When to Use Adobe Illustrator vs. Photoshop vs. InDesign

Always pick the right tools for the job

Would you choose a plumber that uses a saw, when what he really needs is a wrench?

One of the things that can be frustrating to creative professionals is receiving files that have been put together using the wrong piece of design software. It could be anything from using Adobe Illustrator instead of InDesign for layout or a logo that has been put together using Photoshop.

While it’s expected that pros should know this information, someone who’s cracking open the software for the first time might not even be aware that there are instances where you should be using one over the other. Just like a plumber would use the right wrench for the job, each program has a specific area that it excels at. So what I’ll be doing in this post is breaking down the three pieces of design software from Adobe – InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop and explaining when to use them.

By examining them in this way, you can see what your specific needs are, this should help you to decide what program you’ll start learning. You’ll want to focus your attention on the piece of software that is most relevant to what your goals, and then apply that knowledge to the other two.

Adobe InDesignWhen to use Adobe InDesign

There should be no confusion about when to use InDesign – its specific purpose is for laying out printed materials; that’s what it is designed to do. This could be brochures, newsletters, ads, business cards or books. Virtually anything that is made up of a combination of blocks of text, photos or other artwork. Its purpose is to take the elements that you create in Illustrator and Photoshop and put them together in one place.

InDesign excels at projects that require multi-page layouts or master layouts where one theme reoccurs on multiple pages. Its text wrap functionality (where you can literally wrap text around images or objects) is much simpler and easier to use than it is in Illustrator.

People can, and do, put together layouts with Photoshop or Illustrator. However, in doing so, they often create files that are needlessly huge or put together in ways that are not optimal for commercial printers to use. InDesign, however, packages everything for you – all of your fonts and images. It does this so that you can hand off these materials to your printer and they can make your layout work in the exact manner that you intended.

While InDesign is a powerful tool, it does have its limitations. For one, it doesn’t have any photo editing capabilities. InDesign does give you the ability to draw vector graphics, like those you might find in a logo, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what you can do with Illustrator. Which brings us to…

Adobe IllustratorWhen to use Adobe Illustrator

Illustrator, as its name suggests, is for creating and editing vector based illustrations such as logos and brand marks or other design elements. Vector graphics are scalable images that can be sized as small or as large as you need them to be, and still maintain their resolution and clarity.

While it is possible to create multi-page documents with Illustrator for items like brochures or annual reports, there are a few drawbacks to using the program in this way:

  1. Illustrator doesn’t have a way to setup master pages the way that InDesign does. This is a necessary tool when you’re building documents that use templates.
  2. Illustrator doesn’t allow you to automate page numbers. This is another feature InDesign supports, which can be especially useful when dealing with larger documents.

Adobe PhotoshopWhen to use Adobe Photoshop

Plain and simple, Photoshop is for creating and editing photos and raster (pixel) based art work. The program was originally developed as a tool to enhance photographs, but over time its functionality has developed to the point where it can be used to create:

  • User interface designs
  • Web pages
  • Banner ads
  • Video graphics
  • Editing pictures for print

Because there is so much information about Photoshop out there in the form of tutorials and guides, some people feel that it’s all you need – a one stop shop. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The problem is that there are instances when you don’t need to use Photoshop, and should in fact be using Illustrator or InDesign.

  1. Do not create logos with Photoshop – It’s a bad idea that will do nothing but cost you time and money. Again, Photoshop is pixel, or raster based. If you create a logo with it, the files that it creates can not be enlarged or manipulated in the same manner that an Illustrator-based logo can.
  2. Do not set type in Photoshop for print projects – For type to print at its clearest, it needs to be vector based; Photoshop exports type as pixels. Now, you can save your Photoshop files in as an .EPS file which allows you to export type as vectors, but still this is not a best practice, so just don’t do it.

Pitting InDesign vs Illustrator vs PhotoshopConclusion

Hopefully this article has helped to clear up some of the confusion that surrounds these pieces of software and when to use them. While I’ve only scratched the surface as far as the capabilities of Adobe InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop, these are some of their most fundamental applications. Thinking about what you need to do with these programs will help you to organize your workflow better and ultimately create more professional looking documents.

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When to Use Adobe Illustrator vs. Photoshop vs. InDesign

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Posted in Design Tutorials, Illustrator Tips & Tutorials, InDesign Tips & Tutorials, Photoshop Tips & Tutorials, Print Design

74 Responses to “When to Use Adobe Illustrator vs. Photoshop vs. InDesign”

  • Chris says:

    Cheers for this, exactly the clarification i was looking for!

