Adobe Illustrator Review 2017: More Than a Vector Graphics Tool
Review of: Adobe Illustrator CC 2017.1
Use: Vector Illustration & Layout Design
An extremely capable vector and layout creation tool
A bit expensive, better value in the full package deal
Ease of Use
Easy to start working with, but very difficult to master
Excellent tutorials available from a wide range of sources
What I like:
- Powerful Vector Creation Tools
- Flexible Workspace Layout
- Creative Cloud Integration
- GPU Acceleration Support
- Multiple Mobile App Integrations
What I dislike:
- Steep Learning Curve
Summary: Adobe Illustrator is an excellent and multi-talented vector editor. It can be used to create incredible illustrative artwork, corporate logos, page layouts, website mockups and almost anything else that you might need. The interface is clean and well-designed, and the tools are flexible, powerful and robust thanks to Illustrator's long development history.
On the downside, Illustrator can be a bit overwhelming to new users. It's easy to start learning how to use it, but it's very difficult to become a master of everything it offers. The sheer number of tools that it contains can be intimidating, and it's almost a requirement that you follow some sort of tutorial instruction when you begin using it.
Why You Should Trust Me?
Hi, my name is Thomas Boldt, and I'm a university-educated graphic designer with extensive experience working with image creation and editing software. I've been using Illustrator since the very first Creative Suite edition was released back in 2003, and I've been working with it both personally and professionally over the course of its development into the current Creative Cloud edition.
Disclaimer: Adobe provided me with no compensation or other consideration for the writing of this review, and they have had no editorial input or review of the content. It must also be noted that I'm a subscriber of the Creative Cloud (including Illustrator) beyond the purposes of this review.
What Is Adobe Illustrator?
Adobe Illustrator is an industry-standard vector graphics creation tool available for both Windows and Mac. It uses mathematically-defined paths to create outlines of shapes which then can be manipulated and combined to create the desired final image. The latest version of the program is Illustrator CC 2017.1, which is part of the Adobe Creative Cloud program suite.
Quick Sidebar: What's a vector image?
For those of you who aren't familiar with the term, there are two types of digital image: raster images and vector images. Raster images are the most common, and they're made up of grids of pixels that each have a color and brightness value - all your digital photos are raster images. Vector images are actually a series of mathematical expressions that define the shapes and color values of each element of the picture. This has a number of advantages, but the biggest one is that because a vector image is pure mathematics, it can be scaled to any size without losing quality. If you want to learn more about vector graphics, you can read more here.
Is Adobe Illustrator Free?
Adobe Illustrator is not free software, but there is a 7-day free trial available. After that, Illustrator is available as monthly subscription package in one of three formats: as a standalone program for $19.99 USD per month with a year-long commitment, $29.99 for a month-to-month subscription, or as part of the full Creative Cloud suite subscription which includes access to all of the Adobe products for $49.99 per month.
Where Can I Buy Adobe Illustrator?
Adobe Illustrator is exclusively available as a digital download from the Adobe website. Adobe has migrated all of their software offerings to a digital-only format under the Creative Cloud branding system, so it is no longer possible to buy physical copies of the software on CD or DVD. You can visit the Adobe Illustrator page here to learn more about purchasing options.
Adobe Illustrator Tutorials for Beginners
Illustrator is easy to start learning and difficult to master, but fortunately there are extensive tutorial and support resources available to help make the learning process easy. There are a lot of specific tutorials available online through a simple Google search, but they don't always use the latest version of Illustrator, and they don't always have proper explanations or best practices. Here are a few resources for beginners that show you the right way things should be done:
- Adobe's own Illustrator tutorials (free)
- Adobe Illustrator CC 2017 Introduction Quick Reference Guide
- Adobe Illustrator CC Classroom in a Book
- Lynda.com's Illustrator Essential Training (paid subscription required for full access)
- Udemy's Illustrator CC training
A Closer Look at Adobe Illustrator
Illustrator is a large program and I don't have time or space to cover everything that it can do, so I'm going to focus on the major uses of the app. One of the strengths of Illustrator is that it can be used in many different ways, so rather than simply listing its features I'll break things down by function and take a close look at the interface.
