hammer and screw graphic

Photoshop vs InDesign vs Illustrator

Some designers try to use Photoshop (Ps) for most any project. Although this is commonplace, the real pros understand how to use Illustrator (Ai) and InDesign (Id) well and they work more quickly and produce better results.

I can’t blame some designers for trying to get the most out Ps. The whole Adobe Creative Suite or Creative Cloud (CC) is expensive, even at the student price, while Ps alone has smaller price tag. Also, there’s an incentive to get one tool to most things since it takes longer to learn a whole suite of software. That’s fine if all you need to do is get by. But if that’s your goal, you could avoid Ps altogether and save more money getting stuff for free. You can achieve all the fundamental functions of CC by downloading a motley collection of free, open source graphics software. Some are pretty good while others suck so you have to do a lot of research to figure out which one you need. What CC does that open source tools can’t is the ability to work almost seamlessly between programs and the menus, windows, palettes and toolbars (workspace) are expertly designed for fast, easy production and they are customizable. Essentially, free, open source tools are mediocre graphic design remedies and so is Ps alone. If you want to be a serious professional that can out perform the majority of people creating graphics, then you need to have access to, and be well trained on most of CC. Ps alone isn’t enough. There are professional alternatives that are good, but CC is used by most pros and you need to know it in order to collaborate on most publishing efforts.

Ps is not optimal for some tasks. Ps does a poor job of working with a lot of text. It doesn’t handle illustrations that use multiple instances of identical or similar objects very well. The way layers  work in Ps can really slow you down with complex projects. Multi-page design isn’t an option with Ps. Some designers are wasting their time trying to get Ps to do these kinds of things but they are more efficiently carried out by other tools like Ai and Id. In some cases, designers are limiting the output quality of their work by using Ps.

Photoshop vs InDesign vs Illustrator


To be fair, Ps is perhaps the most universal and indispensable tool for graphics. All kinds of image-creating professionals use Ps; web designers, architects, video editors, 3D modelers and more. It started out as a tool for photo editing, so it’s the primary tool for photographers. It’s also the primary tool for digital painting. But it goes way beyond that. For example, it can even work with vector-based text and shapes. It can, but not very well.

Why do pixels and vectors matter?

A Pixel-oriented Environment

Ps is fundamentally a pixel-based tool. Although there are vector-based tools in Ps, the final output is limited. Each Ps file has fixed pixel dimensions. If you increase the pixel size of a file, each pixel gets blown-out, yielding strange image artifacts and blurriness. Ps will scale vector objects while your working in the Ps environment but if you aren’t very Ps savvy,  an exported graphic won’t be scalable.

Photoshop-pixel-blowoutAbove: Vector text and objects created in Ps. Photoshop-pixel-blowout-badAbove: The same file, exported and increased in pixel dimensions. You can see why this is not recommended.

Advantages to Ai & Id

Text and graphics in Ai and Id are by default vector and indefinitely scalable. The exceptions are any imported photos or graphics that are pixel-based or special raster effects (a.k.a. pixel-based effects) like shadows, bevels and embossing.

OK, scalability is not always important. Digital painters deal with this by starting with pixel dimensions much larger than they can reasonably expect to need. Scaling down usually produces optimal results. What Ps does not deliver is the kind workspace and tools needed for any reasonable amount of text and any sophisticated object handling.

Text in Ps is dreadful for anything beyond a few lines. Text wraps, columns, tabs, tables, flowing text between multiple text boxes; these functions are either not available or involve awkward workarounds in Ps. Some tools like character and paragraph styles or search and replace are available in Ps but are minimal compared to the vast array of text functions in Id.

Workspace and Tools

Ai-symbol-palettesThese are some symbol collections that come with Ai. You can create custom collections too. Id has a similar feature called Libraries. This is not available in Ps.

