InDesign and Illustrator: two major Adobe graphic design software programs that sound similar but function quite differently. These programs are necessary tools for many Designers, and are often part of a trio of programs (along with Photoshop) listed as required skills on job descriptions.

But if you’ve never used the programs, or are just getting started in the design world, the differences may not be obvious. After all, they’re often used together by people in similar jobs. So what actually makes the programs different?

What is InDesign?

Adobe InDesign is the industry-leading software for page layout and design in both print and digital media. The publishing program is versatile, and users can create a number of different types of media including things like posters, books, eBooks, digital magazines, interactive PDFs, catalogs, and even resumes.

InDesign is essentially the meeting place for type and graphics, and excels in print design. The most common uses are multi-page documents with text and images (like brochures) and longer projects such as books and digital catalogs.

Its biggest strengths are in typography and long documents. InDesign works wonders with formatting and typography because of the customization you can do with fonts, creating exquisite type and placing it on the page within the design.

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Creative professionals in several creative industries use the software. If you need a gorgeous document with text and images, InDesign is an ideal tool to use.

The most essential features are:

  • Publishing
  • PDFs
  • Integration with other programs
  • Layout
  • Collaboration & Feedback

What is Illustrator?

Adobe Illustrator is the industry-leading vector graphics and illustration program. This versatile software is great for creating artwork, most notably logos, icons, patterns, and product packaging.

The most common uses for Illustrator are to create company branding and intricately detailed or patterned designs. Its biggest strengths, and what sets it apart from other design software, is the fact that it’s vector-based, which means that your designs are completely scalable. It also does extraordinarily well with pattern creation and minute details.

Professionals from many industries use Illustrator to create branding assets, web graphics, and even fashion designs. If you want your design to be intricate and beautiful no matter what size, Illustrator is the perfect tool to use.

The most essential features are:

  • Vector-based
  • Image scalability
  • Artboards (up to 1,000 in a single file)
  • Patterns
  • Detailed illustrations (has almost 90 tools specifically for creating illustrations)

Major Differences Between InDesign & Illustrator

InDesign and Illustrator are often used together, and work well as a team. For the most part, they don’t do the same tasks or provide the same functions, though. Each brings its own purpose to creative projects, and together create a brilliant space to design.

These are the three primary differences between the programs.

Layout v. Graphics

Both InDesign and Illustrator can be used to create layouts; however, there is a major difference in the strengths of each program.

InDesign was designed specifically to create layouts. It excels at handling design work for long documents even up to tens of thousands of pages. This is the tool publishing houses use for textbooks and exceptionally long printed works because that’s what it was built to do.

On the other hand, Illustrator was created for artwork. It has almost 90 tools designed for illustration and works best for doing patterns, character creation, and producing beautiful typography. It also has an artboards feature, which can function to lay out separate pages of documents or designs, but there are 1,000 artboards available on one file compared to the 10,000 plus available pages in InDesign.

Documents v. Graphics

InDesign and Illustrator work great together, but provide different assets to projects and are fundamentally different in what they’re meant to do.

InDesign was, as you might have gathered, designed for text-based documents. It can work with lots of text, particularly of the book, magazine, and newspaper variety. Because that’s what it was designed to do, it’s significantly stronger with formatting these kinds of documents and working with large blocks of text.

On the other hand, Illustrator works extremely well for creating custom lettering. In fact, Illustrator is probably the best Adobe program to use for this task because you can hand draw or sketch the idea into Illustrator and the program will vectorize it and make it scalable. It’s a graphic design program, which means that it does best at graphics rather than blocks of text.

Another important difference in this arena is that InDesign works in pages, which are sequential, and Illustrator works with artboards, which don’t necessarily have to maintain a specific order or even the same size. This is important to assess for projects because it’s a different experience creating something that’s meant to be consumed straight through versus something more open-ended.

Professional Uses

In the professional world, InDesign and Illustrator are often used as a team. They’re not interchangeable, and come into play during different times of the creative process.

