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I Don't Cherish Adobe Illustrator - Harsh Criticism Deserved

I was given a tight deadline on a couple graphic design projects at work today. The assignments were handed to me mid-day, and I had to get them done before I left (Monday would probably have been fine too, but I don't mind a challenge). There's no need to get into the details of the specific tasks, but I must say I was not enjoying my selection of computer software today.

It frustrates me when an unworthy product gets undue attention when vastly superior products go virtually unnoticed. This injustice especially annoys me in regards to computer software, graphics apps in particular. For an unknown reason (money, marketing, advertising, viral infection?) Adobe has completely monopolized the graphics industry. It's seemingly expected that all professional design work should be done using a combination of Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. I use Adobe products at work every day, but for my personal projects I prefer using other software (plus I cannot afford Adobe products even if I wanted to use them - wouldn't mind having Photoshop). For far less money there are vastly superior products out there. Photoshop - the grand exception - is a great product, and I use it by choice. Illustrator and InDesign I use simply because that's all I have at my disposal at the office.

Both CorelDraw and Serif DrawPlus have far more to offer than Adobe Illustrator. Perhaps Illustrator is "powerful" and "sophisticated" (over-complicated and clunky), but I can hardly stand using it. Some of the most basic graphics manipulations are needlessly hard to approach using Illustrator.

Not everything in Adobe Illustrator is done wrong. It's a powerful graphics application, worthy of use. Its greatest weaknesses are its steeper learning curve and usability inadequacies. Here is a list of issues that particularly bug me about Adobe Illustrator, even though I know solutions for overcoming them.

Empty, Unfriendly Shell: Illustrator is a bare bones shell that offers far too few time-saving interface commodities. Normally self-explanatory tools are needlessly complicated. Perhaps it is well-coded and creates nice looking results for those willing to invest the extra time (I do generally like the cleanness of certain modules). Nevertheless, if time is truly money, why not save a buck (or thousands) and use another more efficient and friendly tool? Why do competing products get labeled as "for hobbyists", "for beginners", "for those on a tight budget", when the truth is that they are better products regardless of their refreshingly reasonable price tags? If a product can produce the same or better result while saving a hobbyist both time and money, should the professional instead punish himself by using what his industry considers "the standard"? It's possible that Adobe has created for themselves a perceived value simply through their horribly high prices. People assume that to get the best, you have to pay the most. Then, with all these riches, Adobe is able to hire resources to theoretically produce a better product. But money cannot buy passion. A passion for money on the other hand can effectively squash the potential for producing a good product that is connected with the concerns of the end user (my proverb for the month).

Object Selection: Selecting objects (doesn't get any more basic than that) is a nightmarish chore in Illustrator. I am amazed each time I target a particular object with a mouse click, and a completely different object is selected, sometimes so far away it defies reason. Invariably, the wrong object is selected - the one on top, with an effective clicking zone far outside its bounding box - nowhere near where I clicked. It's like those old, horribly programmed games with stupid box-based collision detection: even though you jump far over an enemy to avoid it, you sustain damage because your character's huge invisible box hits the enemy's huge invisible box! Selecting objects that are at all obstructed from view by other objects is impossible with mouse-clicks (pen taps in my case) alone in Illustrator. The common sense object selection found in all other competing software is as follows: if a single pixel of an object is visible in the viewport, the object can be selected by clicking that bit. Serif takes it one step further in DrawPlus by allowing completely hidden objects to be selected by cycling subsequent clicks through all objects that occupy the space where clicked, starting with the topmost object (Hello! Superior usability!).

Node Selection: Selecting individual nodes on a curve in Illustrator is frustrating and sometimes impossible. Not only are the node handles way too small, but most of the time a click on the object selects the curve rather than the individual node as desired. Sometimes the focus jumps to a completely different object, rather than granting preference to the currently selected one when working with nodes (DUMB!).

Object Transparency: There is no essential transparency tool in Illustrator. It seems at first glance an object can only have flat, unvarying transparency. For no reason at all, one has to create a separate transparency object and use it as an opacity mask in order to create varying transparency. This is an absurd complication.

Color & Stroke Selection: Changing the color or stroke attributes of an object is an atrocious affair. Even these, the most basic of operations, are complicated in Illustrator.

