Bits and Vectors

Bear with me for a minute. To have this conversation, we need to get just a little technical, a little nerdy.  Trust me, it’s worth it.

There are basically two kinds of images that we use computers to create.

  • Bitmaps are what you’re probably most used to — an image made up of a collection of tiny pixels of solid color. Most images that we work with in web design are bitmaps (gif, jpg, png).
  • Vector Graphics are created using shapes — lines and curves, polygon and their relative spacial relationship with other.

At some point, all images that are displayed on a screen are expressed in bits or pixels — because that’s what it takes to actually display the image on the screen.  But some images are only ever created as bitmaps. Photos and live video images are only ever bitmaps — to get bigger images we need to capture more complex bitmaps.

Most of us, especially dabblers, only ever learn to work in terms of bitmaps.  We work with photoshop, play around with the tools it provides, and churn out the images we need.

But “real” designers, especially designers who need to think about designing graphics that need to be blown up to a very large scale, often need to create their images as vector graphics so when they scale up to billboard size the images don’t become blocky and pixelated; the curves remain smooth no matter what size we need that image to take on.

That’s a critical distinction — that design, that graphic, it takes different software and usually special training to create. It requires vision and taste in ways that are very different from the creative work to create a bitmap image.

So, there’s your challenge: a bitmap image can look great at it’s native scale, but if you try to blow it up or shrink it down, it loses it’s quality very quickly.  A vector graphic is smooth and clean no matter what size, but still be translated into bits to be displayed on a screen.

As a program developer, as a manager, as a leader in an academic space, we need to not limit ourselves to thinking in terms of bits and blocks.  Of the individual units of display.

If you’re going to innovate — if you’re going to move from one idea to the next gracefully, without being tied to old limits that impede progress, you need to perfect your ability to see, design, and lead in vectors.

Give them curves; show them polygons.

Let them appreciate the way the shapes within the vision you’re giving them relate to each other, but don’t try to convert that vision back down to the bit level for them. Let them take the curves and shapes you give them, set their own size and convert it to bits on their own.

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