The screenshots below are taken using the Windows version of the program, but the Mac version looks almost exactly identical.
The Illustrator Workspace
Opening Illustrator gives you several options on how to proceed, but for the purposes of the screenshots here we'll just create a new 1920x1080 document using the RGB color mode.
Because Illustrator can be tweaked to match your particular goal or working style, the interface comes with a number of different layout presets. These presets can be incredibly helpful, but it's often best to customize things to match your unique personal working style. Of course, you need to get familiar with the program to know what you'll need, so the Essentials workspace preset is a good base to work from. I tend to customize mine by adding in various typography and alignment tools, but that's just a reflection of how I use the program.
In general, you've got the Tools panel on the left, options for the tool you're using across the top, and additional optional settings on the right. If you'd prefer a different layout, you can completely customize these options by dragging and dropping the various panels to wherever you'd like, or you can undock them and leave them as floating windows.
If you do this by accident, or if it turns out your new workspace doesn't work as well as you'd hoped, you can completely reset things by going to the Window menu, navigating to Workspaces and choosing the Reset option. You can create as many custom workspaces as you want, or customize any of the presets that already exist.
It should be no surprise that this is one of the major uses of Illustrator - there's a reason they named it that, after all. This is also one of the trickiest parts of Illustrator to master, depending on how complex you want your illustrations to be. If you're working with icons or emoji-style graphics, it can be quite easy to create what you want. There are a range of preset shapes you can start with and then customize, allowing you to quickly build up a cute figure in no time at all.
If you want to get into more complex illustrations, then you're going to have to come to terms with the use of the Pen tool. This is one of the most powerful tools in Illustrator, but it can also be one of the most difficult to master. The basics are easy: you create anchor points by clicking, which are then joined by lines to form a complete shape. If you click and drag while creating an anchor point, suddenly your line starts to become a curve. Each curve affects the subsequent curves, and this when things start to get tricky.
Fortunately, Illustrator now includes a specific tool for creating smooth curves, the unimaginatively named Curvature tool. This is a huge usability improvement for most pen-based drawing, although it sometimes does a bit too much hand-holding.
Of course, you can always illustrate freehand using the Paintbrush tool if you prefer, although using this tool with a mouse can be frustrating. It's most effective if you have access to a drawing tablet, which is essentially a pen-shaped mouse on a pressure sensitive surface. This accessory is a must for anyone who wants to do serious freehand work, although it is now possible to use a touchscreen tablet or smartphone with one of the Adobe mobile apps (more on them later!).
This is one of my favorite uses for Illustrator, because I don't actually do a lot of illustration in my practice except for logo work. The fact that it's incredibly easy to move objects around in Illustrator makes it a great workspace for quickly creating and comparing different versions of a logo, various typefaces and other projects where you need to develop a lot of different iterations.
Trying to do this kind of work in a layer-based app like Photoshop makes the process much slower, because you have to select the individual layer you're working on in order to customize it, and those few extra steps really mount up over time. It's possible to create layers in Illustrator too, but they're more useful as an organizational tool. Having each item as a separate object makes manipulating them quite easy, almost as simple as having physical objects on a table in front of you.
Despite being primarily intended for illustration, page layout is a great usage of Illustrator's capabilities. It doesn't work well for multi-page documents (a job where Adobe InDesign is king), but for a single page it works quite well. It has an excellent set of typographic tools included, and the fact that you can quickly select any object makes it easy to move objects around during the composition phase.
Being able to quickly select the various objects in your composition and align them with the click of a button is incredibly helpful and a huge time-saver. While Illustrator is primarily for vector graphics, it can still work effectively with raster images and incorporates them into a layout quite easily.
If you want to edit a raster image in-depth, it's as simple as selecting the image and choosing 'Edit Original'. If you've got Photoshop installed as well, it will use that as the default raster editor, and as soon as you save your edits in Photoshop the version in your Illustrator document will update immediately. This interoperability is one of the great advantages of embracing the entire Creative Cloud, although you can choose to use any other raster image editor you have installed.
