File Formats and When to Use Them

When I first got into the graphic design industry, I was admittedly overwhelmed by all the acronyms and initials. File formats are big culprits for this one! I mean, really...JPEG, TIFF, EPS, GIF, PNG — why are there so many initials?! Today, I'll explain what all these file formats are and more importantly, when to use them. And if you need a quick reminder, don't forget to share or download the cheat sheet!


Joint Photographic Experts Group (they are the ones that created the compression format)

What is it: JPEGs have a lossy compression, which means there is image quality loss when the file compresses. You get some of the smallest file sizes with JPGs but you run the risk of the image looking pixelated or fuzzy.

When to use it: Use JPEG format when saving images for the web or social media or when you need to save room on file size. JPEGs can be high resolution but they still won't be as high quality as a TIFF image, for example. However, they can still work for print as long as the photos take up less than 40-50% of your print space.

Don't use it for: Super high quality printing unless the image is small and it's a high res JPEG (250dpi or higher). It's also not a great format for line drawings.


Graphic Interchange Format

What is it: GIFs have a lossless compression, meaning there isn't any image quality loss but the trade off is that you can't get as small a file size as you can with a JPEG.

When to use it: Pretty much only for web graphics and mostly for animations. Unlike JPGs, you can maintain motion in the GIF format.

Don't use it for: Photographic images or things you want to print. GIFs have a limited color range which helps the compression but because of this, GIFs aren't the best format for printed pieces.


Portable Network Graphics

What is it: PNGs were created to replace the GIF format due to licensing fees impossed by the company that created the GIF format.

When to use it: Just like JPEG, PNGs are used almost exclusively for the web. For images that have some graphics and some text, this is a good format so logos look better in this format than GIF. PNGs are also good when you need to maintain a transparent background.

Don't use it for: Images that you're printing or for photographic images because it tends to make the file size larger than if you would've saved it as a JPEG.


Tagged Image File Format

What is it: The largest of the file sizes, TIFFs have no compression, hence why they are the biggest in file size. Plus the cool thing about TIFF format is that it can be either CMYK or RGB (although not that you'd ever want to put a TIFF on the web). It also has the ability to contain layers (like from a Photoshop file) so you can maintain more content.

When to use it: Use TIFFs for anything printed such as photographs or anything where you need a higher quality output.

Don't use it for: Anything for the web, unless you want it to load like dial-up use to. The file size is just too large.


Portable Document Format

What is it: PDFs give you the best of both print and digital worlds. You can have both raster (photographic) images as well as vector (illustration) images within a PDf. You can also share this file format with just about anyone, both client and printers.

When to use it: PDFs are good for sharing and reviewing files before they are final, for high resolution files to send to printers or for downloadable documents for the web. This is also a common format to use when working with Illustrator. If you're not sure what version of Illustrator someone might have, you can send them a PDF and they will most likely be able to open it. You'll find PDFs helpful in the Downloadables section of this site as many of the pre-designed layouts are available in PDF and may open for you when the .ai file does not.

Don’t use it for: If you need to maintain super high resolution, this probably isn’t the best format. For images and illustrations, stick with TIFF and EPS formats.


Encapsulated PostScript

What is it: EPS files speak in a different kind of language — one made with line and mathematical measurements. EPS files are called vector files and can be resized and altered in vector programs (such as Illustrator) without any quality loss. You would typically share this file type with printers or other designers.

When to use it: EPS file formats are perfect for logos, illustrations and art that isn’t photographic.

Don’t use it for: Anything for the web or for anything or anyone that isn't directly related to art production or printing. They will just end up calling or emailing you saying they can't open the file!

Knowing what format to use and how to save your files is an important step in understanding the production stage of design. In case you need a quick reference, download my quick cheat sheet of file formats!

If you have questions or comments you'd like me to address, please feel free to comment below. I'll try to answer any questions via the comment area or a future post.