VectorScribe and InkScribe are popular plugins for Adobe Illustrator created by Astute Graphics, a United Kingdom-based software company that creates plugins with the goal of helping vector designers work more efficiently and creatively. We will take a look at the problems VectorScribe and InkScribe set out to remedy, and how Astute Graphics’ solutions line up with the needs and work habits of icon designers.
The download link and purchase information are provided below if you’d like to download and install the plugins before we dive into the feature reviews.
Free Trial: 14 days
Price: £59 – Excluding VAT (as of July 17, 2015)
What Is VectorScribe?
VectorScribe, Astute Graphics’ flagship product, is a plugin for Illustrator that is a suite of seven tools whose purpose is to allow designers to create geometric shapes with more refinement and control.
The seven tools in VectorScribe are:
- Smart Remove Brush Tool
- Extend Path Tool
- Dynamic Corners
- Dynamic Shapes
- Dynamic Measure
What Is InkScribe?
InkScribe is part alternative and part companion to Adobe Illustrator’s pen tool. InkScribe is a collection of tools whose purpose is to allow designers to create paths, or draw vectors, more quickly and intuitively.
An exhaustive demonstration and review of every feature is beyond the scope of this article, but for reference, here is the full feature list for InkScribe:
- Ghost Handles
- Smart Remove Points
- Specify Corner/Smooth Points
- Distance and Angle Constraints
- Drag-reshape Segments
- Connector Mode
- Preferences – choose the way you want to work
- Panel and Annotations – quick function access
- Extensive customisation through preferences
A. InkScribe and VectorScribe Tool Box Buttons
In addition to the features discussed above, InkScribe is customizable with a very flexible settings panel which allows you to fine-tune each feature to suit your preferences. The settings panel can be a little daunting at first and will take a little effort to learn to use effectively. Maximum flexibility almost always comes at the cost of complexity and added learning time. And vice versa, simplicity usually comes at the cost of lack of flexibility. In my review of Affinity Designer, I criticized the software for the complexity of its Pen Tool preferences but what I failed to recognize at that time was how much power that gives their pen tool. There is no question that getting the maximum benefit from InkScribe will require some time and effort on your part to learn the purpose and benefit of each setting.
InkScribe Settings Panel
VectorScribe or InkScribe?
Put in short: VectorScribe is for manipulating existing vectors and InkScribe is an alternative to the pen tool for creating new vectors from scratch. There is a bit of overlap in functionality, but there is a logical pairing between the two plugins.
Okay, But How Well Do They Work?
Rather than demonstrate each feature and give an opinion, let’s focus on three of the most common use cases one is likely to encounter in icon design. Where appropriate, we will compare Adobe Illustrator’s pen tool to the same tasks in VectorScribe and/or InkScribe.
Three Use Cases
- Quickly drawing an icon from a hand-drawn sketch
- Creating complex, but smooth, continuous curves
- Cleaning up extraneous points
Electric Guitar Icon Sketch and Vector Image
I’ve chosen an icon of an electric guitar because the shape of the body provides some nice curves that are not extremely difficult to recreate but pose enough of a challenge that we can adequately evaluate a few of the VectorScribe and InkScribe features for working with paths and curves.
If we were to survey 100 icon designers, we would probably find there are 100 different ways of translating icon sketches into vector art. Using only Illustrator’s native features, there are two ways I would consider approaching this use case. The first, and my normal approach would be to use a series of ellipses to create the major shapes, then join the shapes together using the pen tool. This approach is very precise and allows me to control every curve and angle with mathematical precision, but it is also somewhat tedious and time-consuming.
Electric Guitar Icon Outlined Using Geometric Shapes
Creating An Icon Using Geometric Shapes
Converting Icon Sketches to Vector Demo 1 from Iconfinder on Vimeo.
The second, and a bit faster, method is to use the pen tool to outline the basic shape of the icon using straight line segments, then manipulate the points and segments to match the curves of the guitar body. This method is faster but since I am only guessing where each point should go, it is not as precise as the first method.
After I have roughed in the underlying geometric shapes of the icon, as depicted above, I will need to manually join all of the paths. When I’m working on a client project that consists of a few hundred icons, spending too much time vectorizing my icon designs can jeopardize my project deadline and profitability.
Creating An Icon Using The Pen Tool And Live Corners
Electric Guitar Icon Outlined Using Adobe Illustrator’s Pen Tool
In the image above, I first plotted the corner points on the middle of each major curve. It doesn’t exactly look like my guitar but as you can see in the second image, I am able to convert the straight line segments to curves by manually changing each corner point to a smooth point and dragging the curves to roughly approximate the shape of the guitar body. Once the large curves matched up with my sketch, I then used the Live Corners tool to round off the smaller concave angles. I’m pretty happy with the look of this version, so I will be interested to see if InkScribe can deliver on its promise to give me the same look, but faster and more intuitively.
So let’s take a look at drawing the same icon using InkScribe.
