InDesign vs Illustrator

Some people might wonder what the difference is between InDesign and Illustrator. The two programs have some similar features, but they are geared towards different aspects of Desktop Publishing.

While there are plenty of articles about Quark VS InDesign, I often see questions about the difference between Illustrator and InDesign.

Many of the tools and graphical elements in the user interface of the two programs are similar. Many functions are similar. Printers who accept InDesign files will accept Adobe Illustrator files too. Soo, why can’t one just buy either program?

Illustrator and InDesign have two different purposes. While it is true that one can design an entire flyer in Illustrator and give to a printer to get it reproduced, there are things that Illustrator cannot do, when we talk about laying out a piece of literature.

The first problem arises when one tries to design a multi-page document. Illustrator can only deal with one page at the time. That means one file for each page. It also means that consistency could go out the window because you don’t have the aid of master pages and other tools that you do find in InDesign. You might think: “Oh well, not a big deal, I will just copy and paste the repetitive elements in each document.” Just the fact that you have to create a new document for each page is tedious. Then you start copying and pasting elements in each document, making sure they are all exactly on the same spot, and if a graphic element is going to run through a spread of two or more pages, then you will really start having a hard time. Imagine doing all this for a publication with 120 pages.

InDesign has also other tools that aid the designer in his workflow. It has preflight tools that help the designer see if all the elements of the document are as they should be for offset printing. You can easily check which images are CMYK and which ones are RGB without having to open all of them in Photoshop or some other graphics editing program to find out. You also have a packaging function, which allows you to collect all the files needed for a publication, flyer and so on, in one place. That is images, fonts and obviously the InDesign file.

InDesign gives you a better control over how to place external images withing an InDesign document and treats clipping paths differently from Illustrator.

The tools in the Tools palette of the two programs are different, as well as other functions. InDesign has tools that allows you to do basic editing, such as the Line tool, Shape tools, Scissors Tools and so on. Those tools allow you to create some basic shapes and so on, so you don’t have to open another program, such as Illustrator of Photoshop, to draw a rectangle or a line. However when we talk about graphics editing Illustrator is way superior to InDesign. This is because Illustrator is designed to handle graphics, particularly vector graphics. Illustrator as an array of tools that allow you to do all sorts of things with graphics. It has filters, even 3D options. Illustrator’s purpose is to create and edit vector graphics and that is its strongest point. It is much superior than InDesign in that regard. Don’t use InDesign for extensive vector graphics editing, because it is like using a toothbrush to sweep your floor.

Yet when we talk about laying out a publication, you are better off using InDesign, as that’s what it’s for and its tools are supposed to make your life easier while you design. You would be importing graphics you have made in Illustrator, or Photoshop or what have you, into InDesign. InDesign is what brings everything else together and what will give you the final result. Yes you can use Illustrator for laying out single page documents, just keep in mind that you won’t have the aid of the tools which you would otherwise find in InDesign.

As I said at the beginning, the difference between InDesign and Illustrator is in their purpose and, conesequently, they were developed with different focus.

41 thoughts on “InDesign vs Illustrator”

  1. I like your article on the diffs between inDesign and Photoshop, but you guys need some help with this site. Hurts to look at and you are throwing up all over the user with all that is going on with each page. Good writing though, although “could” was spelled “culd”. You’re going in the right direction I think, just cut back on all the ads if you can. Really annoying and something about it makes me question the motives of the site. Are you trying to educate the design community or make a buck? Both are fair, but I get the impression the latter is more important.

    Also, this form here needs some sort of description. Is this being submitted as a comment or feedback??

  2. Thanks for your great info. I hear that most graphics / illustrator pros prefer quark when it comes to final layout, whats the bid deal about it? I used both Indesign and some quark, but don’t see the tipping point over Indesign.

  3. And there it is again, Quark VS InDesign. There is a whole, and great, site about it, did you know?

    I have also worked with both, and the only thing I can tell you is that it’s a matter of preference, a matter of already existing workflows, as QuarkXPress came before InDesign, etc.

    I know a designer who is a total whiz with Quark. You look at the screen, and there is nothing, you look at her hands and then you look back at the screen and–what’s that page doing there? You didn’t even see her move her hands! Would you tell a person like that to switch to InDesign, instead of upgrading to QuarkXPress 7? Try it.

    Software doesn’t make the designer, and it doesn’t make the design either. Layout applications, such as QuarkXPress and InDesign, are just tools. You should use what you feel most comfortable with and at the same time with what is compatible with your printer’s specifications and the environment around you and appropriate to do the job. The most important thing is that you get the best result.

    If you are a crap designer, there is no application that is going to save you.

  4. Thanks for the info.

    I’ve never understood why ADOBE cant just make an all in ONE program, allowing you to edit photos, layout designs and ready them for print. It only seems logical that you would be able to utilize everything at once.

    I’ve been back and forth with Illustrator and Corel Draw (I was raised on it) and still find Draw easier to use…though a bit cumbersome in its unser interface. Illustrator is slowly catching up.

