The discussion surrounding vector versus raster icons holds significant weight. Despite their surface-level similarities, these icons' underlying structures and compositions substantially affect our digital creations' overall look, usability, and efficiency. How these icon types behave under different scenarios—scaling, resolution changes, or file compression, to name a few—can profoundly affect the end product we're building or designing.
We know that icons are more than just decorative elements; they are essential for guiding users through interfaces, conveying information quickly, and enhancing overall user experience. But what type of icon should we use? Vector or raster? As you may have suspected, the answer to this question is more complex.
This article demystifies the difference between vector and raster icons, explores their characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses, and illustrates how this understanding can impact your work.
Vector icons are digital images created using mathematical equations and geometric shapes. They can be scaled up or down without losing any quality or becoming pixelated. They're perfect for creating crisp, clean graphics that look great in any size. Plus, because they are made of individual shapes and lines, they are easy to edit and customize to fit your needs.
Creating Vector Icons
Creating vector icons is like putting together a connect-the-dots puzzle. The designers use vector-based software like Adobe Illustrator or Sketch.
The design starts with positioning points or nodes onto a digital canvas. These points are then connected with paths or curves, creating a network of geometric shapes. Every path or shape can be manipulated individually, giving designers complete control over the icon's form. Changes can be made non-destructively, meaning they can be edited or reverted without losing the original details.
Quality and resolution
In the digital design domain, vector icons shine with unmatched quality and resolution, regardless of size. Whether you're scaling down for a mobile interface or scaling up for a large billboard, vector icons retain their sharpness and clarity. They are not limited by a fixed resolution like their raster counterparts, so they don't suffer from pixelation when resized.
Therefore, vector icons offer flexibility and high quality, maintaining their crisp and detailed appearance across all sizes and resolutions.
When saving vector icons, a few file formats stand out:
SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) is perfect for web use due to its scale-friendly nature and search engine readability.
EPS (Encapsulated PostScript), commonly used in print. They can hold vector and raster graphics, offering a flexible solution for high-resolution images.
Vector graphics files (AI, AFDESIGN, FIG, SKETCH) are ideal for storing intricate vector graphics with numerous layers and effects.
Pros and Cons of using vector icons
Scalability: We've mentioned this one. Vector icons can be scaled up or down to any size without losing quality.
Sharpness: They don't get pixelated, even if you look at them closely or far away.
File size: Generally, vector icons tend to have smaller file sizes than high-resolution raster images. That's a win for faster load times.
Easy edits: Need to make changes? No problem! Manipulating the shapes and paths of vector icons is easy and won't damage the image.
Details: If you need intricate images with many textures, there may be more suitable options than vector icons. They can become complex and heavy in such situations.
Software: You'll need specialized software like Adobe Illustrator or Affinity Designer to create or edit vector icons. It's not always as simple as opening a JPEG in your standard image viewer.
Limited support: Some older systems and applications don't support vector formats like SVG. It's less of an issue these days, but still worth considering.
Best use cases for vector icons
They may not be the ideal choice for every situation, but there are scenarios where vector icons genuinely shine. Here are some prime examples:
Logos and branding: Branding elements, or logos, must look crisp and clear across various platforms and sizes. Whether it's for a business card or a large billboard, vector icons ensure they look their best.
Web design: In the age of numerous device screen sizes, responsive design is necessary. Vector icons can scale flawlessly, maintaining their quality across different display sizes.
UI/UX Design: User interfaces require simple, clear imagery to guide users. Vector icons are perfect as they remain sharp at any resolution, enhancing user experience.
Infographics and diagrams: Pieces of information are easier to digest when visually represented. Vector icons can fit into any layout without losing quality, making them great for infographics and diagrams.
Print materials: From business cards to posters, print materials often require high-resolution graphics. With their ability to scale without losing quality, vector icons are perfect for print.
Remember, the choice between vector and raster will depend on the specifics of your project. Yet, whenever you need scalability, flexibility, and sharpness, vector icons can be your trusty sidekicks, ready to step in and keep your designs looking their best.
Raster icons consist of tiny pixels, which blend to form a larger image. They are perfect for creating detailed and realistic pictures, but they risk losing quality and becoming pixelated when enlarged. This limitation requires creating separate raster icons for each size needed, which can be a time-consuming process and limit their flexibility.