  • Parvez says:

    that was very helpful! thanx a lot!

  • Cathy Lynn says:

    I have searched many books, and I still have not found a book that covers Layout using InDesign. Rather, many new books cover layout and typography up to Tabloid size. Package, design, step and repeat, points verses. inches, container design, over size pages, etc seem to be left to old textbooks. If you can recommend any books that combine advanced layout (mock ups and templates) using Adobe CS5 or 6 I would really appreciate it.

    Thank you,
    Cathy

    • jmaurer says:

      I don’t know of any books offhand, but you may want to try out the InDesign tutorials at Lynda.com. They’re pretty in-depth and they’ve been very useful to us in the past. Hope that helps!

  • Tanisha says:

    This is very helpful thank you so much! :)

  • rlands says:

    Awesome! I have the Master Collection and have only worked with illustrator, fireworks and photoshop, because I just didn’t know. Ignorance is not always bliss. Appreciate the clarification and for cracking the door open.

  • Alex says:

    Here it is:

    I want a program that will allow me to take a picture of a home and change the windows or doors on it. the substitute windows or doors would be saved in different files. I need to place the new windows over the existing ones and scale them to the same size as well as possibly colour them. doors same as windows.

    This is for a door and window company.

    Which one should I be using??

    Thanx

  • Renna says:

    Thanks so much I appriciate. Renna

  • Rebecca says:

    This is exactly what I needed. There is so much overlap with these programs that I was unclear as to which one I needed to use for my current project. I took a ten week course that gave a basic intro to each of these programs, but it was so long ago that what I learned is now a blur in my mind. Thanks for the clarification.

  • anat says:

    thanks a whole lot! this is a great article, that realy does clearify the differences between programs! lots of regards, all the way from Israel :) !

  • carrie says:

    Great info…I’m familiar with photoshop and illustrator but have never worked in indesign and i’m getting ready to recreate my companies catalog.
    Based on your definitions and inforamtion I know it is best to do the layout in indesign…
    My question is…where do I start? Once I have a template that i want to use do I just bring my photoshop and illustrator elements in? I tried using indesign for a business card one other time and my images and everything looked terrible. Is that normal. I ended up asking for the template as an illustrator file. Thanks for any additional guidance you may be able to provide!

  • Mark Sherman says:

    Fabulous article. Please don’t ever take it down. While I have been interested in photography for years, I am new to digital photography. I am looking to choose my entry level software and this article made it very clear and easy to understand what to look for in these different packages. Thank You!

  • Jennifer says:

    Thanks for writing this, am usually confused with things that straddle. I use photoshop and lightroom for editing images, and photoshop for composing multiple images. Always went to illustrator for logo design. But wanting to design my own holiday cards with images and type/shape elements and unsure where to go. I think photoshop for the masking and dropping in images but then I know I dont want to do my type in there. Would you suggest Illustrator or is this a time to check out InDesign (which I have no experience with)
    Thanks!

    • jmaurer says:

      InDesign is mostly useful for multipage layouts like books and brochures. I’d stick with a combination of Photoshop and Illustrator: use Photoshop to edit your images, save as a TIFF, import into Illustrator and continue to create all your vector stuff there.
      Let us know if you have more questions!

  • bahram says:

    Thank you for going to the trouble to explain this. Very helpful! :)

  • Ben Linford says:

    Previously I’d made Illustrator my one-stop-shop (I started my own personal photoshop rebellion and wanted to do things differently).
    I’ve been reading up on and observing the new wave of user interface design and it made me reconsider using it.
    I ended up creating all of the graphics for my latest web design project in Photoshop and I have to say, my eyes have been opened.
    I have even been carrying out layout design work in Illustrator, since the core graphics I had been creating, were Illustrator based.
    I think though, for my own personal development – dropping the elements into InDesign would not hurt and since the work is for print, it’s just logical.
    Thanks for giving me a little nudge towards greater professionalism.

  • Jim Babbage says:

    Some excellent information in this post. Thank you. I am surprised though that Fireworks is not mentioned, with it’s strong ties and feature set for creating/editing screen-based graphics and application and web design.

    • jmaurer says:

      Thanks for the suggestion, we might do a Fireworks-related article at some point in the future.