  5. I’ve just come across your site. This is a really well written article and there looks like a lot of good stuff on this site. But there’s a little problem with the article content box being pushed way too far down on the page, at least in Firefox…probably just a small css problem somewhere…anyway, good job with the content!

  6. I agree with jeff on the article content being pushed way to far down the page on firefox. Regardlessk, I found your article on illustrator vs indesign useful. I was trying to understand why I should use indesign instead of illustrator…. now I understand : )

  7. I am going to work for a company that often gets InDesign files from clients. They then have to convert those files to Illustrator files for large vector drawings. What are the problems with this and how can they be solved? This company hates InDesign because they wish their clients would submit Illustrator files to make life easier. Of course this would be great but it isn’t going to happen since their clients mostly prefer to use InDesign. How can I help my new company with this problem? Thanks! Karen

  8. I used to use CorelDraw X3 as my primary designing tool until I downloaded the trial version of Adobe Illustrator CS3 which turned my whole way of thinking upside down. I instantly fell in love with both it and and InDesign and that’s what I use for my artwork now…

    There’s two thing that I miss about CorelDraw however; one being the in-built efficiency it has for creating shapes- You double click the shape and it creates a node (anchor point), and it’s just as easy to make the side of the shape curved.

    In Illustrator, I have to select the Pen, create an anchor point on the shape, then the direct selection tool and adjust it. If I want to make the sides of a shape curved, I have to use the Convert Direction Point Tool…etc. In Illustrator it doesn’t have the same power for interactive transparency as doesCorelDraw X3.

    I am using Illustrator CS3- can anyone tell me some shortcuts that I can use to make the shape editing more like Corel?

    Thanks in Advance…

  9. I was looking for an article similar to yours. However you didn’t mention indesign ability to display many more links than illustrator. Or perhaps I could not find an option to adjust display performance in Illustrator (mainly links preiew can be adjusted for every single link in inDesign). Or perhaps it is not a differnce?

  10. Hi I have doen several form tye documents in Illustrator CS4 for a client – they want to take over the artwork and use th Illustrator files in indesign – how can they do this – when I place the Illustrator file into indesign I cant change anything/

    Please can you tell me how to do this and if at all possible.


  11. I was actually just staring at a page that I inadvertently created in illustrator trying to figure out if I should re-do it in indesign or just trudge through the rest of the pages in illustrator. As I “googled” the question of illustrator vs indesign I was thinking it was ridiculous that they are even two products. While I still feel this is an artificial price-point, I found the answer to my dilemma. Freehand was the bomb. Maybe I’ll use that again. Crap, no I won’t… intel mac. Curse the stars.

  12. Oh, and Jessie. You can not export files from illustrator into indesign and retain editing control. Why in the he** not is beyond me. Text files turn into graphic files. Layouts get permanently and turned into giant graphic files. So, you can import the design elements individually and then edit them in indesign in terms of layout but you can not edit any content. Again, let’s hear it for freehand. I’m still dumbfounded that illustrator and Indesign are two products. It’s easier to go from word to pages than from illustrator to indesign. WTF?

  13. OK, too many posts I know, but jessie I stand corrected. I just drag-dropped a drawing element from illustrator to indesign and it actually worked! It did not drop as a jpeg. I can actually work with each element in the drawing. Also, copy pasting text boxes doesn’t work. However, drawing the text box in indesign and then copy pasting the text does. I’m stunned. So do some experimenting, you might find a workaround.

  14. Hey bruno,
    I found your article on illustrator vs indesign useful. I was trying to understand why I should use indesign instead of illustrator or what’s the purpose of either and your article helped resolve that! As i am planning to take up a course so was wondering if both need to be taken up or either one will do..
    Thank you so much.

  15. Excelent… just the information i was looking for, thanks for post it, am not designer am just programmer but i want to learn some stuff’s about design most of all for the web developments…

    i was thinking to take a look to ilustrator, but when i install the adobe suite i saw that item about InDesign and the nodo tools that i see are amazing…. thats why i came here (the site)
    I gonna try photoshop, coreldraw, InDesign, gimp & inkscape

    thats enought homework for a year a guess xDDDDDD

    Thanks from venezuelan and sorry about my bad english :p

  16. I just don’t understand the need to use indesign when illustrator cs4 has multiple artboard support. Maybe it would just be best for me to crack it open and have a go.

  17. Great article. I am totally new to this but I can’t figure out how to get excel charts (what we usually call “graphs”) into inDesign CS4. Adobe talked about using illustrator as an intermediary but all that does is make horrible bitmaps. All the “vector perfection” is lost. I also tried “dropping” illustrator cs4 native bar graphs into indesign with no luck–lost the vector aspects–but maybe it should work as Brad says above. I was heading in the direction of tracing the bar graphs and line graphs inside inDesign and adding text. It just seems totally stupid to have to do this! Help?!

  18. Loved the article, but just want to point out, that Adobe Illustrator can absolutely deal with multi-page layouts, and its not required to make a new file for each page… Simply add Art boards to your workspace.

  19. Randy, back when this was written (2005) artboard didn’t exist in Illustrator. They do now of course, which I thought was a killer feature of AI CS4.

