Adobe Illustrator 8

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Improved usability, productivity and creativity mean that Illustrator is finally finding its feet again.

Illustrator 8 screenshot

Adobe calls Illustrator the "industry standard" drawing application. As the first professional drawing program on any platform and still the biggest player on the Mac there is undoubtedly some justification for this description. Over the last few years, however, the program has been allowed to fall behind its two main rivals, Macromedia FreeHand and Corel Draw, in every area from functionality to usability. In fact the last two releases of Illustrator could only really be called standard in the sense of lowest common denominator. With version 8, Adobe is determined to make Illustrator live up to its reputation.

In many ways Illustrator has fallen behind the competition precisely because of its long pedigree. Illustrator virtually invented the drawing genre and subsequent programs were able to look at how Illustrator did things and so improve on them. Illustrator's over-reliance on tools for even the most basic tasks has been the most obvious failing and has finally been addressed. The separate tools for drawing rectangles and ovals from their centre out have finally gone, for example. More importantly, while the separate tools for scaling, rotating, mirroring and skewing are still there, they are no longer required. Now when you select an object it is automatically surrounded by a bounding box that enables resizing. If you then select the new Free Transform tool you can also rotate, reflect, shear and even apply a perspective effect to the object.

With version 8 then, Illustrator finally catches up on the basic object handling Corel Draw has offered from version 1. Rather more impressive is the fact that Illustrator 8 now leaves Corel for dead when it comes to that other fundamental task - drawing. In particular Illustrator's existing Pencil tool has been seriously revamped to offer path reshaping. Once you have drawn a path, it is automatically selected and if you draw a new line near the section of the existing line, Illustrator automatically adjusts the path to the new desired shape. This is like drawing on paper where you might sketch multiple drafts, the difference is that you are producing clean editable vector art. The system takes a little getting used to - if you are not careful you end up redrawing lines when you want to create new ones - but once you have the hang of it, it is a huge step forward in terms of creative freedom.

The Pencil Tool

Two new tools also help produce drawings quickly and efficiently. The first is the Smoother tool which removes wrinkles and unwanted bumps from any selected path it is dragged along. The second is the Eraser tool which completely removes sections of line without the need for node editing. Both these tools make the drawing process much more natural, but Illustrator 8 also recognises that much computer-based drawing is technical by nature. The new SmartGuides feature means that vertical, horizontal, and angled guidelines appear as you draw or move objects to enable automatic and accurate alignment with existing elements. Again this can be disconcerting at first, but you soon get used to the guidelines flashing up as you work and they can be invaluable for painlessly aligning multiple objects as you create them.

Another example of a fundamental task that was unnecessarily complex in previous releases, but has been made much simpler in Illustrator 8 is applying colour. In the past to set whether the colour you were mixing was a fill or an outline, you had to use the proxy under the toolbox. This involved unnecessary mousework and it was easy to make mistakes. Now there is a proxy in the Colour palette and the problem is solved. The programming effort involved must have been minimal, but the difference to working practice is immense. This is true of a whole host of other minor changes - Adobe claims over a hundred - including the ability to set a default start-in directory, to pick up and apply text styles and to reselect your last selection.

Much more obvious enhancements to usability and productivity come in the form of four new floating palettes - although this inevitably comes at the expense of lost working space. The various Pathfinder commands for controlling the creation of compound paths, for example, are now given their own dedicated palette. The new Navigator palette is a direct copy of the feature in Photoshop with its thumbnail version of the whole image enabling instant zooming to any area without scrolling. The new Links palette meanwhile makes it easy to keep track of all imported images and to update or replace them where necessary. The way of handling component files is very similar to PageMaker's, but Illustrator now leapfrogs its stable mate in terms of usability.

The most important new palette in Illustrator 8 is the Actions palette. Again this is a straight import from Photoshop and offers exactly the same features in terms of recording sequences of commands for later playback. The technology is particularly welcome because so many drawing actions are repetitive in nature. In creating the petals of a flower, for example, you might take an object, copy it, rotate it and subtly change its colour. By recording the actions once you can then automatically repeat the process not only within the same drawing but in any other drawing or even on other systems. The power is undoubtedly useful but there are limitations. There is no option for conditional processing, for example, or for the creation of custom dialogs. More immediately there are some commands, such as the painting tools, tool options and preferences commands, that cannot be recorded while the workaround to control selection by using note text is awkward.

