Adobe Illustrator 9

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With new Web and print features and an explosion of creative potential built on object-based transparency and non-destructive effects, Illustrator’s transformation is complete.

Illustrator was the first vector-based illustration program and, according to Adobe, has established itself as the "industry standard" for drawing in much the same way as Photoshop has for photo editing. While Photoshop defined the standard by what it could do, however, Illustrator defined it as much by what it couldn’t. While rivals such as Corel Draw introduced advanced features, such as transparency and bitmap effects, multiple-page publications and Web output, Illustrator stubbornly stuck to its vector-based, single page, print-only vision. For professional designers the program’s Postscript-based focus made it their tool of choice, but the appeal for other users was minimal. The program looked like it was going nowhere. Finally, with version 8, Adobe began to turn Illustrator around and version 9 is a revelation.

Not that you would realise just how ground-breaking this release is when it first loads. Adobe has never specialized in clean-screen working environments and Illustrator 9 is no exception with no less than 23 floating palettes – five of which are new. Little effort has gone into boosting core usability either. You can now rotate objects directly via their bounding boxes, create customised shortcuts and there are two new lasso tools for selecting objects and nodes, but that’s about it in terms of usability enhancements. In fact Adobe still seems to choose complexity over simplicity almost as a matter of principle. The new Lasso tool, for example, doesn’t only select objects contained within the freeform marquee that you draw, but rather any object that the lasso tool crosses.

One area of the interface that has been seriously improved, especially if you are an existing Photoshop user, is the Layers palette. This allows you to organise your work into separate layers that you can lock or hide and now offers Photoshop-style thumbnails to make layer identification easier. Clicking on the triangle next to the thumbnail now expands the layer to reveal all the objects of which it is composed, complete with their own thumbnails, ready for selection. With a complex illustration the number of objects can soon get out of hand but you can bring things back under control through the use of groups and a new feature - nested layers. Another welcome introduction is the ability to dim bitmaps on template layers which is ideal for tracing.

The Layer palette now offers thumbnails and expandable object lists for greater document control.

Of course in Photoshop, layers aren’t used solely for organisation, they are also used to creative effect through the management of transparency and blend mode and this is now also true of Illustrator. Using the new Transparency palette you can now set a level of layer transparency. You can also control how the layer interacts with underlying objects by choosing any of the major Photoshop-equivalent blend modes such as multiply, screen, overlay and so on. You could set up a title that simultaneously emerges out of and fades into its background, for example, by giving the text a gradient fill and setting the layer’s blend mode to darken the underlying bitmap. If the effect was too pronounced you could then globally lower the layer’s opacity.

Adobe suggests using layers for managing transparency in the same way as you do in Photoshop, but this isn’t a limitation. You can just as easily select single or multiple objects to apply a transparency or blend mode to. Illustrator also offers good control over those occasions where object transparencies overlap. In particular you can choose to have the transparency only apply to those objects outside a group, or only to those objects within it. You can also apply different transparency settings to words and individual letters to create sophisticated fade effects.

When I saw this capability I was worried that this was going to be the only way that you could simulate graduated transparencies but I was wrong. There are no dedicated tools to produce gradient effects, as there are in programs like Corel Draw and Canvas, but the same effect can be achieved through masking. Essentially you can select any two objects and hit the Mask option in the Opacity palette and a graduated transparency is produced based on the top object’s luminosity. The process is nowhere near as interactive but, as is often the case with Adobe, you gain in terms of control what you lose in terms of spontaneity. In particular through the use of gradient meshes as masks you gain absolute and re-editable control over the level of transparency at every point in your effect.

Using gradient meshes and opacity masks complex graduated transparency can be kept all-vector.

Illustrator is able to maintain its transparency control as an all vector affair while you are building the effect; but what about when you come to print and especially print commercially? Postscript by its very nature is unable to support transparency which is why Illustrator has never been able to offer the feature in the past. So has Adobe followed the likes of Draw and Canvas by automatically rasterizing its output and sending pre-rendered bitmap data to the printer? In fact it has gone to huge efforts to avoid this. Instead it "flattens" your artwork, dividing it into "atomic" regions of continuous but distinct opaque colour which are represented as solid colours, gradients or even gradient meshes. By doing so it can ensure the data sent to the printer is precise, scalable and has fewer stitching problems.