  • Joseph Lilly says:

    I’ve been using Photoshop for everything from web to print to logos for years. Thanks for the clarification!

  • Kristin says:

    This is EXACTLY what I needed! Thanks so much for the clarification!!

  • Lancelot says:

    Thanks for the explanation it was really helpful.
    I do have a question though, which program is the best for drawing?
    The plan was to sketch something on paper, scan it in and edit it in illustrator, after that I would probably paint over/colour it in photoshop. The drawing involves characters but also detailed scenery. Also, the drawing will be high quality and cost a lot of time. Does the choice depends on the size or ratio too? So I would like to hear from you how you would edit a sketch. Thanks in advance.

    • jmaurer says:

      It depends somewhat on the effect you’re going for. If you want a photorealistic effect, you can scan, sketch, and edit in Photoshop. For this you will need to know the size you plan to end up with; just make sure you create your image in the desired size and at 300 dpi resolution.

      If you want a more simple image (like a comic-style illustration), you can create it in Illustrator and then set it to whatever size you want (since it’s vector based).

  • James says:

    I’m not sure I understand why everyone says that Photoshop is purely raster-based image editing. I use the pen tool constantly.

    Vector shapes/paths are perfectly doable in Photoshop and scale indefinitely.

    Is the problem that it limits the software that your project can be edited with? Does Illustrator/InDesign simply do away with that “half pixel” that seems to show up in Photoshop if you aren’t careful? Otherwise, I don’t see why it can’t be a one-stop shop.

    • jmaurer says:

      Photoshop can be used to create scalable vector art, but it does come with some technical limitations depending on what you plan to use the artwork for–especially if you plan to have it printed. Photoshop vector art can’t be used with certain printing methods or materials (such as custom drinkware), which means you might need to recreate the artwork in Illustrator later. It’s much less of an issue if your end result is purely digital, but it’s important to know the distinction when creating printed products.

      • James says:

        Thanks jmaurer. The technical limitations make sense. I’ve been “keepin’ it digital”, as it were.

  • Akansh says:

    Sir thanks for your help.I need to ask one question that as you said that in illustrator we can easily increase the resolution. I have created a design and i want to export it as a high resolution. how to do that ?

  • Rob says:

    Superb, helped me get on track what I needed to do :)

  • waseem says:

    Very very well explained..exactly the way I was looking for…..
    thanks a lot …bravo.

  • me!~ says:

    For comics, would you say that Photoshop would be good to make the pages, and edit them; InDesign to format the comic; and Illustrator to come up with a logo for it?

    • jmaurer says:

      Yes, though it might depend on how you’re actually drawing the comic. Photoshop would be good for editing hand-drawn images you’ve scanned, while you’d probably be better off with Illustrator if you’re creating the characters directly from the computer.

  • lkairos says:

    This is a nice summary of each program’s ideal role- thanks for sharing it! I am having trouble figuring out how to smoothly move materials between the three programs, especially between Photoshop and Illustrator. Does anyone have any suggested resources/online articles to help with learning how to go back and forth?

  • acunningham says:

    I am torn between using Indesign or Illustrator for our church. We need to make a church bulletin which is typically a one page back and front tri-fold and possibly other printed materials such as a brochure. But we would also need it to change our logo around for different things such as making t-shirts or coffee cups. Which program would you recommend? Thank you.

    • jmaurer says:

      In this case, you could actually use either, but I would suggest InDesign. It works better for multi-page mockups and also includes vector tools suitable for logo manipulation.

  • Van says:

    Thank you very much, I used to do printing design in Photoshop which has caused quite a lot of troubles… Now is really the time to finally learn Indesign. :)

    This was super helpful!!!! ?

  • Mike says:

    Thanks for giving of your time and knowledge to help so many of us! I have all three programs in question (CS6) and want to train myself to create Blu Ray covers and DVD covers quickly, looking to future employment doing so. I can create the content of these items no problem, but I’m not sure where to assemble the finished image. For example, I could create from start to finish a Blu-ray cover in photoshop if need be, but I never know if it’s in photoshop where I need to set the precise measurements (canvas size) of the cover or if I can just keep the file editable and fit it to a template in InDesign (or other cover creation software, like AVS).If you were doing this, at what point and in which of the three programs would you set the BluRay/DVD cover measurements?

