Adobe Illustrator CS6, the dark interface rises (review)

After two years, I can review Adobe Creative Suite products again. I’m starting with Illustrator CS6. I’m going to cover not only the new features of CS6 but also the features that I find interesting, although some have been around since CS5.

When I started to review Illustrator I was charmed by the ability to draw in perspective, creates strokes with alternating thickness, the shape builder tool, the new image tracing capabilities, pattern creation, the ability to apply gradients on strokes, and last but by no means least: Illustrator’s performance.

The first thing that I would like to cover is Illustrators new interface. The interface is now dark, supports multiple workspaces, and overall just looks better. The best part of it is that you can edit the names of layers, styles, and swatches directly in the control panel. And that the character panel shows glyphs that previously required multiple clicks to access.

What I also found better about Illustrator’s CS6’s user interface is that you can control the background’s grey value to make it match the look of your tools or contrast your design.

The most spectacular improvement I found was image trace. Since Illustrator CS3 I can remember having traced images from photographs and other bitmap images. I always was mildly annoyed by the complexity of the conversion from bitmap to vector. In CS6 I found image trace to be as accurate as it gets. It’s also a lot faster.

Illustrator CS6 Image Trace

Image trace allows you to vectorise bitmap images without overloading your art board with segments and control points. Instead, you will be presented with something workable. And colours are represented a lot better as well. I tested image trace with an image of a dragon in bright colours on a dark background while selecting the high fidelity photography conversion. It was impossible to see the difference between the bitmap and the vector image!

I also tried image trace with an image of a dark grey car on a lighter grey background. This proved to be more difficult, because some areas of the background were bleeding through into the foreground. However, even then Illustrator managed to convert the image with high accuracy and amazingly few control points and paths.

One of the most appealing new features is that you can now apply a gradient to a stroke. In previous versions, you needed to create a thin box or a slender fillable object in order to apply a gradient that would look as if it were applied to a stroke. Now you can just create your stroke and make it as thick as you want in order to see the gradient that you want. In many designs it’s a more comfortable and efficient workflow.

Illustrator CS6 stroke gradient

With strokes there is also another improvement: you can now make your strokes dynamically thicker and thinner by shaping it with the variable width tool.

Illustrator CS6 width tool

Finally, I tested the perspective drawing capability which was already present in CS5 — which I haven’t been able to test. There’s only one word to describe the perspective drawing capabilities of Illustrator, and that is “Wow!”. It’s not just a perspective gird that Illustrator helps you with. It’s a complete perspective drawing environment that you find yourself in when you have activated the perspective drawing tool.

Illustrator CS6 Width tool

The perspective drawing tool will help with technical drawing but also with creating logos and other accurate drawing.

In CS6 there is one more new feature or improvement, which is not going to appeal to developers of pattern creation software. It’s the new pattern creation tool, which very much behaves as a light version of Artlandia’s SymmetryWorks plugin. While Artlandia’s is more powerful, I think most users will find the built-in feature is all they need.

Illustrator CS6 pattern feature

Another plug-in developer won’t feel this hurt: Astute Graphics. Their plug-ins still add features that simply make any version of Illustrator, including CS6, a lot more efficient still.

To conclude today’s review, I can only say that that Adobe keeps improving Illustrator with new features and changes that you couldn’t imagine. Not all new stuff will appeal to all users, but that is never possible. The new functionality in CS6, however, will make your work a lot more comfortable and a lot faster. Adobe’s Mercury Performance System certainly seemed to speed up things on my iMac.