Illustrator CS 2, by Adobe
Posted: 12-Apr-2006

4 1/2 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Adobe Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Diane Love Class: PRODUCTIVITY

As its name suggests, Illustrator is a vector drawing package for producing 2-D illustrations. Despite its high quality and huge feature capability, it is specialized to illustration and so it doesn't readily support organization charts, software engineering diagrams, or scale drawings.

Since the end result of using Illustrator, a vector drawing program, and Photoshop, a bitmap editing program, is in both cases a piece of visual art, how do you choose one or the other? The key is that anything you draw in a vector graphics program can be resized or reshaped non-destructively, whereas in a bitmap editing program, if you draw something and don't like it, you have to erase it and draw it again.

Illustrator was installed as a component of the Adobe Creative Suite 2 package. Installing from the CDs took around an hour, including running software updates and permission repairs. With CS2, it is now also necessary to activate the software. This involves contacting Adobe via the web or phone and entering an activation code. Activation seems to have added an extra layer of difficulty to owning software. Your capability to use the software depends on an external entity - a web contact or phone call - without which you may be unable to use your software. This can be especially frustrating after you recover from a hard disk crash or move to a new machine.

This was a particular issue for our review team's multiple activations. There are two activations allowed per product, and so with a team of 3 reviewers, we needed an exception. Initially, our activations were sorted out on the phone with minimal effort. However after one of us had a hard disk failure, this necessitated a reinstallation. The re-install required another phone call to Adobe, but this time, after spending nearly 30 minutes on the phone attempting to explain the situation, the activation was refused. Heated and frustrated, we called back awhile later, talked to a different person, and got the activation number. This demonstrates two problems.

One is the inconsistency of the activation policy. After the first two activations, the third person was able to explain the situation and get the 3rd activation. After the hard drive crash, the first person who activated the software was refused in the first phone call to Adobe. If there was consistency, the 3rd person would have been refused, thereby protecting the first two activations in cases of hard drive crashes. Now there is a worry that the next one who suffers a hard drive crash is going to risk losing their activation, thereby losing access to the software. It's all dependent upon who they talk to on the phone. There is no flexibility in terms of altering the number of activations per software license.

The other problem is simply the idea that you may purchase software (and in this case, very expensive software), and you may have to fight to gain access to it in the event of system failures or hard disk crashes. When dealing with crashes and failures, you are already going through the pain of trying to recover and reinstall everything, as well as the stress of trying to recover lost data. The last thing you want to have to deal with is having to call someone on the phone to use your software.

After installation and activation, I fired up Illustrator. It's worth noting that this application takes a non-trivial amount of time to start up as it loads every font and plugin it can find. I was disappointed to be confronted with an error message box which literally said "error in line 1". Illustrator seemed to work just fine, but I soon discovered that the help was unavailable. The second time I ran Illustrator, it started up without the error message and gave access to the help system. Over the years, going back to Photoshop 6 on Mac OS 9, I have had similar problems with the Adobe help system becoming unavailable or permissions issues on installation. It's disappointing to find this sort of thing still happening.

Learning Illustrator
Illustrator's Help function is comprehensive and contains some "getting started" tutorials as well as reference material on each function. For people who already know Illustrator and just want to know what's new for CS2, there is a wonderful Demonstrator feature which takes over Illustrator and draws for you while a voice explains what's going on.

Anyone who is already familiar with Photoshop or Adobe Elements will be right at home with the tool palettes and layering capabilities.

General drawing
Illustrator offers all the usual drawing package functions for lines, curves, rectangles and ellipses - and also less usual functions such as spirals, grids and stars of up to 1000 points. In each case, once you have selected the tool, you can either click and drag to draw the default shape or click to fill in a dialog with exact dimensions and parameters for the shape.

Every object that you draw is named and appears in the layer palette, which you can use to assign objects to layers and hide and show objects and layers.

