Photoshop or Illustrator for Fashion Design: Which Should I Learn?
Updated: May 19
“Should I learn Photoshop or Illustrator if I’m a fashion designer?” I get this question regularly, at least once per month, sometimes more. And it’s an important question to consider when you’re pressed for time, money and resources. Many students need to get their skills up-to-date in a hurry and need to understand which software makes the most sense for their day-to-day tasks. They also don’t want to spend money learning a program that they don’t need.
The answer for most fashion designers is pretty straightforward: learn Illustrator. Except, there is a “but”. It also depends on your job description or title and your level of seniority. Here’s how a typical conversation might go.
Me: For most apparel people, particularly if you’re in ready-to-wear, the majority of us will spend a large portion of our day using Illustrator. From drawing to making tech packs to creating line sheets, Illustrator is the ‘go to’ program for all of this. You can flat sketch, fill the sketches with color and pattern, add text, create layouts, and save files as single or multi page PDF documents. Assistants, associates and even senior level designers all use the program regularly.
Student: So it sounds like the answer is clear. I just need to learn Illustrator, right?
Me: Well, . . . here’s where your seniority level comes into play. When you’ve moved past Senior Designer and into the role of Creative or Design Director, you might decide that Photoshop is the better option for you.
As a Director, you’re setting the tone for the brand, the season and/or a division. A lot of time goes into researching trends, shopping the market, watching the runway and pulling together visuals of what all of these resources mean for your team and how they work to tell your story.
Here is where Photoshop becomes a wonderful asset. You can crop pictures, add interesting filters, tweak colors, remove backgrounds from photos, correct flaws or inconsistencies, lighten or darken pictures, and layout your photos on a board. In addition, if you’re someone who likes to add fashion illustrations to your presentations to give an overall look or feeling, Photoshop can be a great tool to add some quick color.
Student: So, I learn Illustrator until I move into a director position. Got it!
Me: It’s still not that cut and dry. Take lingerie designers, for instance. They work with laces day in and day out. You can scan a lace and try to use it as is with Illustrator, but you’ll have a lot more options and much more flexibility if you learn a few Photoshop tricks to help you edit or recolor it.
Footwear and accessory designers also use scanned fabrics to show more realism and texture in their drawings. Again, Photoshop tools like Adjustment Layers, Healing brushes, Content Aware, Dodge and Burn tools all can play a role in creating seamless textures and a more dimensional appearance.
Student: Mikelle, that’s all great information, but now, I’m no closer to understanding which program I need to learn than I was before.
Me: If you need to choose one program and you’re designing product (apparel, footwear, accessories), my recommendation is to learn Illustrator. You will get a lot more use out of it and you’ll find that you’re more marketable as a designer with Illustrator skills than with Photoshop.
Student: Ok, but what if I do need to learn Photoshop?
Me: Good question, and more than likely, you’ll want to know at least a few things. Here’s my suggestions:
1. Ask your colleagues: Your quickest lessons come on the job. A lot of shortcuts and practical tips I know now didn’t come from the computer classes I took; they came from learning and problem solving on the job and asking lots of questions. Fortunately, I had co-workers who were more than happy to give me regular ‘show and tell’ Illustrator lessons and explain why tools function the way they do. (However, that’s not always the case.)
2. YouTube: You’re probably thinking, “Well, duh!” But not everyone thinks to look there for Photoshop tips, especially when you need them to be specific to fashion. The 383 Design Studio YouTube channel has quite a few Photoshop and Illustrator for fashion-specific videos, and there are several other great channels with helpful tutorials as well for both programs. 3. Online classes: Pre-pandemic, there were a lot of people who were a little hesitant about taking an online class. Now, people are much more open to it, and there are quite a few perks: you can take/watch it at your own convenience, you can "take class" wherever it's convenient for you, you can learn at your own pace, and it's usually less expensive than a live class. 383 Design Studio has a beginner Illustrator for Fashion online, self paced class that you can take if you need a more convenient option. And if you aren’t a fan of pre-recorded classes, you can also take a live, online class. I love this option because it’s the closest thing to being in the classroom with your instructor except you’re conveniently located in your home, office or wherever you choose to take class. 383 Design Studio has several affordable live, online Adobe for Fashion classes. You get to communicate with a real person in real time and even ask questions. Plus, every session is recorded so you can play back what you learned for later review. Student: Thanks for breaking that down! I think I have a much clearer understanding of which program will work best for me. Me: Great! And make sure that no matter what program you choose to start learning, remember to keep your skills updated. Not only is it great to continue to learn but keeping your skills current is imperative in this ever changing and highly technical world. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to learn something new, and with all of the options available, the question of which program to learn won’t be an “either/or” answer.
* This blog post was originally published in June 2018. It has been updated as of May 2021.