Creating An Icon Using InkScribe and VectorScribe
Electric Guitar Icon Outlined Using InkScribe
What I Really Like About VectorScribe and InkScribe
In this video I demonstrate a few more of the features of InkScribe and VectorScribe that I find useful.
Smart Remove (VectorScribe & InkScribe)
It will come as no surprise to veteran users of VectorScribe that the Smart Remove tool is one of the most useful features hands down. But there were several other tools I found to be worth the cost of the plugins.
Connector Mode (VectorScribe & InkScribe)
Connector Mode allows curved segments joining straight segments to remain smooth by locking the the handle in line with the straight segment. Once a handle has locked with the straight segment, you can adjust the handle’s length, thus making the curve larger or smaller, but you can’t adjust the angle of the adjoinment.
Dynamic Corners (VectorScribe)
The real beauty and usefulness of Dynamic Corners is not that you can easily add rounded corners – Illustrator’s native Live Corners allows you to do that. Dynamic Corners’ true value is that you can set a value then apply it to any corner or all selected corners with a single click.
PathScribe is another one of the more useful tools in VectorScribe. Among the long list of features, is the ability to change a straight line to a curve by simply selecting the line and dragging it, rather than needing to first convert the handles then manipulating the independently as is the case with Illustrator’s pen tool. Additionally, with PathScribe you can select and manipulate multiple handles at once. Other useful capabilities include switching from corner points to smooth points or vice versa with a single click.
Rubberband Mode (InkScribe)
Rubberband Mode allows you to see where the path between two points will be before you lay down the point. If you need to make adjustments to the corners so that your path ends up where you want it, you can do so without deselecting the last point. The value of this feature alone cannot be overstated.
What I Dislike About VectorScribe and InkScribe
Truthfully, not much. I found that VectorScribe and InkScribe had pretty much everything I was looking for and it does deliver on its promise to make working with vectors more efficient and intuitive. The few criticisms I do have are below.
For the most part, I like the annotations floating toolbox. As a primarily visual person, it’s very convenient to have the most commonly used tools within easy access of my cursor. I did find, however, that I was frequently having to move the annotations box because it would appear exactly where I wanted to lay down the next point or where I needed to manipulate an existing point. I don’t know how this could be resolved, perhaps with a Toggle Annotations keyboard shortcut.
Lack of Keyboard Shortcuts
I read through several of the blog posts on Astute Graphics’ website about shortcuts but what I expected to find was keyboard commands to switch between tools and open panels. What they are calling shortcuts seem to be more accurately described as modifiers for changing behavior modes of each of the tools. That said, settle in and take your time. There is a lot to digest, but if you are a hardcore vector artist, it is worth digesting. I would still like to have the shortcuts to switch between tools and open panels, though.
Help Menu and Documentation
Given the thoroughness and polish of the tools, I was disappointed to discover that the “Help” menu in the different VectorScribe and InkScribe panels only opened a PDF which pointed me to their website, YouTube, or Lynda.com (all very useful to be fair). This is a potential area of improvement for the product but not a detraction from the actual tools. While overwhelmingly helpful, some of the documentation, such as that on shortcuts, was a little challenging to follow. The video tutorials are, by far, the most helpful but a video is a bit of overkill when you need a quick reminder where something is or how a particular modifier works.
If you are a heavy-duty user of Adobe Illustrator, you will likely find VectorScribe and InkScribe significantly improve your workflow. I’ve outlined what I like about the plugins and a few things that, in my opinion, need improvement. The best way to judge the plugins is to do your own research, download the 14-day trial, and see how well it works for you.
I especially found Connector Mode, Rubberband, PathScribe, Smart Remove, and Dynamic Corners to be a big improvement to my icon illustration process. As with any new tool, you’ll need to spend some time learning the ins-and-outs and getting acclimated with the feel of the tool.
The true benefits of VectorScribe and InkScribe are in what they add to working with Illustrator instead of existing features they do differently such as switching between smooth or corner points or dynamic corners versus live corners. It seems that the challenge for Astute Graphics going forward will be to continue to add value to Illustrator as Adobe responds to users and adds to the native capabilities, features that used to only be available via plugins like VectorScribe and InkScribe.
I would like to extend a very sincere “Thank you” to the following people for their invaluable contributions and insight for this review: Tom Nulens (Sodafish), Hemmo de Jonge (DutchIcon), Vincent Le Moign (Webalys), Ion Popa (Popcic).
Disclosure: Nicholas van der Walle, founder and General Manager of Astute Graphics, participated in this review on a fact-checking basis. In no way, shape, or form did anyone at Astute Graphics influence our conclusions. Their participation was purely to insure the accuracy of the review and any objective statements made by Iconfinder. Both Astute Graphics and Iconfinder were adamant about avoiding any appearance of bias. We requested that any reaction to our opinions be withheld until publication and expressed publicly.
Astute Graphics was invited to fact-check the article before publication in order to avoid a similar situation to one that was encountered with our review of another popular product. In that case, inadvertent factual errors in the review lead to a very public and embarrassing row with the vendor, and that served nobody’s interests.