    • jmaurer says:

      You could actually use any of the three programs to create BluRay/DVD mockups, depending on your personal preference. All three allow you to set the size of the artboard (or canvas, in the case of Photoshop).

  • Edith says:

    Thank you a lot for your great help. I haven’t yet one of the programs but want to buy one, or, if it’s necessary, all of these three. I have a lot of paintings (with acryl) which would be great for textildesign or stationarydesign. Once, I did a painting for an advertising-poster (size A3, and small flyers), scanned the painting in a professional shop and gave it to a professional designer. He used InDesign and I was allowed to watch when he worked with this program. I loved it and the result was cool! So, when I’ve understood you right: photoshop is not using for printed stuff. Or is it possible as you wrote above: to edit in photoshop, save as a TIFF, import into Illustrator and continue there? Actually, first I wanted just to buy InDesign, but now I am a bit confused…;-) By the way: the paintings don’t have to be too much changed, because already finished.
    Thanks a lot for your answer.

    • jmaurer says:

      All three programs could be used to achieve what you’re describing, depending on your preference. If you prefer to use InDesign, go for it.

  • Rick says:

    Great article, very informative. Wanted to ask, if I needed to create a single or double sided brochure, that could possibly be printed on a inkjet or laserjet printer or sent to a commercial printer for printing. Which would be the better way of doing it? 1) Create the brochure in Illustrator with all the vector graphics and text. Then drop in any photos to use from Photoshop into the Illustrator file. Or 2) Create a InDesign file, drop in any vector graphics, photos from Photoshop and type the text in InDesign. Which way would be more commercial printing freely, when you have to deal with CMYK, trim lines, bleeds and etc.?

    Thank you

    • jmaurer says:

      It mostly depends on your personal preference regarding which programs you’re most comfortable with. Either technique would work (as long as your commercial printer accepts the resulting file format).

  • Theresa says:

    I am trying to decide how to design my character for a storybook and be able to manipulate the character movements from page to page easily. I am writing a short story and am looking to self publish. Which programs would I need to purchase to achieve this professionally? Would you suggest getting a cartoon drawing program?

  • Ryan Rhoades says:

    Thanks for the very clear, concise explanation!

  • CS says:

    Thanks so much. Have been using PSD for everything (digital) but new client requires a lot of print ready artwork and have been hitting road blocks with PSD. This article has really helped clarify and given me ideas for how to be more proficient moving forward.

  • MTR says:

    I have used illustrator for images and newsletter – and have seen others use inDesign for catalogs (I provided text in Excel spreadsheets and Word docs) – Photoshop for just resizing images – I am told that inDesign is a nightmare for making global edits to font formats and other changes – so would it be best to use all three Illustrator for text, Photoshop for images, inDesign pull in from Illustrator and layout for printing (we will be printing in house – so if I can just print from Illustrator, that would prevent me needing to learn another program)
    Thanks so much for all this great info!

  • D. A. Levy says:

    I’m REALLY fond of simplicity and you delivered. Usually one has to wade though pages of non-essential information before getting the answer one needed. THANK YOU!!! I think you’re brilliant.

  • Adewale says:

    Nice article. But I found a trick where images can be edit in InDesign. So lovely trick..

  • Jo-Anne says:

    Thanks! This information was very helpful. I was under the assumption that Photoshop was used for everything related to design. I’m so happy I ran across this post.

  • Anna says:

    I need to purchase a program to create digital images for a website (emails and web-content) as well as occasional print productions (need vectors usually – for banners, signs etc.)… which program would be the best (most versatile) purchase?

    Thanks!

  • Momsknowbest says:

    My son wants to make t-shirt designs and we need to know what program would be best. He will create the design himself and needs to also add words with the pictures. Is illustrater the best for him?

    • jmaurer says:

      If the designs he’s making are mostly composed of vector art (illustrations), Illustrator would be the best choice.

  • Sorcha says:

    I was wondering if InDesign is the best option to use for creating CD album covers? I would like to create a CD album cover for a band for a school project, however I have no experience with InDesign. I would love to learn how to use it. I am very good with Photshop however – would it be useful to create all graphics/elements inside Photoshop and then compile them together in InDesign?
    Thanks!

    • jmaurer says:

      Photoshop would work fine if it’s just the cover. If you’re making a multi-page document (like liner notes), InDesign is preferable.

  • Harold Lee says:

    this was helpful. thanks

    soooooooooo, where does LiveCycle fit into this ?

    appreciate it, thanks


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