Vector graphics shoot-out: Illustrator v open-source

Vector graphics shoot-out: Illustrator v open-source

Summary: We wrap up our investigation of vector graphics editors with a look at Adobe's Illustrator, along with a selection of more specialist applications, including Microsoft's Visio and the free, open-source LibreOffice Draw.


The first part of this two-part feature on vector editing tools outlined the history and background of vector image creation and examined Inkscape, an open-source vector editing application, and CorelDRAW, a proprietary product. In part two we look at the equally proprietary Adobe Illustrator, along with two simpler applications — Microsoft's Visio and LibreOffice Draw, plus several iPad drawing apps.

Adobe Illustrator CS6 Adobe was founded in 1982 by John Warnock and Charles Geschke, who left Xerox PARC to develop their ideas about page description languages. Its first products were PostScript licences, and a little latter Linotype digital fonts. In 1987 Adobe released its very first application — Illustrator for the Apple Macintosh. This was a packaged version of Adobe's in-house font design software featuring the PostScript file format.

The first Windows version of Illustrator, version 2.0, appeared in 1989, followed by version 4.0 in 1992. At that time CorelDRAW was the market-leading vector drawing program for Windows. Now at version 16.0.0 (CS6), Illustrator is arguably the industry-standard application for 2D vector graphics design and editing.

Adobe Illustrator CS6 with the Essentials workspace selected and a floating (undocked) Layers panel.

Adobe Illustrator is listed on Adobe's website at £571.20 for the full version, or £228 for an upgrade. Illustrator is also available as part of the CS6 Creative Cloud subscription scheme, where all of the CS6 suite can be had for a subscription of £46.88 a month. An Illustrator-only subscription costs £17.58 (all prices including 20 percent VAT).

Illustrator CS6: user interface
Illustrator CS6 adopts Adobe's new minimal-clutter approach to the workspace, along with a shades-of-charcoal palette. These grey values are chosen to minimise colour bias and distraction, but are easily adjusted and the canvas can be set to white if you prefer. At the top of the workspace are the common text menus, with the Control Panel below them. To the left is the Tools bar, while on the right is a vertical bar offering selection of control boxes. A status bar runs along the bottom.

The Illustrator CS6 workspace selection menu and the docking area for task-related panels.

As with many of its products, Adobe provides a drop-down menu selection button on the menu bar that offers a choice of workspace configurations. For Illustrator there are eight choices — including, for example, Painting and Typography. Each choice configures the workspace for a particular task. In Illustrator the main differences between these configurations occur at the extreme right of the workspace where, in a docking area next to the vertical control bar, different panels appear related to the chosen task. These panels can be undocked and floated over the workspace if you prefer.

Each document in Illustrator may have up to to 100 image areas called Artboards — a term borrowed from the use of boards and panels used in traditional graphic art as the physical medium to support images. The Artboard panel appears in the right-hand docking area for a number of the workspaces; alternatively it can be opened as a floating panel from the Window choice in the top menu.

What's new in Illustrator CS6 (version 16.0)
In CS6, Adobe has redesigned the workspaces of three of its flagship products — Premiere, After Effects and Illustrator — to use the same low visual impact charcoal palette. Performance is crucial in vector editing applications because of the format's processor-intensive nature. Illustrator CS6 features native 64-bit operation for both Mac OS X and Windows and an overhauled Mercury Performance System, introduced in CS5, to greatly improve responsiveness.

Three new features appear in CS6: a new image-tracing engine; seamless pattern creation and editing; and gradients on strokes.

Layers in Illustrator
In Illustrator, layers are controlled from only one place — the Layers panel. This can be opened from 'Window' in the top menu or by pressing F7. By default layers are incrementally numbered, although they can be renamed and each layer can be expanded to show the objects it contains.

Illustrator rulers, guides and dimensions
Immediately after launching, Illustrator displays a blank workspace in dark charcoal. A white page background only appears on the workspace after a file is opened.

The horizontal ruler is visible in this screenshot, which also shows a selected guide and its coordinate position displayed in both the Control panel and the floating Transform panel.

By default the rulers in Illustrator are hidden; they can be toggled on and off from the keyboard using Ctrl+R or by selection from the View menu. Horizontal and vertical guides, highlighted in cyan, can be dragged across from their respective rulers. Pressing the shift key while new guides are dragged makes them snap to each division on the rulers. Old guides can be accurately placed by selecting the guide with a mouse click and then typing the required coordinates into the Transform or Control panels.

The Units page selected in Illustrator CS6 Preferences (Edit / Preferences / Units).

Illustrator CS6 defaults to millimetres and points for units of drawing and text size. Units can be set to points, picas, inches, millimetres, centimetres or pixels — a surprisingly limited choice.

Colour management settings

Illustrator CS6's Color Settings panel.

Adobe separates its colour settings (Edit menu / Color settings) from the other application preferences, which have their own menu selection. These allow for the usual profile and working space selections, and conversion options. Colour management setting in Illustrator are global — there are no per-document options.

Soft proofing in Illustrator is controlled through the View menu. Selecting View / Proof Colors displays an on-screen soft-proof view. The Proof Set-up selection lets you choose the output profile — unusually, it also includes two settings for common forms of colour blindness.

Topics: Open Source, Apps, Reviews, Software

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  • Whoa

    Draw and not Inkscape?
    • Sorry

      I see it on the last page.

      One thing I did a couple of week's back was to animate the sweep of a clock's hands. Drew a clock at midnight in iDraw, exported the SVG file, wrote a program (via DrRacket and racket) to translate time to the attribute that would rotate the hands into position and generated 168 svg files. Then I switched into a Linux VM and used Inkscape to batch convert to png from the command line. Throw the pngs into a video editor program, and done.

      Probably was the hard way to go about it, but, still, it's a way to go and have to give kudos to Inkscape for exposing that conversion api.

      By the way, about Inkscape on Macs, X11 has semi-expelled with Mountain Lion in the way that java was semi-expelled in Lion. If you start a program that needs X11, a dialog box asks if you want to download it. Say yes and it gets installed without any further intervention (other than the admin password request.) What you get is something called XQuartz, which is maintained by a third party. Frankly, I prefer Linux in a VM to the way X11 is implemented in OS X.
      • How did you write the program that did that?

        DannyO_ox98 - Just curious about the program you wrote that matched the time with graphics. Can you give a basic outline or share the code? Just curious.