Aldus PageMaker: A Look At Early Desktop Publishing

During MARCHintosh 2021, I planned to take a closer look at the early days of desktop publishing by looking at Aldus’ PageMaker software – one of the early successful desktop publishing software titles that would later heavily influence Adobe InDesign – the modern de facto standard in desktop publishing.

Apple’s Macintosh line of computers is often credited with helping kickstart the desktop publishing (DTP) revolution of the mid-late 1980s that paved the way for the modern graphic design position. However, the Mac didn’t create the revolution by itself. The Apple LaserWriter, an early laser printer that offered easy networking and excellent print quality for the time, was released on the same day as Aldus PageMaker: January 23, 1985. (The Macintosh itself was unveiled to the world nearly a year earlier on January 24, 1984.)

Apple’s LaserWriter printer helped start the desktop publishing revolution, in addition to the Macintosh and DTP software like Aldus PageMaker. (Photo: Low End Mac)

The combination allowed for easier design of publications. Whereas page layout used to be a tedious task taking place on a pasteboard, desktop publishing allowed the process to be computerized: saving time, space, and money. Needless to say, desktop publishing took off and made the old, tedious process obsolete.

Aldus Corporation – named for Aldus Manutius, a Venetian printer – released the first version of PageMaker in January 1985. They maintained control of PageMaker until rival Adobe Systems purchased Aldus in 1994. Adobe continued releasing PageMaker until version 7.0 in 2001, when it was discontinued in favor of InDesign, which itself debuted in 1999.

Aldus PageMaker: 1985-2001

Just like today, PageMaker wasn’t alone in the desktop publishing world – but they dominated the industry. Their runner-up was Quark XPress (still available today), followed by Ready-Set-Go. Smaller companies also offered their own competing page layout programs.

Comparing PageMaker to modern desktop publishing solutions (Adobe InDesign, Affinity Publisher, and even other alternatives like Microsoft Publisher and Scribus) you will find a lot of missing features and functions. Everything from effects, layer controls, gradients, and even advanced typography settings are absent from early versions of PageMaker 3 and 4. However, PageMaker still provides better controls and allows for more creativity than word processing software of the time (and even today.)

(In this post I’ll be looking at PageMaker 4.0 running on the 1991 Macintosh Classic. I have PageMaker 3.0 running on the SuperSE, but PageMaker 4.0 has more features.)

The PageMaker 4.0 “About” screen

PageMaker 4.0 has a UI that shares many of the same elements as modern page layout software. First, it is WYSIWYG – What You See Is What You Get. You see a pasteboard with a canvas (page.) Just like modern page layout programs, you get margin guides along with rulers allowing for additional guides to be placed.

The UI of PageMaker has many things in common with the UI of many modern page layout applications like Adobe’s InDesign, the successor to PageMaker.

However, that is where the similarities end. Unlike most modern page layout software, toolbars and panels/panel docks are, for the most part, absent. Everything is done through individual dialog menus or menu options in the menu bar. This was likely done to conserve space on the limited, 9″ (512×342 pixels) CRT screen found in early compact Macs, like my Classic or the SuperSE.

There are still some panels, however. The “Toolbox” panel contains, as the name implies, your tools. The “Styles” panel shows available paragraph styles, and the “Colors” panel shows color swatches. (I usually leave the “Colors” panel closed because I don’t have any color displays and cannot print in color.)

Instead of using panels and toolbars, PageMaker used dialog boxes and options in the menu bar.

Just like modern page layout software, PageMaker allows you to place text and graphics files. You can use your vintage Mac to prepare these graphics (using software like Aldus FreeHand or CricketDraw) or you can transfer files from your modern computer. I’ve found that PageMaker 4.0 will place TIFF and EPS files prepared in modern versions of Photoshop and Illustrator, respectively, without issues. (Because I use a compact Mac, color TIFF files are dithered. Therefore, I usually convert images to 1-bit bitmap mode before exporting in Photoshop. Also, vector EPS files may look low-resolution when placed.)

While PageMaker was designed with professional printers (such as the LaserWriter series, etc.) in mind, it can still print to the ImageWriter II. However, it’s slow and can be unreliable. I tried printing an envelope design I made in PageMaker 4.0 on my ImageWriter II, but the ImageWriter II wasn’t cooperating. (This may not be the fault of PageMaker, but worth mentioning.)

A sample document included with PageMaker 4.0, “Lesson 4 Done”, printed on the ImageWriter II. (Click here to view PDF version of printed document.)

PageMaker was one of the elements that kickstarted the desktop publishing revolution, paving the way for modern page layout and graphic design software. If you’d like to experiment with PageMaker 4.0, an abandonware version is available on Macintosh Garden.

This post written on the 1991 Macintosh Classic using Microsoft Word 4.0. Screenshots taken on the Macintosh Classic using System 7.1 and converted to JPG using GraphicConverter 11.