Adobe Illustrator vs Photoshop

In this guest post Sherry London explores some of the differences between Adobe Illustrator vs Photoshop.

Controversy is always fun (if it’s polite), and designers can argue for hours whether Adobe Illustrator vs Photoshop is better for surface pattern design. Each side fights for their own opinion. The “true” answer is that you need you both, and as for the ‘which is better’ question, it totally depends on what you’re trying to do.

Both are Adobe programs, and if you subscribe to the Creative Cloud, you get them both—along with everything else in the “Creative” set of programs. I think Creative Cloud is the best bargain I’ve seen in years, but I was previously paying over $1000 every 18 months to update both Mac and Windows versions of the Master Suite.

The technical difference between Photoshop and Illustrator hinges on two words: raster and vector. Understanding what they are makes it a lot easier to know which program is better at which task.

A raster file is made up of pixels. Picture your monitor filled with graph paper. If you then color in the various little grid squares, you have a screen that resembles pixels. It has all the advantages and disadvantages of graph paper as well. You can easily chart out anything and change a single square (pixel). However, if you want to move a group of pixels, you need to make a specific selection because there’s no way to tell one grid square or pixel from another. If you decide to enlarge your image, it starts to look soft, show the pixels, and turn really ugly!

Another thing that a raster program can’t do well is to make a crisp diagonal or curved line. Again, think of your graph paper—or a piece of needlepoint or counted cross stitch. Horizontal or vertical lines are fine; diagonal lines start to “stair-step”. Photoshop copes with this by adding colors along the edges of brushes that half way between the brush color and color of the pixels under it. This is called anti-aliasing. It makes the curves and diagonals much more pleasing to see, but if you need to send a pattern to a factory for screen printing, it can greatly increase the number of colors in your image and make it necessary for you to index the file to cut down the number of colors. Now your diagonals stair-step again.

So, what’s a vector file and how is it different? If a raster file in the real world would be graph paper, then a vector file would be a road map that leaves a trail behind it. It can show where to start an object, how to far to draw the line, in what direction, and when to turn it around. It understands the idea of circles, lines, rectangles, and other geometric objects. It understands color as well, but only color that fills an entire object on the inside or outside. The actual base element of an Illustrator file is program code that you create when you draw the objects.

When I first learned computer graphics, I learned to write a program that showed me the objects I created. The inventors of Illustrator turned that around so that artists could make the shapes they wanted and have Illustrator write the program to print it.

Does this vector method have a benefit? Yes. It means that you can take this code-that-draws-the-shapes and tell it to be any size you want. You can enlarge and reduce it and stays crisp and clear. Do you want this image inside a locket on your neck? Illustrator can do that. Do you want it on the roadside billboard? Yep—Illustrator can do that as well. Same file—no problem.

So, what can’t Illustrator do? It doesn’t understand pixels. It can’t alter the colors in part of a shape—only on the entire thing.

I know I haven’t solved the old problem of which program to use. If you start out by drawing your own images and you want areas of solid color and crisp shapes in the pattern, you’ll probably want to use Illustrator. But if you like to design in paint or mixed media first and want more artistic freedom, Photoshop will better suit your needs.

Both programs have work-arounds to help with the tasks that they can’t do. If you learn both programs, you’ll become adept at moving between them freely. I often start with creating shapes in Illustrator and developing the idea for a layout there. Then I can bring it into Photoshop and add wild textures and much more complexity. I could also start in Photoshop and end up in Illustrator; the possibilities are endless if you make the programs work together. As printing for fashion and fabrics becomes more digital, the color limitations will become much less of an issue. So, happy creating!


  1. Right at the beginning of my surface pattern design journey….I needed this information! I had never worked with photoshop or illustrator and trying to understand what other designers were talking/writing about went right over my head. This post is easy to understand and perfect for those new to Photoshop and illustrator.

  2. great article! I definitely use both and going back and forth between PS and AI gives so much more flexibility.

  3. Great post comparing the pro’s and con’s of each. This gives beginner and intermediate designers a good idea of how best to navigate both depending on their style of work.

  4. Thank you! very interesting!

    Depends on the printing system, digital or screen-printing. If I don’t have limits of color I use photoshop.

    I am agree that both programs can work very well together!
    They are like cousins. 🙂

  5. If working in photoshop you can always index colours to colour reduce and make it flat colour so easier to change colours, this can be done when finished you design. when you have done this also check your settings before you start, If you want hard edges and no anti-alias edges (Blurred edges), make sure it is turned of on all selection tools and in preference- general, have it to Nearest neighbor.
    If working on a water colour or photo print you properly want to keep selections on anti-alias and preferences to bicubic.

    kerri xx

  6. Very informative article Sherry. Clearly laid out and explained. And a nice bit of advice there from Kerri too.
    Can I ask anyone…how does one index colours?
    I’m not sure what that means.

  7. Hi Sherry,
    Great article and very helpful! Quick question – I like to design in paint or mixed media first. When I scan my motif into Photoshop and start moving them around to form a pattern, can I reduce the size of my motif without losing the quality? I’ve found my motif are too big for the intended surface I wish to apply the print on.
    Look forward to hearing from you, thanks bec

  8. Sorry another question- How can you tell the actual size your motif will print out? If you view your screen at 100% is this roughly what size your design will print? Thanks, bec

  9. Bec, I am glad that you enjoyed the article. Make a Smart Object of your motifs or you painting and you can then both scale the size of the image down from 100% and back up to 100% again with no image loss.

    To get a raw idea of what zoom level will be actual size, you can take a ruler to your monitor and measure. If you have a 1 inch square at 300 ppi, try to zoom out to make it one inch on the screen. That is about 27% or so my monitor but it depends on the res of your monitor. That way, even though the print would show your detail better, you can get an idea of how it would lay.


  10. This is the most succinct, easiest to understand expla nation I have come across and I feel like I FINALLY understand the big difference in the two programs. Thank you!

  11. Hi, I just recently worked for a company that had me doing all of the designing in Photoshop, which was really frustrating, because the pen tool is soooo much better in illustrator, and the designs they had me doing were flat, and hard-edged. I never asked why they wanted everything in Photoshop. I assumed it was something to do with printing overseas. Any ideas? I still want to do all of my drawing in Illustrator, but I’ve been staying in Photoshop, in case most companies are like the last one.

    Thanks for any thoughts!

  12. That was an in-house job, by the way. Not freelance. Perhaps all they had was Photoshop. I didn’t have to do any of the indexing, someone else did that. Maybe that was easier for them to do in Photoshop? I wish I would have asked, but it was not the friendliest or most conversational company.

    1. Hi John! It depends on the artwork style. Designers who have a more painterly style tend to prefer Photoshop, while designers with a more clean/graphic style tend to prefer Illustrator.

  13. I have found this extremely helpful and informative. Thank you Sherry for putting this in such succinct terms I feel this was written just for my questions.
    I have one other question if anyone kindly has any insights.
    I have Photoshop and no access to Illustrator. Is it possible to use free versions/ trial periods of AI to compile online portfolio? I realise this option would not be sustainable in the long term. I am currently trying to check out if there are any public colleges or places where people can jump on and use AI without having to purchase whole thing ( with two kids and teaching materials to purchase – I do workshops with kids and adults at weekends) this is just not financially viable right now. Grateful for Any ideas as I am really struggling to think how I would gain access to Illustrator apart from trial periods.

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