Digital file formats: What are the differences?

Ever got confused by the various file formats available when you're ready to save a digital file?

Fear no more because out of the multitude of file formats that we know, there are really only a handful of them that most of us will ever use. In the design industry, there are 3 broad categories that we usually use depending on your specialisation: VECTOR files, RASTER files AND 3D files. It is important to understand the different file formats so that you can "save" your files based on the intended outcome of your design.

What are vector files?


Vector files are editable graphic files that are formed by mathematical formulas in a cartesian coordinate grid. This system allows vector files to be scalable proportionately to any size without any loss in resolution.

Common file formats include:

  • .SVG (Commonly used for web graphics such as brand logos that requires scalability on different screens.)
  • .EPS (Most design software can create and read this file format. It is usually utilised by non-Adobe users as a standard vector file format.)
  • .AI* (Adobe's proprietary file format and is becoming the industry standard for vector files due to its reliability. *You will need Adobe Illustrator to open this file format.)

What are raster files?


Raster files are formed by many individual blocks of colour in a defined space and proportion. Adjusting the proportion of these files to a bigger space can result in unwanted loss in resolution due to the colour blocks stretching to fill that intended space. Most people relate this to blurry and pixelated images.

Common file formats include:

  • .JPG or .JPEG (Lossy raster file format that is commonly used by most people when handling images that are size sensitive. Lossy files are generated by compressing the original files to reduce the file size. Reduction of file size will usually result in the degradation of image quality.)
  • .PNG (Unlike JPG, PNG is able to handle transparency. This is commonly used in web graphics where different overlays can create an interesting composition. 
  • .GIF (These are highly compressed animated web graphics that are typically small file size and low resolution. Very common usage in bitesize social media content and social messaging apps.
  • .TIFF (Lossless raster file format that retains original file information for maximum editing capability and manipulation. Industry standard for photographers and artists when exporting their photographs for print.
  • .PDF (Utilitarian file format that can be used to store different information such as photos, text and vector graphics in a single file. Most print producers output to this file format to ensure that all information is retained for  optimal printing results.
  • .RAW (Contains many information direct from the camera without any modifications. File format extensions may vary from different cameras but they are essentially the same file type.)

What are 3D files?


3D files contain information from 3 axis in defined proportions to form complex surfaces and lines. Generally, it is a manifestation of physical objects in a digital space.

Common file formats include:

  • .STL (This is the perfect file format for print production purposes but not ideal for modification as it contains only the overall geometry of the 3D model averaged into a singular triangulated mesh surface.)
  • .OBJ (Most design softwares are able to read and write with this file format. They contain more essential information than .STL and should be used to ensure maximum editing capabilities of your 3D models.)

Some general guidelines:

  • If the images are for online publishing, use .JPG, .PNG, .SVG or GIF.
  • If the images are for print, use .PDF or .TIFF (300dpi).
  • If the 3D models are for 3D printing, use .STL.
  • If you want to keep a version that remains editable, choose your software’s native file format.


This is a basic guide to help you better understand the differences and usage of some commonly used file formats. Kindly share this post if you find it useful.