Review: Adobe Illustrator CS4
Pros: Multiple artboards, intuitive Blob brush, better gradient transparency control, real clipping masks, easier to use Appearance panel.
Cons: None. It may not be a perfect program, but it's a perfect upgrade.
I’ve always believed that Adobe Illustrator suffers from an identity crisis. Unlike Photoshop or InDesign, which are easy to describe with a single descriptive phrase (“photo editing,” “page layout”), Illustrator has always been referred to more generically as a "vector graphics application." Yet Illustrator CS4, now in its fourteenth version, has evolved into an essential design tool for just about every type of creative professional.
At one time, Illustrator competed head to head with FreeHand. But after Adobe acquired Macromedia, it announced it would no longer develop FreeHand. And the other mainstream competitors to Illustrator, Corel’s CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X4 and ACD System’s Canvas 11, don't run on Macs, and neither app has secured a significant foothold in the professional design community.
That makes me especially happy to tell you that the Illustrator CS4 upgrade offers a little bit of everything: entirely new features and significant enhancements that will appeal both to longtime users and to people migrating from FreeHand. And, probably the most impressive of all to me, a collection of “little things” give Illustrator an overall polished feel.
Adobe Illustrator CS4 runs on both the Mac OS and Windows. Bought new as a standalone app, it will cost you $599. Upgrades from Illustrator CS, CS2, CS3; or FreeHand MX, 10, 9 are $199.
Artboards! Artboards! Artboards!
Sound the trumpets! Release the balloons! The most requested Illustrator feature of all time -- multiple artboards -- has finally arrived. A single document can now contain up to 100 artboards, and each artboard can be of its own size and orientation (they can even overlap each other). Each Illustrator document contains a single large overall “canvas” where you can easily manage all of your artboards, using Illustrator’s new Artboard tool.
When the Artboard tool is selected, Illustrator switches to Artboard Edit Mode, allowing you to move, copy, add, or delete artboards. A toggle lets you specify whether the artwork on an artboard moves along with the artboard, or whether artboards move independently. The improved Smart Guides feature (covered later in this review) also works on artboards, making it easy to arrange them.
Because you need to be in Artboard Edit Mode in order to manage artboards, I find that artboards never get in the way of my work -- they are there when I need it, and don’t bother me when I don’t.
Figure 1. In Artboard Edit Mode, you have complete control over all of your artboards. Click on the image for a larger version.
Most importantly, artboards act just like pages do -- you can print and export just the pages you need, and creating a multi-page PDF document to show ideas or concepts to a client works as you’d expect. You can even place multi-page native Illustrator documents into Photoshop, InDesign, and Flash. The multiple artboard feature is intuitive and easy to use, and it allows you to easily manage artwork across entire campaigns, all within a single document.
Expressive Drawing, without the Excessive Expletives
When talking to professional artists, animators, and illustrators, I’ve found that many prefer drawing in Photoshop or Painter because those programs allow the pros to more easily express their creativity. Illustrator’s anchor points and control handles can get in the way. Live Paint (added in CS2) does help, but you still have to draw the art before you can begin coloring it. And while Illustrator does have a pressure-sensitive calligraphic brush, the brush strokes don’t work with the Live Paint feature.
So I was immediately drawn (couldn’t resist the pun) to Illustrator’s new Blob Brush tool, as it brings the best of both worlds. Because it works like the pressure-sensitive calligraphic brush, you get an intuitive tool that allows for expressive drawing. At the same time, each paint stroke is automatically expanded as you draw it, making your art instantly compatible with Live Paint, as well as the Eraser tool added in Illustrator CS3.
Perhaps the most innovative feature in CS4, the Blob brush is intelligent. As you draw with the tool, your brush strokes automatically merge with the underlying art, creating a single overall object to work with instead of multiple objects. Since the Blob brush pays attention to color, it will only merge with like-colored objects. For example, when you paint with red, the Blob brush merges only with other red paths. This “painting in context” functionality means you don’t have to continuously lock and unlock objects as you paint. Objects seem to know how to behave as you paint, based on their color attributes.
Figure 2. When painting with the Blob Brush tool, new brush strokes are automatically expanded and merged with like-colored objects in your file.
I absolutely hate the name of the tool (it’s too close to “blah”), but I love using it. You can use the bracket keys to adjust the size of the brush (just as in Photoshop), and if you’re drawing with a Wacom pen, you can flip the pen to over to erase without even thinking about it. It’s the closest thing to real drawing I’ve seen in Illustrator, and it's easy enough (and fun enough) that my five-year old daughter can do it.
