Vector-based images are commonly used by graphic designers. The files are small, yet the images themselves are infinitely resizable. They’re perfect for drawings, and especially for things like logos and icons. Adobe Illustrator is the leading graphic design package, which means its native filetype (AI) is the industry standard.
The trouble is, AI is a proprietary format owned by Adobe. So figuring out how to open AI files without Illustrator can be difficult. And support varies quite considerably, depending on what you want to do with it.
Put simply, opening an AI file just to view is easy. Opening it to edit is less straightforward. Let’s take a look at both scenarios.
How to Open AI Files Without Illustrator
If you have an AI file that you just need to view, but not edit, then there are lots of programs that can do it.
The default save settings for AI files in Illustrator mean that the files are saved with PDF content embedded. This means you can view them in most apps that support PDF viewing.
- In Windows, you need to change the file extension to PDF. Highlight the file and hit F2 on your keyboard. Add .pdf to the end of the filename and confirm the change when prompted. Now double-click the file and it will open in your default PDF viewer.
- On a Mac you can view AI files in Preview without any changes.
- You can also upload AI files to Google Drive and view them there.
If you want to add the file to a larger collection of artwork and have a way to browse through it easily, try Adobe Bridge. This comes with a basic free Adobe CC account, and lets you open and view Illustrator files.
In all these instances you’ll be looking at a flat, uneditable image.
Open AI Files in Photoshop or GIMP
Should you need to incorporate an AI image into a larger piece of artwork without editing it directly, you can do so using Photoshop or its free equivalent GIMP. This might happen, for example, if you’ve got a logo created in Illustrator that you want to add to a poster you’ve designed in Photoshop.
When you open the image in these apps it is imported as a PDF. You’ll see an Import dialog box, and you can normally accept the default suggestions.
The main thing to remember is to import the image at a large size. You’ll lose the benefits of vector graphics when importing, so it’s better to import a large image and shrink it down than it is to import a small image and enlarge it.
When you’re done you can copy and paste the image onto its own layer in another piece of artwork or add additional layers to this file. You’ll have to save it in a different format afterwards.
If none of the above options work, it may be that the default settings were changed when the original file was saved. If so, try changing the filetype to EPS (another vector image format) to see if that helps. Alternatively, try converting the image to a different format.
We’ll take a look at that in the next section.
How to Edit AI Files Without Illustrator
When you need to edit an AI file without Illustrator, things get a little trickier. There aren’t many mainstream apps that can edit AI files natively. Most require the file to be converted along the way. This process is sometimes handled in the app, and sometimes needs to be done as a separate first step.
Convert AI to SVG or EPS Online
If you are going to convert the file yourself, you should convert it to SVG. This is an open format with wide support, although it’s designed primarily for web use. If you’re working in print, try EPS instead.
To convert your image:
- Go to cloudconvert.com.
- Click Select Files and choose the file from your hard drive.
- Next, click Select Format and choose either SVG or EPS, listed under Vector.
- Select Start Conversion, and wait.
- When it’s done, click Download to save your newly converted file.
Problems With Editing AI Files
Whenever you try to edit AI files without Illustrator, there are a few potential problems you need to be aware of.
- Conversions are not always 100 percent accurate. This is especially true when the original file used features or effects unique to Illustrator.
- You’ll often lose layer information. This can make complex files difficult to navigate since all the elements will no longer be labelled.
- You often cannot save or export your edited file in the AI format (and Illustrator can’t read the proprietary format of your editing app either). Save in a format like SVG or EPS for widest compatibility.
Whether or not you need to convert your file first depends on what software you’re using. Here are the best apps for editing Illustrator files.
Gravit Designer is arguably the best free Illustrator alternative. It is available for Mac, Windows, Linux, Chrome OS, iPad, and Android, plus it has a cloud version that runs in your browser so you can edit AI files online.
To open and edit an AI file you need to convert it to the SVG format first. You can do this using the CloudConvert tool, as described above. Once that’s done, simply drag the file into the Gravit Designer window to open it.
