As a client, you’re probably not going to be well versed in the different file formats commonly associated with graphic design and their different purposes. After all, that’s one of the reasons why you’ve hired a designer.
Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to clients being given work in a file format that, while it may be suitable for the project they’re currently working on, is not going to be usable in future projects. An oversight which almost inevitably leads to wasted time and money in the future.
There are dozens of different graphic formats available, .jpg, .gif, .pdf, .psd, .eps and .ai to name just a few. Ultimately, each type is either a raster or vector graphic.
Where the two file types differ, is in their ability to be scaled, a factor which drastically impacts how large a graphic can be printed.
Note: Printing at 300dpi (dots per inch) is typically considered to be “high” or “photo quality”. While this is more a rule of thumb than an absolute, and does vary in practice depending on the circumstances, it’s accurate enough for the examples of this article.
Without going into extraneous detail, a basic explanation of each file type is as follows:
Raster images – such as .jpg and .gif files – offer a fixed resolution only. What this means is, that if you want to print a 1 inch square logo at high quality (as explained above), your .jpg file must be 300 pixels high by 300 pixels wide. (It could be larger, but we’ll leave it that for this discussion.)
In this example, the 300×300 pixels are the entirety of the information contained within the file.
Contrary to what Hollywood spy-movies would have you believe, you can not simply press the “enhance” button to add quality to a photo.
If you imagine a photograph with someone who is so far away that an eye appears to be a few black dots, you can not increase the size of the photo to see the colour of their eye. Likewise, if a person’s cheek appears as a few pixels of beige, you can not increase the size of the photos to see freckles or wrinkles in the skin. This detail and information simply does not exist in the file and cannot be extrapolated out of it.
Vector images – such as .eps and .ai files – work differently. Instead of being a collection of pixels, vector images are basically a set of instructions. Mathematical expressions are used to define points, paths, colours, shapes, thickness, fills and every other aspect of the file on a grid.
Because of this difference, vector graphics can be increased in size without any loss of quality. To double the size of a vector graphic, design software simply increases the numbers in the instructions to recreate the graphic in a larger size.
So when does this difference become a problem?
In my experience, this most often happens are a result of using and inexperienced/amateur designer who is using the wrong tool for the job.
We’ve all heard the expression “photoshopped”. Photoshop is often spoken of as “the” design program, but it’s not the right tool for every job. Photoshop is primarily a raster based program, and as such is limited in creating scalable graphics.
Small business and individuals often start with the basics, this might be just a website logo or a business card. This creates a problem for future projects when their original designer, who did everything in Photoshop as amateurs are prone to doing, has only supplied them with raster format graphic.
I often have people approach me wanting to expand their corporate stationery or marketing materials and have only a website logo or Photoshop business card as reference. When increasing the size of a logo from these kinds of files however, this is the result:
I’ve assembled images here of the Coca-Cola logo blown up from a raster file on the left, and a vector format on the right.
The problem is pretty clear. The raster graphic gets worse and worse, while the vector graphic can be scaled to virtually any size without loss of quality.
In order to be scalable, design artwork also needs to be originally created in a vector graphic program such as Adobe Illustrator, not just save with a vector file extension. When asking clients if they can obtain vector format artwork from their previous designer, I’m occasionally supplied with a .jpg file that has simply been saved as an Illustrator .ai file.
This is basically the same as saving a black and white photo in a colour format. The colour information wasn’t there to start with, and saving it into a format doesn’t magically retrieve the colour information. The same applies for vector graphics.
These days the standard vector formats are typically .pdf, .eps and .ai, and there are some others. Without these scalable source files for future design projects, you may have to choose between accepting lower quality display and printed materials, or having your current designer recreate usable versions of your existing work at your expense.
When having a logo designed, or any artwork that may need to be scaled in the future, insist on vector format artwork files. It will save you time and ensure the best results in future projects.