If you're someone who started out with Adobe Illustrator back when it was called Illustrator 88, then you've seen lots of changes over 20 years. Illustrator is one of a handful of powerful vector drawing products aimed at graphic artists and illustrators, and it's always been elegant and production-ready. Even if Adobe has sometimes been slow to add cool new features, you could always count on Illustrator's stability and its color and output engines to perform well in a professional production environment.
Illustrator, as a high-end professional app, doesn't really have any competition on the Mac anymore (CorelDraw is Windows-only), which might explain why Adobe is only now getting around to adding some features that the program has needed for years. If you're a Mac user who needs a vector-based drawing tool, Illustrator is the biggest and best player around, and the new CS4 version is a solid, impressive upgrade that adds some cool new tools.
One of the features that Illustrator has always lacked--incredibly--is the capability to create multi-page documents. Because Adobe has had a strong vested interest in its long-document publishing tools, such as the current flagship, InDesign, putting multi-page support into Illustrator may have meant flirting dangerously with unwanted overlap in the product line. Still, Adobe finally had to give in to the fact that many illustrators create documents longer than a single page--the front and back of a brochure, for example. InDesign, with its complex copy flow and page management features, is overkill for such simple projects, and it lacks the core drawing tools that illustrators need.
By far the biggest change in this version of Illustrator is the addition of multiple artboards. This feature allows artists to create documents of up to 100 pages in length. However, Adobe's implementation will be unfamiliar to anyone who is used to other multi-page publishing tools that manage pages for you. In Illustrator, you draw or place numbered rectangular containers right on the workspace. These boards can be dragged around like sheets of paper on a work table, can have any orientation, and can be copied with or without their contents. There is no facility for managing artboards, so the effect is a lot like pages spread around on a desk, with both the convenience of easy access and the potential for disarray. By default, each artboard will print on a separate page, and when exporting an Acrobat file from Illustrator, each artboard is placed on its own PDF page in its numbered order. Similarly, Flash files can be generated by exporting all or a range of artboards as individual SWF files.
Many features of the interface, such as alignment tools, and Illustrator's newly upgraded Smart Guides, have been modified to work within the context of artboards. For example, you have the option of aligning objects relative to one another or to an artboard.
Artboards can be different sizes within a single document, so they can be used as containers for design elements of any size. For example, you can now manipulate and store a poster, a brochure, and a business card in the same Illustrator file. One issue I have with this capability is that there is no separate page setup for individual artboards, so if you do have different size boards in a single file, you can't create the necessary page setup and printing preferences for each one individually. That means if you have artboards with different printing requirements you'll need to manage multiple versions of the file for output. I also think the printing preferences could offer more flexibility, such as the ability to print thumbnails or storyboards with captions.
Artboards do not make Illustrator a full-fledged replacement for a desktop publishing package, even for short documents. Though you can flow copy from one artboard to another, there are no document-wide style sheets, and there are no automatic page numbering features, indexing, or multi-page copy fitting tools. (In Artboard Edit mode, each artboard is numbered on the canvas, and if you delete an artboard, the numbering is adjusted accordingly). Still, this is a good solution for illustrators, and it adds a ton of flexibility to the application. Designers can place and manage multiple versions of a single illustration in one document--something that art directors and clients will truly appreciate--and they can easily work on closely related documents within the same workspace, sharing styles and symbols across multiple designs.
Adobe has updated the rest of the CS4 suite to be multi-artboard aware, so you can place multi-page documents into Photoshop, InDesign, or Flash.
Attack of the Blobs
One problem with older versions of illustrator has been its implementation of brush-based painting. For some time now, Illustrator users have been able to "paint" with brushes that resemble rough ink scrawls, watercolors, and other stylized strokes. However, these paint effects have always been applied one path at a time, with a new path laid down for every stroke of the brush. This approach sometimes results in noisy, chaotic-looking painted areas, instead of smoothly filled forms. The alternative has been to use pen-based drawing tools to arduously manipulate vector outlines, or to draw out a path that defines the boundaries of an object.
Illustrator's new Blob Brush Tool looks like other brush tools, and responds appropriately to a pressure-sensitive tablet (if you have one) and stroke direction. But rather than stroking each path of your brush with a textured painterly shape, as you lay on strokes, the tool automatically melds any overlapping paths into a single outlined form, no matter how scribbled or chaotic your painting. This lets you paint in an area alternating between large, billowy strokes and small detailed fillets, and end up with a single, solidly filled object that can be re-filled, outlined, and treated with styles, like any vector object. As long as the strokes you're painting over have the same fill and stroke style as the current brush, Illustrator welds the overlapping surfaces together. This means you can even use the Blob Brush to modify the shape of primitive objects like circles, rectangles, and type outlines.
I had great fun using the tool to add dripping puddles to some Halloween text, and then filling the whole thing with a bloody gradient, for example. This is a huge improvement over other methods of painterly expression in Illustrator. While it may not be the most production-oriented new capability, it's easily the most immediately satisfying, intuitive, and fun to work with. And if you often work with gradient fills, to define the shading and contours of objects, for example, this feature is a huge time saver.
Adobe has done much tweaking to streamline Illustrator, making it faster and easier to use. Gradients have received significant attention. You can now use transparency in gradients, so, for example, a sky gradient can fade from purple, to orange, to 100 percent transparent at the bottom to blend with a foreground. (This is another one of those features that's so useful, it's hard to imagine why it wasn't added years ago.)
There are several places where Adobe has given Illustrator better in-context editing, and editing gradients is one of them. In the past, you could apply a gradient with the Gradient Tool, but it could only be modified in the Gradient panel. Now, if you click on a gradient fill with the Gradient Tool, a widget appears that allows you to modify the gradient right in place on the object. This makes it much easier to blend surfaces in pleasing ways.
Smart Guides have been upgraded to offer more in-context functionality. When you drag objects around on the screen, green guidelines pop up to let you know when an object is aligned to other elements on the page. Smart Guide preferences can be set to make the guides appear during certain operations, such as while transforming objects, and to appear at specified angles of rotation, for example. And Smart Guides are now aware of their location relative to artboards.
Degrees of separation
While Adobe has been a bit slow to add new toys to the Illustrator toolbox, it has compensated by maintaining an efficient, reliable production environment suited to the tasks at hand. This release is no exception. The capability to quickly preview color separations in the new Separations Preview panel is particularly helpful for identifying unwanted spot colors and avoiding costly printing mistakes.
Another powerful performance enhancer is the new ability to manipulate appearance elements within the Appearance panel. For example, you can click on an effect, such as 3D Extrude & Bevel, within the Appearance panel to modify its settings. Complex appearances can take a long time to render, and they may need to be updated with every change to your artwork. In this version of Illustrator, you can hide appearance elements to dramatically improve Illustrator's performance.
Adobe has also updated the graphic styles functionality in Illustrator, so it's now much easier to save and apply sets of attributes, such as fill color, stroke style, layering, and graphic effects. These graphic styles make fast work of repeatedly applying effects to multiple objects.
Macworld's buying advice
Adobe Illustrator CS4 is a time-proven production drawing tool with a clean, efficient interface, and well-thought-out tools that work seamlessly with the rest of the Adobe creative suite. The addition of multi-page capabilities and the Blob Brush Tool make it must-have upgrade.
[Ben Long is a San Francisco-based photographer and writer.]