What software should I use to make a sleek, professional report (with lots of different kinds of content)?
February 7, 2012 8:25 PM   Subscribe

I want to make a 70-100 page report look as sleek and professional as possible. It includes text, references, figures, and photos, as well as "call-out boxes" of various sizes (100-500 words, plus 1-2 figures/photos) that need to be set apart from the text in a non-ugly way. Almost like a high school science textbook. I know there are a ton of Word "report templates" online, but I haven't found any that handle this many types of content, and I don't know if Word is really the way to go here. What *is* the way to go? Is there an easily learned, cheap software you would recommend for this?
posted by unknowncommand to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Gotta put in a plug for LaTeX. Cheap? Yes-- free. Easily learned? Not so much. But well worth it if you're going to do it again.

I doubt other options are as cheap, though. I guess publishers use Quark for actual layout, but that's arm-and-leg territory. Maybe Apple's iBooks publisher will do what you need.
posted by supercres at 8:32 PM on February 7, 2012

you don't say what your time frame is. LaTeX would be way to go though. with online tutorials it may not be too hard, depending on how comfortable you are with mark-up languages, and the format your document is in now.
posted by cupcake1337 at 8:54 PM on February 7, 2012

Best answer: Actually, publishers now are more likely to use Adobe InDesign than Quark, although Quark still has its holdouts. But neither of these applications is cheap.

I've never tried Scribus but it's open source and might be interesting to try it out.

If you want the document to really resemble a book and not a word processing document, move away from Word.
posted by zadcat at 9:08 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Somewhere between Word and InDesign is Pages from Apple. It's extremely intuitive and offers a lot of freedom from a design standpoint.

The typesetting isn't terrific, and I'm not sure how many ready made templates you'll find for it. But that being said, if you can design the basic elements, it can be a great tool.

(Seconding the idea that LaTex is the surefire way to go, but the learning curve is pretty ridiculous.)
posted by graphnerd at 9:19 PM on February 7, 2012

Meant to mention that the whole iWork suite is pretty reasonably priced ($80), so hopefully that fits your budget.

...of course, the Mac to run it on is a different story.
posted by graphnerd at 9:22 PM on February 7, 2012

Response by poster: Either Mac or PC is fine. Deadline is on the order of days to weeks. LaTex seems daunting, but I'm definitely checking out these other options.
posted by unknowncommand at 9:37 PM on February 7, 2012

Have you considered hiring a professional? Software isn't the most important component in creating a professionally-designed publication. The most important component is actual design expertise. If you want the report to look as sleek and professional as possible then "the way to go" is to assign the task to someone who has has a track record for creating professional work, or at least someone who isn't just now learning the relevant software.

For what it's worth, a design professional could do this in Word if they had to. They wouldn't be happy about it, but it's possible. InDesign and Quark are the better choices but my point is that software alone will not solve your problem.
posted by Jeff Howard at 11:11 PM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

How this is done for something like a prospectus, financial report or really nice business plan. These have tons of tables, graphs and figures.

Optional Step 1: Hire a firm to design your style, colors, fonts, etc.
Step 1: Compose your document in Word. It can look like garbage, all the formatting will be thrown away.
Step 2: Send word doc to typesetting company, they will import your document into a commercial typesetting system like 3b2 or xyvision. They will implement your style in whatever typesetting system they use. If you have no style you will get their house style.
Step 3: They may or may not do a full read to check for import or operator errors.
Step 4: They will email you a PDF proof.
Step 5: You will read it and call your rep if there are any changes.
Step 6: They will complete any AAs (author's alterations), return to step 5.
Step 7: They will FedEx or messenger you a printed book. Or handle distribution to whoever needs to get copies.

There are companies that handle short run DPS jobs just like this all the time. The result will look like a million bucks.It is only a question of cost.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:36 PM on February 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Seconding Graphnerd's recommendation of Pages. Super great for page layout, especially if it's not something you're doing professionally.
posted by DoctorFedora at 11:46 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you have a really good sense of design? If so, great.

If not, I'd agree with Jeff Howard, and suggest you either hire someone to design it, or simply make it significantly more plain vanilla and do it yourself.

Bad design always sucks; bad overdesign really sucks.
posted by imjustsaying at 4:10 AM on February 8, 2012

If LaTeX looks too daunting, have a look at LyX. It's a WYSIWYG document processor that uses LaTeX as a backend for formatting. It's also free.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:22 AM on February 8, 2012

Even with a good template for In-Design, you still can make something that looks like crap if you have no sense of good page design and layout. If you don't have a consistent layout that tackles the various elements from page to page, you will end up with a technically spiffy POS report.
posted by JJ86 at 6:42 AM on February 8, 2012

Favorited adhominem's comment. Jeff Howard also has it right.

Any professional layout application -- InDesign, Quark, LaTex -- has a steep learning curve. Maintaining absolute consistency with the document style rules (option step 1 above) throughout the document is key. And if that's not a good design... garbage in, garbage out.

I completed a similar layout job late last year -- lots of charts, photos, call-outs, table of contents, etc. 43 hours layout time for 130+ pp, including fresh cover design, working from the previous year's INDD document. No index. 4 revision cycles to completion.

When you deliver your word doc to whoever is doing the layout work, be sure to include all the images as separate files and reference those file names in your word doc. Plus, you have to understand print vs screen resolution, or you're back to GIGO.

Creating the production PDF for final delivery to the printer requires its own knowledge base as well. If you want it to look great, don't try this at home.
posted by omnidrew at 8:07 AM on February 8, 2012

Best answer: This is the kind of thing that would probably be best done in InDesign, if you have the budget for it. I use Pages as a word processor every day (doesn't make my eyes hurt the way Word does).

Either Word or Pages can be used for page layout stuff the way you're describing. The thing is that there's one right way to do it in these programs and a dozen wrong ways (I deal with Word docs that people do page layout in, and have thought about starting a blog about the inventive misuses I've seen. And don't get me started on people who think Excel is a page-layout program…).

I would recommend very strongly that before you actually start working on your final document, in whatever software you use, that you get up to speed on style sheets, image placement, text wrapping, and that kind of thing. Style sheets will make your life much easier if you use them rigorously. Text wrapping around images and text boxes is where I see a lot of stupid kludgery that results in brittle formatting. If you already know this stuff, then good on you, but it seems like a lot of people don't.
posted by adamrice at 8:09 AM on February 8, 2012

Response by poster: Not looking to hire anyone for this right now, but I'll keep that in mind. I'm not terrible at design, nor at learning/using new software.
posted by unknowncommand at 10:11 AM on February 8, 2012

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