Transparency in Gradients… and More
Ever since gradients were added back in version 5, Illustrator users have longed for the ability to specify transparency to colors in a gradient. In CS4, you can assign an opacity level to any color stop in a gradient, similar to the way Flash designers can specify an Alpha value for colors in a gradient. (The new transparent gradients in Illustrator are compatible with Flash.) But Adobe didn’t stop there. There's also a new gradient widget that lets you edit gradients directly on the artboard. It’s a lot easier to adjust a gradient in context than in an unfriendly gray panel.
Figure 3. The new in-context gradient widget also enables you to adjust the proportion of radial gradients to create oval-shaped gradients.
Clipping Masks that Really Clip
While it’s obvious that designers migrating from FreeHand will appreciate the multiple artboards feature, I suspect they'll come to appreciate the new clipping mask behavior in Illustrator CS4 even more.
The biggest complaint about Illustrator masks has been that when artwork is clipped, you can still select that artwork -- even if it isn’t visible. In Illustrator CS4, masked artwork is now truly hidden -- from view and from your selection tool. The improved isolation mode feature (covered later in this review) means that a simple double-click of the mouse lets you easily edit the contents of a mask.
Improved Appearance and Style
Ever since it was introduced in Illustrator 9, the Appearance panel has become one of the most important panels in the application. In Illustrator CS4, the Appearance panel not only displays information about the attributes applied to an object, it also allows you to modify attributes and add effects. The panel also includes visibility icons (little eyeballs) for each attribute, making it easy to quickly experiment with a variety of applied effects.
Graphic styles are also improved, as you can now apply them to objects cumulatively. In other words, you can either apply a graphic style to a selection and have the style replace the appearance already applied to the object, or you can have the style add the settings on top of the existing appearance of the object.
Figure 4. The new Appearance panel in Illustrator CS4 lets you modify the attributes of appearances directly, without the need for additional panels.
Sweating the Details
Illustrator CS4's updated user interface is now consistent across the entire Creative Suite, including Fireworks and Dreamweaver. This was a lot of work for Adobe, which is why they like to talk about it so much. But compared to the new features in Illustrator CS4, a new interface is less exciting.
That being said, the updated interface is functional and unobtrusive. For example, Smart Guides is more refined (and on by default). Smart Guides appear as you work, helping you quickly align or modify files in context. Perhaps the most important aspect of Smart Guides is that they now let you snap objects to guides and to each other. While this is taken for granted in InDesign and Photoshop, the Snap to Point feature in previous sversion of Illustrator only snapped to the cursor. Now, you can easily snap objects precisely to each other without zooming all the way in to make sure they're aligned correctly.
Speaking of aligning objects, the Align panel now easily identifies key objects so that you can align objects to an object that you specify.
Adobe has also greatly enhanced the isolation mode feature in CS4 so you can isolate individual paths. (Previous versions allowed for group isolation only.) Instead of having to constantly lock and unlock objects that get in the way when you're working in complex documents, a simple double-click lets you edit an isolated object with ease.
Figure 5. Isolating an object temporarily brings it to the front and locks all other objects, making it simple to get in, make and quick edit, and get out.
A Little Something for Everyone
While the many enhancements in Illustrator appeal to all types of designers, certain improvements alone will be worth the price of admission to users in certain fields:
- Cartographers will especially appreciate an overhauled Type on Path engine, which does a much better job when setting type that following along a vector path.
- Prepress operators will find value in the new Separations Preview panel. While it doesn’t feature the powerful Ink Manager found in InDesign or Acrobat Pro, it performs ably as advertised, previewing process and spot colors on screen.
- Environmental and industrial designers will welcome Illustrator’s ability to simulate artwork on screen as a person with colorblindness might see it, enabling designers to ensure the right amount of contrast in their designs. Approximately 7 percent of Americans are color blind (that’s 10.5 million people), some governments (especially so in Japan) have been particularly vigilant in taking steps to ensure that public signage is clearly visible to all.
Figure 6. The Separations Preview panel lets you check your output before it’s too late.
Is Illustrator CS4 now the perfect application? Has the software reached its true potential? Far from it. Because Illustrator appeals to such a large audience, additional functionality is always on my wish list. Where is a sophisticated pattern generator for fashion designers? What about powerful controls for better anti-aliasing that web and interface designers crave? How about the ability to create interactive PDF documents and flowcharts? Why not an updated graphing feature or a core set of smart drawing tools? There are still plenty of features that can be added.
But that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that Illustrator CS4 is the perfect upgrade. I’ve been using Illustrator in a professional capacity for more than 15 years now, and I think this is the most appealing upgrade to Illustrator ever. Why? Because it’s relevant. Some versions contain features that might be cool -- and even incredibly useful -- but that are used only once in a while (e.g., 3D, Live Trace, Live Color).
In a truly refreshing contrast, just about every enhancement in Illustrator CS4 is core functionality -- all of which I’m already relying on each day.