The latest version of Adobe’s heavyweight vector-graphics creation package, Illustrator 10, promises much and delivers more. The release is a wide-ranging spread of new and improved functionality, and includes powerful new tools, palettes, and graphics effects – and as such, it deserves a rousing welcome from print and Web designers alike.
As with most Adobe software originally developed for the print-design community, Illustrator is gradually picking up more Web-enabled features. Version 10 is the most Web-savvy version yet: features such as the Variables palette and support for live Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) effects are powerful weapons to tempt Web designers away from the rival vector-graphics package, Macromedia FreeHand 10. Interestingly for Macintosh users, Illustrator 10 is Adobe’s first major software release to run under Mac OS X, but it can also be run under OS 9.1 and 9.2 (it’s not compatible with 8.x versions). Illustrator 10 is also the first major Adobe release to run under Windows XP, although
it doesn’t use the new XP user interface.
The right compartment
There’s a general tendency among Web software developers at present to ‘compartmentalize’ workflows: to provide tools that allow designers to design, database programmers to program, content managers to manage content, and so on. Illustrator 10’s Variables palette follows this trend by ‘separating the design of a Web site from its content’, according to Adobe. What that means, in plain terms, is that it links artwork to a database, allowing the database to update the artwork on the fly.
Here’s how it works: when the artwork is created, the designer uses the Variables palette to nominate particular placeholder elements (text, graphics, logos, photos, and so on) as variables. Those variables are then linked to fields in any ODBC-compliant database. From there, it’s a case of either writing a script that replaces each variable with live data from the database (Illustrator comes with some basic sample scripts that can be used as is or modified), or using a dynamic image server such as Adobe’s own AlterCast.
Goodbye to tedium
The significance of the Variables palette isn’t to be underestimated: the automatic workflow it offers can free designers from all kinds of necessary but tedious tasks: creating tens of buttons containing the word ‘products’ in every language from English to Swahili,
for example. It’s possible to preview the updating and the data itself using mock data sets via the Preview in Browser plug-in – which is useful for client approvals before final graphics are generated.
Also on the score of compartmentalizing the
design and production process, Adobe has boosted its SVG format support in Illustrator 10. SVG files from any SVG editor can now be imported with their code intact and it’s now possible to save a copy of the original Illustrator file with the saved-out SVG file. Both these features allow designers to alter the graphic without affecting the code – useful in a segregated workflow.
Some of the new features in Illustrator 10
are a catch-up with FreeHand: it’s hard to avoid the observation that the new Symbols feature and symbolism tools are an almost exact duplication of FreeHand’s Symbols and Library. The great glory of symbols, from a Web designer’s point of view, is the automatic conversion of all Illustrator symbols to
Flash symbols during SWF export: this makes them compatible with Flash’s symbol library and keeps file sizes low by rendering multiple instances of symbols, rather than a series of unique objects.
In the sophistication and variety of its symbolism tools, Illustrator goes further than FreeHand. The symbolism toolset, to be found in the toolbox under an icon reminiscent of Photoshop’s old Dodge/Burn tool, includes seven tools all named with the alliterative ‘S’, including Sprayer, Scruncher, Stainer, Styler, Screener and Shifter. Screener, Styler and Stainer deliver raster-like painting abilities despite being in a vector-graphics environment.
Some tools, like Shifter and Spinner, can be nudged and set to deliver slightly modified variations on the individual symbol, which is extremely helpful when creating massed graphics such as organic forms. It’s hard to remember that the symbolism tools don’t allow selection – you have to skip between the direct selection tool and the symbolism tools – but it’s easier with practice.
It’s about time Illustrator included slicing tools: in this respect, it’s lagged behind Adobe’s bitmap editor, Photoshop/ImageReady, for a while. The new slicing tools, added to the bottom of the Toolbox, work in two ways. Slices can either be made from objects, groups or layers, and these are automatically updated as the design changes or by using an alternative set of manual slicing tools for customized slice sizes and positions.
