We’ve all seen the trope on a crime TV show — a detective reviews a grainy image of a suspect and asks the station’s tech wiz to enhance it.
There’s a reason the image never blows up clearly. Sure, part of the reason is for TV drama. But more importantly, because the image is not made of vector graphics.
To understand vector graphics, we must understand the two most common graphic design image file formats: raster and vector.
Raster format graphics (also known as bitmaps) are built using pixels. The term bitmap was derived from the fact that images in that format are literal maps of bits (or pixels) that are arranged in a specific layout.
A certain number of pixels construct raster graphics. Vector images, conversely, are constructed with mathematical equations as opposed to pixels. Let’s take a closer look at vector graphics, as well as the different use cases for each file format.
Sure, vector graphics are math equations, but what does that mean? A vector graphic is an image constructed using mathematical equations or basic geometric elements such as points, lines and shapes. In computer graphics, these shapes and figures are called primitives because they are the most basic figures to which a shape can be broken down. They can be combined to create more complex figures using graphics software.
Vector format graphics are primarily used as source files for hard-edged graphics, logos and illustrations. This format is typically leveraged to create simpler images that will be scaled up or down, depending on the use case. Vector files must be converted to raster for use on the web or to be printed, typically in a .JPG or .PNG format.
Vector graphic file types
So many file formats exist in the business sphere; it’s easy to get confused over which is which. There are four common vector file types: .AI, .EPS, .PDF and .SVG. Let’s take a look at what each vector format means:
.AI (Adobe Illustrator):
A proprietary Adobe Illustrator file type that can only be created or edited with Adobe Illustrator. These files are made up of vector graphics contained in a single page. These files have restricted and compact syntax.
Best used for: Logos, graphics and illustrations
.EPS (Encapsulated PostScript):
A vector and raster (bitmaps) file that may contain graphics, illustrations and text. .ESP files may also included an embedded preview image in a bitmap format. These kinds of files support several different kinds of drawing platforms.
Best used for: Saving and transmitting art between different file formats and graphics editors
.SVG (Scalable Vector Graphic):
A vector image format that supports interactivity and animation, defined by XML text files. Scalable vector graphics were developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) starting in 1998. SVG allows three types of graphics: vector, bitmaps and text.
Best used for: Interactive graphics, which can be easily compressed (without loss of quality) because they are built of repeated text fragments
.PDF (Portable Document Format):
.PDF is a file format that is used to present documents filled with text and images. PDF files contain all the information necessary to render the document in its entirety, complete with bitmaps, vector graphics, text and interactive layouts.
Best used for: Text-rich documents that may contain interactive forms
Raster graphics are pixel-based and have a finite number of pixels; that number is determined by the image resolution. The file is composed of data detailing the color of each pixel.
There are four common raster file types: .JPG, .GIF, .PNG and .TIF. Every raster image file contains the DPI (dots per inch) or PPI (pixels per inch) of the graphic. These numbers give the exact pixel count per respective file and an idea of the image quality.
Deciding between vector graphics and raster graphics really depends on the use case. The basic rule of thumb is that vector graphics are better for simpler, scalable images, while raster graphics software is better for photo editing and digital paintings.
A key benefit of creating vector graphics art is the ability to resize images without any loss in quality. Vector images are simply mathematical formulas, so it doesn’t matter if the image is blown up to 100 times its original size; the quality remains the same. Frequent resizing of images is easy to do with vector images because they are scalable up or down with little effort. Raster graphics, on the other hand, will delete data (in the form of pixels) if they are scaled down, which increases the blurriness of the image significantly if it is scaled back up.
The versatility of vector graphics is their main draw, and simple image manipulation is easy to do. Vector graphics are also fantastic for printing, as the creator can save an image in outlines and send it to the printer. This means that the shape will keep its integrity through transmission and printing.
One file format does not fit all. In some cases, vector file formats may not be right for your needs. But if they are, here are some benefits to using vector graphics in your work:
- Vector file formats require less image space. Vector graphics are composed of simple gradients and flat colors. That means they require less disk space.
