Adobe Illustrator has reigned over vector drawing applications since its release in 1987, quickly becoming one of Adobe’s trifecta of industry-standard graphic design tools alongside Photoshop and InDesign. Adding to the software’s already-excellent collection of capabilities, Adobe’s significant 2018 release introduces several new features and enhancements that are sure to delight creatives. Highlights include the improved Properties panel, the Puppet Warp tool, custom sizing for anchor points, and performance improvements.
In previous updates, Adobe has improved interoperability between the program’s desktop and mobile siblings with shared Libraries. The company also recently integrated and updated Adobe Stock, which now includes design templates as well as vector illustration and photographs. Despite some competition in the vector-based graphics space—Concept Draw Pro, Affinity Designer, CorelDraw, Sketch, and InkPad, to name a few—Illustrator remains the market-leading vector drawing software thanks to its unrivaled toolset, sweeping capabilities, and integration with the Creative Cloud Suite.
What’s New in Illustrator for 2018?
Illustrator’s latest additions and tweaks do not disappoint. Here are a few of the most compelling highlights, some of which merit further discussion later in this review:
- The Properties Panel now gives context-sensitive info and options about the currently selected object.
- You can now increase the size of on-screen controls, including anchor points, handles, and bounding boxes, which makes them a lot easier to adjust.
- For users who have ever wanted to tweak or rotate a portion of an illustration without distorting the whole thing, the new Puppet Warp tool gives you the power to do so in an intuitive and natural-looking way.
- Move over PostScript (PS): Multiple Master (MM), TrueType (TT), OpenType (OT), and Variable (var) fonts are here!
- The app now supports Microsoft’s Surface Dial.
- It also adds support for CSV and XML in the Variables Panel.
- You can now import multipage PDFs in one operation.
- You can use the software to browse Dropbox files without downloading them.
Price and System Requirements
Adobe Illustrator CC is only available through a Creative Cloud subscription; Illustrator as a standalone app costs $19.99 per month with an annual commitment, or $29.99 on a month-to-month basis. The full suite, including InDesign, Photoshop, Premiere Pro, and the rest, costs $49.99 per month. A free seven-day trial lets you test the software out with no commitment (and requires no credit card information).
Illustrator is compatible with both Windows (7 SP1, 8.1, and Windows 10) and macOS (10.11 and later). For either platform, you need a reliable internet connection to download and register the programs. You can work offline, but you need an internet connection for membership validation and access to some online services. You can find a complete list of the system requirements for Adobe Illustrator CC on Adobe’s site.
If you’re thinking of leaving Adobe behind because it has gotten rid of the single perpetual license option, CorelDraw Graphics Suite ($499; or $198 per year for a subscription) is the alternative to explore. It’s for Windows only, though. For that price, you get six pieces: CorelDraw, Photo-Paint, PowerTrace, Connect, Website Creator, and Capture. CorelDRAW and Photo-Paint are the two primary applications. The first is a vector and illustration program. The second is an image-editing program. The other pieces are essentially utilities. Corel still offers a shrink-wrapped product, which is preferable for anyone with a spotty internet connection. You can also buy a perpetual single license and download a local copy of CorelDraw.
Is Creative Cloud a Good Deal?
All things considered Creative Cloud is an excellent deal. While I understand the reluctance to getting locked into software subscriptions, there is no denying that membership has its advantages. In return for your annual payment for full Creative Cloud, you get access to all Adobe’s ever-expanding collection of pro applications (and even some betas). This inspires me to keep up my knowledge of emerging trends, technology, and capabilities.
Even if some apps included with my subscription are built for work (and play) outside my expertise, I get to fool around and discover fascinating new tools. With nearly 30 apps for video, audio and motion graphics, web design, 2- and 3-D compositing, game design, and the new UI/UX prototype and design tool called Adobe XD, there is plenty to sate the most curious explorer. Plus, as soon as Adobe releases them, instant updates are yours with just a click. There’s no more agonizing between saving money but falling behind on the latest features and being wiped out by an annual thousand-dollar purchase that allows you to stay current.
