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What Are Vector Graphics?

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Most modern printing equipment will perform best when the source artwork is formatted in vector. In the printing industry, vector graphics printing is the ideal format for printing text and simple shapes. An example of printing text might be the contact information on a business card, and an example of a simple shape could be the logo. When a design file (usually a PDF file) is sent to a printing press, scalable vector graphics are more predictable than bitmapped graphics.

An important issue that vector graphics solves is scalability. In the context of print graphics, scalability refers to the ability of the artwork itself to be resized without losing any clarity. For example, lets imagine that a business card design has a simple logo and contact information on it. Let’s also imagine that this business card was accidentally designed at only half the size of a normal business card. Most importantly, lets also pretend that this business card was designed without vector formatting. If you wanted to edit this design to be normal sized, the logical approach would be to increase the size of the file by stretching it out. However, if we took that approach we would quickly run into some problems. As we increase the size of the artwork, you would notice that the resolution becomes more and more blurry. This is because the artwork is bitmapped, which is a fancy way of saying that it cannot be scaled. Technically speaking, each pixel of the design was intended to be mapped in a specific place, for a specific document size. If you change that document size, the design is compromised. It will display differently than how it was intended to be.

With vector graphics, the text and shapes (we can call them objects from now on) are scaled independently of the document. That means that their size and shape are controlled by algorithms instead of mapped coordinates on the document. By decoupling the graphics and the document, you can freely scale the text and objects infinitely. They become modular, which means that you can use them on other documents. Most importantly, you can use these modular objects without including the other things that were on the original document.

Another key feature of vector graphics is that they can also be edited precisely. This is particularly important when it comes to assigning colors. Bitmapped graphics are almost like a photograph because they are a composed of many pixels that are arranged in a given space, in a specific order. Vector graphics are individual objects (even text is an object) that have the ability to be edited. Drawing off the the photograph example above, lets imagine that you took a picture of a business card. With a photograph, which is alway bitmapped, you could not easily edit the color of the text on your name. However, with vector graphics, you could easily select your name and assign a specific color value to it. Being able to edit and change a business card can be useful, particularly for companies who have multiple employees.

One drawback of vector graphics is that detailed imagery is difficult to create. For example, trying to create a detailed landscape would require many individual shapes, some almost as small as an individual pixel. The amount of work required to achieve this makes it impractical to use vector formatting for photographics. Instead, photographs are usually taken at a much higher resolution than needed. Even though they are still bitmapped, their resolution is so high that they satisfy most use cases. Furthermore, in a photograph, there aren’t many use cases that require an individual component to have its own color value assigned (such as a tree).

Vector graphics are produced using specialized software. Some examples include Adobe Illustrator and InDesign. These types of graphics software use vector graphics by default. This means that everything you create from within the software is automatically in vector format. Keep in mind that you can import photos and other files into these types of software that aren’t in vector format. When this occurs, those non-vector items will remain non-vector.

There are many ways to check if your design is in vector format. One way would be to open the file in one of the vector graphics software mentioned earlier. If you can edit any objects or text in the file, that means that they are vector. Also, certain file extensions are always in vector. Perhaps the best example of this would be SVG files. SVG literally stands for scalable vector graphics. Finally, a less scientific way to check would be to view the file on your computer and zoom in closely on it. If you are magnifying the file to the maximum allowed percentage and the object suffers no distortion, it is most likely vector. Again, this is not a very technical approach, so its best to use a software to check a file for its format.

Some key points to remember with vector graphics are that they are infinitely scalable, editable, and modular. They allow for precise edits, particularly with color assignment. Many printing companies require vector graphics on anything aside from photographs. They are not a realistic option for formatting photographs because of the many colors and details present in photographs.

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