Review - Xara Designer 8

IKraus's picture

Put a couple of designers together in some fashion and the conversation will inevitably turn to what software one uses.  Whenever I have responded that I use Xara I have always gotten rather strange reactions. It seems so many have either never heard of the company, or have obviously never tried it. When I saw a demonstration back in 1995 on Xara’s incredibly fast anti-aliasing technology and rendering capabilities, I knew it was the program for me. This fact is as true today as it was then. Another reason for my loyalty over the years is how nearly every version upgrade includes features that help me work faster. In their latest release, Xara’s Designer Pro 8, this is evident as they hit most everything on my wish list. In writing this review I thought I would provide some oversight into how Xara has been an asset in my work, particularly with its newest features.

My biggest revenue stream since the mid 90’s has been as a designer of websites. These days I usually am working within web-based information systems using content management system (CMS) software. Creating the custom theme (code and files used to define the look of pages generated) in some software is certainly easier than in others. When I began working with Drupal I found the coding process was quite involved as you have to write PHP in addition to your normal CSS and image files. This is because Drupal – with the addition of Views and similar add-ons – provides great control over how content is pieced together from the database into a display. Understanding how the software works, therefore, is a critical aspect in being able to write sustainable code within the theme.

Another point that became clear to me from experience is that you should never dive right into writing this code too early in the site building process. Yet there is still that need to maintain choice in so far as concept development for how things will look. To accomplish this Style Tiles are used that are not intended to look like finished a web page, but allows me to provide samples of proposed treatments. Early ones, for example, would focus attention on what colors or fonts would be used with subsequent incorporating proposed treatments for various elements that would appear in pages.

medium_index.jpgXara obviously has no problem in creating Style Tiles in the fashion I prefer. What’s more I can take advantage of Xara’s color naming feature to help me maintain proper color values as work proceeds. In order for this trick to work, you do need to maintain a consistent naming pattern for created colors used within a design. Then, when you do a copy and paste operation from one document to another, the color values assigned to those named colors will update to reflect those found in the source document. The thumbnail to the left will open one of the more recent ones I have created for the upcoming makeover for CEBUG’s site.

My next subject will be on the topic of wireframes to showcase actual page concepts. This is not a topic I will spend too much time explaining their role in modern web design. However, I want to mention my discovery a while back of the 960 Grid methodologies put together by Nathan Smith. Like many other designers, Nathan had observed that all of his design work had as its basis a grid system. He took things a step further in realizing that his best designs all broke down into column widths of either 12 or 16 (support for a 24 column grid was recently added). What he set out to do, with the help of quite a few others, is do the hard part of theme coding by creating theme sets with the CSS for the containers already in place. Say for example the page you were mocking up was going to be 12 columns wide with the main content container spanning half that space (6 columns) and the remainder broken up into smaller ones. The class names you would assign to those would be “grid-12” for the overall page, “grid-6” for the main content container, etc. Obviously, there is not time in this review to do an in-depth look at 960 Grid concepts. I have included a link to a great slide presentation on this subject put together for Drupal Camp Dallas in 2009 at the end of this article.  

When I first investigated the 960 site, I was rather surprised to find that templates for use with Xara are not included in their ‘big download’ package. I will attach a zip file containing those I created for my own mockups. In creating my own set, I opted to use the US Letter page size as the starting point as I often need to print my mockups. The only other change I made to the basic settings was to change the units of measure over to pixels. These files will also be provided to Nathan so he can include them in future editions of that download package.

When I am creating my wireframes now, I can now take advantage of some of the new features. Xara’s Layer system has been improved to include the ability to span all pages within a given document. The ability to have multiple pages within a document has been around for a while. This has been handy as I can create multiple wireframes for various pages within one document. Now, however, objects placed on a layer set to will appear in all pages mimics how header and footer elements often act. This saves me the need to do a lot of copy and paste work as mockups near their completion stage.  

Support for Text Styles, another new feature in this version of Xara, will probably quickly become another favorite for much the same reasons. This is because those style definitions will be setup for me automatically in the exported CSS file, along with the graphic files, when I get to that point with my wireframes. These can then be copied, pretty much as is, into the theme files.

In closing, I cannot take full credit for all of the concepts mentioned in this review. Please check out the Resource List found at the end for links to a number of places that served as inspiration for this article. One is a book by Dani Norton that I highly recommend to those new to theming in Drupal as she breaks the entire process down into clear steps.Reviewer rating of 5 out of 5!

Xara Designer 8 & Photo & Graphic Designer 8 - Xara Ltd. Microsoft® Windows® XP | Vista® | 7. Intel® Celeron® or AMD® Athlon® processor 700MHz or newer. 500 MB RAM, 300 MB hard disk space for program files. $299 to $89 but discounts available to those upgrading.

Irene M. Kraus does custom web programming and multimedia productions while acting as a writer on various subjects. She heads up Computer Erie Bay User Group (CEBUG) based in Erie County, Ohio, and owns Design Works Internet.

Resource List

Norton, D. (2011). Designing & Protyping in Drupal [O’Reilly Media e-Book edition]. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media. Retrieved June 16, 2012, from O’Reilly Media website:

Smith, N. (2012). 960 Grid System. Retrieved June 2, 2012, from   

Smith, N & Neinkerk, T. (2009). Accelerated grid theming [PowerPoint Slide Presentation]. Retrieved February 12, 2012, from

Style Tiles – A visual web process for clients and the responsive web. (2012). Retrieved June 10, 2012 from

Talkgraphics online community for Xara users. (2012). Retrieved June 12, 2012 from

Xara Xone providing tutorials and other resources for Xara users. (2012). Retrieved June 12, 2012 from


Mailbag Summary

The Mailbag section contains copies of received messages from sponsors and affiliates. These can be: special offers, newsletters, web seminar notices, or any combination of the above. Please check out the Sponsorship Overview for details on how to become a sponsor if interested!

Subscribe to Mailbag Summary