Few can argue that Microsoft’s latest OS X-only version of Office is the “killer app” that legitimizes the switch from OS 9 to OS X, but for the thousands and thousands of Mac users that make their living in the “design” field, Adobe’s family of products are far more vital. Each day spent without a native version of the big-hitters is a day spent shuttling between Classic and OS X.
Recently, Adobe quietly (compared at least to the launch of Office) released its flagship illustration package, Adobe Illustrator 10.
More than just a port of the existing Illustrator for OS 9, Illustrator 10 offers some dazzling new features that make it the most compelling version of the software to date and once again enforces Adobe’s dominance in the design arena. Users of either OS 9 or OS X can take advantage of Illustrator 10, as the Carbon app will run in either environment.
Adobe has only given the application a slight facelift (apart from the enhancements brought running in OS X) with the most noticeable change being new shaded icons in the toolbar that have an almost charcoal drawing feel. Certainly color icons wouldn’t have hurt (ala Office) but these new icons at least go with the feeling of the Aqua interface.
The real improvements with Illustrator are in functionality however. Adobe crammed a host of new tools and techniques in an already powerful application. Those familiar with the program Painter will be drawn quickly to the powerful Symbols tools, an impressive way to manipulate a group of shapes. Symbols are difficult to describe, but once you start playing with them, their functionality becomes irresistible. Symbols are designed to be used on a document where multiple versions of a graphic are repeated over and over. Think, for example, of a street map illustration. In order to show the location of every bus stop on a map, a designer would typically create a graphic and then leave a copy of it on the artboard, copying and pasting as necessary.
There are a few problems with this approach. First, in a crowded illustration it’s very difficult to manage the locations of each item. As more iterations are added it becomes cumbersome to group them together, and many illustrators start using layers to manage the task. The second issue is with the cumbersome nature of making modifications to each.
Picture the same map illustration with a hundred bus stop graphics. What happens if they all need to be rotated slightly, or if the fill and saturation needs to be adjusted? And finally what happens when this illustration needs to moved to the web and each additional bus stop graphic adds to the file size.
Symbols to the rescue. Illustrator allows Symbols to be placed on a graphic with a convenient spray-paint icon (though they can also be dragged individually from the Symbols palette). The longer the mouse button is held while the spray can is in use, the more copies of the Symbol are produced. This is great for texturing illustrations with things like leaves, drops of water, etc. Any user-created item can be a symbol and Illustrator ships with a library of its own.
All Symbols are grouped as one object for easy manipulation via the new Symbol tools. They sport names like Symbol Screener Tool, Symbol Spinner Tool and more. Symbols can be replaced with other Symbols (change the bus icon on that hypothetical map illustration to a new version and have it reflected across the document) and can be stylized through the Styles palette.
Finally, Symbols are a space-saving device. Each copy of a Symbol refers to a single design. One hundred copies of the bus stop take up almost the same space as a single copy.
Suffice it to say that future Illustrator textbooks will have chapters dedicated to this new feature, and that I could fill an entire article with a discussion of Symbols.
Moving along the toolbar Photoshop users will notice the new Magic Wand tool, which works (not surprisingly) like Photoshop’s tool, but for vector-based graphics. Illustrator’s Magic Wand tool allows selection of similar items based on fill color, stroke color, stroke weight, opacity and blending mode. Each tool (except blending mode) includes a tolerance slider that allows items with slight — or great — variations to be selected.
Five new drawing tools also grace the toolbar. The Line Segment Tool (finally, multiple line segments without having to click the pointer tool over and over), Arc Tool, Rectangular Grid Tool and Polar Grid tool vastly reduce the amount of time needed to make some very simple shapes and all have infinitely adjustable options accessible through dialog boxes.
What really caught my eye though was the selection of new distortion tools. Starting with the Warp Tool (that smushes and squeezes any points under its brush), to the Wrinkle Tool, Illustrator now offers seven new ways to modify graphics in some truly wonderful fashion. Take the Twirl Tool which spins points round like a tornado, resulting in odd shapes that look as if they were made of blown glass. Add to these seven tools the new Warp effects and there is no end to the wonderful (or hideous) modifications that can be made to an illustration.
Again, a whole article could be spent on these tools. After playing with them I think back on the hours and hours spent in design school trying to achieve these effects through tweaking points and modifying curves that could have been better spent on just about anything else.
Internet design firms will jump for joy at several of Illustrators new web-specific tools. Taking a new approach to slices, Illustrator allows for dynamic slicing based on the placement of objects. In a typical scenario a page is laid out and then approved and only then is it sliced to optimize loading times. Last minute changes in positioning can result in a trip back to slice the page again manually. Illustrator performs this slicing on the fly, drag the slices around and they update automatically. It even allows for different types of compression in each slice. A section of text could be sliced as a gif, while a complex graphic could be set to PNG. Illustrator also supports manual slicing — and supports it in conjunction with automatic slicing — to truly eke the best performance out of a page.
Truly hardcore web designers will get an even bigger kick out of the new dynamic data-driven graphics features. Illustrator now supports the ability to link graphic template files to any ODBC compliant data source. The result is real-time graphics that can be displayed based on the information in any database. Imagine designing a weather website that polls a browser’s cookie for its zip code and then displays a customized map based on the national weather database. (Rain clouds, obscured sun, the temperature superimposed over the image). Now imagine combining that with the data from a mapping website to show that weather map directly over a website visitor’s street map. The possibilities are endless.
Illustrator now offers better support for formats such as Flash (SWF) and Adobe’s own SVG format, as well as improved compatibility with other Adobe programs. Dozens of other little tweaks and improvements abound as well.
One of the things I’ve always liked best about Illustrator is that each version seems to be a natural progression from the previous one. Each new release finds me making the most awful illustrations as I just sit and play with the new tools while my jaw drops. Illustrator 10 is no exception. While some companies make so many changes in a release that it’s nearly impossible to continue with tried and true workflows, Adobe has typically worked hard to integrate improvements gently, belying their power.
Illustrator 10 is no exception to this. Powerful tools are snuggled neatly besides familiar staples. If this release only added OS X support, it would still be reason for many to run out and buy a copy. But with so many new features and OS X support, there is little reason why this shouldn’t be on every designer’s gift list this holiday season.