Actions and Power

Even so, actions certainly help put the user in control of their work and good results can be achieved. Illustrator ships with a wide selection of actions to show what can be done such as automating the creation of cast shadows and embossed text. That's all well and good, but in competing programs this sort of functionality is handled internally by dedicated commands. Compared to Corel Draw's interactive extrusion effect, for example, Illustrator's isometric cube action is puny. When you compare the same feature to the latest Draw's 3D control with in-built rendering it looks embarrassing.

Unfortunately this is completely typical of Illustrator. While its basic drawing is now the most impressive around, its advanced features aren't just lagging behind the competition, they simply haven't made it off the starting block. This limitation is most obvious with Illustrator's handling of vector transparency, a feature crucial to the creation of realistic illustrations. The only way Illustrator can create transparency effects is by using the complex Pathfinder commands to create a new object where shapes overlap and to recolour it accordingly. Compared to FreeHand's dynamic lenses and especially Draw's interactive graduated transparencies this is completely inadequate.

Postscript and PDF

Illustrator's conservative functionality is undoubtedly a huge drawback for the power user, but there are reasons for it and even benefits. After all sheer power isn't everything. To be useful, effects have to output reliably and outputting to an imagesetter is very different to outputting to a local colour printer. Fundamentally, successful professional output boils down to Postscript, the language that drives the imagesetter and through it the commercial print industry. Illustrator's great strength is its unrivalled Postscript handling. While programs like Draw translate into Postscript or bitmaps when outputting, Illustrator thinks in Postscript at all times. As such, it's even possible to save and open your drawings directly in Postscript's EPS format rather than Illustrator's AI format and still keep all features intact and editable.

Ironically then it's actually professional designers who are most likely to choose the under-powered but much more reliable Illustrator. There's another reason the professional is likely to turn to Illustrator - integration. Illustrator isn't just a standalone program, it's an integral part of the Adobe publishing strategy. In fact 80 percent of Illustrator users use at least one other Adobe program. This has benefits not only in terms of the familiarity of the common user interface, but also at the structural level. In particular Illustrator's AI files can be cut and pasted directly into Photoshop or imported into Premiere. A potentially even more useful method of exchange in Illustrator 8 is the new ability to output Photoshop PSD files complete with layer information. The process is slow but opens up huge pixel-based creative possibilities in Photoshop - even transparency - and enables layer-based animation in After Effects and ImageReady.

Illustrator's Postscript foundation and integration with other applications are already major strengths, but in the near future both factors are likely to become subsumed into Adobe's new PDF-based architecture. The PDF (portable document format) is essentially an interpreted and highly compressed Postscript file that can be created by any application and viewed with the free Acrobat Reader program. Moreover, as the format looks set to replace Postscript as the standard for creating commercial print, it is difficult to overestimate its importance. Like all Adobe's publishing programs it is possible to create PDFs directly from Illustrator again by simply using the Save As dialog. There is also now an option to save to the as yet unreleased Acrobat 4 format.

What makes Illustrator unique is its ability to open PDFs for editing and for colour separating, a capability that could make it the natural destination of the PDF workflow. Surprisingly, however, Adobe seems to be playing down this role - almost certainly to pave the way for its entirely new PDF-centred program, K2. The only major new PDF-based capability in Illustrator 8 therefore is the ability to link to PDF files rather than opening them which completely bypasses the possibility of editing. Much more astonishing is the fact that Illustrator 8 can still only handle single page files as, by their nature, most PDFs are multiple page documents. This means that the only way to edit multiple page PDFs is through a clumsy workaround of opening each page for editing as a separate file.

Of course Illustrator's limitation to single page drawings isn't just a drawback for PDF editing, it also rules out huge areas of graphic design. In fact, by tiling pages on the single artboard and by repositioning the printable area with the Page tool, it is possible to use Illustrator to create short leaflets and brochures. Even so the process is unintuitive and far more difficult than it should be. Again it leaves Illustrator completely under-powered compared to both Corel Draw and FreeHand which specialise in the creation of design-intensive publications.

