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Adobe Illustrator Review for Icon Design in 2016

It is difficult to write a review of software one has been using for over 20 years. As the most popular vector illustration program, Illustrator is second nature to most illustrators and icon designers. Most product reviews are done by analogy rather than by first principles but in order to do a meaningful review, one must step back from the way one performs a certain task or set of tasks in the software and to examine how one would intuitively perform the same tasks if the tools were not predefined for us.

For instance, to select an object that is behind another object in Illustrator, one can click Option + Command + [ (left square bracket). As useful as this is, one cannot actually see which object has the focus/selection if it is hidden behind another object. It is easy to imagine that one potential solution for solving this problem is to make any objects that are not selected semi-transparent while the selected object remains opaque. The first principle is, “I want to be able to ‘see’ which item in a stack is selected”. Illustrator shows the highlighted vector, points, and bounding box, but this is just the way they have solved the problem, but it is not the only possible solution.

Object selection transparent view

In the course of this Adobe Illustrator review, we will take a look at how the application handles each of the review criteria as outlined in the introduction to the Illustrator, Affinity Designer, and Sketch review. We will also discuss how effectively the solution Adobe provides solves the problem and any difficulties encountered. And, when appropriate, we will suggest how the problem might be more effectively solved.

Articles in this Series

  1. Introduction & Overview
  2. Adobe Illustrator Review
  3. Affinity Designer 1.5 Beta Review
  4. Sketch Review 2016
  5. Conclusions

The Reviewers

Scott Lewis is a Senior Developer and Head of Content for Iconfinder. Scott’s primary role at Iconfinder is to curate and build the inventory of icons on Iconfinder including reviewing all icon submissions, working with designers to bring their products to market, and to recruit new talented designers. Scott formerly worked as an art director for 10 years before switching to software development. Scott is also a professional icon designer and goes by the nickname “iconify”.

Gašper Vidovič is a lawyer and top-selling icon designer from Ptuj, Slovenia, which is the oldest town in Slovenia. Gašper uses the nickname “picons” and is one of the better-known icon designers working in the business. You can read in our interview with Gašper Vidovič from 2013.

The Example Icons

Gašper and Scott will each create a single icon in each of the four most popular icon design styles: Line, Color-filled Line, Glyph, and Flat. The finished icons are depicted below. The two reviewers will recreate the icons in each of the three applications – Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Designer, and Sketch.

Scott's travel icons

Scott’s example icons

Gasper's travel icons

Gašper’s example icons

Setting Up Custom Grids

There is debate among some of the top icon designers over the necessity of designing to a grid. Some designers find them too limiting to creativity, other designers, the author included, swear by them. Design grids have been a mainstay in graphic design for ages and are still an important part of the icon designer’s tool box.

Illustrator’s grid settings can be accessed by going to Menu > Illustrator CC > Preferences > Guides & Grid:

Illustrator Grid Preferences

From the Guides & Grid preferences dialog, you can change the guide and grid colors, the style (dotted or solid lines), and the size of the grid. You can also specify whether to show the guides in front or in back, as well as the zoom level at which to show the pixel grid. In addition to the Guides & Grids preferences, you can create custom guides as part of your grid. Custom guides, in conjunction with your grid, can be useful for creating key lines for uses like iOS app icons or Google Material Design icons.

In addition to Guides & Grids, Illustrator also has a couple of other tools that you might find useful including the Rectangular Grid and Polar Grid tools. These tools allow you to create complex grids as vector objects that can then be converted to outlines as demonstrated in the images below. The Rectangular Grid Tool allows you to not only create grids with uniform cells but also with different sized cells using the Vertical and Horizontal Skew. Play around with the values to get an idea of how they work. The Polar Grid tool allows you to create circular grids of concentric circles similar to a spider’s web.

Illustrator Rectangular Grid Tool

Rectangular Grid Tool

Illustrator Polar Grid Tool

Polar Grid Tool

Scott “While the different grid tools are useful, it would be nice to have them all in a single location for quicker access. Also, two features I think would add significantly to working with grids in Adobe Illustrator would be the ability to add diagonal grid lines as an optional setting in Guides & Grid preferences, and the ability to create Grid settings that can be saved for specific uses.”

Gašper “Grids are a must when designing icons, that have to be pixel-perfect in specific dimensions. With the dominance of retina screens, designing pixel perfect icons might seem obsolete, but still of big importance on all other non-retina displays. Illustrator’s grids are straightforward with defining the grid line and subdivisions in pixels.”