Using the manual tools, it’s possible to slice a single object, or the contents of a layer, into multiple slices, which is useful for larger images delivered to a browser in separate chunks. In a future version of Illustrator, it would be useful to take this new toolset to its logical conclusion and include a semi-automatic slice tool, with which manually defined slices could be updated automatically.
One nice touch is the follow-through of slicing tools to the Save for Web dialog box, in which it’s possible to select different formats and compression options for each slice: GIF for logos, JPEG for photos, HTML for text, PNG for transparent images, and Adobe’s own SVG standard and the SWF (Flash) formats for
vector-based graphics: again, this is a catch-up with FreeHand, but welcome nonetheless.
There’s a big boost to graphics-effects creation in Illustrator 10. Many of the new effects tools are direct steals from Photoshop, ported into a vector-graphics environment. Initially it feels odd using tools like, Flare – they produce effects that don’t look as if they belong in a vector environment – but it’s much easier with tools like these to create complex-looking graphics that remain easily editable.
Contort and distort
Illustrator 10 includes a whole raft of new live distortion effects, including some text/graphics warping commands. Found under the Effect/Warp menu, these include Flag, Fish, Inflate, Squeeze, Wave, and Bulge. (Annoyingly, the sub-menu for these new effects isn’t in alphabetical order, which makes it harder to find the one you’re looking for.) The Object menu now houses a new Envelope Distort command – this can be used as a standalone tool to distort objects along a path used as an envelope, or in conjunction with the new Warp tools, where a Warp tool is applied to an object as an envelope and the envelope path tweaked.
There’s also a new Flare tool, similar to the Lens Flare filter in Photoshop but more sophisticated, with user-definable settings for Halo, Ray, and Rings settings. And finally, again drawing on Photoshop, there’s a set of new Liquifying tools in Illustrator. These include Wrinkle, Pucker, Twirl, Scallop and Bloat, and use a brush interface, which is generally easier to use for locally-applied effects than a dialog box.
Effects on demand
Another effects-based upgrade in Illustrator 10 is the addition of live SVG effects. Because SVG effects are added only at the time of viewing by a browser, they allow the graphic to remain scalable but with the addition of effects such as drop shadows and blurs, previously achievable only on pre-rasterized artwork. It’s also possible to combine live SVG effects with dynamically-variable data from a database via the Variables palette. Placeholder graphics or text can have a live SVG effect applied, which is then applied to the actual graphic or text automatically as it’s pulled in from the database.
One final fillip is the ability to edit the basic SVG effects included with Illustrator 10, or to write custom effects of your own. Interestingly, at the time of writing, version 3.0 of the SVG plug-in was in beta test, but its specifications made no mention of support for live SVG effects.
Another good tool copied from Photoshop is the Magic Wand tool. Used to select objects, it’s given a big performance boost in Illustrator 10, taking advantage of the vector-based environment. It’s able to select objects with similar fill colours, strokes, stroke weights and opacities (tolerances can be set for all of these). It’s a shame this extra sophistication probably won’t find its way back into Photoshop, as it’s hard to see how it could work in a bitmap environment. In Illustrator, the Magic Wand is backed up with a new Selection menu for quick-&-easy object selection.
There’s also a handful of less-significant new features in this upgrade. Four new drawing tools for faster creation of lines, arcs, grids and polar grids feature, as does support for WebDAV server file management and control over text rasterizing using the new rasterize live effect. An option for creating a PDF-compatible file while Saving is toggle-able – when toggled off it speeds up saving and opening.
Last but not least, a way-overdue updated Pathfinder palette with (at last) more intuitive options is included – and the Pathfinder’s new improved Add, Subtract, Intersect and Exclude options preserve the editability of individual shapes despite having combined them – until the object is flattened using the Expand button.
Illustrator 10 comes with the by-now standard blurb from Adobe about tighter integration between all its packages, and there’s no doubt that in terms of interface and some of the overlap functionality, it’s true. Furthermore Adobe has promised that native Illustrator 10 files will retain transparency and live effects for editing directly with the Pen tool in the forthcoming InDesign 2.0.