There are a countless number of different graphic design programs available today, providing a huge range of software options for the creative community. Sometimes it can be a bit hard to keep track of which ones deserve your attention, so let’s take a closer look at two popular programs: GIMP and Adobe Illustrator.
GIMP, also known as the GNU Image Manipulation Program, is a raster graphics editor that is available for free on all three major operating systems: Windows, macOS, and most flavors of Linux.
GIMP was originally released in 1996, and still receives updates to this day. The development team is hard at work on GIMP v3.0, but they have yet to set a release date for the next version.
Adobe Illustrator is a vector graphics editor that is a part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud software collection, available as a paid monthly subscription for Windows and macOS – but not for Linux.
Illustrator is one of the few programs still available that has a longer development history than GIMP, with its first version being released way back in 1987. Illustrator still receives regular updates from Adobe, and the latest version is always available to Creative Cloud subscribers.
The biggest difference between the two is that even though GIMP and Illustrator are both graphics programs, they’re not directly comparable in terms of features because they aren’t intended for the same purpose – quite the opposite, in fact!
GIMP is a general image editor that is best used for photo editing and image manipulation, while Adobe Illustrator is better suited to graphic design tasks such as (you guessed it) illustration, typeface design, and page layout.
Raster vs Vector
You’re going to have to forgive me, but we have to get technical for a moment. I’ll try to make it as quick and painless as I can, but it will help you understand the two programs much better.
The biggest difference between GIMP and Illustrator is how they create and manipulate graphics: GIMP is a raster graphics editor, while Illustrator is a vector graphics editor.
Raster graphics, also known as bitmaps, are composed of pixels arranged in a neat, orderly grid. Most of the images you see on your computer and around the web are raster images.
They’re great at displaying the complex details and tonal ranges found in photos, but you can’t scale them easily without blurring the image.
Vector graphics are much different. They’re composed of a series of mathematical expressions that describe the position, shape, size, and color of each object in the image, which are then interpreted and drawn out by the editing program.
This lets you adjust their size at any time without losing image quality because all you’re really doing is altering the math that describes the image elements.
In most situations, vector images are only kept in vector format during the editing and saving process (for example while you’re actually working in Illustrator), and then they get exported in a normal raster image format like JPG for sharing and using online.
However, the use of native vector formats is on the rise, thanks to their ability to easily scale to different resolutions for display on different devices. Most modern web browsers can display the SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) format, but it’s not widely used across the web yet due to potential security concerns.
Somewhat confusingly, the line between raster editors and vector editors isn’t quite so clear anymore. As each program has matured over the years, the developers have each expanded their features to the point that there is a bit of crossover between the raster and vector aspects.
That being said, it’s always better to use a program that’s specifically intended for the type of project you’re working on!
GIMP can technically create and edit SVG files, but the support for the format is so limited that it just feels silly to claim that GIMP is also a vector editor. Illustrator can also import and apply a few edits to pixel images, but you’d never choose to do any serious photo editing with it.
So Which Program Should I Use?
Now that you understand the key difference between how GIMP and Illustrator create and edit digital images, you can probably already start to guess which program is better for your particular project.
When to Use GIMP
Although you can use it to paint and draw new graphics, GIMP is typically used for editing or combining existing pixel-based images. It is named the GNU Image *Manipulation* Program, after all! Here are some common tasks that are best suited for GIMP:
- Photo retouching
- Photo editing
- General pixel image editing
- Combining multiple images
When to Use Adobe Illustrator
Despite what you might think from the name, Adobe Illustrator isn’t just for creating illustrations (although it is great at that, of course!). Illustrator’s use of vector graphics makes it suitable for a wide range of projects:
- Graphic design
- Page layout
A Raster/Vector Workflow
As you might have noticed from the lists above, there isn’t any real overlap between the capabilities of the two programs. Instead of setting them against each other, it’s a much better idea to use both programs together to complete your design projects in a complete raster/vector workflow.
GIMP can prep any photos that you might want to include in your designs, and it can help polish and prepare images made in Illustrator for their final usage in other programs or projects.
Illustrator handles all the other graphics and the assembly into a final layout, where its ability to treat graphical elements as distinct objects without requiring each one to have its own layer makes the design process much simpler.
I know that with most Creative Cloud subscriptions, you’ll have access to Photoshop for your raster work, but there are plenty of older versions of Illustrator in use today that can benefit from a companion raster editor like GIMP.
There are still a few popular questions that get asked about GIMP and Illustrator by readers, so I thought I’d go over some of them quickly now to help save time.
Is GIMP as good as Adobe Illustrator?
GIMP is an extremely capable image editor in terms of functionality, but it lacks a lot of polish and user experience benefits that you get in Illustrator. Illustrator is far better for creating vector graphics than GIMP will ever be.
Can you use GIMP for graphic design?
Yes, you can, but it’s not the best choice available. Graphic design projects like logos, page layouts, and illustrations often need to be adjusted for various different uses, and creating them in a pixel-based editor like GIMP can limit your options.
If you design a logo to fit on a business card and then need to make a large sign, you might have to redesign your logo from scratch for the larger size.
Can GIMP create vector images?
Technically, yes, although it’s very tedious. GIMP can create extremely basic vector shapes using the Paths tool, which can then be exported in the Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) format. But GIMP’s handling of paths and Bezier curves is very basic, and you’ll soon agree that other programs are better suited to creating vector images.
Is there a Free version of Adobe Illustrator?
No, Illustrator does not have a free version. However, there is a vector graphics program named Inkscape that is quite similar to Illustrator, except that it’s free and open-source just like GIMP. I strongly recommend that you use Inkscape instead of GIMP for any vector graphics project.
A Final Word
That’s just about everything important to know about the differences between GIMP and Adobe Illustrator! If your question still isn’t answered after reading through this post, let me know in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer your question.
Happy designing!About Thomas Boldt