I got 99 files, but which is what? A guide to design file formats

If you’re not a designer, sometimes things we say may seem like we are speaking a different language. GIF, TIFF, JPEG, EPS… Different design file formats lend themselves to different usages, so it’s good to know what’s what! Here’s a quick rundown of what each file type is and what it’s specific uses are.

Let’s start by breaking down the different files types.

Raster Graphics


A raster graphics image, or bitmap, is a dot matrix data structure representing a generally rectangular grid of pixels, or points of color, viewable via a monitor, paper, or other display medium. The problem with raster graphics is that their size is limited like their data. You can only increase the size of a raster graphic so much before this dot matrix data structure becomes visible— in the form of pixels, noise, and other fuzziness.
Bottom line: These pictures are built out of tiny squares of color, and cannot be scaled larger without looking pixelated, blurry, and crummy all around.

JPEG – Joint Photographic Experts Group

Destination: for web

A JPG file is a compressed image file that can’t have a transparent background. The degree of compression can be adjusted, allowing a tradeoff between storage size and image quality (eg: lots of compression = smaller image/file size). When compressed repeatedly, the overall quality of a JPG image is reduced an data is erased (referred to as “lossy compression”).

GIF – Graphics Interchange Format

Destination: for web

GIF files are low resolution files most commonly used for web and email purposes. Almost all browsers can support the use of GIF files. GIF files can be created with a transparent background. This format also supports all those wonderful animations that you waste hours staring at on tumblr.

PNG- Portable Network Graphics

Destination: for web

PNG was created as an improved, non-patented replacement for Graphics Interchange Format (GIF), using lossless data compression (which allows the original data to be perfectly reconstructed from the compressed data). PNG supports transparent backgrounds.

TIF/TIFF – Tagged Image File Format

Destination: for print

The TIF/TIFF file format is most commonly used for storing images, photography, or art. The TIF file format was originally created for desktop publishing. It is the standard format for high quality images and uses lossless data compression.

PSD – Photoshop Document

Destination: for print

A PSD file stores an image with support for most image formats — like .gif, .jpg, .tiff—available in Photoshop. These include layers with masks, transparency, text, alpha channels and spot colors, clipping paths, and duotone settings. PSD files can only be opened using Photoshop and may be created and saved in layers.

Vector Graphics


Use geometrical primitives such as points, lines, curves, and shapes or polygon(s), which are all based on mathematical expressions, to build images. Vector graphics are based on paths (vectors) which are anchored by locations called control points. Each of these points has a definite position on an x and y axis. Each path can be assigned a color, a shape, a thickness and also a fill. Vectors are not typically used to create photo-realistic images, but are primarily used for type and graphics / illustrations.
Bottom line: Vectors are magical and can be increased to any size you may need without degrading quality, because they are basically a math equation of ever changing information, not pixels which are just a single square of color.

AI – Adobe Illustrator

Destination: for print

These are vector files used by designers and printers to generate files of different file formats and sizes. AI files can be edited using Adobe Illustrator and may be created in layers. Like all vector graphics, an .AI file is fully scalable. You can also use Adobe Acrobat to view these files. Logo files should be .ai or .eps.

EPS – Encapsulated Postscript

Destination: for print

EPS files can be opened using Adobe Illustrator, Freehand, or Adobe Photoshop. Vector .EPS is generally the format that should be supplied to designers and printers. It contains your artwork in a fully scalable format which can then be saved as a variety of raster graphics for different uses. Logo files should be .ai or .eps.

PDF- Portable Document Format

Destination: Everywhere!

A PDF is a universal file format that preserves/embeds the fonts, images, layout and graphics of any document, regardless of the application used to create it. PDF files can be shared, viewed and printed by anyone. PDF is extremely versatile; it is usually used for proofing and printing.

“Native Files”


What the heck are those? A “native file” is what we call a file in it’s original created form (eg: If you create a vector illustration in Adobe Illustrator, then an Adobe Illustrator (.AI) file is the native file). Native files can mean AI, PSD, INDD or QXD; and should include supporting files (meaning fonts and images that are linked). Without these linked supporting files, the native file will not work.

INDD – Adobe InDesign

Destination: for print

This is the most popular desktop publishing format. It can be used to create works such as posters, flyers, brochures, magazines, newspapers and books.

QXD – QuarkXpress

Destination: for print

Quark was one of the original WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) page layout programs. But the real question is: why are you still using Quark when InDesign is available?


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