Illustrator CS3 review
VERDICT: A greatly improved working environment and ground-breaking new colour handling make Illustrator seem fresher than ever.
At almost 20-years old, Illustrator is the veteran of the core CS3 applications and at one stage looked ready to be put out to pasture...
However, with recent innovations such as CS2’s Live Paint and Live Trace, Illustrator has reinvented itself – and, with it, the whole field of vector drawing and creative design. So how does this latest version compare?
As with all the main CS3 apps, Illustrator now sports the new shared interface based on floatable palette groups stacked neatly into collapsible docker windows and it perhaps gains the most from the new streamlining - especially if you set up your own customized workspaces for different tasks such as text handling and object formatting. Illustrator also provides an alternative way of accessing power with its context-sensitive Control bar, and the amount of control this offers has been greatly extended – making alignment easier for example and letting you quickly select objects similar to the current selection.
As well as providing more options, the Control bar has also been extended to be useful in more contexts such as when working with envelope distortions, clipping masks and, crucially, anchor points where you can now align and distribute points just as you do objects. Handling anchor points is also now easier thanks to a more sensitive and accurate Direct Selection tool which automatically highlights nodes as you move over them. There’s also an excellent new Eraser tool which lets you rub out artwork just as easily as you do in Photoshop while it takes care of creating and smoothing the necessary new paths and anchor points.
Illustrator’s core working environment and node editing are better than ever
Another area that the Control bar has been extended to handle is symbols where it can be used to apply an instance name that will then be available for scripting in Flash. More importantly, it provides a new Edit Symbol command that replaces the previous complex system of breaking links, editing and replacing. Now all you have to do is double-click on a symbol and it opens into “isolation mode” in which it is brought to the front of all other objects which become grayed-out and unselectable. This makes editing much easier and, when you’re finished, double-clicking on the artboard exits isolation mode and automatically updates all other symbol instances. This same system of drill-through editing is provided for live paint objects, envelope distortions and any other objects that have been grouped and really does make working with complex artwork much simpler.
Isolation mode recognizes that you often want to work separately with the different components that make up a final artwork and Illustrator CS3 recognizes that you’ll often want to output them separately too. That’s where the new Crop Area tool comes in letting you quickly mark up any rectangular area of your artwork for output. Plenty of preset sizes are provided and you can also display rulers and video safe areas and align objects to the crop area rather than to the artboard. You can also set up multiple crop areas and quickly swap between them which is useful if you’re exploring multiple design ideas – though it still doesn’t make up for the fact that Illustrator CS3 still hasn’t added support for layer comps or for multiple pages.
Live Colour handling makes powerful colour exploration simple
Illustrator CS3’s must-have, killer feature comes in the form of its completely reworked colour handling. Previously, like other design applications, Illustrator essentially left users to their own devices when selecting and editing colours. The first sign that this has changed is the new Colour Guide panel. This takes the currently selected colour as a “base colour” from which it then selects up to five other colours based on colour harmony principles and, from these, generates a palette of tints and shades. The end user can then select from these and save their choice as a “colour group” that appears on its own line in the Swatches panel for easy application.
Selecting colours that work well together is a big step forward but design is an ongoing process and you’re almost certainly going to want to tweak your selection. That’s where the all-new Live Colour dialog comes in. In Edit mode this shows all the colours in your current object selection (including gradient mesh colours) on a large central colour wheel. The colours are live so that you can quickly drag either the group as a whole or individual components to explore colour possibilities, shifting hue, saturation and brightness.
Alternatively, for greater control, you can switch to Assign mode where you can select a target colour group and which colour is mapped to which. Most impressive is the ability to map to palettes with fewer colours with complete control over the generation of tints and shades necessary to best reproduce the original. Producing artwork that will sometimes be output in full colour and sometimes in two- or one-colour is a common requirement for designers and now all the hard work is done for you. With Live Colour, Illustrator again proves its extraordinary ability to combine creative exploration with production rigour.
Compared to the all-round improvements in the latest Photoshop and InDesign, it might seem that Illustrator CS3 has been hard done by. Not at all. Colour is absolutely key to producing successful results and, with its groundbreaking Live Colour handling, Illustrator CS3 has reinvented another of the core foundations of creative design.
EASE OF USE 5/6
VALUE FOR MONEY 4/6
Tom Arah is the webmaster of designer-info.com. He has been a professional designer working with computer software since 1987. He also offers training and consultancy and since 1997 has been the contributing editor covering design issues for PC Pro, the UK's biggest-selling (and best) computer monthly.