Adobe Illustrator is the industry standard tool for vector drawing and illustration, used by a wide variety of creative professionals including editorial illustrators, identity designers, textile and pattern designers, UI designers, motion artists and many others. It’s always been an incredibly versatile tool, thanks to a broad feature set, and of course the fact that vector graphics are infinitely scaleable and in most cases relatively lightweight. Over the years the application has been given some quite remarkable features – from the Gradient Mesh in the 1998 release of version 8 to multiple art boards in CS4 and the Perspective Grid in CS5 (which Adobe ported across from FreeHand, the tool it bought from Macromedia and then phased out), it is a behemoth of an application, whether you want to create photorealistic illustrations or slick logos. So, what has Adobe done in Adobe Illustrator CS6? A facelift, some speed improvements, a few tweaks and one major addition that illustrators and designers in particular will love are all on the agenda.
The first thing you notice about Adobe Illustrator CS6 is that it looks different. If you’ve seen Photoshop CS6 you won’t be that surprised – by default it’s charcoal grey. Like Photoshop, it gives Illustrator an undeniably more professional feel. The thing is, it doesn’t really feel like Illustrator to a user of many years. It feels more like a post production tool – matching that of After Effects. But this is a minor, minor gripe. In fact, it’s not even a gripe, it’s purely an observation. And, designers and illustrators being the creatures of habit that they are, the most likely thing they’ll do is go to Illustrator>Preferences>User Interface and change the brightness setting back to Medium Light or light. Something in this preference pane that isn’t in the Photoshop equivalent is a slider and percentage field, which enables you to set the brightness of the interface exactly how you want it.
As you slide, the interface changes brightness. OK, it’s not going to set the world on fire and get users queuing up to upgrade or sign up for Creative Cloud Membership, but it’s a nice detail. As is the option to change the Canvas colour (the area around the artboard) to match the user interface or keep it as white as in previous releases. The main Tools panel also looks more refined, with redesigned tool icons. In fact, everything looks a bit more detailed, a bit more refined (and the Tools panel, in our opinion still looks better as one column). It’s hard not to like the new interface – it feels like a modern step forward for the application.
There are a few other tweaks to the interface that will definitely please hardcore users. The first is being able to edit layer names, swatch names, brushes, artboards and so on in their respective panels. In CS5.1 and earlier, you had to double-click the item you wanted to rename and then an intermittent dialog appeared where you’d rename it. You can still do it this way if you like by double-clicking the item’s icon (it gives you access to more options, as well) but it’s quicker and easier to double-click on the items name (rather than its icon) and change it inline. Why wasn’t this in IIlustrator before? No idea, but we’re glad it is.
The other tweaks are about as minor as they come – but again examples of Adobe thinking about its user’s workflows with this release. For one, there’s a new Make Mask/Release button in the Transparency panel. This certainly makes it quicker to work with opacity masks, saving you an albeit brief visit to the Transparency panel’s flyout menu. Another example of this is the new expandable sampling area in the Color panel. Expand the panel by dragging its bottom-right corner and the expanded colour spectrum becomes visible. Compared to Illustrator CS5.1’s tiny sampling area it’s ace. Oh, and you can now copy and paste hex values directly from the Color panel.
And there’s more! The Character panel has had a minor tweak to enable you to cycle through fonts – seeing a preview on the artboard if the text is selected – using the arrow keys (it was available in Windows up until this release, but now is across both platforms). There’s also new buttons for All Caps, Small Caps, Superscript and Subscript towards the bottom of the panel. We’ll never complain about better text controls. The Transform panel also gets a Scale Strokes & Effects checkbox rather than it being tucked away in the Scale dialog. In addition, the Control panel has been made a little more consistent when displaying content-sensitive information relating to tools and objects. And finally, when you tear off hidden tools you can now arrange them vertically to save a bit of desktop real estate – and dock them either like this or horizontally. All this is about making things a little quicker for the user – and the interface improvements are very welcome. Nice job.
The other thing you notice when you open up Adobe Illustrator CS6 – or at least when you open up a complex file with many layers, complicated gradient mesh, many effects, feathering, transparency and thousands of points – is its speed. Adobe preached to us how fast Adobe Illustrator CS6 is, and it actually is blazing fast. You probably won’t notice unless you’re working on a complicated file – if you’re designing a logo or similar you’re unlikely to see any real improvement in redraw or usability. So far, we’ve really focused on the workflow and speed enhancements in Adobe Illustrator CS6, but thankfully there are some creative additions – not as many as you might hope, but some. The first worth noting is being able to apply gradients to a stroke. You can now apply gradients along the length, across the width, or within the stroke itself. Big deal? Well, kind of – it opens up some nice creative possibilities. It’s difficult to see why this hasn’t been here before – it may be due to the amount of processing power Adobe Illustrator CS6 needs to calculate gradients applied to strokes.
What would you use this for? Adding highlights to photorealistic artwork or creating faux 3D effects are just two examples. This feature requires a little bit of a reshuffling of the Gradient panel. Below the Type dropdown – where you specify a Linear or Radial gradient – and above the gradient angle, there’s three new Stroke options. These, from left-to-right enable you to apply a gradient within the stroke, along the stroke or across the stroke. Applying the gradient within the stroke enables you to change the angle of the gradient within the stroke; along the stroke places the gradient along your path (use the Reverse Gradient button to change the direction); and across the stroke places the gradient across the width of the stroke that you’ve specified. Used in conjunction with some of Illustrator’s art brushes, it’s a powerful tool – especially if you’re building up complex (and maybe photorealistic) illustrations.