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Resplendence, a blog from Radiant Resolution about graphic design

Ultimate Breakdown of File Types

Part of my process when delivering final files to clients is an explanation of what they're receiving. This requires a script that I keep on hand to save time (more information on the importance of having scripts to come next in the blog!). Most clients aren't aware which files they can use and which files should be sent to professionals for services like printing or embroidering.

I also occasionally receive files from clients they'd like converted, and many times that's not possible without charging an hourly fee to reformat or even redraw a design.

It's important to know what types of files you're receiving from your designer so you aren't stuck with a surcharge from an outside printer. Take a look at the ultimate breakdown below!

We'll start with the most common RASTER file types.

Raster images are made up of pixels, with each pixel being assigned a color. This means when you enlarge a raster image larger enough, you'll begin to see each pixel.

I'll also be listing which file types can be saved as CMYK or RGB. CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and black (k instead of b, so it's not confused for blue): colors best used for printing purposes. RGB stands for red, green, blue, which indicate images best seen on a screen. Using a file format for a different purpose than it's intended will cause inaccurate (and sometimes downright ugly) color variations.

GIF – Graphics Interchange Format

The long-lasting battle of how to pronounce "giff" or "jiff" is still ongoing. But just remember these are poorer quality images based on their 256 color limitation. They are more commonly used for logos, icons, and clip art. They support transparency, but not levels of transparency (so no fading colors or shaded drop shadows). This is an RGB file type, based for screens.

JPEG – Joint Photographic Experts Group

The JPEG is a common file type for photographs and are ideal for the web or social media. One important thing to remember about a JPEG is that every time you resave it, it will lose quality. This has to do with its method of compression which is called "lossy compression." This file can support RGB, CMYK, grayscale and more, so it can be versatile for the screen or for printing.

PNG – Portable Network Graphic

PNGs are the new GIFs. They are a great overall file type from logos to images. They have "lossless compression" method which means they keep their data through each save, but this does mean they can be larger in file size. The best thing about PNGs is their "alpha" transparency capability, which means you can have partially transparent parts in your images. This makes them ideal for use on the web. This is an RGB file type.

TIFF – Tagged Image File Format

TIFFs are extremely high quality raster files, which means they are great for photographs. This also means they will be larger in file size. These are file types most used by professional photographers. This can be an RGB or CMYK file type.

PSD — Photoshop Document

PSDs are original design files created within Adobe Photoshop that are fully editable, layered files. Though Photoshop is primarily used to create/edit raster images, it can also contain vector elements as well. This can be an RGB or CMYK file type.

Which brings us to vector files!

Vector images, very different from raster, are created using lines and shapes that can be scaled to any size without losing quality. You m may have to have a special program to open some of these these types of files. These files are preferred by outside companies for specialized printing (think of embroidery, signage, decals, or apparel).

PDF — Portable Document Format

PDFs are images or documents that are primarily used to a file will display correctly, no matter the device, computer, or application. It's a universal standard file format preferred by printers as well. All Adobe products in the design suite can export to PDF. PDFs can also be saved with options to retain vector data, making them not only a raster data file type but also a vector. It's such a versatile file that it can be an RGB or CMYK file type, or both within the same document.

EPS — Encapsulated PostScript

EPS is primarily used as a vector format, though it can include raster images as well. This is the primary preferred format by designers for vector graphics including logos and illustrations, and the preferred format for specialized printing like embroidery or decals. This can be an RGB or CMYK file type.

AI — Adobe Illustrator file

AI files are created within Adobe Illustrator, and are vector-based files that can also include embedded or linked raster files. Though printing companies can use AI files, it's best to save as an EPS to avoid version-restriction issues. This can be an RGB or CMYK file type.

SVG — Scalable Vector Graphic

SVG files are vector-based but can actually be compressed. It uses XML coding within the file which means it can actually be read by a web browser or even within Notepad. All major Adobe products support SVG files. This can be an RGB or CMYK file type.

So now that you're a master at recognizing file types, be sure to let your designer know which types you'll be needing!


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About Brittany Klein

Brittany Klein is a freelance graphic designer from Maryland. She established her company, Radiant Resolution, in 2008 after receiving her Master of Arts degree in graphic design from Savannah College of Art & Design. She has since written blogs, e-books, and articles centered around graphic design and fine art for many organizations across the country.

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