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Differences between Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign

Having worked for an Adobe Authorized Training Center for the last 10 years, students often ask me about the difference between Photoshop and Illustrator and InDesign. Firstly, let me say that all three programs are, in fact, owned and developed by the same company, Adobe Systems, the world leader in web design, graphic imaging and e-learning software. All three programs are also bundled together into Adobe’s Creative Suite, which is a great and affordable way to purchase this software.

Part of the confusion is that certain tasks can be performed in more than one of these programs. For example, you can find vector drawing tools available inside Photoshop and InDesign, even though Illustrator is the predominant vector-based program. The key to getting the most out of these three programs is to understand their primary purposes, how their principal functions work, and how they all can be used together.

In essence, the suitability of InDesign vs. Illustrator vs. Photoshop for your project boils down to the type of graphic image being created or edited and the ultimate end-product desired. For instance, even though you could probably use any of the three programs to create, say, business cards, depending upon the elements involved, one of the programs will be better suited than the other two.

To better understand what is the difference between Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, let’s start by looking at each program separately.

Photoshop

We’ll start with Adobe Photoshop, which is probably the most well-known out of the three. Photoshop is professional visual editing software primarily used to enhance and manipulate bitmap image files. Bitmap images — also sometimes referred to as raster images — are pixel-based digital images. In other words, these are computer-generated pictures that are composed of millions of tiny building blocks, or pixels. Each individual pixel is defined by attributes such as color, and it is the smallest editable unit of an image. The most common type of bitmap image is a photograph. Whether captured on film and scanned into a digital file or shot with a digital camera, photo bitmaps are made up of millions of tiny pixels.

Simply put, Adobe Photoshop is a software tool used to edit digital photographic images. Even though the program can perform many other creative tasks, the core function of Photoshop is to manipulate photos. Sometimes, the adjustments can be subtle, such as subtle lighting changes or sharpening and blurring of the image. Other times, they might be pronounced, such as applying a filter or special effect.

If you go down to your local newsagent and pick up any magazine, the chances are excellent that the images in that magazine have been polished or altered using Photoshop. Do you ever wonder why the movie stars in photos never have cellulite or double chins? Editors frequently use Photoshop to erase imperfections before publishing. Have you noticed how advertisements often contain surreal, yet life-like objects and environments? Photoshop can be used to create dramatic montages comprised of several different photographs.

Illustrator

Adobe Illustrator, on the other hand, is a vector drawing program. Vector images are the other main type of digital image. Unlike bitmaps, vectors are made up of a series of lines and shapes, which are defined as mathematical formulae. Vectors are superb for creating images that contain large sections of the same color. Such graphics as a navigation button on your website, your company logo, or any other kind of nonphotographic design is usually better off when created as a vector. Illustrator is the world’s premier vector drawing tool, so if you were tasked with designing any kind of “flat” artwork, such as a corporate profile including logos, sign work, letterheads, etc., the chances are that you would use Illustrator.

InDesign

Adobe InDesign software, also a vector-based application, is the newest of the three programs. The key difference between InDesign and Illustrator is that InDesign’s focus is page composition. This publishing program combines multiple elements such as images, graphics, and text to generate complex layouts for either print or digital publications, such as corporate brochures, magazines, newsletters, Powerpoint presentations, interactive PDFs, or advertisements. InDesign’s specialty is working with multiple-page documents that contain large amounts of type or text. It also includes features that can help with team collaboration and brand consistency, such as access to cloud libraries, master pages for reuse and reference, and style groups for uniform designs within and across various projects.

Program Compatibility

Often, designers will use all three Adobe programs on the same project. For example, when we recently created some new course outlines, we used Illustrator to design our logo and a few other vector graphics, and we used Photoshop to apply a special shadow effect to some bitmap images. Finally, we exported all of those elements from Illustrator and Photoshop so we could use InDesign to add the text copy and define the layout.

Even if your situation isn’t that linear, for example, if you need to edit an InDesign file with tools available only in Photoshop, many image file formats can be converted from one platform to another within the Adobe Creative Suite.

Personal Preference

In my classes, a student will usually sooner or later bring up the “Photoshop vs. Illustrator” debate regarding suitability for drawing and illustration. There is no one best answer; it’s mostly a matter of personal preference. The apparent difference is that Photoshop has a multitude of specific tools for editing photographs. However, the fundamental difference is how the images are constructed: Photoshop graphics are pixel-based raster images, and Illustrator graphics are vector-based.

Think of it this way: Imagine two “identical” rings, one made by arranging tiny, individual pieces of paper (pixels), and the other made by looping a single piece of string (a vector). Both rings may appear to be the same, but if you wanted to change the design, the process for each would be much different. To alter the pixel ring, each individual unit would have to be moved into a new configuration. However, all you have to do to transform the vector ring is drag the piece of string into a new shape.

The actuality is much more complicated, but the software is so powerful that most of the hard work is done at the ease and speed of thought. Yet, most artists and illustrators will find either Photoshop or Illustrator better suited for their styles and purposes.

Quality graphic design can make or break any company’s image. Adobe Creative Suite, which includes Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, plus tutorials, can give you the vital edge to succeeding in a very competitive world.


Billy Gee is the Director of Training for Training Connection, which provides outstanding instructor-led training in Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign in the Chicago and Los Angeles metro areas.