Adobe Illustrator 10

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New tools, distortion effects, symbol support, data-driven imaging, image slicing and improved SWF and SVG Web output see Illustrator 10 pushing forward on all fronts.

Adobe Illustrator was the first vector-based drawing package and is still the biggest-selling but in comparison with, say, Corel Draw it has often seemed seriously under-powered. In fact for many years its main selling-point seemed to be the very lack of advanced effects and Web functionality as this enabled it to concentrate on being the most reliable high-end print application. Version 9 was a revelation however, with its introduction of PostScript-friendly transparency and new Web imaging capabilities, so expectations are high for version 10.

The first thing that strikes - apart from the more demanding system requirements - is the number of new drawing tools available including Line Segment and Arc tools that let you add straight lines and curves by dragging rather than clicking and two Grid tools that let you add rectangular tables and target-style polar grids. Most creative is the new Flare tool that creates photo-realistic but still vector-based flare effects. The handling of compound shapes has also been strengthened with the component objects remaining live and editable which provides both more control and better integration with Photoshop 6's shape layers.

Illustrator 10 offers a host of new drawing tools including the photo-realistic Flare tool.

Illustrator 10's selection capabilities have also been radically improved. The new Magic Wand tool lets you automatically select all objects with the same colour or within a customisable tolerance level. You can also select objects based on stroke colour and weight as well as on transparency and blending mode. Once you've selected your objects or nodes, you can now save and retrieve the selection with commands available from the new dedicated Select menu.

In the past Illustrator's lack of distortion capabilities was one of its more obvious weaknesses but this has now been well and truly addressed. There are seven new Liquify tools - twirl, pucker, bloat, deflate, scallop and wrinkle - that let you interactively apply distortions to the outline of your shapes. In each case the effect is pressure-sensitive if you are using a tablet.

The Liquify tools are only the beginning. Under the Effects menu you'll now find a Warp submenu that offers access to the same set of 15 distortion effects available in Photoshop. The options include common staples, such as arc, wave and fisheye, each of which is customisable. The beauty is that the distorted objects, text and even placed photos remain live and fully editable. Even more impressive, you can save your effect as part of a style for re-use.

Illustrator offers freeform, effect and mesh-based distortions.

The level of customisable control over warps is reasonable but to really take charge you need to convert the effect into an envelope that you can then edit into any shape. For absolute control you can also create your own distortion from scratch by adding a customisable mesh which allows you to control the interior of the distortion just as you control its envelope. Adobe has been slow to tackle distortion, but now that it has, just as it did with its transparency handling in version 9, it leaves the competition trailing.

Another area that Illustrator 10 tackles comprehensively is the use of symbols. To create a symbol you simply drag any object or group onto the new Symbols palette, and you can then drag any number of instances back onto your drawing. The strength of the system is that the instances all remain linked to the symbol so that, if you redefine the original, all instances automatically update accordingly. As such, you can't directly edit the instances, but you can apply basic transformations such as resizing and rotation. Even better, you can apply non-destructive effects using the Transparency, Appearance and Styles palettes and the commands on the Effects menu which opens up huge formatting possibilities.

One of the major strengths of symbols comes from the ability to handle multiple instances simultaneously and Illustrator 10's dedicated "symbolism" tools enable this to be done as efficiently and creatively as possible. The Symbol Sprayer is the most useful as it allows you to paint on multiple instances with the density depending on pressure - though disappointingly you can only spray on one symbol at a time. Once added, you can interactively edit your symbol set's organisation with dedicated tools for spinning, resizing and scrunching and edit its formatting with tools for adjusting opacity, tint and style. If you're wanting to produce a tree with realistic foliage, the symbolism tools let you do it in minutes rather than hours.

Illustrator's Symbols palette and Symbolism tools offer advanced control over repeated image elements.

Illustrator 10's symbol system lets you manage repeated elements but often you'll be more interested in creating independent variations on a common theme, for example when producing navigational buttons for an entire website. Adobe's solution for this is the introduction of data-driven graphics. Using the new Variables palette you can set image objects to be dynamic and bind them to data in any ODBC-compliant source. In this first implementation the only attribute that can be controlled for most objects is visibility, but if the object is a string of text, a linked image, or a graph, you can also make the content dynamic.

Variables can be useful in a standalone context, for example when producing business cards or photographic conference passes, but they really come into their own in wider workflows. This is especially important for Web work and users comfortable with Javascript or Visual Basic can use Illustrator 10's new scripting plug-in to take complete control of data-driven image processing while less confident programmers can wait to see what the next version of GoLive brings. Adobe is clearly a serious convert to the potential of data-driven Web imaging and has also announced a completely new server product, AlterCast, that will use Illustrator templates to generate dynamic images on-the-fly.