The Ps workspace is designed for image manipulation on photos or artwork. The tools needed for constructing shapes and working multiple instances of objects are either hard to find or not available. With Id and Ai, you can collect graphic and text objects in a library (Id) or in a symbol collection (Ai). Create a few common objects and then drag and drop to create new ones. In Ps, you have to cut and paste or duplicate a layer, every freaking time you want a new instance of the same thing. With Ai and Id, you can combine and splice shapes quickly with the Pathfinder tools. In Ai, you can create shape blends that are scalable, resizable and you can change the colors in the blend indefinitely. There are similar Ai features like mesh gradients, stroke width tools and the shape builder that automate illustrating in a way that is fun, fast and vector based. There’s more and I’m not mentioning them all. Ps doesn’t come close to this level of functionality.


A diagram created in Ps (below).Ps-budget-digram Shown here is only a portion of the layer stack (below) The entire thing has nearly 50 layers. Each object is a layer and many have default, nondescript names.

Ps-budget-digram-layer-stack A map created in Ai (below) with more objects that the above diagram. Notice the tidy, easy-to-follow layer stack (below).


Ai-police-map-layer-stack The layer use is minimal and related objects are found on the same layers (not possible in Ps).

When I try to create complex illustrations in Ps I get bogged down in layers. With every new shape, text, line, or copies of them, a new layer is created, by default: Layer 1, Layer 2, Layer 3, and on, and on. An object easily gets lost in a stack of a couple dozen, layers with meaningless names. Just to stay on top of it all, you have to go back, retroactively, rename and collect your layers into groups. Layers are a handy way to organize your work but this runaway layer stacking makes things worse. Ai and Id, by default, work the other way around. You start with one layer and every new thing stays on that same layer. Then you can go and create new layers and sort out your objects accordingly, but only if you need to. As long as a layer remains unlocked, you can click on any object to access it. In Ps, you have to activate the layer in order to access something. Then you hunt through your layers before you can access any other object you want. In Ai, there’s a hidden feature that works both ways. Each new object gets it’s own sub layer but they stay hidden until you open that layer in the layer palette. You can use this feature if you need to (it comes in handy sometimes) but you can just ignore it as if it doesn’t exist.

File Size

flowers-pixelflowers-vector The same graphic was recreated in Ai (top) and Ps (bottom). The Ps version is more twice the file size. Ps files increase in size geometrically with the pixel dimensions while Ai files may not increase at all.

Ps files can quickly get large. Pixels take up more file space than vectors. Vectors are math-based shapes and need less data than a field of pixels. A vector object at 1 mm is the same file size as an identical one at 1000 meters. A pixel version of this example would be vastly different.

Graphics using text, simple lines and shapes are efficiently carried out as vectors. Artwork using soft edges, subtle hand-styled effects are best carried out in Ps, where large file sizes are unavoidable.

There are two exceptions to this trend. First, you can import pixel graphics into Ai and Id and if those files are large, anything exported, like PDFs) will be large. At least in Ai and Id, these graphics are linked by default so the native file doesn’t take on the file size of the imported graphics. With Ps most objects are imported are imbedded unless you are aware of how to import them as Smart Objects. Second, complex maps and architectural drawings are constructed with vector-based objects. These usually end up with hundreds and thousands of objects and that can really increase the file size. Sometimes, files exported as pixel-based images from these pieces can be smaller than the original.

I’m not a Photoshop Naysayer

Ps is awesome. If you’re really savvy with it, keep using it. Even if you are working on some projects that some designers may choose to do the same thing with Ai or Id. But don’t lock yourself into always using Ps. You’ll find that if you expand your horizons and practice more with Ai and Id, you see that your workflow increases and the quality of your work, and your creativity, increases.  A nice thing about CC, is that you can work nearly seamlessly between PS, Ai and Id. For complex projects, use Ps for what it does best, place them into Ai or Id to take advantage of the features that they do best.

Print Friendly

2 thoughts on “Photoshop vs InDesign vs Illustrator”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *