Software and design: Understanding adobe indesign vs. illustrator

Angie Renner
Published by 
Angie Renner
Last updated: 
January 6, 2024

Whether you dream of one day becoming a professional graphic designer or need to invest in software for your business, understanding the differences between InDesign vs. Illustrator isn't always easy. But with a little research, these programs can be as simple to use and understand as more popular software like Photoshop.

Learning how to use InDesign and Illustrator can help open up a variety of projects to you. Especially if you own a business or organization, knowing how to create documents with these programs can save you money on outside design services. So what is the difference between InDesign vs. Illustrator? And what projects can you achieve with these programs?

Josefa Ndiaz

The Leaders in Graphic Design Software

Even if you aren't firmly planted in the graphic design world, you've heard of the software company Adobe. Their program Adobe Acrobat is used by thousands, if not millions, of computer users to view and edit PDF documents. But their role in document creation and design certainly doesn't end there.

Adobe Systems, Inc., more commonly referred to as just Adobe, began in 1982. In a time when paper documents were the norm, and quite frankly the only real option, John Warnock and Charles Geschke saw an opportunity. Their first software product was Illustrator in 1987. The year 1990 saw the introduction of one of Adobe's most ubiquitous programs: Photoshop. And in 1999, Adobe released Illustrator.

Today, the company takes in over $7 billion annually, and for a good reason. Adobe products are used by graphic designers, home computer users, and enormous corporations. In fact, Adobe estimates that over 250 billion PDF documents were viewed in the past year. So when you consider the range of other products offered by the company, it's no surprise that they've become a household name.

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The Big Three: Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator

Adobe has come a long way from its humble beginnings. The company now offers dozens of different software programs, most focused on document creation and manipulation. Of course, these documents can range from boring legal documents to incredible digital renderings. And that's what has made Adobe such a success in the computer era.

Looking at Adobe's graphic design programs, there are three mainstays: Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator. Most people are familiar with Photoshop and its basic capabilities. But those who are outside of the graphic design industry often don't know the differences between InDesign vs. Illustrator. Or even what these programs can do for their own design projects.

Adobe Photoshop

When it comes to Adobe's design software, most people have at least a cursory familiarity with Photoshop. This program has even become a verb in the popular lexicon, like how many people refer to searching for something online as Googling. To photoshop a photo is to alter it, normally in a way that makes the subject matter look more attractive or larger than life. But this is an oversimplified version of what Photoshop can accomplish.

Photoshop is used in teaching, video editing, digital illustration, photography, advertising, and web design. For raster images, those that use pixels (tiny dots on your computer screen) to create a full image, Photoshop is the industry standard. And while photo manipulation is nothing new, many graphic designers credit Photoshop with transforming the industry into what we know today.

Adobe InDesign

InDesign was actually Adobe's first big design program. But it has fallen in the shadow of its counterparts. Adobe InDesign, vs. Illustrator or Photoshop, has a very specific set of tools. These tools focus more on basic document creation, like reports or books, rather than intricate images.

Perhaps this somewhat boring side of Adobe InDesign is why it doesn't get as much mainstream attention as Photoshop or Illustrator. You're more likely to think about the program that created (at the hand of an extremely skilled artist) an incredible game graphic or animation than the program that formatted a book or brochure. But when you find yourself in need of a way to create your own professional, effective documents, InDesign can be an invaluable tool.

Adobe Illustrator

Where Photoshop excels at creating raster images, Adobe Illustrator is the industry choice for vector images. Vector images don't use pixels, but rather a set of curves and lines to define and create an image. The advantage of vector images is their ability to be resized without loss of detail. Think of when a digital image looks pixelated, or blocky. That occurs when a raster image is enlarged past its capacity. Vector images can change size in any direction while remaining clear and crisp.

Adobe Illustrator is often used for graphic design for products or advertising. The ability to scale images without losing detail makes this program ideal for logos, packaging design, and more. For certain design projects, Adobe Illustrator often works in partnership with Photoshop, InDesign, or other design software.

Exploring InDesign vs. Illustrator

For many people, Adobe Photoshop is pretty self-explanatory. But what about InDesign and Illustrator? For those with little or no graphic design experience, these programs can still be a mystery. However, with a little bit of research, these programs can be just as approachable and easy-to-understand as Photoshop.

Now that you understand the basics of InDesign vs. Illustrator, we can dive into their specific tools, who uses them, and the appropriate projects for each program. We also cover some alternatives to InDesign and Illustrator, in case you're looking for something a little different or more affordable.

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InDesign vs. Illustrator: What can they do?

Perhaps the most important part of understanding Adobe InDesign vs. Illustrator is learning exactly what each program can accomplish. Not only will this help you better grasp each program's capabilities, but this can also help you decide which is better suited to your own projects.

You might also find that you need both of these programs to complete your project. As you will see below, there are some tasks that InDesign just cannot do, that Illustrator can. And vice-versa. In other words, it's not so much a debate of InDesign vs. Illustrator, because they often work hand-in-hand with each other.

What can InDesign do?

InDesign is for both print and digital media, though it leans more toward print. As we mentioned above, InDesign's main skill is creating and formatting documents like books, brochures, stationery, and more. You can use InDesign to arrange text and other elements, insert drop caps, and format images. However, you generally cannot create effective images in InDesign. This job is better left to Photoshop or Illustrator.