Working with paths (The Pen Tool)

Positioning & Aligning Points

The ability to snap points to the pixel grid is indispensable for creating pixel-perfect icons. Illustrator has three features to help accomplish this task: Snap to Point, Snap to Grid, and Align to Pixel Grid. When placing a new point, Snap to Pixel and Snap to Grid work essentially as one would expect and the point being added will snap to the closest point, via Snap to Point or to the closest grid intersection via Snap to Grid. Align to Grid attempts to align the edges and points within an object to the pixel grid.

Scott “Align to Pixel Grid, however, is a common area of complaint among vector artists. It is not uncommon for the object being aligned to be distorted, especially when pasting an object into a document with “Align New Objects to Pixel Grid” enabled. Personally, I almost never use the feature and wish Adobe would make this option a global preference so that I can turn it off once for all new documents rather than having to remember to uncheck the box on the New Document dialog”.

Gašper “In my opinion the “Align to Pixel Grid” functionality could be improved, especially when being applied on a group of unclosed paths (a complex icon for example). The unclosed paths connected to other paths, get often distorted and the icon gets very messy.

Snapping works ok, but not useful in combination with “Align to Pixel Grid” and when creating outline icons with 1-pixel strokes. In that case the stroke won’t be pixel-perfect, as it should be aligned in the middle of the pixel (grid box) and not on the grid line”.

Manipulating Curves

Illustrator’s path manipulation tools are exactly what you would expect and perform their jobs well. You place a starting point, place another point and drag to create a curve. Each point on a curve has two handles that allow you to manipulate the shape of the curve. Additionally, Illustrator has tools for smoothing curves (Smooth Tool), erasing points (Pen Tool), erasing parts of shapes (Path Erase Tool).

Scott “One shortcoming in Illustrator with regards to paths is that you can only manipulate one bezier handle at a time. This is an area where Adobe could learn from Astute Graphics’s PathScribe tool which allows you to select and manipulate multiple handles at a time. You may not think you need this feature, but once you have used PathScribe, you realize just how handy it is”.

Gašper “While Astute Graphics has a range of very sophisticated and useful tools for manipulating with the curves, Illustrator does it job solidly, especially with their recent updates. One thing that was very long-awaited in my opinion: the corner tool (applying rounded corners on an existing paths).

Two crucial things are still missing: the “Path extend tool” and (Smart) Path eraser tool. Both tools from VectorScribe (by Astute Graphics) are must have for me, when creating outline icons, but unfortunately still missing in Adobe’s built-in toolset”.

Joining line points and line segments

Illustrator offers several options for joining points. The standard approach, which is to select two points and type Command + J (Control + J on Windows) is only the beginning. You can also select multiple lines and type Command + J to join multiple lines and/or objects. The one caveat to remember is that the points that are closest together will be joined.

Also, the Join Tool makes joining intersection paths or open points on the same path very simple.

Scott “One enhancement Adobe could add would be to allow the user to visualize individual points when multiple points are stacked. Graphics rendering is advanced enough that it does seem possible to implement some three-dimensional visualization to make selecting one or multiple overlapping points by clicking rather than dragging a marquee around them is feasible”.

Gašper “Sometimes unpractical, when you want to extend (continue) an open path with a new point lying over other existing point, without closing the shape. The path will get closed even if you don’t want it to. Maybe a way to allow this behavior would be by using a modifier key when adding a point overtop of another existing point without joining the paths”.

Removing unwanted points

Many icon designers begin their work with a Cintiq tablet and stylus, which means the early iterations of icons have a lot of unnecessary points. It is also common to end up with a lot of unwanted points on a curve when using the Pathfinder operations. Extra points add complexity to a line and size to vector files. Illustrator has some tools for cleaning up paths, such as the Smooth Tool.

Scott “The ability to simply erase unwanted points en masse instead of by clicking each individual point with the pen tool ranks at the very top of long-overdue features in Illustrator, in my opinion. Pretty much every icon designer I know also uses VectorScribe by Astute Graphics for this feature alone. The lack of a native feature like this is obviously good for Astute Graphics but it seems conspicuously missing from Illustrator and has for a long time”.

Gašper “Adobe’s ‘Path Eraser’ tool, unfortunately, cannot be compared with Astute’s “Smart Remove Brush”. This should be a build-it functionality for years already”!

Working with strokes (size, end caps, etc.)

Illustrator allows the designer to easily adjust the thickness and color of strokes. Strokes on shapes can be aligned on the center, inside, or outside of the path which defines the shape. Additionally, by going to Menu > Object > Expand, one can expand a stroked path to convert the path to a shape whose outlines are the edges of the stroke.

Scott “The only real comment I have is I’d like to see the Expand stroke feature to the Stroke palette for ease-of-access to make it a bit more convenient. Otherwise, I’m perfectly satisfied with working with strokes in Illustrator”.