Vector vs. Raster
For the uninitiated, let’s identify the key differences between vector and raster graphics. Vector graphics, defined by points, lines, and Boolean curves, are advantageous in that you can enlarge them infinitely without loss of resolution. This is key when you are designing a huge billboard or other large graphics where scalability is a requisite for success. A second advantage of designing with vectors is that files tend to be much smaller than their raster counterparts.
Vector graphics (left) are defined by lines and curves, while raster graphics (right) are defined by pixels.
Conversely, raster-based artwork like that created in Photoshop is defined by pixels. When you enlarge or zoom in on raster art, the pixels enlarge too, resulting in visible pixelation, or chunkiness with ragged edges. Also, large raster artwork produces enormous files.
When your work includes logo design, typography, or illustration, Adobe Illustrator is a must in your arsenal. It’s the tool for creating simple drawings, maps, complex technical illustrations, iconography, interesting charts and diagrams, information graphics, fine typography—and even business card or invitation layouts and mechanical art. What’s more, you can export your files in a variety of formats intended for use in print, web, mobile, interactive, app design, and video projects.
Workspace and Tools
If you have worked with InDesign or Photoshop, Illustrator’s environment (robust toolbars and panels, and contextual menus) should be reasonably familiar. You can customize the recently modernized, flattened interface with options from dark to light gray. Palettes and menus snap to any configuration that pleases you. When you have your screen perfectly composed with your favorite preferences, defaults, menu organization, and positions, it’s good to know that you can save your workspace and later clean up palette clutter by returning to that exact configuration whenever you like.
I appreciate that the software lets you assign custom key commands, which allows you to further optimize your workflow for any kind of project. In fact, Illustrator ships with customized workspace options specifically suited to disciplines such as layout, printing and proofing, typography and web, and a new Essentials space that highlights the 2018 enhancements and additions. Fear not, you can still access the previous Essentials setup.
Illustrator supports multiple, repositionable pages, called artboards. You can size these using Illustrator’s myriad presets, cut them down to size with the Crop tool, or define the width and height values yourself. With the 2018 version, you have more artboard control than ever before with enhancements to positioning and arranging, as well as an increase in the maximum number of boards allowed.
Appearance and New Properties Panels
Although it’s mixed in with other less powerful tools, the unassuming Appearance panel constitutes the backbone and muscle of your workspace. Appearance is arguably the most underappreciated of Illustrator’s default panels—but I consider this tool my information control tower. With the Appearance Panel, you have full command over every aspect of an object’s or group’s attributes including basic fills, stroke color and size, opacity, and blending mode. But where the panel really impresses is when you work with complex operations like creating multiple strokes, adjusting Illustrator Effects (such as glows, feathers, and drop shadows), and reordering or toggling effects layers.
The New Properties Panel appears in the Essentials workspace and when you choose Properties from the Window menu. It shows frequently needed tools based on the current context, meaning it changes what it displays depending on what you select. It’s a nice touch, and I could see it being useful for designers, but if you would rather stick with your tried and true approach, you can switch back to the Essentials Classic workspace.
Illustrator’s eight tool categories allow you to get the job done, and they inspire exploration, too. I recommend beginners do just that—explore the tools and their submenus before embarking on a project that’s due tomorrow. This many specialty tools and subtools can be daunting at first glance.
By default, Illustrator shows five selection tools, each designed to choose specific types of objects, groups, paths, and points—and you can get even more precise control via the Preferences menu. A dream-come-true for hard-working eyeballs is the preferences addition of custom sizing for anchor points and handles. Until now, no matter how high you magnified your view, the anchor points remained painfully small.
The program’s 18 trawing tools are sure to satisfy. Among them is the invaluable new Pixel Perfect tool which aids in creating crisp web-destined graphics with pixels that align along a grid. New in the 2018 release is the Puppet Warp tool, which gives you a way to make minor adjustments without having to select lots of points and move each separately. The tool allows for more holistic complex-shape editing by creating a triangulated mesh envelope around your selection that allows you to lock certain zones while manipulating adjacent areas, rather than having to do so point by point.