Other Web-based enhancements include Illustrator's new support for WebDAV-based versioning so that workgroups can check in and check out files and for XAP the XML-based metadata technology that lets you embed tags in files to help cataloguing and file retrieval. The most welcome new Web functionality though comes in the form of new Slice tools that let you break up an image into sections that can be targeted and optimised independently. Rather than having to manually create and edit slices you can automatically generate them based on objects, groups or layers. Generally the power is impressive but there's one major omission: you can't turn slices into rollovers.

Image slicing can be handled manually or automatically.

When it comes to output, the fact that Illustrator shares the same optimisation technology as Photoshop means that bitmap-based Web output is unbeatable including support for advanced features such as mask-based variable JPEG quality and GIF lossiness. However converting Illustrator's vector-based drawings to bitmap formats isn't always necessary or desirable. In particular, with Flash now a near universal standard, it often makes more sense to save to the Flash SWF format - especially as this opens up the possibility of Web animation.

Illustrator 10's Flash support has been improved in a number of ways including the ability to control looping as well as frame rate if you are mapping image layers to SWF frames. You can also automatically generate the HTML necessary to incorporate your SWF into your Web page. Much the biggest difference is Illustrator's new symbol-based approach as this enables far more efficient SWF file sizes while the symbolism tools open up a number of creative possibilities.

SWF is the current Web vector standard but Adobe clearly isn't completely happy pushing a technology controlled by its main rival, Macromedia. Instead it is seriously promoting the open SVG (scalable vector graphic) format. This offers a number of advantages over Flash in that it is a modern, open, object-oriented format that is built on XML and which is therefore ideal for providing the graphic components of the XML-based Web pages of the future.

Illustrator 10 offers two major SVG enhancements that showcase the format's potential. The first of these is the ability to apply SVG filters to objects. At first these don't look exactly exciting with a choice of thirteen effects that apply basic textured fills, gaussian blurs, drop shadows and so on. The difference though is that these bitmap-based filters are rasterised client-side which ensures maximum quality when viewed at any size and which also drastically cuts down on download times as each effect is actually just a few lines of XML code. The second is the support for variable data which enables GoLive and AlterCast to take control of the SVG graphic to automatically generate new charts, web buttons and so on.

The SVG format supports programmability, client-side bitmap effects and data-driven imaging.

The potential of SVG is enormous and the clearest indication of the format's central position in Adobe's vision of the future is the fact that SVG has now been added as one of Illustrator's native formats alongside the PostScript-based AI, EPS and PDF. Not all Illustrator information can be saved as SVG, however, so there's also the option to embed an AI version within the SVG - this enables round-tripping where a programmer can work on scripting the image and then return it to the designer to continue working on its appearance.

It's clear that SVG is Adobe's preferred platform for vector-based Web imaging in the same way that PostScript/PDF is for print - but there are some important drawbacks to be aware of. To begin with these new, data-driven, XML-based workflows are a lot for designers to come to terms with. More importantly the SVG specification has only just been endorsed by the W3C and it remains to be seen just how well it performs out in the real world - especially as the format's text-based XML nature means that it will never be as fast as Flash's binary SWF. Most important of all, until Adobe persuades users to install its SVG viewer, the audience for SVG just doesn't exist.

In time all these limitations are likely to be overcome and SVG should prove one of the dominant technologies of the Web, maybe even the most important for the design-conscious - but SVG isn't ready for the big time quite yet. So does that mean that Illustrator 10's main Web enhancement is currently irrelevant? Thankfully not. SVG might be the focus of Adobe's Web development, but Illustrator 10's greatest strength is that it doesn't push one alternative at the expense of others. Using the Save for Web dialog you can choose to save an image slice to flat colour GIF, photographic JPEG, variable transparency PNG, vector efficient and animatable SWF or data-driven, scriptable SVG. That's impressive Web power and you now also have the option of exporting to an HTML table for backward compatibility or to CSS-based layers for future scriptability.

This comprehensive, all-round approach is typical of Illustrator as a whole. Apart from the bizarre decisions to withhold multi-page and rollover capabilities, presumably as these might impact on Adobe's other applications, Illustrator is now pushing forward on all fronts. While Corel Draw 10 seems to be treading water, Canvas 8 consolidating and Freehand 9 repositioning; Illustrator 10 is filled with new ideas and new power - and a clear vision of the future for both print and Web. In the past Illustrator was a follower, now it is showing the way.

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System Requirements: Pentium II or higher, 128MB RAM, 180MB disk space, Windows 98, ME, 2000 (SP2) or XP, SVGA

Tom Arah

Dec 2001

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