Adobe Illustrator for iPad: Hands-on with a desktop classic in tablet form

Art by Amity Sensei

A review of the graphic design software's tablet version in beta, learning a few secrets along the way with Adobe's development team.

Adobe is (belatedly) moving into the tablet realm, settings its sight on both Affinity Photo and the Illustrator-rivalling Affinity Designer. One long year after first announcing the beta of Photoshop for iPad (PSi) at Adobe MAX 2018, the software giants have launched an official release of PSi alongside a beta of none other than the iPad version of Illustrator.

Instead of keeping Adobe Illustrator on iPad to on-stage previews and invited artists only, Adobe bravely let MAX 2019 attendees try out a working release of the app, and Digital Arts was on there to gather first impressions from digital artists among the MAX crowd.

We also got to speak to the team working on the beta of Adobe’s flagship vector program in tablet form, getting their insight into the new software.

Anyone wanting to try it out for themselves can sign up here.

Dying for touch

Speaking backstage with Creative Cloud's senior director of design Eric Snowden, we learnt that Illustrator for iPad (or IlliPad as we'll refer to it from here on in for brevity) underwent much blind testing prior to MAX.

"We would hand people an iPad and when they grabbed they'd be like, 'Oh, you're making Illustrator for the iPad,’” Eric tells us. "Then we knew we had gotten the essence of the product, whilst rethinking our tools for the modern age."

Indeed, while on the ground with the IlliPad beta at MAX, we watched as Japanese designer Amity (Ami Kakita, AKA Amity Sensei) pick up the provided iPad and begin creating her rendition of a stag beetle with almost no fuss. Interestingly, Amity told me she had never used Illustrator before, being more confident with Photoshop on desktop and tablet, for the latter having been provided early access to Photoshop for iPad.

Speaking to Eric and the team who worked on the iPad Photoshop, it became clear the introduction of the Apple Pencil is what kickstarted both projects, and why the iPad has gained a certain precedent over tablets from the likes of Wacom and Microsoft.

"For people who are coming to Illustrator for the first time on either desktop or tablet, the Pencil Tool is a little intimidating," Eric explains. "So one of our favourite things is how the tool works with the Apple Pencil and what we can do more intelligently there."

With the Pencil in hand, artists drawing lines will leave behind less points; even then, in this version of Illustrator we saw the Smart Remove Points feature in action, which does as promised in eliminating points flawlessly, making a random doodle seem like a well-thought out design.

The Apple stylus also works well in selecting individual points  and controlling handles without ever being awkward.

"We've also brought over Freeform Gradients from the desktop version," Eric tells me. "That's a really intuitive way to create gradients, add a point, select a colour, drag the points around, and when you see it on an iPad, it really feels like something that's been dying for touch."

What Adobe could be working to improve on the beta - if it isn't already - is the fact that there a lot of nifty features in IlliPad that aren't so obvious; whilst Amity was adept at finding the classic tools we all know, this working version of Illustrator doesn't yet make obvious some particularly flashy attributes creators could be using. Like Photoshop for iPad, there’s a lot going on under the hood, but the location of each tool can be a mystery.

What's unique to the iPad?

IlliPad comes with Radial Repeat and Symmetry tools, which impressed the audience at MAX during the software's big gala presentation. There’s also a nifty colour wheel.

On a more fundamental level, the interface has the familiar Selection, Pen, Shape, Text and Artboard tools on the left, with the Layers and Properties panels on the right.

There are also clipping masks, drawing guides, repeating patterns, gradients, symmetry and outline text. All work as well as they do on the desktop, including the features mentioned above, so IlliPad is already leagues beyond the minimal Illustrator Draw app which Adobe released in 2015.

When getting hands-on with the software, we were pointed to Illustrator for iPad's photo capabilities. The feature wasn't jump out-obvious, but did impress in how the right tap of a clipping mask can load up a camera view within the vector; just point your iPad’s rear camera at an object and it fills the space, ready to be captured and used as an element in your work.

Such a feature is one of a few to justify Adobe's claim this version will have unique capabilities not available in the normal Illustrator. The only other thing that comes close perhaps is the use of progressive disclosure, with pop-ups giving you different options on each step of the creative process e.g. draw a circle and you get options directly relevant to the shape.

The Quick Actions Menu similarly appears when you hold down, showing what the Apple Pencil is capable of with touch modification. But the options given are what any Illustrator veteran can get from the desktop version, and the Apple Pencil isn't necessarily unique in having touch modification.

The photo feature then is perhaps the only one unique to the iPad; that the Surface Pro also has cameras means we're yet to see why the Apple tablet gives you something extra to other tablets.

That said, the camera usage is well utilised in IlliPad's tracing feature; snap a shape and watch it convert instantly into a vector.

It didn't quite work so well in our hands-on - probably as the image we snapped was a little too busy with graphics - but we can see it being developed into something very useful indeed, akin to the power of Adobe Capture in turning real world-elements into creative putty.

17,000 brown foxes

Illustrator is a graphic design app, so it's more than just an app for... well, illustrating.

Making, say, a poster in Illustrator whether on desktop or tablet will require text, and Illustrator for iPad incorporates the 17,000 fonts of the original in a creative way, not just by standard classification (sans serif, serif etc) but also mood (Fancy, Organic etc). 

"Also we're not downloading the fonts to each device nor are we making you activate them," Eric adds. "When scrolling through them you're instead seeing a preview on your canvas which loads from the server dynamically."

Seeing this in action, the text on screen does change seamlessly as you go through the carousel of fonts on the right-hand side. I also learn of a feature called Retype, which can read an outline file of a font thats's missing from a designer's kit and replace for instant editing on the canvas. So if a client sends a foreign font, it instantly becomes part of your Illustrator text set (we believe this was first previewed as an Adobe MAX Sneak prototype called Fontphoria, showing that Sneaks can transition from lab to CC within a year.)

Adobe Illustrator for iPad: beta release and full release date info

The cloud-base of Illustrator for iPad's fonts lead me to ask Eric whether files will transition from desktop to iPad like Photoshop for iPad; this is confirmed, but any new file formats made for IlliPad in the same vein of PSi's PSDC format (Photoshop Document Cloud) are yet to be finalised. We expect there will be an equivalent once the software launches next autumn at Adobe MAX 2020 as we’re predicting the release date to be; after that we’ll compare the program to Affinity Designer’s 2020 update to see which one is the better iPad app.

Try your own hand at Illustrator for iPad by signing up here, and Japanese readers can check out Amity's own video review of the software featuring some alternate illustration work.

Read next: Adobe Sneaks 2019

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