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Demystifying Vectors

By Lara Van Rensburg


Read Time: 3 Minutes

In my last blog post, I spoke about “Deep Etching,” that awesome tool every graphic designer loves to hate! Deep etching is great when you need to “cut something out” of a photograph and remove the background, but what if you need the items to be vectors? Ok, let’s take a step back.

‘What are vectors?’ I hear you ask.

Well, Google will tell you that it’s a “quantity having direction as well as magnitude, especially as determining the position of one point in space relative to another”. Basically, it is a shape made up of mathematical algorithms.

A photograph is made up of tiny dots called pixels. Depending on the resolution (the number of pixels per inch), the photograph can only be scaled to a certain size before it starts to become “pixelated”, which is the term used to describe an image which has become blurry, making the dots visible. Because a vector is a shape created with maths as opposed to pixels, it can be scaled to absolutely any size without losing quality. This is why, as designers, we prefer to use vectors when designing logos and signage.

Now that we know what a vector is, how do we create one?

Well, believe it or not, we can actually use our beloved pen tool (the same tool used for deep etching in photoshop), except this time, we would be working in Adobe Illustrator. Photoshop and InDesign allow for the creation of vectors too, but Illustrator is the king of all things vectorised!

A MUCH quicker and easier way to create a vector in Illustrator would be to use the “Image Trace” tool. This nifty asset allows one to vectorise just about anything – including photos, but today we are going to focus on a simple silhouette.

Okay – so it’s time for a disclaimer. Obviously, as designers, we know that we cannot carbon copy ANYTHING – for the risk of being had up for plagiarism, but we also know that design often involves finding existing elements and recreating them to suit our needs. The image trace tool is perfect for this!

Creating a vector: step-by-step, here we go…

Step 1: Find an icon which you would like to recreate. This can be a jpeg and should be on a white background.

Step 2: Open the jpeg in Illustrator and make sure the jpeg is selected

Step 3: Open the “Image Trace” panel. (This can be found in your toolbar on the left, alternatively, it can be located under the “window” tab at the top of your workspace.)

Step 4: Once the panel is open, select the “Preview” block at the bottom. This will allow you to see view your jpeg transformation into a vector.

Step 5: Click the “Advanced” drop-down arrow. You will see a number of toggles which allow you to adjust the detail of your vector – to a certain extent. High-resolution jpegs allow you to create better quality vectors.

You can decide if you would like your vector done in black and white (this is best for icons, the colour can be adjusted quite easily once the vector is created) or full colour (you will need to select the number of colours you need to use). This works well for vectorizing photographs and will create a paint-like effect, or greyscale, you can select the number of greys you would like to include.

Once you are happy with your preview, select trace and voila! We have a vector! Make sure your vector is selected and click on “Expand” at the top of the page. This will highlight the nodes which allow you to easily edit the shape of your vector. Now you can print your icon at any size and the edges will be crisp and clean! Happy tracing!

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