Illustrator CS5

Illustrator. What to use it for?

You  may know all about Photoshop but as a creative suite owner, you are intrigued by that other app sitting there called Illustrator and what it is best used for. I mean, Photoshop must be able to do the same style of art as Illustrator right?

This is true to a certain extent. Yes, you are able to achieve many of the same styles from Illustrator as you can in Photoshop, but with one major difference. While Photoshop is the primary raster image editor, Illustrator is the very opposite. You see, what it does best, actually all it does, is vector artwork.

Basic Idea of Illustrator

Illustrator was created as the complement to Photoshop when you were drawing to take advantage of the vector technology. Vector artwork is based on percentages, compared to the raster art which is all based on the single sized pixel with one color. This gives vector art such a great advantage in that you can scale it up and down without loosing any quality in the file at all.


The name usually gives it all away. Inside of Illustrator you do your illustrations. Simple, no? It is not only the flexibility of the vector art that makes Illustrator such a good application for doing illustrations in, but also its advanced array of tools that make drawing much easier than in Photoshop.

Web Design & Web Graphics

However, it is not just illustrations and drawings that Illustrator does well. The application has proven itself to be very useful when designing for the web, even though Photoshop is normally the application of choice by Web Designers. The benefit lies again within vector art and that you can scale the graphics much more easily if a client changes its mind in mid-process.

Working in Illustrator compared to Photoshop

Most people become acquainted with Adobe software through Photoshop. Once you know one Adobe application well, the others are usually a breeze to understand because of the similar user interface concepts.

There are a few major differences to the way of working in Illustrator, compared to Photoshop that are paramount to understand and grasp.

Objects on the artboard

In Illustrator, all objects are always editable. Because everything is a path in Illustrator, you can always go back and edit it and select it. As soon as you draw a path whether it be freehand or using for example the rectangle tool, you get a path that you can both stroke and fill. These are placed on the main artboard for you to move around and arrange.


Because objects are always selectable, you can stack objects on top of each other and always be able to go back and select and edit them all, without having them on separate layers. This is of course a tremendous advantage over Photoshop when drawing, that you do not have to create a new layer each time you want to make sure that you are able to go back and make a change later on.

With this you might think that layers are not very important to use in Illustrator. While they are not needed as a safety line to be able to go back and change objects, they are a big help when you want to hide and show different objects, or locking down some as to not accidentally changing them while working on others.


Another major difference is the way that Illustrator handles effects. It is very similar to what Photoshop has gained in the last few versions with its smart filters. When you apply a live effect to an object in Illustrator, it is saved to the appearance panel, where you can go back in and edit the effect at any time in the future.

So what do you not do in Illustrator?

Illustrator can definitely handle a wide range of different styles of art but there are a couple of things that you either cannot do at all, or that Illustrator does very poorly.

Collages/Ads/Material with photos

While you can design stunning ads that you make from scratch in Illustrator, doing art which requires placing of photos inside, is not to be fully completed in Illustrator as it does not handle any type of raster art in a very good way. Even though you can turn these photos into vector artwork in Illustrator, the result is not going to be the same as using the photo as it is.

Photo editing

This is very straightforward, you don’t do photo editing inside of Illustrator. Because Illustrator is all about vector artwork, and photos are the prime example of raster artwork, these two don’t mix very well at all.

Summary: This is Illustrator

You should by now have a feel for what you use Illustrator for. In short you can let the name speak for itself. With Illustrator, you do illustrations, encompassing all types of drawings, pantings, coloring. As seen however, web design, consisting of mainly vector shapes, is a good use case as well.

Don’t limit your thinking that artwork needs to be completed in one Creative Suite application. Use Illustrator for what it does best, say creating that stunning drawing. If you then want to use it in a bigger piece, bring it into Photoshop, InDesign or even Flash (for animations) to continue working with the first part. Utilize the tools for what they do best when you have them!

This is the first part in a series taking a look at what the different applications in the Adobe Creative Suite are best used for. Any Adobe applications references will be dedicated their own part in the series which will be linked in as they are posted.

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Erik is the owner of online media company Bernskiold Media that runs tutorial website Bernskiold learning and he is a Web Designer, Photographer and Software-Trainer.

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