- Vector graphics are easily scalable. Because of the way they are constructed, vector graphics can be scaled indefinitely. They will not lose their quality, as they are not composed of pixels.
- Vector graphics are easy to modify. Many of these file formats are made up of a ASCII-format data, which means they are easy to modify. Elements can be added, removed or changed within vector graphics without impacting other objects in the image.
Now that you’re well-versed in vector graphics, let’s take a look at a selection of free vector graphics software products we have listed in the category. For more generic design tools, check out the best free graphic design software in 2018.
The following products were selected due to their favorable G2 Crowd star rating.
Data as of July 24, 2018.
1. Adobe Illustrator
Adobe Illustrator remains one of the most widely used pieces of software for graphic designers working with vector graphics. With a comprehensive range of tools to aid in the creation and editing of digital graphics for multimedia use, Adobe Illustrator has been the industry standard for more than 20 years. One key component of the software is Adobe’s Creative Cloud, which allows users to access new features as soon as they’ve been added to the solution
- Draw and edit live shapes
- Easy color application and alteration of imported photos
- Masking with shapes
- Huge database of effects
- Professional typography and plug-in support for font manager
Image courtesy of Adobe
“Adobe Illustrator is the all-in-one package when [it comes to] to creating and editing vector graphics. There are a lot of tools are filter to work out and build amazing graphics.The incredible thing is that it can work alongside other creative cloud programs and make your work a lot easier.”
— Adobe Illustrator review by Adrian S.
“Though I use it quite often, the image trace tool definitely is a bit difficult to work with. Sometimes, the options still don't fully capture the full image and I end up having to go make a vector graphic of logo, image, etc. on my own.”
— Adobe Illustrator review by a user in retail
“I would consider the multi-use capabilities of Adobe Illustrator for all mediums. Just because the program works on vector graphics does not mean that it also does not aid in delivering perfectly crisp raster graphics for use on web design projects.”
— Adobe Illustrator review by Danica K.
G2 Crowd star rating: 4.3 out of 5.0 stars
Inkscape is a free and open-source vector graphics platform that anyone can use to create and manipulate vector graphics for print, web, video and mobile applications. This open-source solution allows for users to customize the platform to fit their needs. Inkscape can easily scale to grow with your business.
- Object creation (drawings, shapes, text, bitmaps tool, etc.)
- Variety of tools for line creation (Bezier curves, straight lines, simple and filled paths using freehand drawing)
- Z-order operations and interactive transformations
- Support for many different file formats
- Hierarchical layering with the ability to lock and unlock, rearrange layers
Image courtesy of Inkscape
“Inkscape is able to produce some really professional-looking vector images, if you take some time to learn to learn the ins and outs of its features. The fact that it's free is great, too, considering the high price of other vector graphics software.”
— Inkscape review by Evans W.
“The manipulation of objects is very basic and the plugins need another approach in comparison to Illustrator, which in my opinion takes more time to achieve the same goal.”
—Inkscape review by Marin K.
“I advise you to use Inkscape. This is good product for beginners, graphic artists and other users. Very suitable for learning and teaching vector graphics.”
— Inkscape review by Сергей Ч.
CorelDRAW is a powerful tool that provides creation and editing features for both vector and raster (bitmaps) graphics. The vector graphics suite has been a staple for many artists since the ‘90s; since the product was released, the company has consistently added features to improve the user experience.
- Bitmap-to-vector capability
- Prominent interactive sliders
- Touch-friendly user interface
- Corel Font Manager
- Start-up assistance materials and training
Image courtesy of Corel Corporation
“CorelDRAW is a great and easy tool for designers that allows you to create vector graphics. Meanwhile, it has a good and professional colours and fonts manager.”
—CorelDRAW review by Nacho T.
“I would only use it for vector graphics and use other dedicated programs for page layout, web design, and photo manipulation.”
— CorelDRAW review by a user in eLearning
“CorelDRAW is a severely underrated Vector Graphics software. It often tends to be overlooked in favour of Adobe Illustrator. It is easy to use, has a variety of tools and the latest version is much more intuitive than the earlier ones when it comes to using a graphics tablet.”
