Using InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop Together: Moving Vectors

Vectors (aka paths) are very powerful items. Unlike pixel art that can look lousy when scaled beyond a certain point, vectors are mathematical objects that can be scaled up and down with no loss of information.

Most designers use Illustrator to create their vector graphics. But there are vector tools in InDesign and Photoshop as well. Someday you may find that you need the vector shapes created in one program in another. That’s where the ability to move vectors becomes important.

Moving vectors between Illustrator and InDesign

When it comes to working with vectors, your primary vector drawing program is most likely Illustrator. (I do know one famous InDesign expert who uses a page layout program, such as InDesign, as his primary drawing program, but he did the same when he used QuarkXPress.)

So why do so many people use Illustrator as their primary vector-drawing program? Isn’t the Pen tool in both programs the same? Well, yes, but there are so many effects or techniques that InDesign just can’t do. Illustrator has the tools to create shapes such as spirals and arcs that would be difficult to do in InDesign. Illustrator’s live effects make it easy to warp simple objects into special shapes. And much clip art comes in EPS (vector) format.


So, why not do everything in Illustrator, and then just place the file as a linked image? Because it’s easier to work with those shapes if they are actual paths inside your InDesign layout instead of placed images from Illustrator. For instance, if you want text on a path, you’ll find it easier to make changes to the text or typeface if the path is in InDesign. You may want to insert images inside the vector shape. Or you may just want the convenience of changing colors as part of InDesign’s object styles.

Moving across the divide

It’s easy to get paths from Illustrator into InDesign. Just copy and paste. Or, if you’ve got loads of screen real estate, drag the paths over the edges between the two applications. The paths plop down on the InDesign page. Once the paths are in InDesign, they behave exactly like paths that you create in InDesign.


There are times when you won’t be able to move vectors from Illustrator into InDesign. For instance, if the Illustrator artwork contains too many points or too many objects, InDesign throws up its figurative hands and protests that it can’t handle that many items. Instead it embeds the objects as EPS art. This is worse than if you had just placed the artwork as an Illustrator file, which can at least be modified back in Illustrator.


If you get the message that your artwork will be embedded into InDesign, my suggestion is to click OK, and then undo the command. (There is no “Cancel” button.) If you do embed the artwork into InDesign, and then want it out, you’ll have to copy and paste. See the section “Moving Vectors from InDesign into Illustrator.”

What you lose going from Illustrator into InDesign

Going from Illustrator into InDesign, you lose all pixel effects like drop shadows, glows, and any of the Photoshop effects in the Effects menu. Opacity settings are lost, even if the resulting objects would be vectors. But pure vector effects, such as blends, warps, distortions, multiple fills, and multiple strokes get converted as if you had expanded the artwork in Illustrator.


Moving Vectors from Illustrator to Photoshop

Why would you want to move vectors from Illustrator into Photoshop? For the same reason you do it in InDesign. There are so many effects that you can’t do in Photoshop that you can do in Illustrator. In addition, Photoshop has its own path features that can be used to enhance Photoshop’s native pixels.

It’s easy to move paths from Illustrator into Photoshop. Just copy the paths in Illustrator, switch to Photoshop, and paste. You will be confronted with a dialog box asking you to choose the format for the art. Each choice gives you its own ways of working w
ith the artwork.

Once you’ve got vectors in a Photoshop document, you can manipulate them with the same vector selection tools you have in either Illustrator or InDesign. 

Pasting as Pixels

If you choose to paste as pixels, the paths appear in Photoshop with transform controls. Drag the handles to scale, skew, rotate, or otherwise distort the artwork with no loss of resolution. Photoshop resamples the images from the original vectors. But once you click Enter or Apply, the paths are rasterized. Bye, bye vectors.

Pasting as Paths

If you choose to paste as paths, and no layer is selected, the paths appear in Photoshop’s Paths panel as a Work Path. This can be saved as a named path. However, if a layer is selected, the pasted paths appear as a Vector Mask, which clips the contents of the layer within the vector mask. The crisp edges of the vector shape are maintained in the Photoshop file when you print directly out of Photoshop. This is similar to placing Photoshop art inside a vector shape in either Illustrator or InDesign. It’s the closest thing Photoshop has to InDesign’s graphics frames.

However, if you place a Photoshop file with a vector mask into InDesign, and then print the file, the vector mask is rasterized. Fortunately, if you save the file as a Photoshop PDF, the vector mask keeps its crisp, vector edges when printed.

Bringing paths from Illustrator into Photoshop also lets you add those paths to Photoshop’s wide variety of custom shapes. These shapes can then be applied to the canvas using the Custom Shape Tool. Just select and right-mouse click on the shape to choose Define Custom Shape.

Pasting as Shape Layers

A Shape Layer creates a vector shape that is similar to pasting as a path. A vector mask is created over pixels. However, instead of masking a layer of an image, the shape layer is filled with a solid color. This is the foreground color. However, if a shape layer is selected, the new shape layer takes on the color of the selected layer.

Shape layers can only contain one color. You can’t have an image in the layer, just a solid color. However, you can use any of the Photoshop layer effects (such as a gradient or pattern fill) on the shape layer to modify the solid color. 

Like pasting as paths, shape layers allow you to have sharp, vector paths that outline the artwork. These paths are vectors when printed directly out of Photoshop. They are rasterized when the PSD file is placed into and printed from InDesign. However, when saved as a Photoshop PDF, they print as vector paths.

