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.
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
- Introduction & Overview
- Adobe Illustrator Review
- Affinity Designer 1.5 Beta Review
- Sketch Review 2016
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 example 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:
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.
Rectangular Grid Tool
Polar Grid Tool
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.