Working with complex typography is a pleasure with six type tools, including the revolutionary Touch Type tool, which allows repositioning, rotation, and scaling of individual letters within live text blocks. Now typographers can assign OpenType alternate styles to a text block.
Artists will enjoy playing with eight paint tools, including the Live Paint tool, which fills the need for the current coloring book craze by allowing users to color fill shapes simply by clicking in them. The Brush tool allows you to create custom brushes (Pattern, Art, Scatter, Calligraphic or Bristle), a feature that becomes even more awesome when you realize that you can create unexpected shapes by replacing polygon and ellipse strokes with a custom brush.
Related to the paint tools is the delightful Symbol Sprayer tool with its seven variants. You can assign a symbol you created—let’s use a star for this example—to become the paint, and the tool sprays stars. With the Sprayer’s sub-tools you can control the density of spray, randomness, color variation, size variation, and individual rotation of the stars with the aptly named Styler, Shifter, Scruncher, Screener, Sizer, Spinner, and Stain tools.
Illustrator promises power and the reshaping and transformation tools feel quite satisfying as you manipulate your work in every way imaginable, like shape blending, morphing, warping, twisting, shearing, tweaking, puckering, and bloating. With five slicing and cutting tools, you get ultra-fine control over lines and shapes with the Pathfinder tab, which performs operations like unite, exclude, intersect, merge, and divide. Try experimenting with these different functions for often-unexpected results.
Considering the popularity of data visualization and information graphics, Illustrator satisfies with nine graphing tools that allow you to get down to business. It lets you transform your data with an adequate variety of graph types, including the more common bar and pie charts, and also scatter and radar charts. I’m eager to see if anyone comes up with scripts to help create unconventional graphs like tree maps, network diagrams or bubble maps, which are more adept at displaying complex data.
Hottest Features for Work, Fun, and Experimentation
Precision Drawing. Illustrator was born for this more than for its other abilities. Amenities like perspective grids scaffold the foundation of perspective drawing and create dimensional lettering effects, while axonometric angle constraints save time and minimize frustration. Layers help organize and isolate components of your illustration for easy access when making edits or for variable overlays. Finally, although it takes a bit of practice to master, the Pen tool is your go-to for creating beautiful vector paths, Bezier curves, defining anchor points, and coaxing handles.
Copy & Paste and File Export. With so many potential asset destinations within each project, you only get the best final product if you supply the optimum file type to your colleagues and vendors. Of course, with other CC apps on your desktop, you can copy and paste into and out of Illustrator—or even drag. But I enjoy being able to trust Illustrator’s wide range of file type conversions which include export for print, web, and mobile in formats such as AutoCAD, BMP, CSS, JPEG, PDF, PNG, SVG, TIFF, and more.
Type Wrangling. As a typographer, I find a lot to love when working with type in Illustrator—especially now that Adobe has not only integrated InDesign’s easy OpenType glyph chooser pop-down. New in Illustrator 2018, you can assign alternates to entire text blocks rather than having to assign glyphs one character at a time. All you do is highlight a character and select from the alternates options pop-down. For example, if you highlight the numeral 5 (depending on the typeface), you can choose from superscript, subscript, tabular, old style, denominator, numerator, case sensitive, small caps, and other alternates.
Illustrator also borrows from InDesign’s professional character and paragraph formatting options. The addition of Touch Type tool, described above, a Glyphs window and support for Asian (horizontal and vertical), Indic, Arabic, and Hebrew languages makes working with type in Illustrator a stellar experience. The only type-related disappointment is an anemic spellchecker.
Another happy capability built into 2018 is the new variable type which feels like a smart new buildout of Adobe’s Multiple Master technology of yore. Six typefaces in the new var format come installed in the 2018 upgrade: Acumin, Minion, Myriad, Source code, Source Sans, and Source Serif. What’s great about variable fonts is that in Illustrator, you can precisely control width (condensed or extended), weight (thin to black) and slant with the software’s new sliders—it’s like getting 30 fonts in one typeface. Something to note here is that the slant is like an oblique, and is not a true italic.
