Many of my dealings with small businesses involve the passing back and forth of logos and such for use in advertisements, large banners, websites, Powerpoint presentations, etc. Often as not, the digital copies of these art elements are less than optimal for the intended job. The result is fuzzy reproduction or compromised design in order to minimize the problems caused by artwork provided in the wrong format.
Graphic design jargon and technology may seem confusing, but you really only need to know the purpose of 4 different file types to handle most situations. A description of those (and a few more) follows, but first, here’s what you need to know most:
If you ever pay someone to develop logos, icons and other art elements you’ll use repeatedly, ask the designer in advance to deliver a package of 4 different file types of the final artwork:
- EPS file: It’s a format you won’t be able to open or use yourself, but it’s the master file from which all other file types are created; a graphic designer will know what to do with it. You don’t actually have full ownership of the art element unless you have the EPS file in your immediate control. Technically, what you need is a vector-file, and EPS is a standard format for storing such files; other file types will work, but keep it simple – ask for the EPS.
- JPG file: It’s the most familiar file-type for supplying your art elements to others who may need them – for ads, sponsorships, co-marketing ventures, etc. There are serious drawbacks to JPG technology, which are the cause of about 90% of the logo problems I run into. But it’s a basic format you’ll use again and again.
- PNG file with a transparent background: Once for online use only, the PNG is quickly replacing the JPG as the standard file type for any routine application. There are a few reasons for this, which are outlined below.
- TIFF file: It’s used the same way as a JPG, and while it’s less familiar to laymen, it has one major advantage over a JPG: It doesn’t degrade as it gets moved from one computer to another. You should send a TIFF file to anyone who needs your logo unless they specifically say their system can’t handle it.
If you don’t have an EPS for existing logos, go back to the original designer and ask to get them. Do it now,
before he/she gets hit by a bus or something. Depending on your original agreement, you may not actually own the right to the EPS file; copyright law favors the designer in this. But if the designer balks at sending you the file, be insistent – even if it means paying a reasonable fee to get it into your hands. (Personally, I think a designer should be willing to turn over everything to you for one price; then again, if you’re one of those clients who wheedles and needles the designer after working him/her down on price 3 times, you may not deserve it.)
For advertisements, flyers, printed newsletters and other pieces of art that are composed of multiple elements, it’s probably enough to get a high-resolution PDF and JPG. (If you own a full version of Adobe Acrobat, you only need one of these, as you can make your own PDFs from JPGs and vice versa.) These graphic creations are essentially single-use, so having the native file – often Photoshop, Illustrator or InDesign – isn’t going to be of much help. But know that if you want to resize or otherwise adapt this file for any other use, you’re still captive to the designer who holds the original file.
If you really want complete control, specify in advance that you want a copy of the native file along with the PDF and/or JPG. That allows you to send the original work to any designer for subsequent use. Again, some designers will provide it as a courtesy if you ask, while others may charge extra to give up control of the native file. You’ll decide if the price is worthwhile.
Important file types
Now, here’s a basic overview of the file types and what each is used for:
JPG or JPEG – Joint Photographic Expert Group: The first issue with a JPG is that it’s a photo of your logo. You can enlarge or stretch it, and apply special effects across the whole thing, but you can’t change its fundamental appearance. If the type is rendered in black, you can’t magically make it some other color; if the logo background is white, you can’t make it transparent.
The most important thing to know about JPGs is that they lose information (i.e. resolution) when passed back and forth by phones and e-mail clients that automatically compress files to speed up transmission. That’s why a 2 MB photo e-mailed from your hard drive may arrive as a marginal 500 kb file. The lower the kb number, the smaller the image has to be in order to look sharp. Passed back and forth a few times, you’ll end up with a 24kb that looks fuzzy no matter what.
The compression technology used is described as “lossy” – once compressed, the detail cannot be recovered. This explains why a JPG scraped from a website can’t be used for print. Your computer screen shows resolution of 72 dpi (dots per inch); by default, websites don’t bother storing anything higher. But a printing press requires at least 300 dpi – information that’s simply not there in a photo taken off a website.
Don’t pass the same JPG back and forth. File your original high-resolution JPGs carefully and always send from those. And figure out how to set your e-mail preferences to avoid automatic file compression.
TIFF – Tagged Image File Format: It’s less familiar than JPG, because point-and-shoot cameras and smart phones typically don’t save as TIFFs. But it’s the preferred technology for storing and sharing photos and logos because it uses “lossless” compression: An image can be compressed and decompressed without losing detail. Mainstream design and desktop publishing software, such as MS Office and Apple Pages, recognize TIFF files as well as JPGs.
PNG – Portable Network Graphics: This has recently replaced the JPG format as preferred for most uses. It uses “lossless” compression, so the file doesn’t degrade over time as it’s passed from hand to hand. It was originally designed just for online use. It loads faster on a website or computer than a similar JPG file. Now, technology improvements allow high-resolution PNG files to be used for printed applications as well. One more advantage is that PNGs can be created with transparent backgrounds — so you don’t get that ugly white box when logos are placed onto colored pages.
PDF – Portable Document Format: It’s built for taking complex files with multiple elements and locking them into a single file that looks the same no matter how it’s opened or used. It’s like a collage; all the individual elements are blended into a single piece of art that can’t be unwoven. For that reason, it’s a poor format for managing logos and single art elements; each element loses its own identity. If you send someone a PDF of your logo for use in some other project – or worse, a PDF of your ad with instructions to pull the logo off of that – they’ll have to cut out the logo, convert it to a JPG and figure out what to do with the fuzzy blob that results.
EPS – Encapsulated PostScript: It’s the mother file – where art elements are rendered as smooth lines rather than bits and pixels. You won’t be able to do anything with this file type; programs like Word and MS Publisher aren’t designed to handle them. But it’s what a graphic designer needs to manipulate details within the art element – such as changing the background color, or removing an element, etc. Further, they use “lossless” technology for movement from one user to another without loss of clarity.
EPS files typically aren’t used to store large composite files like ads. They’re for individual art elements like logos, that get lots of use and adaptation. Think of an EPS file as the archival copy of your artwork.
GIF – Graphic Interchange Format: Web-friendly and peripheral for your needs. They are small files that allow transparent backgrounds and lend themselves to animation. But they only support 256 colors using the RGB (Red Blue Green) color technology of older computer screens. They cannot be used for printing because they don’t support the CMYK color technology (Cyan Magenta Yellow Black) required for paper.
There are dozens of other relevant file types, but these cover most of what you run across.