A Guide to File Formats

08.17.2016

So often I have people ask me why a jpeg logo that looks great on their website is not high enough quality for print. I also am commonly asked, “What is a vector file?” As a graphic designer, I forget that this is not common knowledge. So I have created this guide to help everyone understand.

PIXEL vs. VECTOR: The main thing everyone needs to understand is the difference between vectors and pixels. Vectors are made up of points, lines, curves and basic polygon shapes. In Illustrator we refer to them as anchor points and paths. If you zoom in or enlarge a vector file you will not see any blurring. Vectors retain their quality and clarity, as a result of mathematical calculations that scale the distance between points and lines. Vector based files are infinitely scalable.

Pixels refer to “Pictures” and “Elements.” Pixels were originally designed to recreate photography, by using a grid-based system. From a distance Pixel files look as if they are made up of smooth tones. However, when you zoom in you can see that the file is made up of individual equally sized squares of color. Each pixel has just one color in it. One of the advantages of a pixel image is that it can provide a lot of detail and realness. On the contrary a vector of an image would look more like a cartoon. The downfall of a pixel image is that when you zoom in or enlarge a pixel file you loose the clarity of the image.

Below I have broken down the different file formats that I commonly use:

EPS: Stands for Encapsulated Post Script. This is the most widely accepted form of a vector file. When printing, producing signage or doing ads this is the format you need to send.

AI: Stands for Adobe Illustrator. Not as widely accepted as EPS files but almost. It is another form of vector file that can be used for most printing or production.

PDF: Stands for Portable Document Format. Designers can export a PDF vector file from illustrator and it is usually acceptable for printing. PDF files are great for files that have multiple pages. Almost everyone has Adobe Acrobat these days so it is almost unanimously accepted. Most often I provide PDF documents for brochures or presentations. Interactive PDFs are great for forms and documentation.

JPEG: Stands for Joint Photographers Expert Group. This pixel based file type is great for photographs or files that are going to be posted on the web. It is widely supported by web browsers. They are often smaller file sizes and are commonly used to save bandwidth on web. They can be printed or used on the web because they can support CMYK or RGB color. JPEG’s will always have a background color, they are not capable of transparent backgrounds.

PNG: Stands for Portable Network Graphics. PNG’s are also widely supported by web browsers. I find that PNG’s are often crisper on the web, than JPEG’s. PNG’s were specifically made for transferring images to the Internet NOT for printing them out. They cannot read CMYK color. PNG’s can have transparent backgrounds, which I find as a huge plus.

TIFF: Stands for Tagged Image File Format. The big bonus to TIFFs is that they can support multiple layers. This file type is great for saving images at various stages. However, if you have Photoshop you will usually be saving your files as a PSD file instead.

Was this helpful? Did I miss anything you think is helpful? Let me know!

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