Photoshop, Illustrator, And InDesign: What’s The Diff?

The Adobe Creative Suite is an amazing (albeit expensive) tool. In reality though, it is comprised of over a dozen different pieces of software that all have unique functionality, purposes, strengths, and even faults. For my web and graphic design needs, I think that three specific pieces of software are particularly relevant. I use Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign on a daily basis, but for different reasons. Need to know the difference between these three pieces of Adobe software? Want to know what to use each one for? Read on!

Adobe Photoshop
Photoshop is a great tool, but people often use it for the wrong reasons. Photoshop is a raster based software, meaning it works on a pixel based level. Images built using rastor based software can easily become pixelated, but that can be avoided. Photoshop is ideal for editing pictures/photos but not ideal for images with text, or for designing layouts for web or print.

Adobe Illustrator
Illustrator is hands-down my favorite of all the Adobe products out there. You can produce pretty much any type of image or file from it, so I use it to produce all of my web graphics, web designs, and even documents. Illustrator is different from Photoshop in that it is a vector based software, meaning instead of working on a pixel level, it works using lines. You can zoom in and out as much as you want from whatever you make in Illustrator, and it will never lose it’s detail. Now when you output that into a rastor based image such as a jpg, you may end up with some pixelation, but when resizing within Illustrator, you’ll never lose that detail. If you continuously resize your image in Photoshop, you will certainly distort it. So all of this makes Illustrator great for producing web graphics, documents, and full page designs, but not so great for working with photographs.

Adobe InDesign
InDesign is most commonly used for complex book layouts. What I personally tend to use it for is actually to produce pdf presentations. As a designer, I much prefer pdfs over any other document type such as a Word document or Powerpoint presentation as I think they appear more professional. InDesign is a vector based program just like Illustrator, and has much of the same capabilities, but focuses it’s strengths on multiple pages and master pages. This allows you to make a master view for your presentation or book (i.e. logo in the bottom right corner, page numbers, et cetera) while also allowing you to customize each page. I wouldn’t advise InDesign over Illustrator for anything but books and presentations simply because you do lose some functionality from Illustrator.

To help you decide between software options, try out this table:

Project Description Photoshop Illustrator InDesign
Editing Vacation Photos
Editing Photos To Print
Editing Photos To Post Online
Creating An Icon For The Web
Creating An Image For The Web
Creating An Image With Text
Creating A Document For Print
Creating A Document For The Web
Creating A Website Design
Creating A Multiple Page Document
Creating A PDF Presentation
Creating A Book Layout

If you have any specific questions or examples you’d like to ask about, don’t hesitate to ask!

47 Responses to “Photoshop, Illustrator, And InDesign: What’s The Diff?”

  1. thinsmek says:

    Thank you very much for this information! I want to buy and start using InDesign, Ps and Illustrator, but I needed to start learning some things first…

  2. Xian says:

    Thanks for your useful information!

  3. kyle says:

    That’s interesting that you have illustrator as the tool to use in website design. Many designers (including myself) use Photoshop for website design, as it is a bit easier to slice out components when incorporating into code. To each their own I suppose, but why do you suggest illustrator for this purpose? I’m intrigued…

    • David says:

      I think it is definitely a personal preference. I find it much easier to alter and tweak my designs in Illustrator, while I find Photoshop very limiting in altering shapes and layouts. In particular, in Photoshop, while editing your design, you’ll find yourself with dozens and dozens of layers and objects, but in Illustrator, you don’t need that, because each object is independent of layers. When it comes to detail of icons and buttons, I can see the preference some have for Photoshop. But for me, when I’m trying to create a good design from scratch, with multiple iterations, I need Illustrator to get the job done right.

  4. lifeinbmajor says:

    Good article; was figuring out if I should use Illustrator or InDesign for an e-book – I was going to use Illustrator because it is what I know, but this article has convinced me to learn InDesign.

  5. Pam says:

    I have to put together a book that has many pictures (which i will size and edit in Ps)with text and vectors over it. It will be a 100+ pgs book… So doing it in illustraitor i’m thinking will be messy, however i dont know if doing it straight in InDesign is the right option.

    Is there a way to work with references? Since the book will be printed the pictures have to be in high resolution… What do you recomend?

    THANKS!

    • David says:

      Definitely use InDesign Pam. InDesign allows you to have external file references so that those large photos don’t sit in a single file. InDesign will let you build a template for each page (such as with page numbers, page headers, etc), and is built for book creation. Under the file menu of InDesign, use the “place” command. That should get you started.

  6. Jk says:

    Great Explanation..Thank you bro..!

