Adobe Illustrator is one of the few "industry-standard" applications that actually has some competition. The battle between Illustrator and FreeHand has been raging for years, with a tit-for-tat war of new features. The recently released FreeHand 9 has now been countered by Illustrator 9.0. Unlike most wars, this one
is great news – I can think of no other products so regularly updated.
Illustrator 9.0, like Photoshop 5.5, is now geared more towards Web-content creation – in particular SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) and SWF (Flash Shockwave Format) have been added. It can also optimize files for GIF, JPEG and PNG. This will take another step out of the creation of Web images – previously another program such as Photoshop or Fireworks would have been needed.
It can also save layers as Flash animations in SWF format, something FreeHand 9 recently gained. This is an absolute boon for Web animators, and makes it easier for less experienced users. The SVG format was previously available only to Illustrator 8 users with
a special plug-in.
SVG graphics work in much the same way as regular vector graphics. SVG produces complex graphics that take
little memory, and are almost infinitely scaleable. For example, an SVG map
on a Web site wouldn’t take much time
to download, but you could zoom right
in to the street details without it getting bitty. This is because lines and curves
are described mathematically, rather
than as blocks of colour. Every time
it’s magnified, the curve or line is recalculated and remains smooth.
One of the long-awaited features
of Illustrator 9.0 is transparency. Fonts, objects or groups of objects, or anything else created in Illustrator, can be made transparent with a simple-to-use slider. This instantly opens up a whole range
of possibilities. When used in conjunction with the layers, dazzling graphics can be created, with each element remaining editable. This editability is important, because designs are rarely approved first time around. Keeping the ability to change text while keeping the style, transparency and filter settings means
a more efficient workflow.
Once an image is designed for the Web, it can be disappointing to see it
as a bitmapped file. The beautiful anti-aliasing that Illustrator uses on screen
is not necessarily what the Web version will look like. Adobe has added Pixel Preview, which shows the end result.
Of course, if you’re going to output to SWF or SVG, this isn’t needed.
The native file format for Illustrator 9.0 has been updated, though files can be saved to previous formats. The file now created is similar to PDF –
in fact PDF files can be opened and edited in Illustrator 9.0 with remarkable ease. This has previously been the domain of very specialized PDF applications, many with quite limited functionality. Now you can open a PDF and edit it as if it was a native Illustrator document. In fact Illustrator documents and PDFs are becoming almost identical, because an Illustrator 9.0 document can be opened up in Acrobat, without saving it as a PDF.
One of the best features of Illustrator 9.0 is the way the appearance and style of any object is handled. Styles can now be saved, and then applied to any object, including text. Remembering the way you created a button two hours ago is hard enough; remembering the way you did it a week ago is nigh on impossible. With Illustrator 9.0, there’s
no need to remember. Just create your button and text, show it to the client,
and a week later when more labels
are needed, simply open the original document, and edit the text. Better still, drag the button or text to the style palette and the filter settings, colours, stroke and fill are all recorded as a style. Then just type the text and click the style – its that easy.
Even blurred effects don’t affect the editability of text. Just click on it and type away, the effects aren’t affected. This is particularly good for Web designers, but it works for any type of job. Try editing blurred text in Photoshop, and you’ll be disappointed.
The colour management has been improved, and there’s the ability to work in CMYK as well as RGB. You can now use the Adobe Colour Engine (ACE), which is a device-independent colour-management technology. Photoshop 6.0 will also use ACE, as will other Adobe software. This makes it easier to keep consistent colour when moving files from Illustrator, to Photoshop, to InDesign. Web safe colours can also be specified.
Adobe has made a lot of significant improvements with Illustrator 9.0. It’s more geared to the needs of Web designers, but there are improvements for other designers. The stage is set for newer Adobe applications to work more closely together with a common file format and colour management. This is going to make life a lot easier for anybody using an Adobe-based workflow, and make keeping customers more difficult for other software publishers.
Some previous versions have had quirks that were probably due to rushing out the software too quickly. Illustrator 9.0 has so far not shown any of these problems, and seems stable. The interface remains similar to Illustrator 8.0, with just a few extra gadgets. Also, there’s no changes to the keyboard shortcuts, unless you want to make-up your own. Generally, Illustrator is still the familiar tool users expect, but with lots of extra features.