Common File Types and When to Use Them
Most of us passed the age of 30 grew up in a world where technology wasn’t the go-to source for everything. We had to use a phone book to find a number, a card catalog to find a book (do youngsters even know what a card catalog is??) and a dictionary to look up how to spell a word. That one I never really understood...if I can’t spell it, how can I find the dang word anyway… Regardless, it was the way of the world. Today, however, things have changed quite dramatically and it seems that everyone is born knowing how to use a touchscreen and how to code in Java—say what?! Luckily we don’t all have to be quite that up to speed but for those of us out there who aren’t neck-deep in tech there can be a sea of confusing terms to navigate. Frustratingly, those terms may even show up in your own files.
When working with a designer like myself, for example, you may be provided with quite a few different file types like EPS, JPG and PDF, but if you don’t know them from heads or tails then how will you know what to use and when? In order to alleviate some confusion I’m breaking down a few of the basic files types that you may encounter in your daily life, whether that’s through contracting a professional designer or being asked to coordinate files in your own job.
The first thing you should know is that hardly anyone actually knows what these file extensions stand for. They do stand for something, as you’ll learn today, but even I had to google one or two to remind myself what the actual meaning was. Generally, the terminology behind the acronym isn’t really helpful but I always find it interesting to know what it stands for. So, let’s get started with a common file type that I know everyone has heard of…
JPG, or Joint Photographic Experts Group, is a very common file type that 99.9% of people are familiar with. The acronym stands for the folks who created the file type which is why you’ll also sometimes see this written as JPEG. These puppies are compressed to hold a lot of data in a small file size so they’re great for use on the web and keep site download times to a minimum. While these are wonderful for photographic images the “lossy” compression (basically loss of information) can cause some bitmapping or pixelation. If you’re saving JPGs from a proper program such as Photoshop you can ensure that your resolution is set at the right ratio in order to reduce loss.
Great for photographic imagery | Best when used on the web | Not recommended for printing
The PNG is the cousin to the JPG. Although it is a larger file type than its counterpart it has better compression and therefore less loss. The bonus is that it also creates a transparent background so, for example, if you’re sending your logo to a collaborator’s website and you know that it will be placed on a gray background you can provide them with a PNG and your logo will appear clean and isolated rather than resting inside an ugly white box. This file type is pretty handy but should be used exclusively for web. Using a PNG for printing will not guarantee the best results in resolution.
Smaller files types with less loss | Used exclusively for web | Not recommended for printing
GIFs are pretty cool like files. Unlike a JPG the compression here is lossless, meaning you won’t lose any detail in your image. The downside is that your file cannot be as small as it’s utilitarian buddy and the colors are extremely limited. It can, however, do all kinds of cool things the JPG can’t, like animate. Most of us have seen an animated GIF...you know the ones where Rhianna rolls her eyes over and over or Spongebob Squarepants does a crazy dance on loop? That’s an animated GIF and it’s a set of images that have been compressed and run frame by frame, like a movie. These are super fun for use on the web, mostly for sending funny things to your friends, but should not be used for printing as the resolution and colors aren’t suitable for reproduction.
Create small animations on a loop | Should only be used in web applications | Not recommended for printing
The EPS, or Encapsulated PostScript Vector, is a file type that is used in creating vector-based graphics. And before you ask, a vector is a file that is made up of paths with start and end points rather than pixels. Vectors can be sized, scaled, reopened and edited again and again unlike their counterparts, raster files—these are files that are created from a general grid of pixels with no specific points or paths within the grid. Think of solid black square versus a photograph of mountains. The square has points at each corner that, while in the proper editing program such as Adobe Illustrator, I can go in and select to drag this way and that and manipulate the shape and size. The image of mountains, however, is made up of pixels; small colored squares that come together to create the whole but does not contain any specific points that I can manipulate. Make sense? EPS files are perfect for creating logotypes and wordmarks since they are often used in branding, advertising and large-scale reproductions (think billboards). This file lets you scale infinitely and is perfect for reproduction and is typically saved from Adobe Illustrator. A JPG or PNG is fine to send someone if they are requesting your logo and intend to use it for web only, but if they are printing it and EPS is what you should send.
Preferred for logos and stylized icons | Not compatible with most web applications | Always recommended for printing
The TIFF is a great file for use when you’re creating an items that will transfer from program to program. For example, if I am designing a brochure that uses some photography with a shape or color overlay, I can create that image in Photoshop, save it as a TIFF and place it in my InDesign file. This will ensure that everything I have created is carried over just as it was in Photoshop. TIFFs can be very, very large files because of all the information they carry but if you’re printing anything it is worth including. TIFF is often an option when scanning in an image as it contains some of the highest amount of detail. These are used exclusively for raster graphics as they really serve no purpose for vector files. Not everyone can view a TIFF as you need the proper software to do so, but you may come across one or be asked to send one to an advertiser someday so it’s a handy one to know.
Great for large photographic image files | Used in raster programs such as Photoshop | Recommended for printing
PDFs are pretty universal...they’re like the Euro or grilled cheese—everybody knows them, everybody loves them. Anyone can view a PDF and likely has in their lifetime. They are easily transferrable through email and file sharing, completely viewable independent of your software, hardware or operating system and printable from any standard computer. When sending files to a printer, a PDF is the preferred file type because it encapsulates everything included in a design file. They are basically electronic images of everything you want to include. They can capture the data from both raster and vector files (think images and text) without any loss and will keep the colors true to the original design. PDFs are super useful for other things like e-signatures, forms and presentations and they pack an extra punch because they can be viewed both in print and online.
Great for sharing and sending | Perfect for printing or viewing online | Universal format
So, those are a few basic file types that you may encounter in your day to day life. I hope this has been useful in helping you navigate some of those crazy terms you hear in the digital world! If you liked this post, want to see more posts like it or have questions or comments please email me. I'd love to hear from you!