As is often the case, all parts of the image are grouped onto a single layer, but they can be edited individually.
The app has a very modern and user-friendly interface. Although there’s plenty of power beneath the hood, it makes working with vector art very accessible. It’s especially good for things like logos, icons, and symbols.
Download: Gravit Designer (Free)
The most well known free Illustrator alternative is the open-source Inkscape. It’s available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
You can open AI files directly in Inkscape. It doesn’t support drag-and-drop, so you need to go to File > Open and then select the document from your hard drive.
The file is then imported as a PDF. Like Photoshop, you have to click through some Import settings first — you can accept the defaults here — but unlike Photoshop, the resulting image is fully editable.
All the parts of the image are grouped together. The easiest way to select a specific element is to hit F2 to activate the “Edit nodes” tool, then hover over the image until the part you want is highlighted. Then click to select it.
You can’t save edited images in the AI format. SVG and EPS are supported as alternatives.
Download: Inkscape (Free)
Affinity Designer is a commercial graphic design package available for Windows and Mac. It’s aimed at the same professional users as Illustrator, but differs with its subscription-free pricing model — it’ll cost you less than three months of an equivalent Adobe sub.
The program can open AI files as long as they have been saved with PDF content (the default in Illustrator). This means you lose the layer information, as usual, and cannot save the file in its original format.
If you want to be able to open your edited image in Illustrator again, you need to save it in PDF, SVG, or EPS format.
Affinity Designer is a powerful and popular piece of software with an impressive feature list. It could be a good option for anyone looking to transition away from Illustrator.
Download: Affinity Designer (Free trial available)
CorelDRAW is a graphic design program for Windows. The Home & Student Suite is affordably priced for mainstream users, while there are more deluxe offerings for pros. You get AI support either way.
The software works with native AI files made with Illustrator versions up to and including CS6, or with PDF-enabled files made in more recent versions.
You need to import the files by going to File > Import, then clicking through the Import settings (which you’ll only see for the PDF-based files).
The main option to consider here is whether to have text rendered as text (which makes it editable but may lose some effects), or as curves. This will be a more accurate conversion, but the text won’t be editable.
When you have finished editing the Illustrator file you can export it back to the AI format. However, if you’ve used any features unique to CorelDRAW, these won’t be supported in Illustrator.
Corel also makes Paint Shop Pro, the Photoshop alternative. This app can open and save AI files natively, but is generally less suitable for vector graphics work.
Download: CorelDRAW (Free trial available)
Sketch is a Mac-only design suite that is becoming increasingly popular among professional users. If you’re looking to open and edit AI files on a Mac, it’s a viable choice.
The program has limited native support for Illustrator files. You can open them as you would any other file, but they will only be displayed as a single flattened layer. This is the equivalent of opening it in Photoshop, and means the image is not editable.
Some users have reported success by changing the file extension from AI to PDF. Select the file on your computer and add .pdf to the end of the filename. Drag it into Sketch to get an editable image. Your results here may depend on the complexity of the file, however.
A more foolproof solution is to convert the file to the SVG format using CloudConvert. Since you cannot save files in the AI format this also represents the best way of ensuring your edited file can be reopened in Illustrator in future.
Download: Sketch (Free trial available)
Moving Away From Illustrator
Opening any proprietary file outside of the app for which it was intended can produce mixed results. It’s the same when you open PSD files outside of Photoshop.
But support for AI files is generally pretty good. The only time you’ll encounter problems is when the file relies on features that are only available in Illustrator. By definition, these cannot work elsewhere.
For most files, however, you should be okay, and the standard of both free and affordable graphic design and vector image software is very high. Once you’ve got the image open there are no limitations on what you can do with it.
How do you open Illustrator files without Illustrator? Have you used any of the programs above, or do you use something else? Hit up the comments to tell us about it.
Explore more about: Adobe Illustrator.