Technology and Design: Adobe Illustrator

This topic might do well for another little series. I have been thinking a great deal lately about how the role technology plays in two-dimensional design. This is mostly because I am highly interested in design, but don’t consider myself a very skilled draftsman. But technology allows me to be a designer without cultivating the physical skills that were necessary for creating two-dimensional artwork throughout history: steady hands, consistent linework, good penmanship, etc. In my exploration and practice, the tool that has freed me the most is Adobe Illustrator.

Adobe Illustrator was a marvel when it was introduced in the late 1980’s. Back then it was only available for the Apple Macintosh, which wasn’t a common household item back then. One major innovation, without which Illustrator would not have been possible, is actually something most users today don’t notice: PostScript. PostScript is a universal coding language that allows computers to produce instructions for any printer to create shapes and designs on a page. The implication for graphic design was that text and figures could be scaled and manipulated without distortion and directly communicated to printers. This was the birth of modern vector graphics.

Some context for those outside of the digital design world: Vector graphics are defined by mathematical formulas and codes. The result is that the graphic can be easily adjusted and scaled without introducing any distortion. Pixel-based graphics like photos are called bitmap graphics. If you’ve ever scaled a photo and seen it become pixelated, you’ve experienced one pitfall of bitmap graphics.

Bottle illustration zoomed in at 7x magnification as a vector and as a bitmap to show the contrast in pixelation of scaled bitmap images verses no pixelation in scaled vectors.
Vector graphics scale up without distortion while bitmap graphics become pixelated at larger sizes. Image by Darth Stabro at Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By contrast, you can make the font in a document as large as you want, and it will remain crisp and clear. This is the power of vector graphics. When PostScript was introduced, it radically changed the graphic design world… eventually. There was one major problem: Unless you were a coding wizard, you had no access to PostScript. There were no user-friendly applications to run it.

Enter Adobe Illustrator. John Warnock, one of the inventors of Adobe Illustrator, made a video in 1987 showing off some of the tools it had to offer. It looks rudimentary compared to modern day graphics technology, but these developments were unheard of at this time. Illustrator allowed you to click and drag points to generate curves, dictate properties of those curves, and move and adjust whole shapes. Designs in Illustrator could be printed at billboard size or on a business card with no distortion or pixelation. This was the birthplace of desktop publishing. After some excellent marketing, major publications started using Illustrator for graphics, and as computers entered more and more offices and homes, the technology spread.

Today, Illustrator has many more features than it did in 1987. Even for somebody with moderate skill (like me), it’s possible to produce stunning graphics including gradients, text, and a wild array of effects to manipulate simple shapes into far more complex layouts than the simple artwork created by the first edition of Illustrator.

Yellow and orange background with purple and pink viruses bursting through a crack in the center of the page.
Macrophages bursting forth from a cell! Exciting stuff! Especially in vector format.

For example, in this illustration I only drew one virus. Illustrator allowed me to spray the page with them and tweak their direction and position to create a whole swarm of them. This would have been hours of work to produce as a traditional drawing, and likely impossible with early versions of Illustrator without crashing the computer.

There are certainly pitfalls to Illustrator, namely the monopoly-fuelled pricing of Adobe’s products, but the visual language and techniques they introduced cannot be undervalued. Even free vector editors like Inkscape or Vectr benefit from the innovation of Adobe in the 1980’s. While I may never work as a professional graphic designer, thanks to modern technology, anybody can be a designer. Of course, the fear may be that if everybody is a designer, nobody is. But as John Warnock himself said in a short documentary on Adobe Illustrator… “The cream rises to the top. The creativity is in the designer.” As it has since the printing press, technology fuels design and introduces new tools and techniques, but technology does not create design.

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