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Not Your Father's Illustrator

April 2006
David Em davidem@earthlink.net
Copyright 2006 David Em.

Adobe's (http://www.adobe.com) Illustrator CS2 vector art program is one of the most evolved imaging programs on the market. Now that Adobe's acquired Macromedia, it's probably safe to assume that Macromedia's FreeHand will go quietly into that good night, leaving Corel's (http://www.corel.com) DRAW as Illustrator's only real competitor.

Recently, I took the latest CS2 version of Illustrator (aka Version 12) for a drive, and was nothing short of amazed at how much more capable it's become since I last looked at it. A slew of new tools have transformed it from a simple line art and flat color generation program into a visualization powerhouse.

Then and Now

Illustrator first appeared in 1987, a time when color bitmap pictures strained RAM, storage, and processor capacities to their limits. Unlike bitmap images, vector art objects are mathematical descriptions that require very little storage space or I/O bandwidth. During the period when publishing was transitioning from a mechanical to a digital process, vector art was used wherever possible in magazines, posters, and other graphic art applications.

All of this was great from a technical standpoint, but I never cared for the actual images created with vector art programs. No matter who designed them, they all looked pretty much alike. Perhaps you remember all those awful illustrations that used to appear in the PC and Mac magazines. To say they looked like cheesy cartoons would be charitable.

Despite its funky output, Illustrator excelled at vector line and curve generation and modulation, so it in addition to being a graphic design tool, it became a popular front end for vector-intensive 2D animation programs like Macromedia Flash and 3D modeling apps such as Autodesk Maya. Over time, Illustrator's .ai file format became an industry standard readable across a very wide variety of graphics and multimedia applications.


Illustrator's current interface exists between three different design stages. The first is Illustrator's own history that goes back nearly twenty years. The second derives from Adobe's efforts over last several years to create a unified interface across their entire product line, an enterprise they've had varying levels of success with.

For example, Illustrator and Photoshop now share many interface elements, such as tabbed palettes, but Illustrator doesn't have Photoshop's Palette Well organizer, and where hitting CTRL + D in Photoshop deselects a selected area, the same command in Illustrator duplicates a selected object.

The third stage will come in the near future. Adobe recently updated and unified the interfaces for most of the products in their Video Production Bundle. That effort's been very successful. While not perfect, it's light years beyond what went before. I'm told a similar facelift's in the works for the Creative Suite that Illustrator's part of, and I'm looking forward to the day it hits the shelves.

Illustrator and Photoshop have too many floating palettes for my tastes. Keeping several open at once requires a good bit of screen real estate, giving both programs a cluttered look and feel. The new version of Illustrator has some important interface improvements.

The best one's a context-sensitive Control Bar you can fine-tune active tools with, as well as assign colors and gradients to objects without having to resort to the plethora of palettes. Adobe says you can control eighty percent of the program's functionality with the Control Bar, and that may be so.

Fonts are displayed in real time both in the Control Bar's drop-down menu and the screen, significantly speeding up font selections. You can also now save workspace layouts for your specific workflows.

Another addition to just about all Adobe's products is Adobe Bridge, a much needed asset management app that accesses and displays all file types known to Adobe programs. Bridge can perform searches, do batch conversions, color code files, add metadata to images, and much more. It's a great tool, but its interface could use an overhaul too. It relies on icons so tiny they're hard to see on a hi-res display. It's also a memory hog that can cause both Photoshop and Illustrator to lock up.

Live Tracing

A fantastic new tool is Live Trace. Live Trace converts bitmap images into vector line art. It replaces the anemic trace tool that was in the previous version, and improves on Streamline, a more full-featured tracer Adobe used to sell as a separate product.

Live Trace bitmap sources can be as simple as scanned pencil sketches or a full color photographs. There are several presets such as Comic Art, Hand Drawn Sketch, Inked Drawing, and Detailed Illustration. It does a wonderful job. The accent is on "Live." If you edit the source image, the traced image updates as well.

A tool that works in conjunction with this process is the Brush Palette, from which a wide range of painterly brushes can be assigned (you can also create them from scratch) to give the appearance that the images are rendered as Chinese ink paintings, watercolors, and many other stylistic effects.

Live Painting

Another great tool is Live Paint. In previous versions of Illustrator, objects were made up of lines and filled areas. Each object had only one fill, so figuring out how to make a multicolored or textured image involved a lot of non-intuitive piece work that felt more like carpentry than painting.

Live Paint changes all that. Now the shapes created by intersecting lines are treated independently while still remaining part of the whole object. Shapes can all have different fill, textures, and effects. Better still, you can edit an object's lines and control points, and the fills adjust and update without any muss or fuss.

Another elegant improvement is the ability to control how colors spill - or don't - into contiguous areas via controlling gap detection parameters. Unfortunately, there's a down side to Live Paint. Brushes can't be assigned to lines, and fills can't be transparent. I've no doubt a small army of programmers is burning the midnight oil at Adobe headquarters this very minute to enable those capabilities in the next version. Nevertheless, Live Trace and Live Paint are huge leaps forward.

Other Features

In addition to the traditional ability to stack objects in front of or behind each other, Illustrator CS2 has strong layer support, including nested sublayers and the ability to drag attributes from one layer to another.

There's also a module that converts vector shapes to 3D objects by extruding or revolving them. A 3D object can be lit and its sides can be textured. The process works best with simple shapes. I was able to create complex shapes with holes but they often locked the program when I tried to manipulate them. I also had trouble exporting complex objects as industry-standard DXF files.

Illustrator images and objects can be exported to web, animation, publishing, and video apps as well as optimized for mobile devices. A very nice feature is the ability to convert blended shapes (such as a series of intermediate morph steps between a circle and a star) into separate layers, and then importing those layers as sequential frames into an animation program like Flash.

Unfortunately, Illustrator CS2 only exports single pages, one of the few places the competition has a leg up. However, this isn't a problem if you use Illustrator in conjunction with Adobe's excellent InDesign CS2 publishing application.


Illustrator CS2 is the undisputed king of the graphic design tool mountain. Its increased multilayer interoperability with programs like Photoshop, InDesign, and After Effects make it more valuable still. If you're already an Illustrator user, the upgrade to the CS2 version is a no-brainer. Recommended.