spend on them. Spend a lot, and your collateral looks great; spend a little, and it shows.

But who can afford to hire a design firm for all their advertising, marketing, electronic-document and Web projects? With Corel's new CorelDraw Graphics Suite X3 and a modicum of design sense, maybe you don't have to.

The bundle combines Corel's graphic design/layout, illustration and image-editing applications into a surprisingly approachable suite tailored to the needs of the business customer who doesn't have a design house or art department at his disposal.

Yet CorelDraw Graphics Suite is powerful enough for professional designers to use for their most demanding clients. And at just $399 (about $250 less than Adobe Photoshop CS2 alone, which only delivers image editing), the suite is also a good choice for budding design students on a budget.

Marketing Collateral Made Easy
The heart of the suite is Corel's mature CorelDraw X3 graphic-design and page-layout application. CorelDraw has long been easy to use, and the new version is no exception. The software's "welcome" screen gives quick access to opening a new document from scratch, starting a new document from a template (the main product includes 100 of them, with more on a bonus CD) or opening a recent document you were working on.

Help is plentiful. A CorelTutor utility (which you can launch from the main page) offers a tour of the basic tools in the CorelDraw workspace, advice and help on designing a logo and working with layouts, and more.

Even better, Corel includes excellent printed documentation in the form of a user guide with more than 400 pages. In addition, a spiral-bound catalog shows samples and thumbnails of the 1,000 fonts and 10,000 clip-art and digital images included on two CDs bundled with the program. And we love the slick 77-page booklet featuring professional graphic artists explaining how they executed projects in CorelDraw. It's not only informative, it's also good reading. Another CD includes tutorial videos from lynda.com (an online training resource popular with digital media artists).

Dive Right In
To get started, we clicked on the "New Document from Template" icon. The program offers dozens of choices divided up by full-page layouts (business letterhead and flyers), label-and business-card samples, envelope designs, side-fold card designs, plus seven Web homepage templates. Each template includes simple lines or graphics, with pre-placed text boxes ready for you to type in (or import) your text. The designs are generally understated and functional, though not thrilling.

CorelDraw screenshot
The bonus CorelDraw Design Collection CD contains professionally designed templates for a range of business documents. Just add your own text.
(Click for larger image)
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But a bonus CD in the package installs the CorelDraw Design Collection, which is where the good templates lurk. One annoyance: In addition to a separate installation step, you also need to have registered the suite with Corel (or call tech support) to get a serial number to unlock it. But once you do, you'll be rewarded with professionally designed documents suitable for any business. And a given design will have several types of documents associated with it, so your business card, letterhead and brochure will share the same look.

You can use a template almost as-is (just add text), or use it as a starting point and change the colors and images to suite your needs and tastes. And here again, Corel makes it easy. There's that treasure trove of clipart and digital images that you can import into your layout, plus 1,000 OpenType fonts from which to choose.

Novices might find the array of tool icons along the top and down the left side intimidating at first, but hover over one and up pops the name of the tool (you can figure out what most of them do thanks to the name). For even more help, a handy "Hints" panel on the right-hand side of the screen offers context-sensitive links to instructions on how to perform common tasks.

Do note that, while Corel has done a good job keeping screen clutter to a minimum (and your project front-and-center), a 17- or 19-inch monitor running at a fairly high resolution (say, 1,280-by-1,024 or higher) is definitely in order. A 14- or 15-inch screen running at 1,024-by-768 will mean a lot of scrolling around for you.

Advanced Tools for Pros (or the Adventurous)
If you do have a graphic designer on staff (or are one yourself), there are plenty of advanced tools to accomplish nearly every artistic outcome you desire. New to this version are two tools to help you draw perfect simple and complex stars, the Smart Fill tool to quickly fill a given area with color or texture and a handy Bevel effect for adding dimension to objects or text. You can also have a string of text follow a curve or other shape with the enhanced Fit Text to Path tool.

But perhaps the biggest improvement is the integrated Corel PowerTrace X3 module. This tool lets you convert bitmaps (an image composed of pixels, like a digital photo) into a vector image (a line-based drawing that can then be manipulated in CorelDraw). So if you have a graphic grabbed from the Web or scanned into your PC, you can import it into CorelDraw, clean it up, and use it in your documents. We grabbed a logo from the Web (using the familiar "Save Picture As" choice when you right-click on an image) and imported into our document. With just a few clicks (and using the help of the convenient before/after view in the PowerTrace interface) we had a usable, high-res logo.

Working with Photos
The other half of the suite is the very good Corel Photo-Paint application, which aims to make photo editing more efficient and intuitive. Here again, the focus is on business customers who don't have the time or inclination to learn Adobe.

CorelDraw screenshot
The Image Adjustment Lab in CorelDraw Graphics Suite X3 lets you quickly correct digital photos. You can create a snapshot of each change, then pick the best one from the strip along the bottom.
(Click for larger image)
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Photo-Paint's main page shares the same approachable design as CorelDraw, with icons to start a new project, open an existing one, launch a tutorial or acquire an image from a connected scanner. And once in the program, pop-up balloons and the Hints pane help you make sense of all the tools.

One welcome addition (also accessible from within CorelDraw) is the Image Adjustment Lab. It unifies the most commonly used manual and automatic image-enhancement tools (brightness, contrast, color balance and so on) into a single dialog box. The tool also lets you create "snapshots" of each change you make below the real-time preview, so you can compare each to the original and choose the best result. This version of Photo-Paint also features an improved Cutout Lab tool to help you accurately grab an object from a photo and discard the rest.

Pro photographers will appreciate the inclusion of Pixmantec's RawShooter Essentials program for working with Camera Raw images from high-end digital cameras. Across the suite, Corel has improved compatibility; it supports more than 100 common file formats. You can publish a document to PDF format or export a project for the Web. There's even a Web Image Optimizer to help you down-sample images for faster browsing by your site's visitors. And of course there's continued support for the Pantone color palette, as well as spot-color and transparency output.

All told, CorelDraw Graphics Suite X3 is an ambitious product, but using it is not a daunting prospect for business users. The power is there for people who know how to use it. For the rest of us, the suite makes producing great-looking marketing collateral and other documents just a simple template choice away.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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