Adobe Illustrator CS4: beta preview

Illustrator CS3 saw the introduction of the Live Color system, which provided a powerful and innovative way to create colour schemes and pare them down for particular projects. Nothing in the CS4 release is going to have as much impact on the way you use the application on a day-to-day basis, but it’s a well thought-out nip-and-tuck that – as seems to be the focus across the fourth Creative Suite – will allow to create designs faster.

The most highly anticipated new feature is a direct steal from Freehand, the Macromedia-developed vector art software that’s still available from Adobe despite not being upgraded in over five years. Finally, you can create Illustrator files with more than one artboard. This isn’t designed to replace InDesign, but instead allow you to create multiple versions of a piece of artwork – for example, A4, A5 and Web banner versions of an ad – without having to create a new document, add or copy/paste all of your elements, and generally faff about.

All artboards sit on the same ‘page’, and you use the Artboard tool to mark which area is which – with the usual size presets available for print projects. There’s also a swift way to create artboards around objects.

Illustrator CS4 has had the same interface overhaul as Photoshop – including the move from curved tabs to faux-3D square ones, but more importantly, adding the tabs and tiles that make it much easier to work with multiple documents at once. Again, the Windows version sees shortcuts pushed up on the same level as the menu bar, multiple documents appear as tabs across the top of your workspace, and there’s the Arrange Documents drop-down menu to break up the workspace into tiles with variations on 2-up and 4-up layouts.

The overall effects is a much cleaner workspace without documents piled higgledy-piggledy on top of each other – making it much easier to copy elements backwards and forwards.

Illustrator adds another interface enhancement, allowing you to drag-and-drop elements into the panel stack when it’s minimized, which pops open so you can drop an elements into the Symbols panel, for example. The panel then pops away. Keeping your panel stack minimized and working this way is useful if you’re on a laptop or other low-res screen – but a little irrelevant if you’re working at a resolution of 1,920-x-1,200 (or higher).

The new Blob Brush is a simple way to create cartoony blobs, which combine together automatically to create a single object. It’s a fast way to create simple paint elements, especially if you use a Wacom tablet, with simple controls over fidelity, smoothness and brush shape being the only controls.

The Gradient tool gains on-screen controls for adjusting most of its functions. When you draw out a gradient, you get a coloured gradient bar with sliders to adjust the gradient points – which are just like those in the Gradient panel but with the new visual tools you have the advantage of being able to place the points to exactly where you want them. The slider stops work like swatches, so you can click on them and adjust the colours – with immediate results.

Gradients can also include transparency in Illustrator CS4, which offers some intriguing creative possibilities. Despite seeming to import into an InDesign CS4 document with no hassles, this is the kind of thing you’d want to test to see if it went through your printer’s RIP on one piece before sending off to a commercial press.

Adobe has added two panels that expand on the Live Color system. The Kuler palette logs you into Adobe’s online colour scheme sharing system and provides you with downloadable schemes (and you can upload your own). It’s a reasonably useful added extra, but Kuler’s core creative functionality is already built into Live Color. Separations Preview is more useful, as it allows you to preview how the colour separations of your document will come out – and works exactly how it says on the tin.

Other new features include improvements to clipping masks, smart guides (above), and the Appearance panel – which now allows you to add strokes, fills and effects to multiple objects at once. The Graphics Styles panel gains a library of prebuilt drop shadows and blurs, which work independently without modifying an object’s fill.

Illustrator CS4 isn’t the most exciting update in the application’s history, but the ability to work on multiple artboards at once may be enough to get users to upgrade on its own. It's due to ship in October, along with the rest of Creative Suite 4.

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