Graphics programs paint complex problems

The new emphasis on graphics is a distinctly mixed blessing. Well designed documents, with appropriate graphics, can be a joy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen that way.

On a personal level, the growing importance graphics means that I must be able to work with images, so I have been forced to spend the time to understand my graphics options.

There are a very large number of graphics software packages. Unfortunately, there is no graphical analogue to the full-featured word processing program. A program like Lotus’ WordPro is almost “universal” – almost everyone can use WordPro for almost all text-based documents. There are no similarly “universal” graphics programs.

There are inescapable complexities in the world of graphics. First, there is the difference between paint and draw programs. Paint programs give you the ability to work with the single picture elements, the pixels. You get fine control, but changing size forces an approximation. The result can look like a poorly executed Impressionist painting.

Draw programs avoid this problem by working with shapes. You can freely change the size of a square, circle, or line because they are stored as “formulas”. Even text is stored as a “formula”, and can be re-sized. But there is no good way to represent a photograph as a combination of geometric shapes.

Work with graphics requires both a paint and a draw program. There are further complexities around whether the image is rendered in print or on a screen. The typical laser printer works at 600 dpi and the “dot”, if present, is black. The typical screen works at 72 pixels per inch, and the pixel may be any of 16 million colours.

I find that many of the traditional draw programs do a poor job rendering images for a screen. In my experience, the graphics programs from XARA consistently produced the good screen images. XARA ( is a small UK software company. Their full-featured draw program, CorelXARA, is supported by Corel. It can be purchased on-line from i/us (

Were I forced to use only one graphics program, it would be CorelXARA. It has all the basic features that you need in a draw program. But it goes beyond being just a draw program. It supports layers, with the transparency of any layer open to change. It provides basic support for paint (bitmap) images, supporting many plug-ins.

Even though CorelXARA will tolerate bitmap images, the basic “engine” was not designed to work with such material. I find that PaintShop Pro, from JASC ( is my tool of choice for working with photographic images. It’s got the features I need, without overwhelming me with irrelevant capabilities.

My basic software kit-bag now includes both CorelXARA and PaintShop Pro. They allow me to produce professional print and screen images. Both are modest programs and have modest price tags. With these programs, I find it relatively easy to resist over cooked images, but can still exercise a fine control over exactly what gets displayed.

Fabian is a Toronto-based management and systems consultant. He can be found at