The result is a major step forward, but the system still isn’t perfect. To begin with certain effects, such as a gradient mesh transparency over a gradient mesh fill just can’t be handled apart from as pre-rendered bitmaps. Also there’s clearly a massive processing overhead involved with the image sent to the printer containing far more vector data than the original. Thankfully Illustrator puts users in control of the flattening process with options to control the resolution of any rendering and a Speed/Quality slider that offers five different settings for raster/vector output.

That’s fine when the final artwork is being output from Illustrator, but what about DTP-based workflows? When saving an Illustrator file to EPS all transparent artwork is stored both in a flattened version to enable printing and in a native format to enable future Illustrator-based editing. This compromise should work in most cases but again Adobe hedges its bets and recommends the simpler bitmap-based PSD as its favoured exchange medium for images with transparency. Obviously the move from vector to bitmap immediately loses maximum quality and absolute scalability, but Adobe has tried to ensure that editability is less affected. In particular Illustrator text on its own layer stays editable within Photoshop and you can also now open PSD files into Illustrator with each layer translated to a separate object.

So here it is at last - transparency within Illustrator. Has it been worth the wait? For existing Illustrator users the answer has to be a resounding yes. The world isn’t made up of opaque objects, so the removal of this artificial limitation allows Illustrator users to take their images onto new creative levels. Users of programs like FreeHand and especially Xara and Draw will probably be wondering what all the fuss is about - they’ve been using advanced transparency effects for years now. There is a difference however. By keeping its system as vector-based as possible Illustrator maintains maximum quality especially when producing commercial print. OK, the system’s not perfect but it’s as good as it’s going to get within the constraints of Postscript and means that Adobe has turned a major weakness into a major strength.

If editable transparency was all that Illustrator offered in terms of increased creativity it would be impressive enough, but it’s only the beginning. Illustrator also offers editable effects. Of course in many ways all vector-based effects are editable but with Illustrator 9 this is taken into entirely new areas. In particular, any command selected from the new Effects menu does not change the underlying object only its appearance. You can take a rectangle and apply a distortion and then apply a roughen filter to its path, for example, and you’ll see the zig-zagged distorted object just as you would expect. If you select the object, however, you’ll still be selecting the simple underlying rectangle which you can stretch, skew and edit just as if the effect had never been applied! You have the best of both worlds: complexity and creativity in your image’s final appearance with underlying simplicity and easy editability.

Each of these rectangles has been non-destructively transformed.

The number of vector effects on offer is impressive with just about all of the commands under the Filter menu, from distortions to pathfinder effects, now available either permanently or non-destructively. With the Transform effect you can even produce multiple transformed objects all based on a single editable original. Even more impressive is the way that Illustrator 9 merges vector and bitmap effects. Take the new Feather command. Using this you can select any path or shape and have its outline blend seamlessly into the background. Move or edit the shape and the effect will automatically update. At times the high-resolution accuracy of vectors is their huge strength, at others it can make artwork seem clinical and overly-computerised. Now you can choose between precision or naturalism.

Amazingly Illustrator takes things to their logical conclusion and also lets you apply bitmap effects in exactly the same way. The program comes with around 50 stylizing and distortion filters imported directly from Photoshop and these are now available non-destructively from the Effects menu. The creative options this opens up are literally limitless. If you have an object with a pattern fill, for example, you can now apply one of the brush effects, such as coloured pencil or watercolour, to produce a completely original artistic texture. Edit the object, for example by scaling, and the effect is automatically reapplied!

Even pixel effects such as feathering and artistic filters can be applied non-destructively.

Of course there have to be downsides and again the Illustrator system isn’t perfect. To begin with each effect is tied to its object. This means that you can’t apply effects as lenses to affect the entire image or multiple underlying objects as you can in Canvas 7. More disappointing is the fact that the default bitmap filters don’t include colour corrections and are primarily intended for screenwork rather than final print. In particular many of the artistic filters are only available in RGB mode and the default rasterisation is just 72dpi – though this can be changed if you are willing to accept the massive processing overhead. Even so the creativity is just incredible. In the past Illustrator’s vector-at-all-costs approach tended to keep creativity on a tight rein. Now it has been unleashed.