  7. JZH says:

    I will need to place text and resize text etc. for a newsletter that is actually mailed out to our clients, and I would also like to modernize the color/shape of the company logo. Illustrator is my best bet right?

    • David says:

      When working with text for a single page document, I do think that Illustrator is the best option. As for working with a logo, that can go either way. If you are willing to restart your logo from scratch, then Illustrator will be great because your logo will then be in vector format, allowing resizing very easily. However, if you aren’t incredibly well knowledgeable about working in Illustrator, then recreating your logo from scratch could be difficult, in which case you’d probably want to use the base image in Photoshop, and then do some minor color changes. Hope that helps.

  8. Parker says:

    Can Illustrator convert pdf files for publisher

    • David says:

      Illustrator can both read and create pdf files. The ability for Illustrator to separate out vector pieces from the file depends on how it was originally made.

  9. Antonella says:

    Hi David, thank you for your clear distinction between these three programs. My work place wants to create some writing stationery with simple designs such as swirl effects, dots, stylized trees/plants, etc. Which of the three programs is the best to do this? I had thought Illustrator but work says InDesign. Any advice will be great. Thanks!

    • David says:

      If you are really just talking about letterhead and single page stationary, then you are absolutely fine in Illustrator. Truthfully, either would work well, but if you are really just making your template files, then Illustrator will be fine. If you are going to end up making multipage documents with this branding, then you could start thinking about InDesign, but even then, you’d still be okay in Illustrator.

  10. John H says:

    i agree with kyle it is much better to use photoshop when doing website editing imo

  11. Ted says:

    Thanks for the tips. Very clear and concise treatment of what I thought to be a vexing choice!

  12. Jen says:

    I think InDesign is perfect for print ads, business cards, brochures, and letterhead. Illustrator is fine for doing single page documents and letterhead. However, InDesign gives you more tools, control, and preflighting information for your project. You can “package” the files so that all of your fonts and links get bundled in one folder. This is a wonderful tool, and can be a lifesaver when getting into more complex projects. You know where all your links are, you have all your fonts, and you don’t need to go searching your machine for the sources of the placed objects. InDesign just bundles everything automatically. Even if you’re doing a simple layout with a few linked objects, understand how the packaging feature works. You can find it under File > Package.

  13. Zazabee says:

    I would like to start designing invitations (wedding and party), paper designs and posters. Would InDesign be sufficient or should I rather get the Creative Suite and include all 3 programs?

    • David says:

      I personally would recommend Illustrator if you’ll be doing single page documents like that. InDesign is really better if you are doing pamphlets or books. I always think it is worth it to splurge for the larger package, but if you can only afford one, then you’ll be fine with Illustrator.

  14. Mark says:

    Great article, I spend many days explaining the difference to people on our Adobe software training courses!

  15. Sally says:

    It seems to me that InDesign should be able to import an AI file. That way you can create the template and design in Illustrator and mass produce it in InDesign?

    • David says:

      You can open AI files in InDesign, though it isn’t a perfect transition. I agree is pretty ridiculous considering they are both vector based programs.

  16. Cheryl says:

    Great article! Have a question that has sort of been answered, but if you want to create something like an employee handbook (so only 20 pages) would you still recommend InDesign, or will Illustrator be just as easy for something that simple?

    • David says:

      In reality, either will work just fine. If you are planning on having a template of some sort, I’d still advise InDesign which has easy template management. Regardless, they can both produce 20 page documents.

  17. Susan says:

    Hi David,

    I am studying up to my 4th year Interior Architecture finals. I have been using photoshop and powerpoint to date to layout my presentation boards but with very average visual presentation results. I need a program that will allow a very large size print – I believe its call a roll. The size would be two A1 across and 4 A1 down. or 16,820mm across x 23,760mm down. Which program should I use – photoshop can take this size but my computer is giving me an error “scratch disk full”, I’ve defragmented and deleted temp files etc but ps6 just wont take this size (its probably my computer). I have tried this size in illustrator but it won’t accept the sizes when I change the file size in custom size. PS6 usually degrades the quality of the images and also working with layers is frustrating. For the layout, I will have a combination of large cad plans (converted to pdf’s) lots of images, and lots of text again, which program should I use, illustrator or indesign (I like the flexibility of powerpoint, so which one is as easy to use). Any advice would be really appreciated. Many thanks.

    • David says:

      Sounds like your computer may be out of RAM or something. Make sure you have no other programs running. Photoshop could be ok since you are using images. I might still suggest InDesign because you can link your images to keep the actual presentation file size down. That’s all the advice I’ve got though. Good luck.

