InDesign alternatives for Mac: Can anything unseat Adobe for page layout?

Once the scrappy upstart, InDesign is now the dominant page layout app. Is there any alternative that comes close?

Adobe's switch to software as a service has sent budget-minded creative professionals looking for alternatives to the Creative Cloud apps that don't cost them a monthly fee. As the Mac App Store has grown in popularity, alternatives have cropped up. Pixelmator serves many users' needs for a Photoshop replacement. Sketch 3 is an excellent alternative to Illustrator. But where's a solid alternative to InDesign?

I've checked around; I've even polled some of you on Twitter to find out what you like. And my results have come up a bit short. Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't think that there really is a solid alternative.

Disrupting the disruptor

InDesign exists in an interesting place in the design ecosystem. It started life itself as a market disruptor — Adobe introduced InDesign as an alternative to QuarkXPress at a time when Quark ruled the desktop publishing market. Because of unwise management, hostile customer service, and other foibles, Quark was utterly loathed by many of the businesses and users that depended on its software.

Adobe didn't hit a home run with the first version of InDesign, but steadily improved it and integrated it so thoroughly with other Adobe products that it eventually became indispensable. Now InDesign is the market behemoth, and at least for some, Adobe has become the evil empire they're trying to get away from.

Having said that, InDesign is a darn nice piece of page layout software. It's powerful and it's ubiquitous. If you have InDesign and are familiar with how it works, it's reminiscent of the old marketing phrase, "No one ever got fired for buying IBM."

Though the full Creative Cloud suite costs $49.99, it's worth pointing out that if all you need is InDesign, you can subscribe to just it for $19.99. And if you're a Creative Suite user, you can "upgrade" to Creative Cloud for $29.99 per month for your first year.

QuarkXPress: Everything old is new again

Quark, for its part, soldiers on with QuarkXPress. With QuarkXPress 10.1, Quark continues to iterate Quark with very powerful features. Last year's version 10 release saw a thorough under-the-hood and feature-rich modernization, with 50 feature enhancements, a throughly optimized graphics engine, improved interface elements and much more.

More recently, the 10.1 release makes tweaks that even further, incorporating InDesign-style Dynamic Guides (like Smart Guides), 8000 percent zoom, layout export, a reimplemented and greatly improved Books feature, and HTML 5 animation support.

Unfortunately, all that power comes with a price, and a hefty one at that: $849, a lot more than budget-conscious creatives will be willing to pay, especially those that still have a negative connotation of Quark.

iStudio Publisher

iStudio Publisher came out in 2009, coincidentally the same year Apple really brought Pages into its own as a powerful page layout tool. If you've exhausted what the older version of Pages can do for you — or if you're horrified by what happened to it in 2013 – give iStudio a try. There are a ton of templates you can download, too.

C.Four published it then handed back to the original creators. It'll be interesting to see what they do with iStudio Publisher — certainly one to keep your eye on.

$29.99 - Download now

Swift Publisher: Consumer-focused page layout tool

Some of you pointed out Swift Publisher as a possible alternative to InDesign. In fairness, developer Belight Software isn't trying to copy InDesign feature for feature, or even attempting to make a professional page layout app. But they have succeeded in creating a surprisingly powerful, lightweight page layout app with a lot of cool features at a very low price.

Looking over Swift Publisher, I don't liken it to an InDesign competitor as much as a more sophisticated version of an tool like Print Explosion or The Print Shop — and that's squarely its market: for consumers looking for a way to make really pretty layouts for their projects. You can use it to print flyers, newsletters, brochures, calendars and other content either freeforming them from scratch or using built-in templates and clip art.

Pages: Apple's alternative

I can hear some of you out there groaning already. Pages took a big step backwards last year when Apple reworked the Mac versions of its iWork apps to work in lockstep with their iOS counterparts. And of all the apps, Pages took the biggest hit in terms of interface and functionality; changes I don't see it getting back any time soon.

Having said that, Pages' price for new Mac owners is certainly right — it's free with the purchase of a new computer, after all. What's more, it does have a powerful set of page layout features that make it powerful if you're patient enough to use it right.

But if you're a long-time Pages user, you're probably still suffering with some of the missing features and functionality from previous versions. Either that, or you're still using the older iWork '09-era version that Apple leaves behind when it upgrades.

MultiAd Creator: Consumer or pro, it's your choice

It's been a few years since MultiAd has done anything significant to Creator, but it's still an alternative that some may want to consider. Creator combines page layout, drawing, illustration and image editing tools in one. It supports different export options, text on a path, automatic CMYK-RG conversions and full support of OpenType fonts.

Creator is available in two trim levels - Creator Express, a consumer-friendly version available for download in the Mac App Store, and Creator Professional, which is available for purchase directly from MultiAd. Professional adds a slew of important features like Pantone color library support, file conversion (including InDesign Interchange), trapping and more.

Creator Express:

Creator Professional:

Still looking

None of these options really fit the bill for what I was looking for — an inexpensive alternative to InDesign that's powerful enough for a creative professional to get by. It seems that we've come along way with image editing and illustration alternatives to Adobe products, but page layout still needs work.

Maybe I just have to accept that InDesign is the page layout king, and move on. Or maybe you're familiar with something that isn't listed here. If that's the case, I heartily welcome you to share your comments with me below.

Peter Cohen