Pasting as Vector Smart Objects

Smart objects are a hybrid combination of paths and raster images that travel from Illustrator into Photoshop. However, unlike the shape layers that can contain only one color, Vector Smart Objects maintain all the swatches, gradients, effects, and other elements in the Illustrator file.

You create a Vector Smart Object by choosing Vector Smart Object when you paste Illustrator paths into Photoshop. Transformation handles let you scale or modify the art before it is entered as a Vector Smart Object. You can also use the File > Place command to choose an Illustrator file to embed as a Vector Smart Object.

Editing the Vector Smart Object

A Vector Smart Object is more than just artwork on a layer in a Photoshop file. It is actually the entire, original Illustrator file hanging around inside of the Photoshop file. So, if you need to edit any part of the original Illustrator art, you simply double-click the Vector Smart Object thumbnail or choose Edit Contents in the Layers panel menu. An alert box appears with a lot of text. All you have to do is remember to save your work when you’re finished making the changes in the Vector Smart Object. Adobe says choose File > Save, but Cmd/Ctrl-S works just as well.


When you edit the Vector Smart Object, you’re no longer in Photoshop. You’ve launched Illustrator and are editing the artwork within Illustrator. But you’re not editing the original Illustrator file. You’re editing a stripped down version of the file that doesn’t contain all the libraries and goodies found in the original file. You can tell this isn’t the original file as the title is Vector Smart Object.


Once you choose File > Save, you can close the Vector Smart Object file and return to Photoshop. Your changes are immediately applied to the Photoshop information.

As far as editing, Vector Smart Objects are totally Illustrator files with all the characteristics of vector art. However, the artwork is rasterized into pixels when the Photoshop file is printed. There’s nothing that can stop it. Vector Smart Objects play dumb when it comes to printing.

Vector Smart Objects from InDesign

You can create Vector Smart Objects from InDesign in Photoshop files. Select the objects in InDesign, copy, and then paste into Photoshop. You won’t get a choice as to how to paste; the artwork automatically creates a Vector Smart Object.

However, when you choose to edit the Vector Smart Object, the command doesn’t open InDesign. Instead, it launches Illustrator where you can make changes.

Posted on: January 24, 2014

Sandee Cohen

Sandee Cohen is a New York City-based instructor and corporate trainer in a wide variety of graphic programs, especially the Adobe products, including InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Acrobat. She has been an instructor for New School University, Cooper Union, Pratt, and School of Visual Arts. She is a frequent speaker for various events. She has also been a speaker for Seybold Seminars, Macworld Expo, and PhotoPlus conferences. She is the author of many versions of the Visual Quickstart Guides for InDesign.

9 Comments on Using InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop Together: Moving Vectors

  1. Great article, Sandee! Very useful tips.

    There is one new element to bringing moving vectors which is good to know about: If you are an Adobe Creative Cloud subscriber, there were updates to InDesign CC, Illustrator CC, and Photoshop CC in January 2014. Photoshop CC 14.2, the updated version, has a new feature called Place Linked.

    Previously, if you placed an Illustrator file, for example, into Photoshop, it would become an embedded Smart Object as you describe in an article. (And pasted objects are still embedded as you describe.) But this is now File > Place Embedded. You now have an option called File > Place Linked. This turns the Illustrator graphic into a linked graphic just like in InDesign and Illustrator! (Unlike InDesign and Illustrator, Photoshop also keeps a backup embedded object in case you lose the link.)

    Now, we you want to edit your linked smart object, it will open in Illustrator as you describe, but it opens up the copy of the Illustrator file on your hard drive or server. This is very useful if you want to use, for example, and Illustrator-created logo in multiple Photoshop files. Each will point to the same file.

  2. There is another reason besides “custom shapes” for moving from Photoshop to Illustrator. I frequently have to convert a raster object to vector since many clients only have a raster copy of their logos. Outlining in Photoshop and exporting the path to Illustrator will result a crisp, printable logo. I suggest outlining by hand and not using the “make work path” command from a selection …those can be imprecise, or contain a ridiculous number of vector points.

  3. The paths become InDesign vectors so they can be edited with InDesign’s Pen and other path-editing tools. But theres  a limitation: If the art is too complex, the copied objects print at high resolution and become an uneditable embedded EPS file.It turns out that if you copy up to 500 paths or shapes, they stay vector. If you copy 501 or more, then they’re no longer editable.

  4. Rafah,

    You’re right about the number. But don’t you think it strange that it is the number of paths? I would have thought it would have been the number of points.

  5. Terre Dunivant

    April 1, 2015 at 7:57 pm

    Great article, thank you. Comments are very helpful too. I often have to work with vector maps and often get the dreaded “embedded eps” dialog. I’ve struggled to work with Smart Objects. It’s good to know the number of paths to try to stay under in order to be able to work with the file. I had thought it was points.

  6. Lots of great tips that help clarify what is happening between the programs. Thank you!

  7. hi guys i am not david

  8. Hello, Thanks for the article,

    i have a lot of artwork from indesign that i need to bring into illustrator…. And when i say a lot – probably close on 200 vectors all in different groups..

    I would ike to bring this all into illustrator, however, going through and finding each clipping path is incredibly time consuming… Is there away to bring vector work into illustrator with out the clipping masks?

    I have also tried saving the indesign doc as a PDF but still has the same issue.

    Thanks and trust you can help,



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