The right tools for the job.
In printing, we are often faced with challenges from the types of files provided to us- and it’s not just about image resolution and color modes! In fact, it’s all about the file types and that means it’s also all about the software used to create those files.
In addition to our printing software, we use the Adobe Creative Suite for designing and laying out our projects. The big three are Illustrator, InDesign and Photoshop. That's not to say we can't work with your Publisher File... but if you have access to any of these programs-- these are the ones we secretly hope you design in!
So... what are these programs and what do you need to know about them? In short, Photoshop is a rastor-based program, which means each image is made up of tiny dots or pixels and should be used purely for editing your pixel-based images (think photos!). Adobe Illustrator and InDesign, however, are vector-based programs, which means that the images are built with lines and curves instead of pixels (think logos!). When it comes to supplying us with files for printing, it is important to know the differences between these three and the type of files they can create. Each has its place—but often times, one program or file type is more suitable for your particular project than one of the others.
Let’s start with the difference between Raster Images (Photoshop) and Vector Images (InDesign and Illustrator):
The real difference between the two is that although a vector has less detail, it can be resized larger infinitely without loss of quality. Vector images are far more flexible because they comprised of lines, curves, and geometric data. A true vector file can be used super small on a postage stamp or extra large on a banner, vehicle wrap or billboard-- all without any degradation of quality. Another important quality about vectors is that they can easily be converted to a raster image, but it is a one-way transfer as raster cannot be converted back to vector (so make sure you never save over your original files!)
EPS, AI and PDF files are all vector files (as long as any fonts used have been converted to outlines) and are perfect for creating graphics that require frequent resizing. Your logo and brand graphics should have been created as a vector, and you should always have a master file on hand. 99% of the time, this is the file we want to print from so if you have it on hand, send it along. If you only have a Jpeg version of your logo from Photoshop you will always be limited to how large you can print this without it becoming pixelated or blurry.
In contrast, raster images are constructed by a series of pixels, or individual blocks, to form an image. JPEGs, GIFs and PNGs are all raster images. Every photo you find online is a raster image and because pixels have a defined proportion based on their resolution (the number of pixels per inch LINK HERE TO BLOG), when those pixels are stretched to fill space they were not originally intended to fit, they distort resulting in blurry or unclear images. If you want to maintain image or pixel quality, you cannot resize raster images to become larger without compromising their resolution. As a result, it is important to remember to create and save raster files at the exact dimensions needed for the application.
So basically, we love vectors. Let’s learn about the programs that create them!
The Lead Off Hitter: Illustrator
Illustrator uses a mathmatical grid to map the artwork that is created, therefore all artwork created in Illustrator can be resized as small or as large as you need and you will never lose any quality. It is the standard used to create logos and paint with brushes-- but it also has a lot of useful type tools for creating dynamic layouts, however it is not very powerful with multiple pages or spreads (for this you need InDesign).
Logos, typography, packaging, maps, infographics, and posters will often be designed in Illustrator. These can then be used in a variety of ways, including print, web, mobile, and video. Once designs have been created in Illustrator, they can easily be opened, placed and manipulated in InDesign or Photoshop.
So…. When should I use Illustrator?
You need to create a logo, icon or brand mascot. Every vector shape and line created in Illustrator can be blown up to any size, which makes it ideal for images that need to be used in many different ways.
You need to set type for a logo. Illustrator’s typesetting features are incredibly powerful, enabling any text to be transformed into a fully editable shape that can be stretched, skewed and transformed every way imaginable. When all is said and done, you should ultimately package your illustrator logo file to include the fonts or you should convert all fonts to outlines so that they become a shape instead of a font. This eliminates inconsistencies when another computer opens your file but does not have that particular font installed.
Use a different app when…
You need to edit images. If a raster image (photo or artwork) is being used in a composition, Illustrator has only a few tools to edit that image directly. Photoshop is meant to handle this and can make more comprehensive adjustments like color, contrast, lighting effects and brightness.
You need to create multi-page documents. Illustrator can handle one-pagers or business cards effectively, but you cannot set margins easily or flow large amounts of type without some work. For anything more, InDesign is the way to go because of features like page numbering, master page templates and better text layout functionality.
Batting Second: InDesign
Like Illustrator, InDesign is also a vector-based program, however InDesign was born for page layouts. It is meant to handle multiple pages, create master pages, and flow text easily to create book or magazine layouts with automatic page numbering and consistent margins and templates on each page-- all linked to an editable master page.
InDesign allows you to set margins, columns and bleeds, and is where you can bring together all your artwork from Illustrator and Photoshop to create a complete, single or multi-page document. InDesign offers more precision with typography than Photoshop, but less in the graphics department than Illustrator. In short: InDesign is made for publishing.
So…. When should I use InDesign?
InDesign was built with some very specific uses in mind. Here’s when you should go with this solution.
You need to layout a multi-page, text-heavy piece. InDesign is the Bryce Harper of laying out multi-page documents like magazines, booklets, brochures and business card templates. Of the three applications, InDesign has the most robust typesetting features available, giving you seamless control over alignment and typography spacing (kearning, leading….).
Use a different app when…
You need to edit images. InDesign has no real image editing capabilities. Photoshop can make more comprehensive adjustments like color, contrast and brightness.
