In a perfect world, a firm of hip, twenty-something art-school grads handles all of your company's graphics design and image-editing work. Reality, however, dictates that you either have an employee who's adept at handling the graphics needs of your business, or you handle it along with all your other responsibilities.
The Adobe Bridge component of Adobe Creative Suite 5 lets you visually browse for images and drop them into Photoshop or InDesign projects.
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And so in the real world, you have to know somewhere between a little and a lot about graphics software to make the right purchase decision for your needs, budget and level of expertise. Here's what you need to consider before you commit time and resources to a solution, along with a sampling of our favorite programs in a range of categories and prices.
Image Editing, Illustration or Layout?
There are three main types of graphics packages: Image editing software, illustration software and layout software. Image editing software lets you work with photos or other digital files at the pixel level to crop, enhance, alter and otherwise modify the image. In technical circles, this type of digital file is referred to as a raster graphics image or bitmap.
Illustration software, on the other hand, lets you create original artwork -- logos, icons, electronic drawings and so on -- using points, lines, curves, polygons and color. These are referred to as vector graphics.
But unless you're getting a degree in computer graphics in your spare time, you dont need to stray too far into the weeds with the technical jargon. Just know that, generally speaking, if you want to work with photos you need an image editor, and if you want to create any other type of artwork you need an illustration package.
We say generally speaking, because there is overlap between the categories: Leading image editors (such as Adobe Photoshop) also contain drawing tools that let you incorporate illustrated elements with the photos youre working with, and leading illustration packaged (Corels CorelDRAW, for example) give you the tools to also work with bitmap images.
Layout software lets you assemble text, images and illustrations into a single document that will likely be printed or distributed electronically, most often as a PDF file. (We would call it desktop publishing software, but that would be showing our age.)
While often considered its own category separate from graphics software, weve included layout software here for one simple reason: The packages often include ready-made clip-art and basic tools to crop, resize and clean-up images -- and hence may be all you need.
Web Graphics or Print Graphics
Most businesses need to create content that will be viewed both on the Web and in print. The problem, however, is that the requirements for the final files produced by a graphics program are wildly different depending on how you plan to use the image.
Corel Photo-Paint is a full-featured yet easy-to-use image editor that complements the CorelDraw layout and illustration package.
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For print, you need high-resolution files that will reproduce flawlessly on a printer or digital press. You or your graphics designer will also need to work with the printshop to ensure that the files you deliver meet their pre-press requirements.
Of course, if you try to post a high-res file intended for print on the Web, the size will be way off. Perhaps the most common task performed in graphics software, in fact, is resizing an image for Web presentation. Fortunately, most graphics packages let you produce output for both print and the Web, so you can work with one file and select the desired output destination and size.
Check Your Hardware
Along with 3D modeling and video editing, graphics image processing is among the most demanding chores you can ask of a PC. So before you select a graphics package, take seriously the recommended hardware requirements (not the "minimum requirements") listed on the side of the box or on the developers Web site. If your computer has a Pentium IVera processor and 512MB of RAM and you expect to load Photoshop, think again.
Ideally, the machine youll use will have at least a dual-core processor, such as an Intel Core 2 Duo (found in both Windows and Mac computers), an AMD Athlon X2 or one of the newer (and faster) Intel Core i7 or AMD Phenom chips. Unlike the typical office productivity applications, most advanced graphics software is multi-threaded, meaning the program can execute two discrete tasks at once to speed up operations -- as long as theres a second CPU core to handle the load.
Depending on the program you pick, your PC should also have at least 4GB of RAM, and high-end applications will work best with a dedicated ATI or Nvidia graphics engine on board. And since graphics files tend to be large, plan on having plenty of hard drive space.
A 250GB drive is the minimum to start, and 500GB of disk space will fill up surprisingly fast if you tend to create a lot of projects. Plan to have a secondary storage option -- external hard drives or a DVD or Blu-ray burner -- to archive older projects so they dont occupy valuable disk space on your primary drive.