Vector Graphics and You

If you’re intertested in technology and subtle trends or in digital art you should know about vector graphics. Essentially vector graphics are filled line art. The difference between graphics like this and photographs (raster or bitmapped graphics) is that a bitmapped graphic stores a line as a series of XY coordinates (pixels) that are some color value while a vector graphic would store the line as a vector starting from some XY coordinate and ending at another XY coordinate with some color value. While usually being less photorealistic there are several distinct advantages to the vector graphics format.

The major advantage, and the one we’ll concentrate on here, is the ability to scale vector graphics to any size without pixalation. Obviousy this is a tremendous advantage when working on digital publications which might be printed on any size paper or displayed at any resolution on a PC.

There are a number of different programs and file formats for working with vector graphics. Probably the most widespread is the Adobe Illustrator program which is the workhorse of the industry. Other examples are Corel Draw, Macromedia FreeHand and the Macromedia Shockwave/Flash programs, but those are primarily used for animation and web-based work only. On the file format side you have the proprietary .ai (Adobe Illustrator), .swf (Flash), .dcr (Shockwave), .cdr (Corel Draw) and on the standards (with varying degrees of openness) side you have .wmf (Windows Meta File), .cgm (Computer Graphics Metafile) and .svg (Scalable Vector Graphics). SVG is what we’ll be concentrating on here as that seems to be the way the industry is moving.

Scalable Vector Graphics is an open standards markup language for storing vector graphics. Things like this which aren’t ritzy or of interest to the general public tend to have long adoption curves. This is certainly true of SVG which was started in 1998 and is just picking up steam. SVG is supported in at least some way by most of the major players these days including Adobe Illustrator. Interestingly, SVG supports animation as well so as more toold are developed it might be possible to see SVG supplant Shockwave/Flash as an internet animation standard. Starting with release 1.5 of the popular Mozilla Firefox browser SVG support is built in and no additional viewer or plugin needs to be downloaded. Unfortunatly, Internet Explorer still requires the download of a (free) plugin.

Another advantage of SVG is that, being an open standard, there are a variety of tools to choose from. The most popular seems to be Inkscape which is a (more focused) fork of the Sodipodi group, both of these tools are cross-platform and open source. Recently commercial software publisher Xara has released an open source version of their software named Xara Xtreme and is supposedly working with the Inkscape developers to create an even better and more complete open source solution. One of the older supporters of SVG is Skencil, but they seem to have fallen behind Inkscape. Of course recent versions of Adobe Illustrator and Corel Draw also support SVG although they are not always 100% compatible with some of the other tools. Many tools have also been created which allow you to convert older formats such as WMF to SVG.

While it may not be exciting, revolutionary or an overnight change SVG is starting to gain momentum as the format of choice for vector graphics. If you are designing a logo or other line art I would get a copy of it in SVG format as some insurance against file format obsolescence. Although vector graphics are not as widely supported by consumer applications as raster graphics that seems to be changing as well and the numerous advantages of vector graphics for simple artwork and diagrams should prove successful in the long run.

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