Of course such an explosion of creative potential has to be controlled and this is managed through the new Appearance palette. This lists the fill, stroke, transparency and any non-destructive effect that has been applied to the current object. Double-click on an effect and its dialog is called up for fine-tuning. Alternatively you can click on the trashcan icon to remove it entirely and have the object restored to its default appearance. Even better, by first selecting either the object’s fill or stroke in the palette, you can limit both transparency and effects to either one or the other.

This is powerful enough but what makes the Appearance palette so radical is the fact that you aren’t limited to single formatting options. You can apply multiple effects, for example, so that you can have any number of vector and bitmap effects in operation simultaneously. Even more powerful is the ability to add multiple strokes and fills. This sounds bizarre to begin with but again the creative potential is amazing. You can have a texture fill with a brush style effect, for example, overlaid by a semi-transparent gradient fill acting as a wash; or have one basic outline surrounded by another that has been vector roughened and gaussian blurred; or all of these simultaneously.

The creative potential is so great that it can quickly get out of hand. In particular there needs to be a way that complex appearances made up of multiple fills, transparencies and effects can be saved and reused. This is exactly what the Styles palette provides. You can simply drag and drop a formatted object onto the palette and the object’s appearance is saved as a style complete with preview thumbnail. To apply the style, simply select any object and click on the style. Illustrator even provides a selection of Style libraries to choose from. Best of all, if you change a styled object using the Appearance palette, you can then use the Replace Style command to automatically update every other object based on the same style.

The use of Styles improves speed, consistency and flexibility.

Of course there is one activity tailor-made to such style-based control and it hasn’t escaped Adobe’s attention. Version 9 is the first release of Illustrator that takes the Web seriously. Very seriously. In fact as soon as you start on a new project you are now presented with a dialog offering you a choice between CMYK print-oriented or RGB Web-oriented modes. You can always swap document mode while you work but you can no longer mix CMYK and RGB colours within the same document. Just as importantly, the dialog also now lets you specify the artboard size in pixels for the first time. Even better, when you’re working on a Web image, you can use the new Pixel Preview to see how your artwork will appear when rasterised complete with anti-aliasing. The Pixel Preview also has the added benefit of pixel-snapping so that you can be sure straight lines won’t be unnecessarily anti-aliased when your images are rendered.

In terms of dedicated Web image creation, Adobe is making a lot of its new "LiveShapes". These are based on a new non-destructive Convert to Shape command available from the Effects menu. This enables you to add either a rectangle, rounded rectangle or oval to any selected object. If the relationship is defined as relative this means that, as the original object changes, so does its related shape. The use Adobe is pushing for this is to create Web buttons that automatically change in size with their text, but I have to say that I’m not entirely convinced. The set up process is amazingly convoluted and the end benefits are debatable – under most circumstances the last thing you want is buttons changing size.

Of course there’s more to an attractive button than its shape and Illustrator 9 offers a number of common Web effects. The most useful is undoubtedly the Drop Shadow command. This enables you to specify an offset, blur, opacity and blend mode for your shadow to create a completely realistic effect that interacts with underlying objects. The new Inner and Outer Glow commands are variations on a similar theme. There are still limitations, such as the lack of any 3D bevelling or rollover effects, but there’s no question that Illustrator is now a seriously useful tool for the Web designer. The program’s huge strengths are that all formatting (apart from text settings) can be saved as styles for instant application and that all changes are non-destructive so that you can change the fill, stroke, transparency, shape and special effects at any time.

Illustrator now offers non-destructive shadow and glow effects.