Boolean Operations: A great example of Illustrator's cryptic behavior can be seen when trying to join two or more vector objects so that their outlines combine into one unified shape. This type of operation is commonly referred to as a "boolean" operation, a "join", or a "weld". All programs have always had this feature from day one. It's clearly labeled and easy to use. Illustrator has never had this feature. Joining objects is a tedious, multi-step process. The names of the tools involved have little or nothing to do with common sense, so at first glance it seems the functionality doesn't even exist. This is a common theme in Illustrator: though it may be able to do most anything, finding out where and how to do it is no easy task. Once the odd methods are mastered, productivity still suffers because the operations are not well-conceived or require more clicks than the obvious straightforward methods competitors employ.

Tool and Style Presets: Time saving and creativity enhancing presets for object styles, brushes and other tools are so few in number, I wonder why they are included at all.

Effects and Filters: The whole concept of object effects and filters within Illustrator is befuddling. By the time a user finally finds the effect they are looking for in the cryptic menus, it's likely it will be grayed out because the wrong class of object is selected. This is not explained at all in the structure of the menus or by employing common sense. You just have to know after beating your head against it for a while!

Textures: Useful texture fills are nonexistent in Illustrator - the few bitmaps offered are overused and useless at the same time. CorelDraw has included infinite mathematically calculated (procedural) and marvelously varied texture fills since version 3 in 1992. To create a beautiful and ornate texture in Corel, click a button. The same texture would take several hours to accomplish in Illustrator - no wait, it's not even possible to create them in Illustrator! Perhaps they have a contract with major photo houses. They don't want to include anything useful with their software, risking to take away from the success of companies that sell photos and textures. I can't think of a "good" reason to include so little useful media, especially variable media that won't get overused and stale.

Behind the Times and Overpriced: For numerous objective, real-world industry reasons the latest version of Adobe Illustrator pales in comparison to what other companies were doing well over ten years ago! And the other superior products are a fraction of the price of Adobe products!

Inefficient and Complicated User Experience: When I'm using Adobe Illustrator I feel like I'm a cross between a snail and a turtle. To create graphical effects that take seconds or minutes in other programs, I have to rack my brain to find any way at all to do it in Illustrator. Out of all the major (and minor) vector illustration applications I have used, Illustrator has the worst interface and initial user experience (aside possibly from Flash - now an Adobe product as irony would have it).

This list of Adobe Illustrator's shortcomings is nowhere near to being complete. I simply touched on the reasons for annoyance fresh in my mind from today's experience (it's a brand-new annoyance each and every time!). Even though I'm a little perturbed at Corel's gone-sour business practices and strategies (buying out countless promising competitors, absorbing their titles and selling them alongside their equivalent, pre-existing applications - and drastically slowing significant improvement to all of them, combining nothing so you have to buy them all... don't get me started on this topic!), I can't help but notice they create a vastly superior vector illustration tool. Serif too, has long been in the game with their DrawPlus. DrawPlus X2, the latest release to date, offers most of the time saving and sophisticated tools veterans expect to find and some of Serif's own uniquely superior ingenuity while somehow simultaneously retaining ease of use that beginners can appreciate. While I hope for Serif's continued success and have great expectations for ongoing and unparalleled innovation, too much success is a high risk. Too much success will make them a likely candidate for a buyout, or if they refuse the money they may eventually become the next detached giant. Then I'd be back at square one, looking for something fresh and relevant.

So did I finish my tasks today at work? Yes. Did I end up using Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign (I don't have quite as many woes with InDesign, but it's no gem either) to do it? Yes, yes and yes - but barely "in time"! I stayed an hour late and was forced to shirk some of my other less urgent responsibilities. The whole time I was thinking, "If I had Serif DrawPlus or CorelDraw here I could create this effect in one swipe and a couple clicks!" In the end, not only did I spend too much time fiddling with a simple graphical element, but I didn't like how that piece turned out, so I covered half of it!

The annoying fact of the matter is that I am very hesitant to suggest the purchase of non-Adobe software, even though I'd love for these other software companies to get well-deserved money. 1) Many people falsely assume that Adobe products are superior and worth the expenditure. 2) When I already "have" Adobe stuff to use, suggesting other software feels ungrateful, since the money has already been forked out to get "the best". While buying the other products would save money, once you buy something, not buying other "duplicates" is perhaps the primary way to save money. Though it's quite possible that time saved using other products could make up for the extra expenditure. 3) It may be assumed I don't know what I'm talking about by suggesting unfamiliar titles when I already have "the best". 4) Because of the unfortunate lacking popularity of superior products, if I ever leave the company, these better tools would probably go unused when the next guy sees the sickly popular Adobe products at his/her disposal, not giving the others a fighting chance. Not only would that be a shame, but it would make me feel bad for suggesting the purchase just for my sake.

Blah blah blah, I could talk about this stuff forever, and it's really boring for everyone else. THE END!

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