This blog is about Graphic Design, Vector Art, and Cartoon Illustration

When to use Adobe Illustrator instead of Photoshop

The two software programs that I use the most are Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. I've been using these programs for decades, and started teaching them in the late 1990s. If you've heard of Photoshop, but not Illustrator, that's not surprising. My experience is that most people have no difficulty understanding the concept of Photoshop (even if they can't use it themselves) but Illustrator remains a mystery.

The important thing to remember is that one isn't better than the other. They're both ways to draw stuff, or paint stuff, or take images and manipulate them. And Photoshop is used much more than Illustrator because it's essentially a tool that allows you to make changes to photos. You can change the color of people's eyes, you can erase someone from a photo, you can put yourself in a photo with a dinosaur. And so when a client asks me to do a Photoshop job, I listen carefully, and evaluate when I get a chance to look at it.

Today I did a small project for an architect in Los Angeles. He had designed a building and wanted to get involved with the color scheme for the interior. So when I talked to him, I assumed that he would send me a photo of the interior, and I would manipulate the colors a bit, and paint the walls in Photoshop.

Actual interior of the building.

Instructions from the architect

But after I saw it, I realized that Photoshop would not be the best tool for what he wanted. The interior had just been roughed in, and there were things that had to be eliminated from the photo. I started fiddling with it and then I realized that it was a job for Adobe Illustrator.

The ultimate goal of the artwork was to be able to show different color schemes. So I drew out the shapes in Illustrator and then added the colors as a layer below the lines. Kinda like doing a coloring book - just black lines that are easily colored. I did three color schemes and I expect that there may be more. I charge by the hour, so I try to design so that changes are easy for me to make. In my industry, that's called "Best Practice". I did a fair amount of work up front so that the changes and adjustments would be easy. If you build something like this out of vectors, in Illustrator, changing colors is ridiculously easy.

Of course the client doesn't really care. I supply the artwork back as a jpeg and that's all that matters. It can be brought into Photoshop by someone else if needs be. I can supply the .ai file or an editable vector pdf, but I try not to confuse my clients with all that stuff. I've found that everyone knows what a jpeg is.

I like Adobe Illustrator, but I won't kid you, it's difficult to learn. I've known people who've tried and tried and never got the hang of it. In my experience, the more you want it to be Photoshop the harder it will be for you. But it's different for a reason. Once you understand that reason, which is all about "vectors", it becomes much easier.