Autumn 1993

Palettes and path finders

Software: Adobe Illustrator

I had been an Aldus FreeHand user since 1988. Although quirky, the program appealed to me because it felt intuitive, which is what a drawing program should be. Eventually delays in upgrades, continuing memory bugs and operational idiosyncracies eroded my enthusiasm. On the other hand, Illustrator, with its arcane interface and the need to memorise Masonic gestures to execute the most basic drawing operations, was just not worth it – and you couldn’t edit your drawings in colour. So I remained a FreeHand user, as the lesser of two evils. But not any more.

Adobe has done its homework for Illustrator 5.0. It has studied what people want from a drawing program and has satisfied most of these demands. Illustrator now boasts new and clever features that include plug-in filter support (incorporating proprietary Pathfinder technology), the ability to edit all (or even part) of your drawing in preview mode, pressure-sensitive pen support and a thoughtful and well- researched user interface consisting mostly of modifiable tool palettes.

The standard toolbox looks much the same, except for the addition of tools more at home in a paint program, such as the eyedropper and paint bucket. This is the first clue that the program is something different. Despite being vector-based, Illustrator is now a hybrid drawing program providing facilities such as colour-filling of areas using the paint bucket and sampling colours using the eyedropper. And the plug-in filters provide an array of special effects ranging from the indispensable (selecting stray points in a drawing for deletion) to the absurd (the Punk filter that distorts a shape’s outline).

The filters, available from their own menu, operate on selected parts of a drawing. They fall into two categories: special effects, and Pathfinders (which help you select, create or manipulate drawing information). Roughly half of the special effects filters are useful enough to be warranted. The Colours sub-menu, for instance, provides a number of options for changing the colours in your drawings, from blending to saturating to inverting the existing palette. The Distort and Stylise sub-menus contain the usual spectrum of commands, including both useful (drop shadow creation) and waste of memory types (Scribble). As more third-party companies develop plug-ins, this spectrum will undoubtedly grow.

Unique to the program are the Pathfinder commands. These options allow you to create new vector (outline) information from overlapping elements – for instance, to fill the overlapping area of two shapes with he third colour without having to draw this area as a new path. There is even a command, Mix-hard, that will create a mathematically correct third fill colour to stimulate the effect of overlaid translucent inks. The Pathfinder menu also contains commands to unite two or more shapes and to create new shapes from their intersection.

The program supports multiple undos and redos (as does FreeHand), pressure-sensitive pens for calligraphic-style drawing (using something like the new Wacom ArtZ tablet) and custom page sizes. Layer management is impressive, allowing the naming, moving, copying and arranging of drawing layers through a floating palette. Layer information can even be copied from document to document through the clipboard. Illustrator also makes colour gradient (fade) creation very simple, and fades are optimised by the program for the least possible banding. Text capabilities are much the same as in earlier versions, with improvements to the text dialogs, and all fonts are now available from the fonts menu as soon as you open the program.

If I have any complaints about Illustrator, they are minor ones. Adobe still insists on including a Graphing feature which isn’t up to much. Anyone needing serious graphing capabilities should consider a stand-alone program like DeltaGraph Professional that can export its files in Illustrator format.

One thing that annoys me about all Adobe programs is the lack of on-line or balloon help. For a program with new tools and many floating palettes it would have made sense to provide context-sensitive help, and I can only think that its omission is to prevent piracy (so you have to buy the official copy with the manuals). But surely the impenetrable serial number request would have provided sufficient security?

Lastly, while the program includes a couple of delightful “Easter eggs” (try option-clicking the lower left of the draw window), there are a few additions that would have bumped its rating even higher. Measurements in the measurement dialog are not directly editable, and you cannot mix units or make calculations is the dialog boxes as you can in programs such as QuarkXPress.

A degree of connectivity has now been created between Illustrator, Photoshop (Adobe’s image manipulation program) and Premiere (its motion graphics-editing program). Each can read the other’s files, and if you place a Photoshop-created EPS file in Illustrator, for instance, you can open the Photoshop program to edit it without having to leave Illustrator.

Photoshop is virtually the standard image manipulation program on the Macintosh platform. Version 2.5 was released earlier this year to much acclaim and some criticism, including that the program was “buggy”, especially where memory and Quadras were concerned. Adobe recently took the unusual step of publishing pre-release beta upgrades for disgruntled users.

At almost the same time as Illustrator 5.0 hits the street, Photoshop revision 2.5.1 will be available free from Adobe to registered users. The update comprises an updater patch program that will convert your existing version and a plug-in installer that provides replacements for 33 of Photoshop’s standard plug-ins.

An undocumented feature of version 2.5 was the ability to preview the effects of distortion filters on a thumbnail rendering of your image (by option-clicking any of the distortion filter names in the Abouts menu). This feature has been built into the replacement plug-ins and can save a lot of time and frustration, particularly when applying effects to large images.

The updater patch installs the following features: support for previews in the open dialog boxes when Quicktime is installed, as well a file-search facilities from these dialogs; limited support for 16-bit grayscale and 48-bit RGB images; the enter key has taken on functions such as stroking the currently selected path; there is now a 256 pixel radius for some of the filters, including Gaussian blur; a number of problems that arose when trying to phrase (open) certain file types, including Crosfield TIFFs and JPEG PICTS, have been addressed.

The memory management has been made more robust and working with large files on reasonable hardware should no longer present any unusual problems. Common sense must still prevail – if you are doing high-end work in CMYK mode, then you need a fast machine and a lot of RAM. You will be rewarded with a program capable of performing work that was once the realm only of the Scitex computer.

With the addition of paint-like tools to Illustrator and the inclusion of path-type tools in Photoshop, Adobe is clearly moving both products towards greater harmony; perhaps to the point of making them into a single program some time in the future. Certainly all the interface features of all the major programs are being co-ordinated, with much use being made floating palettes. Their structure of expandable software architecture through plug-in filters makes them extensively customisable and generates competition, as third-party companies develop specialised filters.

Illustrator and Photoshop are now both available on CD-ROM – with the promise of extra free software. This consists mostly of disabled demos of other Adobe programs. Still, it is easier to store a CD than a handful of floppy dicks, and I imagine Adobe will one day abandon floppies altogether as the programs to be stored become even more substantial.

First published in Eye no.10 vol. 3 1993

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