Disclosure: Some of the links on this site are affiliate (or referral) links, meaning, at no additional cost to you; we may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. This is how we are compensated for our time. It helps us to continue producing premium content. We are independently owned and the opinions expressed here are our own.
Last updated May 20, 2019.
Everybody’s heard of “Photoshoping” an image, right?
Of course you have.
But the thing is, when doing graphic design… there are many times when Photoshop just isn’t the right option.
Let’s start with something we can all agree on: You wouldn’t use a screwdriver to do a hammer’s job.
The same can be said when choosing a graphic design program. So, whether you’re building a house, fixing a bike, enhancing a photo, or designing a flyer…
…choosing the right tool for the job can make all the difference.
So, back to the question at hand:
When to use Adobe Photoshop vs Illustrator vs InDesign?
The real answer, of course… is that it depends on the project.
After reading this article, you’ll know exactly how to choose the right program the job.
When To Use Adobe Photoshop vs Illustrator vs InDesign
If you’re not a seasoned graphic designer… it’s easy to get confused about the differences between Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe InDesign.
And if you’re a creative professional – it can be incredibly frustrating receiving artwork or designs that weren’t made with the right software to begin with.
For instance, try scaling up a company logo for a billboard design if it wasn’t made in a vector-based program!
Always try to keep this in mind:
They made each individual program for a reason.
No More Excuses
I’m not ashamed to admit that in the past, I frequently chose the wrong program for the job… and it was almost always because I was not familiar with the one I should have been using.
Could you blame me?
I just picked the one I knew how to use.
And let’s be honest: Illustrator is intimidating if you’ve never used it
Fortunately though, we live in a time where it’s become so much easier to learn something new. The sheer amount of free learning materials available on any given topic is amazing!
So now, you have a choice:
Learn the right way and grow as an artist and designer, or continue to do things the wrong way.
We’re here to help you choose the first way.
Ok, back to what I was saying…
When deciding which software to use – the most important thing is knowing what your end goal is; including where and how your design is going to be viewed. Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign were each designed with numerous features and tools that are optimized for different types of creative projects and scenarios.
When in doubt, here’s a simple guide that explains which application is the best choice in different situations…
Vector vs Raster: The Difference is in the Details
Before deciding on which design software to use… we need to understand the difference between the 2 types of computer graphics files:
Vector vs Raster
Bear with me here, because knowing the difference can save you tons of time (and headaches).
Vector images use mathematical equations and geometric primitives (points, lines, and shapes) to create artwork that can be scaled infinitely – without any loss of quality.
Vector files can only be created in a computer, with software specifically designed to create them. Adobe Illustrator is a vector-based graphics design program.
Raster images, on the other hand, are composed of millions of tiny individual colored squares, also known as pixels.
When you take a photo with a digital camera or scan in a document, the resulting files are raster images. Adobe Photoshop is a raster-based photo editor.
How can I tell which one is which?
To identify if an image is vector or raster — simply open the image file in your design program, zoom way in, and look at any edges where there is contrast.
Check out these examples:
Zooming into a Vector Image in Adobe Illustrator
A vector image will appear smooth and show no signs of quality loss no matter how close you zoom in, or how large you make it.
Some common vector file types are:
- .pdf (can be vector or raster)
If you zoom into a raster image, you’ll begin to see the individual square pixel outlines – especially in areas of contrast on a picture.
Some common raster file types are:
Ok, so now that we understand the difference between vector and raster based images…
Let’s talk about when to use Adobe Photoshop vs Illustrator vs InDesign.
When To Use Adobe Photoshop
Hint: It’s in the name. It’s for photo editing!
Adobe Photoshop is the program of choice when it comes to manipulating and enhancing photos.
Working within simple layers; you’ll find handy tools, filters, and effects to stylize and create artistic photos.
If that’s not enough, there tons of stylized add-ons you can find or purchase to help you take your designs to the next level.
Adobe Photoshop is primarily a raster-editor, or pixel-based design program. This means that graphics and images can sometimes look a little jagged especially when scaled up – since raster images are made up of individual colored squares, or pixels.
The program was originally developed as a tool to enhance photographs, but it’s become a kind of pop culture phenomenon…
… leading some to think it’s the only graphic design program you need – which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Use Adobe Photoshop when:
- Working with raw photos or regular images
- Editing or enhancing photographs for print
- Making simple web graphics (such as banner ads) that will never need to be scaled up
- Creating a simple video, animation, or GIF
When NOT to use Adobe Photoshop:
- Designing a logo or branding materials
- Drawing or Illustrating
- Designing a flyer or poster
- Laying out lots of text
- Putting together multi-page brochures or newsletters
When To Use Adobe Illustrator
Let me guess: it’s for… illustrating?
Adobe Illustrator is a vector-based design program, and is popular for its capability to create pixel-perfect designs.
Artwork created in Illustrator can be scaled down for mobile screens, or scaled up to billboard size (or bigger!) – and never lose it’s sharpness and resolution.
Use Adobe Illustrator when:
- Drawing or creating illustration artwork
- Creating branding marks, logo designs, icons, or fonts
- Designing product packaging and labels
- Making any artwork that may need to be scaled up
- Creating single-page designs
And another thing… although Illustrator does allow you to create multiple artboards or mulitple pages within a document — it’s really best suited for single page designs.
The reason for this:
In Illustrator, you can’t automate page numbers or set up master pages like you can in Adobe InDesign.
When To Use Adobe InDesign
Adobe InDesign is the industry-leading page design and layout app that let’s you create, preflight (a.k.a. quality check), and publish beautiful documents for print and digital media.
InDesign was originally created for the desktop publishing market, with the purpose of laying out design for print. However, it’s now capable of creating immersive, interactive online digital documents.
InDesign puts the focus on your design’s layout.
You shouldn’t be enhancing your photos or graphics here — you’re placing them in a layout.
In fact, you’ll most likely be importing elements originally created in Photoshop and Illustrator to use in your InDesign projects.
Use Adobe InDesign when:
- Building multi-page layouts and designs
- Creating text-heavy layouts
- Designing magazine, newspaper, or book layouts
- Making newsletters, booklets, and brochures
Hopefully after reading this article, you have a better understanding of how to choose the right graphic design software for your future creative projects.
But for good measure… let’s summarize it once more:
When to use Photoshop
- Working with raw photos
- Editing or manipulating photos
- Creating simple web-only graphics
- Building mock-ups
When to use Illustrator
- Designing logos and branding
- Drawing or illustrations
- Creating icons or fonts
- Artwork that needs to be scalable
- Single page designs
When to use InDesign
- Creating multi-page layouts
- Building text-heavy layouts
- Designing magazines and newspaper layouts
- Making newsletters, booklets, and brochures
How about you?
Have you ever had trouble deciding which program to use for a specific kind of design project? Or maybe you’ve avoided one of these programs because you’d never used it before? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.
And if you’ve learned something from this post… please feel free to share it.
Joel Simser is a creative writer, entrepreneur, and all around video maestro. He’s produced original music for commercials and television, lent his voice to various promos and presentations, and edited thousands of non-award winning videos (including a few actual award shows).
As founder of AwesomeContentCreator.com, he authors in-depth guides that teach fellow content creators ways to grow and develop in their industries.