  18. Ric says:

    Great detailed answer and the comparative table, very helpful! Thank you very much for taking the time out to post this.

  19. Cherrie says:

    Appreciate your post David. Do you recommend learning any one product before another?

    • David says:

      Not really. They all have overlapping tools and menu organization, so it mostly doesn’t matter. I would say Illustrator before InDesign though as the latter is like a more specific Illustrator.

  20. Kristine says:

    Hi 🙂 I would like to design a4 folded advertising leaflet, where i could create a template, where I could change text in adverts easily before printing. Would illustrator be the best option?

  21. Carl says:

    Help! I need to start making 2-4 page brochures for my company. These brochures typically require creating & inserting several (mostly technical) graphics/representative figures. As a stop gap, I’ve been using ppt, but the resolution is poor. So: 1) Illustrator or InDesign? 2) Will the resolution be significantly greater than ppt? 3) Which is easier to learn? (I’m pretty good with Ps). Thank you!

    • David says:

      1) I would recommend InDesign for two reasons. One, InDesign lets you set up a template that all of your pages in your brochure can inherit from yielding consistent layouts. Two, you probably don’t need the advanced aspects of vector layouts that Illustrator is meant for. InDesign is really meant for layouts like you are talking about.

      2) The resolution is first dependent on the graphic you are starting with, and then on the program you are using. If your graphic doesn’t start with a high resolution, it won’t matter which program you use.

      3) Neither is incredibly hard. There are lots of tutorials out there.

  22. Carl says:

    Large thanks David. To clarify: the ppt graphics I’m using are illustrative figures made in ppt using their stock symbols, lines, etc. I’m surprised/disappointed at how much resolution I lose when I export them into a word doc for brochure printing. Any tools out there that can help here? Grazie!

    • David says:

      If it was me, I’d do the entire brochure in InDesign. Forget Powerpoint or Word. Why bring a gun to the knife fight when you can bring a cannon?

  23. Dev says:

    Hi David:

    I wanted to create menu for our coffee house using a chalkboard background. Which program wold u recommend? I am not a designer by trade, so ease of use would be helpful.

    Thx

  24. BRied says:

    I need to teach myself to scan in ads and be able to manipulate the size and placement of text and logos what would be the best and most user friendly?
    Thank you

  25. Lion says:

    Good Day,
    I would like to create and print a 100 pages photo album (approx. 800 family photos). All photos are stored in my PC in high quality TIFF format. The photos are in different size and proportion.
    What is the my best option? Photoshop, Illustrator or InDesign?
    I started with Photoshop, but after three pages i stopped… too slow and tedious…
    Thank you

  26. Namster says:

    Hi David,
    I’m applying for a marketing job which requires knowledge of Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. I’m quite comfortable with Photoshop, but haven’t used the others before, nor did I have any idea what they were used for. So thank you for the information on this page. For someone in my situation, how quickly would they be able to intuitively pick up Illustrator and InDesign with former knowledge of Photoshop? Or are the interfaces completely different?

    • David says:

      The interfaces are similar. You’ll be able to pick it up. The difference is really in how you approach what you are working on. The way you use one versus the other is very different. Good luck!

  27. jasa logo says:

    Illustrator is still difficult for me. Thanks for the tutorial. 🙂

  28. Faith says:

    Hi David,

    I’ve read all of the comments here so far, and they’ve been really helpful! Part of my job involves design work, and I’ve just been assigned a pretty intensive project: it’s for prospective clients–like an ebook pdf, but with a lot more photos, and clickable links to our website, social media, other photos and videos online, etc. I have a strong understanding of Illustrator (and the company I work for has purchased the program (CS6), but for something like this project, I’m guessing that InDesign would be a helpful program to use. My supervisor (not the one assigning design projects) doesn’t understand the need for InDesign, but needs me to explain the differences between InDesign and PowePoint. She believes that using PowerPoint would work in a similar way. I’ve never used PowerPoint beyond basic school presentations, so I’m struggling to know how to convince her that InDesign is the way to go. So I guess my questions are 1) would InDesign be the best program to use for the ebook-like picture PDF, and 2) what are the key differences (design-wise) between PowerPoint and InDesign?
    Thanks!

    • David says:

      Comparing InDesign with Powerpoint is like comparing a luxury car with a rusty tricycle. They’ll both get you places, but one’s gonna leave you with Tetanus and sore legs. InDesign is made for what you are talking about and continuously sees improvements. PowerPoint was made 15 years ago, and then was never reimagined. If you boss doesn’t inherently understand it, good luck.