You need to design a logo. InDesign can create limited shapes, but if you need a logo for your document, design it first in Illustrator and then import it for use in InDesign.
Rounding Out the Top of the Order: Photoshop
Photoshop was originally designed as an all-inclusive solution for creating, editing and retouching any type of raster image. Since then, Photoshop has become so much more and can be used to draw, sketch and even paint digitally. Photographers use it to adjust and transform their photos with color and lighting.
So…. When should I use Photoshop?
You need to retouch photos. Need to edit the lighting in a photo? Or tame some flyaway hair? Photoshop is a grand slam for photos, paintings, or drawings. Raster images created in Photoshop can be used anywhere, either on its own or in an Illustrator or InDesign project.
Use a different app when…
You need to create a logo. Logos are used in so many different places in so many different sizes and formats, so they need to be vector-based. Photoshop is not the place for them. Photoshop isn’t optimized to create vector artwork and your images will exist at only one size. If you need to enlarge them, they will become pixelated and “blurry,” making them unacceptable for printing at any size other than the size you created them in.
You need to layout lots of text. No matter how much you try, Photoshop just doesn’t handle large amounts of text very well. Illustrator or InDesign are your go-to’s for this type of project.
Now onto image types.
JPEG (or JPG) - Joint Photographic Experts Group
JPEGs might be the most common file type you run across on the web. JPEGs are known for their “lossy” compression, meaning that the quality of the image decreases as the file size decreases.
You can use web resolution (72 dpi) JPEGs for projects on the web, high resolution JPEGS (300 dpi) in Microsoft Office documents, or for projects that require printing at a high resolution. Paying attention to the resolution and file size with JPEGs is essential in order to produce a nice looking project. One thing to mention about jpgs, is that you cannot have a transparent background with these files—meaning they will always appear in a white or black (or whatever color background) box the document was created with. This is why these files are bad news for logos!
PNG – Portable Network Graphics
PNGs are amazing for interactive documents such as web pages, but they are not suitable for print. While you can edit PNGs and not lose quality, they are still low resolution, no matter how you cut the cake. The reason PNGs are used in most web projects is that you can save your image with more colors on a transparent background- which makes a sharper, web-quality image.
GIF – Graphics Interchange Format
GIFs are most common in their animated form, which are all the rage on Tumblr pages, emails and banner ads. In their more basic form, GIFs are formed from up to 256 colors in the RGB color space. Due to the limited number of colors, the file size is drastically reduced. This is a common file type for web projects where an image needs to load very quickly, as opposed to one that needs to retain a higher level of quality.
TIF – Tagged Image File
A TIF is a large raster file that doesn’t lose quality; it is usually used when saving photographs for print. Don’t use this file on the web though; it will take forever to load! TIF files an also be created with a transparent background but is not to be confused with a vector file--- we cannot pick these apart and edit them without converting them to a vector file (which, as we mentioned above, is not an easy task).
PSD – Photoshop Document
PSDs are files that are created and saved in Adobe Photoshop. This type of file contains “layers” that make modifying the image much easier to handle. This is also the program that generates the raster file types mentioned above.
PDF – Portable Document Format
PDFs were invented by Adobe with the goal of capturing and reviewing rich information from any application, on any computer, with anyone, anywhere.. If a designer saves your vector logo in PDF format, then you can view it without any design editing software (as long as you have downloaded the free Acrobat Reader software) and they have the ability to use this file to make further manipulations. This is by far the best universal tool for sharing graphics.
EPS – Encapsulated Postscript
EPS is a file in vector format that has been designed to produce high-resolution graphics for print. Almost any kind of design software can create an EPS. It is more of a universal file type (much like the PDF) that can be used to open vector-based artwork in any design editor, not just the more common Adobe products. This safeguards file transfers to designers that are not yet utilizing Adobe products, but may be using Corel Draw or Quark. If you do not have any type of design software installed on your computer, you will not be able to view these files—but your designer will. This is a great file type for your designer to save your logo in to provide to us for use in your print materials.
AI – Adobe Illustrator Document
AI is, by far, the image format most preferred by designers and the most reliable type of file format for using images in all types of projects from web to print, etc. Adobe Illustrator is more than likely the program in which your logo was originally created in as vector artwork and is the easiest type of file to manipulate. It can also create all of the previously mentioned file types. It is by far the best tool in any designer’s arsenal. If you can provide us with a packaged AI file… we will be best friends forever. Just sayin.
INDD – Adobe Indesign Document
INDDs (Indesign Document) are files that are created and saved in Adobe Indesign as discussed above. Files from both Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator can be combined in Indesign to produce content rich designs that feature advanced typography, embedded graphics, page content, formatting information and other sophisticated layout-related options.
Heather has been into graphic design since she was a little kid, growing up passionate about designing for print. She graduated from Penn State with degrees in Art and Advertising and then pursued studies in Publications Design at the University of Baltimore. Over the last decade, Heather has designed publications for major communications companies in Baltimore and North Carolina, before settling into her role as a print design specialist here at Evolution Printing in Manassas, Virginia back 2016. She loves the tangible aspect of print and sharing her designs, ideas, knowledge and experience to help clients get the most from their projects.