These tools also make Illustrator a great option for creating website mockups, although Adobe is currently developing a new program called Adobe Comp CC. It's only available for mobile devices at the moment, however, so Illustrator is still an excellent choice for the desktop environment.
Mobile App Integrations
Adobe has been investing heavily in their mobile app development, and one of the more effective results of this is Illustrator's mobile companion app, Adobe Illustrator Draw (or just Adobe Draw for short). There are also integrations for Photoshop Sketch and Comp CC, which follow the same principles. As always, it's important to choose the right tool for the job, and Adobe has covered all the bases here.
The Draw app itself is free for both Android and iOS, and it takes full advantage of the touchscreen on your smartphone or tablet to let you create vector illustration work on the go, acting as a digital sketchbook. If you don't have access to a drawing tablet on your desktop, you can suddenly get hand-drawn objects into your Illustrator designs with ease. Creating something in the app is simple, and syncing it to your Creative Cloud account happens automatically.
It's then immediately available on your computer, and can be opened as soon as you load Illustrator. If you're already running Illustrator and have projects open, you can just tap the 'Upload' button in the mobile app then choose 'Send to Illustrator CC' and the file will quickly open in a new tab in Illustrator. Alternatively, you can save it to your Creative Cloud account and access it later.
The Reasons Behind My Ratings
Illustrator has an impressive range of options for the creation of vector graphics, typography, page layouts and more. It works seamlessly with other Creative Cloud apps and Adobe mobile apps to establish a complete image creation workflow from prototyping all the way to finished products. It has more tools than most users will ever find a use for, and the main functions are extremely well-developed.
Purchasing Illustrator as a standalone app is somewhat expensive, at $19.99 USD or $29.99 USD per month, especially when compared to the Photography plan that provides both Photoshop and Lightroom for only $9.99. There are free programs available that provide similar functions, although they are not as well supported.
Ease of Use: 4/5
Illustrator is an unusual blend of easy and difficult to use. The initial concepts need a bit of explanation, but once you get the idea, the next few steps are extremely easy. The program is well-designed and the user interface can be customized to meet the working style of almost any type of project.
Thanks to Adobe's dominance of the graphic arts world, there are a huge range of tutorials and other support information available online. I didn't experience any bugs while working with this latest version, and Adobe has an extensive troubleshooting forum with active support techs answering questions. There's also a dedicated community of other users who can provide guidance and help.
Adobe Illustrator Alternatives
CorelDRAW 2017 (Window/MacOS)
This is the latest version of Corel's long-time rival for Illustrator's industry crown, and it offers direct competition feature-for-feature. It's available as a digital download or as a physical product, but only as part of the CorelDRAW Graphics Suite 2017 package. This makes the price for accessing this one aspect a whopping $499 for a standalone copy, but the subscription price for the full suite is far cheaper than an Illustrator-only subscription at just $16.50 per month, billed annually.
Sketch (MacOS only)
Sketch is a Mac-only vector drawing tool that's working hard to appeal to graphic designers who don't want to use Illustrator. I haven't a chance to test it, since I'm a PC user, but its feature set seems to closely match Illustrator's. The user interface seems to leave something to be desired, but it may appeal to others. The price is reasonable at $99 USD for a standalone copy, which comes with a year of free updates.
Inkscape is a free, open-source vector creation tool. It claims to be 'professional', but it's hard to trust your professional time to software that hasn't even reached version 1.0 after 12 years. That being said, those 12 years haven't been wasted, and Inkscape features many of the same functions you'll find in Illustrator. You have to appreciate the time and effort donated to this project by the development community, and they are still firmly behind it - plus you sure can't argue with the price!
Adobe Illustrator is the industry-leading vector graphics creation tool for good reason. It has powerful, flexible tools that can meet almost anyone's working requirements, and functions beautifully with other Adobe apps to provide a complete image creation workflow. The mobile apps sync flawlessly, and Adobe is constantly developing new features for the entire ecosystem. The only real drawback to Illustrator is the steep learning curve, but once you master the basics you can create some incredible work. The price is a bit steep for a standalone app, but it's hard to find another program that provides the same value for money.