Creating Vector Icons
Creating raster icons is like crafting a mosaic, with each tile being a pixel. This process begins with pixel-based editing software, such as Photoshop, on a specific size and resolution canvas.
In short, creating raster icons involves working with a fixed number of pixels, allowing for highly detailed designs but with less flexibility in resizing and scalability. They're ideal for projects that demand rich details and textures and where resizing isn't a primary requirement.
Quality and resolution
High-resolution raster icons can display intricate details, making them perfect for complex imagery.
However, raster icons have a fixed resolution, which means they lose quality when resized, often becoming blurry or blocky. That is known as pixelation.
Raster icons use specific file formats, each with its strengths:
JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) is popular for its compressibility and quality balance, perfect for detailed images. However, it doesn't support transparency.
PNG (Portable Network Graphics) is a favorite for web use, offering lossless compression (no quality loss after compression) and transparency support, ideal for icons with varying opacity levels.
TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) is typically used for print, offers flexibility with lossless and lossy compression, and maintains high image quality but results in larger file sizes.
Pros and Cons of using raster icons
Detail mastery: Raster icons excel in showcasing intricate details and complex visuals. With their pixel-perfect approach, they're great for rich textures and photo-realistic images.
Wide color range: Raster icons can handle an extensive color palette, making them ideal for icons or images requiring dynamic and diverse color effects.
Software options: Raster images can be created and edited in numerous programs, offering greater software flexibility than vectors.
Scalability woes: Raster icons can lose quality when resized, resulting in pixelation. They're less flexible when scaling up or down compared to vector icons.
File size: High-resolution raster icons tend to have larger file sizes. That can lead to slower load times, especially problematic for web use.
Lacks versatility: Unlike vector icons, raster icons are less versatile. Changing elements can be tricky as everything is pixel-based.
Best use cases for vector icons
Raster icons may not be ideal in every scenario, but they have moments to shine. Here are a few examples where raster icons are your best bet:
Photography and detailed imagery: Raster graphics display high levels of detail and a wide range of colors. They are the perfect choice when dealing with photographic elements or complex, texture-rich imagery in your icons.
Digital painting: For artists looking to create digital illustrations, raster-based software offers the tools and flexibility needed to conceive accurate and intricate works of art.
Non-scalable graphics: If you're creating graphics for a project without resizing, raster graphics can be a good choice. You'll be able to pack more details and colors without worrying about maintaining quality at different sizes.
Web images: Regarding website images, formats like JPEG and PNG are used because of their compression capabilities. They can balance image quality and file size for faster webpage load times.
In summary, raster icons are the perfect candidates when your project calls for high details, rich textures, complex color schemes or involves specific, fixed dimensions.
Converting raster to vector icons
Sometimes, switching from using raster to vector icons may be necessary. That could be due to a need for greater scalability or to make design adjustments. It is important to understand the process of converting raster icons to vectors.
This process is often known as 'tracing' or 'vectorizing. Several graphic design software tools, like Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape, offer an automatic tracing option. This tool analyzes the raster image and creates paths that approximate the shapes and lines within the image. However, automatic tracing only sometimes results in a perfect conversion, especially with intricate or low-resolution raster images.
It may be necessary to have a skilled designer manually trace the image to achieve more precise and polished results. That involves using the raster image as a guide to manually create paths, resulting in a vector image that is more accurate and pristine.
Remember, converting raster icons to vectors can result in some loss of detail, particularly with complex, texture-rich raster images. But, if scalability, easy edits, and reduced file size are your needs, taking the raster to vector leap can be a game-changer in your design journey.
Stepping back and looking at the canvas we've painted, it's clear that vector and raster icons offer unique strengths and limitations.
Vector icons, constructed from mathematical paths and points, excel in scalability and flexibility. They maintain their quality regardless of size and offer a clean aesthetic. On the other hand, you may have to put in extra effort to capture detailed textures.
On the other hand, raster icons are pixel playgrounds that allow for a high level of detail and a broad range of colors. They're perfect for complex and richly textured imagery. However, their kryptonite is resizing, which can lead to pixelation and quality loss, plus they often come with larger file sizes.
Choosing between vector and raster icons isn't a matter of which is superior but the most suitable for your specific project needs. It's about understanding the nature of the project, the medium it will be displayed on, and the level of detail, flexibility, and scalability required.