    Bill: I don’t think InDesign by itself can parse chart data and build graphics. Illustrator can though. You said you dropped AI graphs into InDesign but they showed up as bitmaps, did you drag-and-drop or did you place them? I can place these charts in InDesign without a problem.

  20. Haha. cool. I read the article. Cool thanks!
    What was funny was to see the website critisism in the comments.
    Perhaps i came late, but i will tell you my first impression of this site design: “whoa. I like it. Look at all the space. Neat. And look at the cool colors on the page. Cool. And strange how the right sidebar content is dropped below the comments, but way cool i think. Look at the logo, that thing is sweet- colors-human-circles and stuff. Like it. Wonder if i can steel it. No. Perhaps adapt it. No. Perhaps whatever i design is already designed somewhere. No. hehe. Ok, cool i’ll read the article now because this is exactly what i searched for.”

    But then, since i am completely a newby to the software mentioned, i wonder if there are any cool shortcuts where i can production line symbols and drawings in illustrator, and easily insert them into indesign. Based on your writeup it seems that i will need both programs to work hand in hand.

    If you have any comment on this, send me an email. Thanks heaps

  21. I am learning on line and started with InDesign but wondered if maybe it should be Illustrator or Photoshop. I wondered how they fit together. You have cleared the fog for me.


  22. Hey, the article here was interesting. But while going through the comments, I felt that many of the guys here are wandering in the dark. What I mean is before just comparing the applications one has to understand the basics of Graphics workflow. One can then further know why are there separate (& specialised) applications for each thing. I am just puting some light on that

    Graphics workflow basically involves 3 things. • Raster Work (Photos & Continuous tone images) • Vector work (Logos & Line Drawings) • Layouting (Final Assembly of all the elements and formatting it with text content) Usually the layouting stage comes last. The graphic designing is spoken in terms of ‘Print media’ & ‘Online or Electronic Media’. Depending on the output media, the the final layouting stage will defer. The other stages are applicable everywhere. A typical work flow would be 1) Create all necessary elements (Logos & Icons, Photos, Backgrounds & Textures, Charts) in the relevant applications. (Be sure to use the appropriate colour models CMYK for print, RGB for web, also check the resolution of raster images for print or web). 2) Export them to the required formats (EPS, JPEG, TIFF). 3) Create final layout by assembling all the elements along with the text content. 4) Create Output ready files.

    There are separate softwares for each of these stages. Vector work (Adobe Illustrator, Corel Draw, Denba Canvas, Macromedia Freehand), Raster work (Adobe Photoshop, Corel Photopaint, Macromedia Fireworks), Layouting for print (Adobe Pagemaker, QuarkExpress, Adobe Indesign), Layouting for web (Macromedia Dreamweaver, Microsoft Frontpage). Well Corel Draw is a Mixture of Vector Editing & Layouting (Print & Web) application.

    Since the layouting stage is the final stage, layouting applications also support its relevant media features. eg. QuarkExpress or Indesign is used mainly for print layouting, it can output in postscript language and has print related features like Trapping, Overprinting, Colour Separations etc. while Dreamweaver and Frontpage being web layouting applications output in HTML & support web related features such as Frames, Button Functions, Scripting etc.

  23. Interesting article… Loved the toothbrush analogy. I work in the flexo world and have received more and more InDesign files as of late. Since we have to convert everything to spot color /vector, I am wondering what the best way to go about converting these InDesign behemoths into Illustrator so I can at least use them as a template. It would be a great time saver to be able to pluck vector images from them as well… Am I asking for the impossible?

  24. hi, elli…………
    nice topic and very helpfull of all designer,
    think… different between in_and_illu

    but coraldraw is batter then Illustrator…that i think work fast in coral.

  25. i know photoshop cs5 and flash basic i went many interview they are asking indesign and illustrator but i dont know so i want to know that pls help me

  26. This is great information and a well written explanation of the difference between the two programs.

    I did see a couple of typos but no big deal.

    Thank you

  27. Illustrator does have layers. Lock your “master page” (all design elements that do not change) as the first layer, add other layers for any changes, export eps files to the printing device by turning layers on and off. This is not Indesign, but will handle up to 10 pages without much trouble at all. I don’t do that much with raster art. If you had a lot of that Illustrator might be slow as suggested above.

  28. I just started learning illustrator today, and haven’t learned indesign at all… It sounds almost like you wouldn’t need indesign if you weren’t planning on doing any kind of print media or ebook/ezine sort of thing. Since I’m not, I probably won’t have a need for it for a while, but so far I am very impressed with illustrator. Thanks for the advice, it still stands true after 6 years!

  29. good article, thanks for the info….so Adobe made two programs to do what CorelDraw does (and has for years) ….hehehe,,,,why couldn’t Adobe just build in multipage support…. I hated making a 10 page pdf using Ilustrator…Ive been using Corel 3 to now ver16 since 1990 for that…

  30. Very good explaination to a non-designer like me.I found out how to design a book. but elisabetta which is the optimum set of tools you will recommend which gotto be easy to learn for creating a book s/w like FrameMaker is very hard to understand for me

Comments are closed.