Generally, you use InDesign to create a full document, piecing together elements like photos, illustrations, text, and textures. InDesign excels at aligning elements, offering templates, spacing out your document, and layering elements on top of each other. But InDesign is not where you actually make these elements. Some people do try to create logos and other graphics in InDesign, but most experts consider this a fool's errand.

What can Illustrator do?

Adobe Illustrator is, in basic terms, a drawing program. Just like Photoshop, where you create lines, curves, fill areas, and add texture, you can do the same in Illustrator. The primary difference is that Illustrator uses vector images instead of raster images. Anything you can do in Photoshop or a similar program, you can probably do in Illustrator.

Illustrator's most popular use is logo design. Since logos often require resizing, for different promotional materials and more, vector images are the best option. Infographics, website mock-ups, and interactive maps are all great uses of this program. One thing that Illustrator cannot do is animation. You can import a vector image from Illustrator into Flash, but you cannot create an animation within Illustrator.

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InDesign vs. Illustrator: Who uses them?

If you're still not 100-percent confident in your understanding of InDesign vs. Illustrator, let's take a look at who commonly uses these programs. Graphic designers come in all types, and depending on their specialty they will turn to a different program for their projects. So what professions frequently use InDesign vs. Illustrator in their day-to-day work?

Adobe InDesign is frequently used by publishers of all kinds. Magazines, books, brochures, and pamphlets are all excellent projects for this program. And remember, these projects can be either printed or published online. E-book publishers use InDesign to format their work and add images and other designs. If you ever flip through an online magazine or catalog, chances are it came from InDesign.

Adobe Illustrator, on the other hand, is used by graphic designers that focus more on drawing and illustration. Web designers also use Illustrator to create graphics or mock-ups of their work. Illustrator graphics appear in both digital and print work. Printers who work with apparel, banners, or promotional items typically use Illustrator. Using this program instead of Photoshop means they can resize images to fit a 3-inch business card or a 5-foot banner without losing quality.

InDesign vs. Illustrator: Which should you choose for your project?

If you're reading this, you probably have your own graphic design project in mind. In that case, it's time to look at the InDesign vs. Illustrator debate through the lens of your own needs.

If you need to create a complete, ready-to-publish poster, pamphlet, worksheet, book, magazine, or anything similar, InDesign is the right program for you. For projects that mostly contain text or a combination of text and graphics, this program offers the best tools.

But if you are going to be creating a vector illustration or graphic from scratch, then Illustrator is the program you need. You probably won't create very many finished products in Illustrator. Instead, these elements will be a part of a larger design or publication.

Deciding between InDesign vs. Illustrator isn't always easy. In fact, oftentimes you will need both to successfully complete your project. Graphic designers frequently use a combination of Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and other programs to complete their work. While you might only decide to invest in one program at first, eventually you will probably want to expand your toolkit to include several graphics programs.

InDesign vs. Illustrator: Competitors and alternatives

It's no secret that Adobe products come with a high price tag attached. And for some designers and business owners, this cost is outside of their budget. Fortunately, many software creators have made programs that offer similar tools to InDesign and Illustrator. These programs normally come at a discounted price, or even for free.

As far as InDesign alternatives are concerned, there are quite a few options. Scribus and Canva are two basic substitutes for InDesign. But the big advantage of both of these is that they are free to use. Scribus is a desktop program, just like InDesign. Canva, on the other hand, is an in-browser program. If you're willing to pay for an alternative to InDesign, then Adobe Framemaker or Microsoft Office Publisher might work for you. These programs do not offer quite as many features as InDesign, but they are also considerably cheaper.

Adobe Illustrator also has plenty of alternatives and competitors to check out. Inkscape is one of the best free alternatives to Illustrator, offering many of the same features and tools as the Adobe program. OpenOffice Draw is another option, but it is not as popular as Inkscape. If you're willing to pay for a quality program, then Affinity Designer has received praise for being a more affordable version of Adobe's Illustrator.

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InDesign vs. Illustrator: Where to buy

If you've decided between Adobe InDesign vs. Illustrator as the right program for you and your design needs, it's time to look at the options for actually purchasing these programs. Previously, Adobe products were like any stand-alone computer program. You either purchased a disc with the latest version of the software or downloaded it from the Internet. In 2013, though, Adobe launched a monthly membership service for its programs.

Adobe's subscription service is called the Creative Cloud. When Adobe first rolled out this service, it received criticism from industry experts. Most of this criticism centered around the fact that Adobe not only added a subscription service but completely removed any option to purchase a lifetime copy of their software. However, over five years later, they remain one of the top providers of graphic design software.

The Adobe Creative Cloud offers two options: subscribe to a single program or, for a slightly higher price, to all of the Creative Cloud software. If you really only need one program, then you can choose this option. But generally, it's a better deal to subscribe to the entire set.

One advantage of the Creative Cloud subscription plan is the ability to cancel when you're not using the software. If you need InDesign or Illustrator for a single project, and that's it, you don't need to purchase the software at full price. That is great for business owners or others who only need graphic design software to update their logo, menus, or other advertising materials.

Take Your Design Skills to the Next Level

After deciding between InDesign vs. Illustrator for your project, you can start delving deeper into the tools that these products offer. You can find countless tutorials and guides that will help you get the most out of your Adobe software. Some community colleges or universities might even offer classes for those wanting to learn the differences between InDesign vs. Illustrator and how to use these programs.

Of course, it's also important to remember that these programs don't automatically make someone an artist. If you want to upgrade your current graphic design knowledge or understanding, it's a good idea to revisit the basics. From there, you can enhance your talents with the tools found in InDesign, Illustrator, and other design programs.