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File Extensions as Far as the Eye Can See

File Extensions as Far as the Eye Can See

When you imagined life as a graphic designer, I would be willing to wager that visions of life as a working artist danced in your head. You thought you’d spend hours gleefully illustrating and collaging (and sometimes correcting photos) for your clients, trading creative work products for a livelihood. In the real world, you probably spend a sizeable chunk of your time chasing down files and trying your best to work with whatever a client has sent you. But why are there so many image formats? And which ones do you really need or not need? 

Functionally, there are only two different types of image files—raster and vector. Raster images are saved as a pixel grid, and those individual pixels come together to form a larger picture or graphic. Raster images look great when presented in their original size but tend to become distorted as they’re scaled up or down. Vector images, on the other hand, are generated and stored algorithmically. That means they’re easy to scale upwards or downwards without distortion. Both have numerous subtypes, though, and each one has a role to play in the world of graphic design. 

Many of the most encountered image formats are raster: JPEG (or JPG), TIFF, PNG, and PSD (yes, your native Photoshop files are raster images). JPEG is among the oldest and most widely used formats, likely because its relatively small file size and handful of compression options are sufficient for most digital applications. However, JPEG files tend to distort noticeably when they’re scaled or otherwise manipulated with editing software like Photoshop. PNG has similarities to JPEG, but it’s a lossless image format. That means that it can be compressed without a loss of quality, though scaling the image upwards or downwards can still produce noticeable distortions. Importantly, PNG files can also preserve transparencies in images, which JPEG cannot do. TIFF is generally reserved for very high-quality images. The files are much larger than JPEG or PNG but can also be scaled to a greater degree before distortions become noticeable. This high level of fidelity makes TIFF a preferred format for designers and archivists alike. 

On the other side of the coin are vector images. There are far fewer common vector file extensions, but the ones that are widely used are (or have been) industry standards. Today, AI (.ai) files are capturing an ever-growing share of the market. This is Adobe’s proprietary file format, and it works well for print and digital distribution. EPS is an aging vector format, but it can be viewed (though not edited) with many illustration apps as a result. It is also no longer being supported, which means EPS is already on the road to “legacy format.” The final type of widespread vector image is SVG, and today it’s primarily used to export 2D images into 3D modelling software. It also sees some continued use in graphics presented digitally but is losing ground to AI in that arena. 

These file formats are far from being the only ones in use, but they are the most common today. Understanding the utility of each will make you an infinitely more efficient designer. 

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