Illustrator vs. Photoshop – Vector vs. Raster

We deal with a fair amount of customers every day, most of them clueless on the difference between vector and raster (or pixel). Which, to be honest, is totally fine. As a customer it’s not your job to understand the process. That’s why we’re here.

The problem is that we also deal with the same amount of designers every day that don’t know the difference. It’s a completely unacceptable ignorance. Vector and raster aren’t the same. They’re not even close.

Stop using them interchangeably.

Stop saying you’re a designer who doesn’t work in Illustrator.

Just. Stop.

Let me explain.

Subaru Crosstrek that we designed in Illustrator (left) and Photoshop (right). Notice how pixelated it becomes as it’s scaled up?

There are essentially two types of image files: vector (Illustrator) and raster (Photoshop). Raster images are created with pixels – like a digital painting or a digital camera photo. The image you’ve created is made up of tiny little pixels, all combined to make one image. You’ll typically be able to distinguish a raster based off it’s file extension (jpg, gif, and png).

Vector graphics are created with an actual vector software and are used for images to be applied to physical products. They’re perfect for creating tee shirt designs, promotional goods, brand logos, etc. File extensions are typically .ai, .pdf (if saved from Adobe Illustrator), and .eps (again, if saved from Illustrator or another vector software).

Note: please keep in mind that just because the file extension matches the appropriate image file, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was created in that same format. We deal with a lot of .pdf and .eps that are disguised as vector, but are in fact raster.

Vector (left) and Raster (right)

If you’re designing a logo for a client in Photoshop (raster/pixel) you’re going to be in trouble when it comes time to scale that logo. With pixels, you can only scale so far up or down, before it becomes “pixelated”. Ever noticed a logo that has pixelated edges around the corners? Looks like the original Super Mario Bros.?

That’s because it’s a raster that’s been expanded and is stretched too far.

Had that logo have been created using vector software – again, Illustrator – this would not be a problem. Your client would be able to place their logo on a coffee mug or the side of the space station with the same clarity.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for raster. There absolutely is. Raster is used almost exclusively for digital painting and illustration. It allows for smooth gradients and color transitions much more easily than vector does.

A word of advice when working with raster is to design using a large canvas, or at least a canvas that’s the exact size of the project you’re creating. Otherwise you face disaster when having to resize.

Notice how the Raster looks fine from a distance, but once blown up it becomes pixelated?

In the image above you’ll notice that the “RASTER” looks clean and crisp from a distance. As we zoom in closer, however, it becomes pixelated. Unlike the “VECTOR”, which is perfect regardless of it’s size.

This is why anything that is going to print needs to be created in vector.

Again, there isn’t necessarily a “right” or a “wrong” software to use. If you’re a digital illustrator, raster software is perfect (I can’t recommend Clip Studio enough). If you’re a graphic designer focused heavily on print and/or logo design, vector software is the only way to go.

Literally do not design logos or graphics for print in anything other than vector.

Quick breakdown:

Raster –

  • Pixel-based
  • Used for photo editing/digital illustrations
  • Not universally formatted

Vector –

  • Shapes, not pixels
  • Infinite scalability
  • Can be printed at any size/resolution
  • Used for creating logos, illustrations, and images that are meant to be applied to physical products

If you have any questions, let us know! Hopefully this will answer a few questions out there and bring a little more light into the difference between raster and vector.

Anthony Accinelli
Peak Design Collective