Gašper “Very easy-to-use. I personally would love to have an advanced stroke cap where you could set a custom shape for the end cap”.

Shape Operations (Unite, Trim, Divide)

Illustrator’s Pathfinder palette allows you to perform different join, exclude, and knockout functions on two selected objects. The tools available offer pretty much what you would expect and seems to be sufficient for most conceivable tasks.

Scott “I don’t have anything to add to the Pathfinder operations except to echo Gašper’s comment about the line styles being erased when trim or divide operations are performed, but I don’t use those particular operations enough for it to be a big deal to me”.

Gašper “Easy to use. Two things I don’t prefer when using pathfinder tools: 1) after trimming or dividing, the new shapes are always grouped (Adobe could save us a step with ungrouping every time), and 2) the applied shape stroke is gone, when trimming or dividing shapes (even when all of the shapes have the same stroke before the operation)”.

Precision Control and Navigating Within a Document Including Zoom

Affinity Designer seriously raised the bar with their 1,000,000% zoom. The latest version of Adobe Illustrator has increased its zoom to 64,000%, a ten-fold increase over the 6,400% zoom of earlier versions. Illustrator allows you to zoom by holding the Space bar + Command and dragging the magnifying glass around the area you want to zoom. Additionally, you can type Command-plus or Command-minus to zoom in-and-out on documents.

Scott “The 64,000% zoom is nice, especially when working on pixel-perfect illustrations but to be honest, I never found 6,400% zoom to be limiting and Affinity Designer’s 1,000,000% zoom seems to be more overkill. The only thing that is not intuitive with zooming in Illustrator is that if I have an object selected, then use the Command-plus or Command-minus keyboard commands and Illustrator does not zoom on my selection but on the center of the visible area”.

Gašper “Navigating is in my opinion very smooth and easy (with holding down the space key). The zoom has been much improved with the latest update. In older versions of Illustrator they had only 6,400%, which may sound more than enough, but wasn’t in some cases when designing pixel-perfect icons and taking into account that snapping to paths (by turning on “Smart guides”) was buggy”.

Pixel Preview Mode

Illustrator allows you to view an illustration in Pixel Preview mode so you can see exactly what your illustration will look like, down to the pixel. This is an important feature for icon designers when creating pixel-perfect icons.You can switch to and from Pixel Preview mode by typing Command + Option + Y on Mac (Control + Alt + Y on Windows). You can also access the feature by going to Menu > View > Pixel Preview.

Adobe Illustrator - Pixel Preview

Scott “I don’t have much to say about pixel preview. It works as expected and is a vital feature when creating pixel-perfect icons”.

Gašper “Works as it should. Important functionality when creating pixel-perfect icons”.

Batch Export Functionality

Export for Screens, added to Illustrator CC 2015.3, allows you to export artboards or assets (objects dragged to the Assets for Export palette) to multiple file sizes and formats. The new feature is not only a very welcome addition, but for icon designers there are few features that could have added more value to Illustrator. As mentioned in the intro to this series, Sketch, by Bohemian Coding, has had an identical feature for at least 2 years. The only improvement I would like to see is the ability to define export configurations that can then be named and saved, similar to the iOS and Android presets that ship with the feature.

Scott “The ‘Export for Screens’ feature added in Illustrator CC 2015.3 is the single best enhancement to Illustrator in as long as I can remember. In terms of total time savings, possibly the best enhancement ever for icon designers. When I wrote the first review in 2014 I was instantly in love with the feature in Sketch and it seemed like a no-brainer to have this feature as the standard rather than having to write scripts to work around an fairly obvious omission in the software. Now, I prefer Adobe’s implementation. The only thing I would like to see is the ability to save my own preset sizes similar to the iOS and Android presets”.

Gašper “Before Adobe’s latest release (CC 2015.3) this was a big disappointment for Illustrator. Still an area of disappointment is the limitation to 100 artboards per single document. While maybe useful for most of the projects, this was extremely impractical (useless) for crafting icon sets. Most of the icon sets include a few hundred icons, if not even a few thousand. Having a large batch of icons split up in separate documents is a no-go”.

Responsiveness to Customer Feedback

Whether warranted or not, Adobe has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism for being a large corporation who is more interested in profits than users, has bought up and killed its competition, and ignored users’ complaints and feedback about feature requests and bugs. This reputation was not helped by the transition from the perpetual license for products like Illustrator to the Creative Cloud subscription model.

Whether the reader is a big fan of Adobe or not, they deserve credit for reaching out to Iconfinder after our last review in 2014 and asking for feedback from our designers. That feedback resulted in the addition of Export for Screens, a feature specifically requested by our designers. It may be that Adobe has taken notice of the way smaller competitors engage with users, or it may simply be that Adobe, despite being a large corporation, really cares what users need and think of their product and their brand.

