The Pen is Mightier than the Brush Tool

Devshed’s designer, Rob Foster explains why he prefers vectors to pixels when it comes to webpage design. If you are a serious web designer, learn how to create your page layouts as well as choose colors, fonts and more… faster. Faster and easier web design? Hmmm, nice concept.

In the last year web developers have seen a myriad of new products that claim to convert page layouts from print-based programs like Quark XPress into web pages. Few of them work well enough to use, but the idea is nice. Let’s face it, designing web pages can be a long drawn out process, often forcing one to make huge compromises.

Just about every article I’ve read on web design recommends pixel-based programs like Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro for creating the initial web page layout. Now, let me make it clear that I am talking about the layout stage before you write any HTML. This is the point in the design process that you test colors, shapes, picture placement, etc. I’ll talk more about this design stage in a minute.

When it comes to laying out a design concept, pixel-based applications lack serious flexibility. For example, if you created a graphic element in Photoshop and then want to change the color, you have to select it, then fill the selected region with the new color and then de-select it. Forget about changing the shape of the object. That requires using the brush tool to paint the new shape or some other step-laden method. Of course, this example assumes that the object is on its own layer. This brings up another issue. If a new layer is created for every object on the page, then the file becomes more and more unwieldy. You have to continuously juggle layer selection as well as layer visibility and what if you make a mistake? You better hope that you have Photoshop 5 with its multiple undo/Histories feature.

And what about pixel-based multiple levels of undo? Pixel-based applications carry a lot of information per pixel. If you want to undo the last command, the program has to carry all the pixel information from the previous step as well as the current state of the image. As you add undo levels, this multiplies the file size and the computer begins to slow down.

There is a better way…
{mospagebreak title=Vector Flexibility} Enter vector illustration programs like Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia Freehand. These powerful applications work wonders with page layouts. If you aren’t familiar with vector-based drawing, let me take a moment to explain. While Photoshop displays information through pixels, vector-based applications work as the name implies; they display objects as a series of points and lines between points. Once an object is defined, you can simply click on it to select it, and then move it, scale it, rotate it, fill it with color, etc. You can even select multiple objects and group them. And did I mention that it is faster than working in pixels? Well, that would be an understatement.

Illustration programs are also the best when it comes to text manipulation. Photoshop added new control over text with the release of version 5, but the control is still limited. With Illustration programs, the text reacts just like any other vector object. You can rotate it, flip it, scale it horizontally or vertically, bend it, squash it, pound it, or just about anything else you can imagine.

As I mentioned earlier, all of this flexibility works in your favor when you begin to lay out your page.

In this example, I wanted the text moved to the right of the logo. First, I deleted the first part of the text. Then, I selected the rest of the text and rotated it up into the preferred alignment and moved it into place. I then used the scale tool and enlarged it to fit the size I wanted. Changing the colors was easy. I had my preferred web colors in the swatches pallette, so all I had to do was click on the item I wanted to change and then click on the new color to change it. Pretty simple huh?

Now, take this idea further and imagine that you have a logo, a navigation bar, blocks of text, thumbnails, and other formatting graphics. You aren’t sure how you want to lay them out in HTML, so you are going to try some different combinations and colors till it looks the way you want. In a vector program, juggling all these elements is elementary. In Photoshop, all your time is used up in the steps, not the creation.
{mospagebreak title=Compromise} Now, if you get the gist of what I’m talking about, you probably already understand the difference between GIF and JPEG formats. Most of the graphics you create in a vector program should be saved as GIFs since they will probably be made up of solid, flat color. However, if you do use gradients in your illustration or layout, you should switch to JPEG format.

This brings me to my next point. JPEGs are usually used for photos, and for obvious reasons, vector drawing programs don’t give you a lot of options for editing them. You still need a program like Photoshop to edit your photos. In order to bring photos into Illustrator to use in your layout, you must have first created those graphics in a pixel-based program. Also, once you have finalized your layout in your vector-based application, you will need to open it in a program like Photoshop in order to cut it up into pieces and optimize them for the web. The truth is that there isn’t much of a pixel vs. vector war since both types of programs work so well with each other.

So, we see how using an illustration program to flesh out your designs can really make a difference. With vector-based programs you have a better selection of tools, a quicker work environment, and a more flexible way to design. It really is an easier, faster way to work. If you’d like to get started, here are some things I recommend. As far as illustration programs go, I recommend Adobe Illustrator since it is the most compatible with all of Adobe’s products and it seems to be the industry standard. There is also a nifty plug in for it that allows GIF export with more control. The plug in is called PhotoGif Illustrator and it is made by Box Top Software. For photo editing software, I recommend Adobe Photoshop. Paint Shop Pro is also a pretty good program if you don’t have a lot of money and just want to get started. Oh, one more thing. Adobe just came out with an absolutely indispensible photo editor called Image Ready. It’s basically a less expensive, scaled down version of Photoshop, but with some added web-specific features. For instance, this program reduces the size of your web files to practically nothing without sacrificing quality. From what it looks like, with Image Ready you might not need Photoshop after all. I’ll do a review of it soon. All of these applications have demos available for download.
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