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Everything You Must Know About Design File Formats (Without The Annoying Tech-Lingo)

Design file formats... This does NOT sound like the most glamorous topic, I know. But if you don't have a basic understanding of file formats, you can waste tremendous amount of time and money.



I’m pretty sure this is based on a real life story:

It's 5 pm, you're almost ready to wrap up the day, jump into your car and pick up Sarah from daycare, when suddenly you get a phone call from your graphic designer. The discussion starts like this:
    "Hey, what's up? Could you finish the flyer?" - you ask while looking for your missing keys. They are hiding under a dangerously fragile pile of business notes with half a cup of cold apple-cinnamon rooibos tea on top. You gather your magical "waitress and the tablecloth" skills and manage to rescue the fugitive keys without interfering with the delicate structure. Meanwhile you're hearing your designer on speaker:
    "Hi, I've just noticed that you sent me the wrong logo file for the flyer. It's a JPEG and only 100 x 300 pixel. I need something in vector format or a high resolution PNG preferably in CMYK."
You stop for a second to digest what you've just heard.
    "Umm, OK. I'm not sure if I have that. Can't you just use the image I’ve sent?"
    "No, it's too small, and the background is not transparent."
    "Can you make it bigger and erase the background in Photoshop?"
There's a very annoyed silence on the other end of the line. You check the time and promise to call her back later. But even in the car, driving by parks, schools and the local library, you wonder if you can decode what your designer meant. Why can't designers talk in clear sentences without any tech jargon?


I know what you feel. Whenever I have to read a piece of legal document, I wish I could understand it...

Nay, actually I rather run 3 miles in freezing cold Canadian winter than reading those stupid documents... But we don't have a chance, there are technical and legal expressions that we must understand even if we choose to outsource the task itself.

This is the case with design file formats too. If you don't understand them, you risk that:

  • The end result will look horrible, blurry, pixelated or tiny.

  • The end result will have dull color in print

  • Your designer will invoice you for more than expected

  • Your designer will work on the task longer than expected

Not to mention, that many of the designers get very annoyed when it comes to educating their clients about "basic design knowledge". Or they are as overwhelmed as the clients, because they might not be able to explain these technical expressions quite well.

I was there once. I used to have a client who only spoke Quebec French. She was a sweet, caring lady with an amazing party organizer business. But I spent hours on the phone with Google Translator open on my laptop, trying to explain what is a vector file format. We both felt disappointed at the end of our project because she wasn't satisfied with her poster and I wasn't satisfied with the payment. I had to work much more on that one project than I supposed to. And sadly, my French has never got better...


Hopefully you will be OK with my explanations of the different design file formats in English. I promise, I will keep tech jargon as minimal as possible but still teach you everything you must know to work with your designer much more effectively.

In this first post I will cover:

  • Design file formats and what are they for

  • The difference between Vector Graphic and Raster Graphic files

In the next posts, I will cover resolution and color modes (because I figured, I don’t want to stress you out with too much info in one post - this way it will be much more organized).



Each files on your computer has an extension and this extension defines what that file is capable of. For example PDF is an extension and stands for "Portable Document Format".

Some extensions, like PDF can run on multiple type of devices, operating systems and maybe even in many different applications. Others are more restricted. For example, you can only run .exe files on Windows. The Mac version of these files are .dmg files. Both .exe and .dmg are used when you install a new app on your computer but you have to make sure to choose the right format when you buy or download the application.

You can see the extension of a file at the end of the file name and it's separated from the file name with a dot. For example:

  • document.doc

  • worksheet.pdf

  • Image.jpg


This is a very important detail related to design files. They can either be raster graphic (also called as bitmap) or vector graphic.

Raster graphic files are composed of pixels. The problem is, if you scale them up, the pixels grow too, hence the blurry, pixelated edge on images that you scale up beyond their original size. The more you scale up, the more blurry it becomes.

When you work with raster files, you have to make sure that the graphic elements you use are big enough so that scaling up should not be necessary.

Raster graphic files are great for:

  • Photos

  • Social media images

  • Blog and website images

  • Highly detailed illustrations

  • Digital paintings, digital art

  • Seamless textures

  • Artwork that has very detailed textures (for example watercolor style artwork)

Vector graphic files are composed of paths, which are defined by a start and end point, along with other points, curves, and angles. All of these curves, points and angles are described mathematically by vectors (oh gosh, high school geometry class is hunting me right now) which makes it possible to scale up vector graphic files and not lose sharpness and quality. This makes vector graphic files particularly good for logos, because those are used in many different sizes: tiny on business cards but huge on flyers and billboards.

Vector graphic files are great for:

  • Logos

  • Icons

  • Less detailed illustrations

  • Seamless patterns

  • Creating your own fonts

The Difference between Raster and Vector Design File Formats


So what are the main Design File Extensions and what are they used for? Here's the list you must know about:

The No Tech-Lingo Guide For Understandig Design File Formats


In the next post, I’m going to explain something that my clients used to have a hard time with: image resolution. Resolution is the key to create quality prints or fast websites. In addition, I’m going to share with you a great free tool to optimize your images before uploading to your site or social media profiles.

Until then, let me know in the comments: which file format do you use the most often in your business and which one do you find more intimidating?

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