Scott “Let me say up front, that I have been a loyal Illustrator user since 1990 (an old version of Illustrator 88) and am a die-hard Adobe Illustrator fan. It’s easy to criticize a large company without a personal face and to view them as greedy and uninterested in users’ needs and concerns. But I just don’t think that is how most software makers operate, including very large ones. I am a software engineer as well as an icon designer, and every engineer I have ever met in my nearly 20-year career has been concerned with meeting the needs of users. It is the measure by which the success or failure of an engineer’s product is measured.

Regardless of their reputation, based on my own interactions with Adobe, I have found them to be very interested in user feedback and willing to integrate suggestions into the software. My suggestion to users who have a complaint or suggestion is, reach out to and engage with the team. Maybe your idea could be the next great feature”.

Gašper “Not a strong point for Adobe, as they are slow to adopt improvements suggested by users or even fixing reported bugs. The latest release (CC 2015.3) is extremely promising as it adds a big chunk of features that a lot of designers have been waiting for for years. This should be their bar for all updates in the future. It’s important for Adobe to take user feedback more seriously”.

Conclusion

Overall, Adobe Illustrator is a very solid, feature-rich application. Although our two reviewers had some feedback, and a couple of complaints, about the features we reviewed, Illustrator is, for the foreseeable future, the leader in the vector authoring market for good reason. Illustrator has had 20-plus years to refine its features. As we mentioned in the first paragraph, most reviews are done by analogy and most competitors also compete by analogy, meaning they try to do the same things, only better, but do not necessarily redefine how tasks are performed.

It should also be noted that while the scope of our review is very limited, Illustrator has offerings that competitors simply can’t offer. While Affinity Designer and Sketch are great stand alone applications, they do not have the enterprise appeal that Illustrator does because of its seamless integration with Adobe’s other enterprise applications like the Adobe DAM (digital asset management), Adobe Experience Manager – their very popular enterprise content management system, Scene7 and Adobe Bridge. Creating vector artwork is only the tip of the iceberg and there are no real competitors for Illustrator in in the enterprise space.

The major challenge for Adobe will be to be as engaged with end users on a personal level as the smaller competitors are. To some extent, it’s not a fair fight, however, because personal engagement with millions of users is a whole different ball game than engaging with several orders of magnitude fewer users. But, users don’t really care about the difficulties, only the results.

Adobe Illustrator is available via Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription for $19.99 per month – https://creative.adobe.com/plans

As always, join the discussion in the comments below. The Illustrator product team has been known to drop by, so let them know what you think as well, and join us next week for our Affinity Designer Review for Icon Designers.

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  1. I didn’t have to read this article to know what your conclusion said. 20+ years to refine and improve and other tie-in products are no match for the others. The next generation of users are who are going to tell us where this software is going. And the way of Adobe is going to fall flat because they are not engaged and are not committed to rewriting their code to prevent their very famous crashes.

    • If you truly did not read the article I think that is unfortunate. This was definitely not an Illustrator fan-boy endorsement. Both Gašper and I were 100% honest in our criticism of Illustrator. Also, I know with 100% certainty that the Adobe Illustrator product team and engineers are watching this thread – because I have been in contact with them. They fact-checked the article but had no input with regards to our conclusions or opinions.

      If you have a request or constructive criticism for the Illustrator team, this would be the time and place to share it. They as well as Bohemian Coding (Sketch) and Serif Labs (Affinity Designer) have been directly involved in fact-checking this series. Of the three vendors, Adobe has been the most responsive and involved so far. That is likely to shift once we do the Affinity Designer review. Serif Labs is very hands-on and responsive.

      • I should also add that while the three vendors are involved in fact-checking, they have no input, nor have they attempted to persuade, our opinions or conclusions. I have been very impressed with that fact from all three.

  2. The single most important thing Illustrator is still lacking is the ability to have more than 100 artboards in 1 document. I’ve tried Sketch for a while and it is pretty good for designing websites, but not so much to create illustrations, although you can create unlimited artboards I have been told. Just fix that artboard issue and I will be yours forever Adobe.

    • Hemmo, I agree 100%. I can’t say too much but Adobe is working on it. It’s coming, but there is no set date. The first order of business is to improve the performance. There are, as you see in the comment above by Eduardo, a lot of complaints about crashes, memory management, and bloat. As you know, I am first-and-foremost, a software developer myself. While for the average user Illustrator’s performance is sometimes frustrating, I am sympathetic just because I understand the technical side of the problem. Adding more artboards adds more computing overhead.