Automation. Graphic Styles in Illustrator are akin to Photoshop’s Styles—they are one-click mechanisms that automate the application of attributes to an object or type in a single step. In Illustrator, these attributes can be something as simple as a slight drop shadow or as complex as a seven-layer stroke with offsets, feathering and an inner glow, for example. Note that in Illustrator, shadows and glows are made from stepped gradations of solid colors that simulate a blur.
A great way to understand building and using Graphic Styles is to select an object with a Graphic Style applied to it and examine the Appearance Panel. There you will see each of the attribute layers that combine to generate the Graphic Style’s effect. To further automate your process, you can deploy a bounty of Photoshop-style Action presets or make your own.
In terms of convenience, automatically having assets wherever you need them is great. In CC Libraries, users now have access to their palettes, styles, and even blocks of copy from whichever CC application they are using.
Libraries and Mobile Apps
Creative Cloud Libraries keep your project assets from CC desktop apps and CC mobile apps at your fingertips for easy integration between the apps. New in CC 2018 is the ability to keep handy often-used text blocks like taglines or disclaimers.
Integration with Adobe mobile App cousins—including Capture CC, Illustrator Draw CC, Sketch CC—is a treat. These iOS apps are surprisingly simple to use, and worth a serious look. For instance, you can be on the train to work and create a custom brush on your iPhone by taking a snap of anything interesting and let Capture do its magic. Once you get to work and open Illustrator on your desktop, that brush you made on the train awaits in your CC Library—ready to use in any project.
Everyone benefits from a streamlined professional process; with Creative Cloud, collaboration with team members and clients is easy with shared and private assets and libraries.
Also with your subscription comes Typekit, Adobe’s well-populated library of typeface families for print and web. Just choose your fonts and sync to your desktop (or grab code for your site). The only drawback here is that when you collect for output, Illustrator does not copy Typekit fonts in the packaged folder—your printer or service bureau must have a CC subscription too. Of course, if you don’t have a type-heavy, multipage document, you can go ahead and convert type to outline to get around the problem.
In addition to the goodies above, with CC for Teams, your enterprise gets a team website, premium fonts, 100 GB of cloud storage for collaboration, dedicated 24/7 technical support, shared Adobe Stock plans, streamlined management, the ability to reassign licenses (this is fantastic for dynamic staffing situations), a web-based admin console, consolidated billing, and purchase orders. There are also targeted plans for students, teachers, schools, and universities.
Design Wish List
No software is perfect—and even the beloved Adobe Illustrator has some fans hoping for a variety of new or enhanced features. Here are some of my wishes for built-in features (a few of which are met by the plugins mentioned above):
• Numeric handle adjustments would be a nice touch, along with the ability to symmetrically synchronize movement of more than two point handles.
• Having a hybrid rotate-and-reflect tool with a variable axis number would be awesome for making interesting patterns and shapes including mandalas, snowflakes, and interlocking shape rotation like those you see in many Japanese family crests. Taking the rotate-and-reflect idea a little further, for complex geometric pattern making (think of the stunning Islamic tessellations), a way to draw precise complex geometric multi-symmetries and polygons with user-determined angle measurements. These features could be part of a new, more robust pattern-making tool that incorporates the 17 types of symmetry!
• As I mentioned, with the popularity of graphing big data, we are seeing many interesting new ways to visualize information. But big data requires the big computing power of algorithms. At the least, I’d like a more flexible tool for making inventive graphs and data images.
• While I appreciate Adobe’s efforts, a lot of folks would be pleased to have uniform key commands for Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator. And speaking of Photoshop, it would be great if Illustrator had a similar history panel that allowed you to hop back to a certain state.
Queen of the Vector
Adobe Illustrator CC is essential for any serious designer’s or artist’s software collection—with it you can create vector solutions for any challenge. What’s more, by being curious and taking advantage of Illustrator’s generous expansion capability, you can turn the application into a personalized digital dream world. With steady use and inquisitive inspection, the multitude of tools, menus, palettes, pull-downs, and features become second nature and Illustrator feels like an unconscious extension of your mind. Adobe Illustrator is the clear PCMag Editors’ Choice for vector graphics design.