InDesign, with its focus on layouts, is often used toward the end of creative processes. It doesn’t really do the heavy lifting of creating assets for a project, although there are some tools for creating artwork. The main goal for the program is to put all of the completed elements together in an appealing and accessible way.

At the opposite end of the design process, Illustrator is often one of the first programs to be used because it specializes in creating vector graphics and illustrations. These are assets that must be completed before the project can go through final formatting in InDesign.

Which Program to Use

Which program to use depends on what you want or need to do with your project.

Here are some questions to help you decide which program might be a better choice for your project.

  • Does my project have a significant amount of text? InDesign is the best program for handling large amounts of text and multi-page/longer documents.
  • Do I need to merge multiple elements into a design?InDesign was built to create high-quality layouts that look great digitally or in print.
  • Do I need to create a brand new asset?Illustrator was made to create from scratch, and excels at patterns, building characters, and doing small details for graphics, which makes it an easy choice.
  • Do I need to design graphics for my project?And will they have to be able to change sizes to appear in multiple places?Illustrator has vast design potential, and images are vector graphics which means they’ll scale up or down and maintain their quality no matter what size they are.
  • Where’s the best place to work with typography?It depends on what you want to do. If you’re creating a new letterform or hand-designing it, Illustrator is the best choice because it can vectorize the images as they’re created. If you’ve already gotten the font ready (or you want to select a premade Adobe font) and want to put it in your design, InDesign is the better option.

Overall, both programs are extremely useful. Generally speaking, if you need to create or manipulate images and graphics, you’ll want to work in Illustrator. If you want to design documents or anything with a significant amount of text and graphics, InDesign is a better choice.

Each creative professional has their own processes and workflows, but it often happens that Illustrator is used for design work more toward the beginning of a project, and when all assets are completed, designed, and ready to be put together, InDesign is a place where they can be combined into an excellent finished product.

How to Purchase InDesign & Illustrator

To use InDesign and Illustrator, you’ll need an Adobe subscription. You have the option to subscribe to the Creative Cloud all apps package, or purchase the programs on their own.

For professionals who want or need to do design work with pages and layouts, InDesign is a must. The program requires a subscription, which costs about $21 per month if you decide to purchase it without the Creative Cloud.

Professionals who do a significant amount of design work should also consider Illustrator. It requires a monthly subscription fee of $21 if you don’t opt to purchase the whole Creative Cloud.

Illustrator for iPad is available on any plan that includes Illustrator. The app has the same tools as the desktop version but includes special features designed specifically for the Apple Pencil and iPad. Users can work from almost anywhere, and there’s even an option to work offline.

If you need more than one Adobe application (for instance, InDesign and Photoshop), you may decide to purchase the Creative Cloud Subscription. Although the $52.99 per month subscription fee may initially seem high, if you use multiple tools on a regular basis, the all apps subscription will be cheaper in the long run than subscribing separately.

How to Learn InDesign & Illustrator

Want to learn InDesign, Illustrator, or maybe even both?

Noble Desktop offers a few good InDesign courses in-person at their New York City campus.

Some popular classes include:

  • InDesign in a Day (6-hour fundamentals course)
  • Adobe InDesign Bootcamp (18-hour deep dive course)
  • Graphic Design Certificate (72-hour comprehensive set of courses, including InDesign)

If you don’t want to take in-person classes (or would rather learn in your pajamas), Noble has a Classes Near compares reputable training programs hosted live online. You can find live online InDesign courses from multiple training institutions that have similar classes.

Noble also offers Illustrator courses. The most popular choices are:

  • Adobe Illustrator Bootcamp (18-hour deep dive course)
  • Illustrator in a Day (6-hour basics course)
  • Graphic Design Certificate (72-hour comprehensive set of courses, including Illustrator)

You can also use the Classes Near Me tool to locate live online Illustrator courses if you don’t want to attend class in-person.