Naturalistic Illustration

With its inability to produce advanced effects, multiple page layouts and its apparent demotion as PDF editor, the obvious question is just what can Illustrator do? Web functionality hasn't been improved in this release so that's another area where the program lags behind and, while Illustrator is the only major drawing program to offer in-built charting, this has again been left untouched. Effectively all that's left is the core task of illustrative drawing. The huge problem of course is that by its nature, vector drawing tends to produce artwork that is too clearly computerised. The flat fills, perfect gradients and uniform line widths just seem too clinical to be attractive. It is this failing that Adobe has chosen to tackle head-on.

To try and produce the impression of natural shading, the most common vector-based workaround is to create a blend between differently tinted shapes. In the past Illustrator's blending controls were rudimentary to say the least, but with version 8 the program has caught up and offers much greater control by automatically creating blends along editable paths. Also, as the blends are now dynamic, if you edit any shape or the underlying path, the effect automatically updates.

More revolutionary is Illustrator's new Gradient Mesh tool. This enables you to create much more subtle shading effects by creating custom gradients. As you click on an object with the tool, that point becomes an anchor from which colour emanates and blends with those around it. Not only can the colours be changed, but it's even possible to control anchor points to manage exactly how the colours spread. The process couldn't be called intuitive, but it's worth the effort as it takes the shading and tonal possibilities of vector art into completely new areas. The fly-in-the-ointment is that the effect only outputs as completely smooth vector artwork to Postscript Level 3 devices and is otherwise converted to a 150dpi bitmap.

With its improved blends and custom gradients, Illustrator's control over vector fills is now unmatched - though again the program's general anti-bitmap bias is evident in the poor support for bitmap fills. Even more impressive, however, is Illustrator's new and creative approach to strokes through the four Brush tool options available from the new Brushes palette. Two of these brush options are re-workings of existing capabilities. The existing path patterns have been seriously revamped as new Pattern brushes which allow a repeating element, such as a rope or vine, to be intuitively painted along an editable path. The change to the Calligraphic Brushes is even more fundamental. Now rather than creating shapes, the calligraphic effects are created as true paths enabling far easier re-editing and re-sizing.

New Brushes

The remaining two brush options are completely new. The Scatter Brush lets you control the random sizing and spacing of artwork that is automatically added along the path you paint. The effect is very much like the Graphic Hoses seen in so many bitmap programs except that the objects remain connected to their controlling path - if this is moved or edited the objects move too. In many ways the new Art Brushes are the simplest tools of all as they simply stretch a single artwork element along the full length of the line that you draw. The effects they achieve though are the most impressive, particularly when working with the range of artistic brushes, such as charcoal and watercolour, available from Illustrator's new Brush Libraries palette.

What makes Illustrator's vector-based brushes so special is the naturalistic results that they can produce while remaining within a completely controlled and editable vector environment. Retrospectively editing or changing the width of the stroke is simple, for example, while changing factors such as how each brush is coloured is possible at the individual stroke or global picture level. The control isn't as comprehensive or interactive as that offered by a dedicated vector art program, such as Metacreations Expression, but the most important capability of easily creating your own customised brushes is there. To create a bouquet, for example, you would only need to create one flower, drag it onto the Brush palette to create your own Art brush and then use this to paint as many flowers as you wanted.

In a head-to-head with Macromedia FreeHand and Corel Draw, Illustrator still comes off much the worst in terms of all-round functionality and there are many jobs for which the program is just not suited. On the other hand, while completely failing to address Illustrator's long-running failings - its poor support for multiple pages, transparency handling, advanced effects, bitmap fills and web graphic creation - Adobe has managed to bring the program back into serious contention by returning to first principles. In particular Illustrator's new Gradient Mesh and Brush tools put it well ahead of the pack for advanced artistic illustration in the same way as its intuitive Pencil tool does for basic drawing.

Illustrator 8 can now truly claim to set the industry standard in the most important area of all for any vector package - creative drawing.



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System Requirements: Pentium or higher, 64MB of RAM, 105MB of disk space, Windows 98, NT 4.0 or 2000, CD-ROM, SVGA

Tom Arah

February 1999

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