Illustrator allows you to work at a high level of accuracy - for example you can set the drawing grid to snap to a fortieth of a millimeter or less. Practically, at maximum magnification, snapping at less than this amount isn't very different from turning off grid snap. Illustrator's default units are the printing units of picas and points but you can also use inches, centimeters or millimeters. One small disappointment is of course that you can't set Illustrator's grid so that 1 inch = 1 foot and then read off sizes in feet for room plans. You can draw room plans if you like but all scale conversions have to be done elsewhere.

You can not only vary the line thickness of the lines that you draw but also select different brush shapes and transparency to give effects more like paint as shown below.

Illustrator brushes

Tying Knots
Illustrator's concept of path has many ramifications. You can adjust the path that defines an object, convert points on the path to be corners or smooth, join objects together so that a new path bounds them all or cut the path with a scissors tool.

Here is an example of a square with four circles added (on the left) and then subtracted (on the right).

Playing with Shapes in Illustrator

In most drawing packages you can define the order of objects so that one object is on top of or underneath another. However, suppose you want to draw interlinked objects like a chain or
Celtic Knotwork? Illustrator allows you to do this by selecting part of a closed path, copying it and pasting it on top, as demonstrated below.

Interlinked objects in Illustrator

Illustrator gives precise control over text including kerning and tracking and aligning to paths. Here's an example with a drop shadow:

Typing on a Path

Illustrator allows you to define gradient fills in great detail. Below is the gradient palette set up for a multicolored radial gradient, followed by an example of applying that gradient to a star with 100 points on a black bacground.

Illustrator Gradient palette

Applying gradient to a 100-point star

Live Paint
Illustrator CS2's Live Paint function allows you to pour paint not just into closed objects, but into the shapes formed when objects intersect. This is familiar in paint programs, but groundbreaking in a draw program, since the paint flows as you move the objects relative to each other.

Demonstrated below are 3 overlapping circles which were created empty, and then the intersections filled with colors using Live Paint. As the circles are dragged into different positions, the areas of the intersections change in size, and the paint color attributed to those areas automatically adjusts for the new sizes.

Painting Intersections

Paint colors adjust to intersection changes

Using Illustrator
Getting to know Illustrator is a heady mixture of awe, delight, frustration and complexity.

It's delightful to be able to align objects using the mouse and smart guides without resorting to alignment dialogs (which are also available). Another neat feature is to be able to save different views of your work that you can then pick from a menu, allowing you to toggle between zoomed in and zoomed out.

Frustration sets in when Illustrator won't do what you know it ought to, simply because you haven't wielded the mouse in exactly the way it demands. For example, you can use the direct selection tool to reshape an object's path by clicking on the anchor points in the path, but if the object is already selected when you start, this won't work.

Complexity starts with having 3 mouse pointers and a Free Transform tool where many programs get away with one mouse pointer. In the real world, we don't have to use one hand to pick up a lump of clay and a different hand to squish it and yet another hand to pull a corner of it, but that's life with Illustrator. Another example is the big list of Photoshop filters in the Filters menu which is duplicated in the Effects menu. In the Effects menu, the filters operate in a live fashion allowing you to change settings or remove the filters after you apply them. In the Filters menu, the same filters operate in a permanent fashion, allowing you to manipulate the resulting object's new anchor points.

Adobe Illustrator is an industry standard package specialized to creating illustrations for creative media using vector graphics and text. In addition to its awesome power and accuracy, it offers a familiar interface to users of other Adobe products, such as Photoshop and Elements and a help system which can get you productive with a moderately steep learning curve. It comes with amazing type support, a lot of brushes, filters and effects, and a very impressive live paint feature. I enjoyed becoming acquainted with the software, and highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good vector graphics application.


  • Accuracy
  • Power
  • Type features
  • Brushes, filters and effects
  • Live Paint
  • Demonstrator for new features


  • Activation Process
  • Installation issues
  • Long startup time
  • No scale drawing capability
  • Quirks with mouse operations

Overall Rating:

4 1/2 out of 5 Mice