— CorelDRAW review by Arpita B.
4. Affinity Designer
G2 Crowd star rating: 4.6 out of 5.0 stars
Affinity Designer is a dual-threat vector graphics and photo editing tool that touts shape control and vibrancy of color as two of its hallmarks. This design tool allows for users to create in both raster and vector graphics. Affinity Designer was given the Apple Design Award in 2015.
- Professional retouching
- Multi-layered compositions
- Precise selections – down to individual strands of hair
- Batch processing
- Real-time, full-resolution preview of filter effects
- Brush stabilization
- Non-destructive operations
Image courtesy of Serif
“[Affinity Designer] has become my go-to for creating artboards of vector graphics, logos, and website layouts. The simplicity and quick responsive actions are amazing with this application.”
— Affinity Designer review by Lee Q.
“I wish there were more basic how-to video tutorials, but I think over time, there will be more available. I'm just impatient as I want to learn now!”
—Affinity Designer review by Debbie G.
“If you just need to create and edit vectors, give Designer a shot — for more advanced workflows, Adobe may still be superior and worth the subscription.”
— Affinity Designer review by Michael C.
G2 Crowd star rating: 4.6 out of 5.0 stars
Sketch is a powerful design tool made primarily to meet website and app user-interface design challenges. Sketch allows users to design something once and reuse as many times as necessary, which eases the process of working with repeated design elements. This vector graphics solution features a ton of collaborative features and easy-to-use plugins to enhance functionality.
- Collaboration tools allowing you to sync, share and update symbols
- Developer community-powered plugins
- Sketch syntax highlighter
- Non-destructive editing
- Cloud-based feedback generating artboard
Image courtesy of Bohemian Coding
“Sketch is, hands down, the best vector graphics program available today. It's become the go-to standard for UI design because it's lightweight and easy to use.”
— Sketch review by Tim N.
“I feel Sketch is not good enough to process complicated vector graphics, compared with Adobe Illustrator. For example, when I design a complicated header for a landing page, I'd prefer using AI first and the import the SVG file into Sketch.”
— Sketch review by Holly Z.
“You can most definitely do vector graphics with it but if you need to let your artsy side go wild, I would consider Adobe.”
— Sketch review by Clarissa F.
G2 Crowd star rating: 3.8 out of 5.0 stars
- Virtual DOM
- Rich text features
- Compatible with multiple operating systems on any device
Image courtesy of AnyChart
“GraphicsJS is open-source [vector graphics solution] that uses a web-based file to draw almost anything.”
“I don't particularly care for the GitHub that is used in conjunction with GraphicsJS and if you're not a student, it's $7 a month for the basic package.”
G2 Crowd star rating: 4.8 out of 5.0 stars
Snappa is vector graphics solution ideal for small businesses and digital marketers looking to create images without the help of a graphic designer. Graphics created within this platform can be used for social media, ads, blogs, and more.
- Graphic editor
- Visual assets library
- Pre-made templates
- Easy graphic resizing tool
- Custom font importing
- Team collaborating functionality
Image courtesy of Snappa
“I love this tool. Easy to use, fun, seemingly endless possibilities. Beautiful [vector] graphics, easy access to stock photography, user friendly, helpful staff.”
— Snappa review by a user in marketing and advertising
“I'm not a fan of how images uploaded by the user are managed; it's too disorganized for me. If I could group my uploaded images by folder, it would make searching for imagery that much faster and easier.”
— Snappa review by Keiko Z.
“This tool can help you to get beautiful and professional-looking graphic pieces, but you must have a concrete goal in your publications.”
— Snappa review by Germán Andrés C.
This list represents only a small portion of our vector graphics software category. Once you’ve decided what features will best suit your needs, take a look at the rest of the products in the category. Once you’ve implemented a solution, be sure to leave a review.
*User reviews may have been edited for grammar and spelling.
**This post was originally written by Patrick Szakiel and updated by Brynne Ramella.