Illustrator 9 also tackles the issue of Web output head on. The new Save for Web command has been imported wholesale from Photoshop 5.5 and offers high-end control over JPEG and especially GIF optimisation with a choice of 2-up or 4-up output preview. Advanced options include colour locking, web-safe shifting, "lossy" GIF output and the all-important browser preview. This is serious power and ironically means that Illustrator’s vector-based architecture leaves the bitmap-based Photoshop 5.5/ImageReady combination trailing when it comes to the production of GIFs and JPEGs. All the good work is virtually thrown away, however, by one fatal omission - only full images can be exported. Presumably Adobe expects you to work on one button per image.

In any case, having prepared your image as vectors, in many ways it’s a backward step having to output to a bitmap format at all. Adobe has bitten the bullet in this regard and now offers output to Macromedia’s Flash SWF vector-based format. Images can even be output as animations by mapping layers to frames and the new Release to Layers command helps you build these up automatically. The system is largely the same as used by Macromedia in its recent FreeHand 9, but without any time-based editing or control over interactivity, it’s still not a long term solution. If you’re really interested in producing SWFs you’re going to need Flash itself or Adobe’s forthcoming LiveMotion.

Illustrator offers Flash animation export by mapping layers to frames .

Macromedia’s SWF is undoubtedly flavour of the month at the moment when it comes to Web graphics, but there’s another contender on the horizon - the W3C-recommended SVG format. This has a number of advantages not least the fact that it is a truly open standard and so it’s not too surprising to find Adobe endorsing it. Illustrator 9 can output to SVG format and with its dedicated SVG Interactivity palette even lets you set up effects such as rollover buttons - though you’ll have to write the Javascript yourself. Illustrator also provides the plug-in necessary to view the resulting SVG files in your browser. Unfortunately this viewer is currently huge and so, until SVG support is built directly into the main browsers, SWF is the only practical option.

Even so it’s good to see Illustrator not just catching up on its competitor’s Web features, but in some areas edging ahead. It’s even better to see that this hasn’t come at the expense of the program’s print-based capabilities. These have been extended in a number of directions. Most fundamentally Illustrator now uses the same Adobe Colour Engine (ACE) as all future releases of Photoshop and InDesign. This adds a layer of complexity through the need to set up colour working spaces and profile handling policies, but will soon enable completely closed workflows with accurate colour on both screen and paper. The ACE system also enables soft proofing with an onscreen preview of final output, for example, on coated or uncoated stock. Illustrator 9 also makes it easier to check overprinting and trapping with an overprint preview and overprint-accurate composite proofs.

Illustrator has also built on its all-important Acrobat support - though initially the Save As PDF dialog looks surprisingly spartan with just two tabs for controlling compression and general settings and no option to save to Acrobat 3 format. However there are two important new options. The first is Preserve Illustrator Editing Capabilities. Using this you can save an Illustrator file as PDF, open it in Acrobat Reader and still be able to load it back into Illustrator with all editability over text blocks, styles and so on maintained (though with a massive increase in file size). Such PDF roundtripping will no doubt be even further enhanced with the second new option to save to the yet to be released Acrobat 5 format. In fact as the next release of Acrobat is set to be able to open and view Illustrator’s native AI files directly the distinction between AI and PDF format is largely set to disappear giving Illustrator a huge advantage as all-PDF workflows become more common.

With editability and Acrobat 5 support, the Illustrator file format is now "PDF at its core".

Illustrator 9 isn’t perfect by any means. The program still stubbornly sticks to its single page limitation, its complexity still rules it out for the occasional user, the new features make serious system demands and professional users will want to see how such fundamental changes bed down in practice before committing themselves. There’s no doubt, however, that this is a watershed release. A few years ago, Illustrator was an embarrassment – the industry standard only in that it was the safest common denominator. Now with professional transparency control, extraordinary non-destructive vector and bitmap effects, serious Web functionality and enhanced commercial print capabilities, the program has been transformed. The combination of professional reliability and unmatched creativity is going to be a hard act to follow.

Illustrator 9 now sets the standard for vector-based drawing in the same way that Photoshop does for bitmap-based photo editing – high praise indeed.

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System Requirements: Pentium or higher, 64MB of RAM, 105MB of disk space, Windows 98, NT 4.0 or 2000, CD-ROM, SVGA

Tom Arah

June 2000

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