Why Illustrator plugins still have a role

Nicholas Van Der Walle

Nicholas Van Der Walle

Didn't know Adobe Illustrator plugins (opens in new tab) were a thing? You're not alone.

Adobe's most mature design heavyweight – nearing its 28th birthday – is in fact a collection of official plug-ins wrapped into one package. So it was logical that third parties were invited to extend the toolset further, thereby catering for niche requirements.

Witness Avenza's MAPublisher (opens in new tab). Need to recreate the streets and topography of downtown Chicago? Then this, in combination with Illustrator, is probably the solution for you.

But what about the mainstream needs of designers the world over? Creativity; simplicity; efficiency, to name a few. Did Adobe ever intend plug-ins to break into mainstream vector creativity tools, cheekily trying to teach the old master new tricks?

Back story

Back in 2006, way before Creative Cloud (opens in new tab) was even a glimmer in the eye of Adobe, a small but significant plug-in appeared for Adobe Illustrator. Against the backdrop of specialised solutions, Phantasm (opens in new tab) brought the control and familiarity of basic colour adjustment from the world of Photoshop directly into Illustrator. Curves? Check. Levels? Check. Hue/Saturation? Check.

In 2006, there was a direct need for better mastery of colours in Illustrator. Then a short time after, Adobe revealed Live Color – its own take on grappling with colours in vector. This demonstrated two things; Adobe weren't afraid to experiment; and they didn't always get things right.

Live Color, later named to Recolor Artwork, presented an overload to users more familiar with Photoshop's methods. Gone were the ideas of curves and histograms, replaced by a fiendish colour wheel with more spokes than is normally found on a chariot.

This is not to detract from the Illustrator team's huge achievements over the past 10+ years. Brilliantly conceived technology like Variable Width Strokes has been of huge benefit to designers and a solid base for WidthScribe (opens in new tab) to extend from.

Get more out there and faster

It is clear that the Illustrator team can conjure up new ideas. The main issue remained delays with coordinating between all programs for the next Big Creative Suite. By hopping onto the then-stampeding “Cloud” bandwagon, Adobe could overcome this.

The benefits would be huge. More releases. Quicker fixes. Lower initial cost to users. Reduced piracy. Happier investors.

Using Illustrator on Wacom

The reality of Illustrator updates has not caught up to the ideal

With this new approach, designers couldn't wait to see a new drop each month, each brandishing an inspired and devastatingly effective tool to solve all the creative woes that had landed on their desk that week.

Unfortunately, the reality has not quite caught up with this ideal. This is in no small part due to the fact the Adobe development teams have not expanded like crazy to meet these expectations. Whereas you could expect 3 major new tools or functionality in the pre-CC release cycle (typically being 18 months apart), you simply now have the same level of development broken up to two releases a year.

Has anything really changed? Not really. A little more frequency, which is welcome. The potential for swifter bug fixes. A charge being made to your card every month in fear of the lights going out.

Where does that leave plug-ins?

Exactly where we were in 2006, just more so. Since then, UK-based Astute Graphics (opens in new tab) has grown to become the leading developer of plug-ins for Illustrator. This was in no small part due to the release of the vector "Swiss Army Knife" that is VectorScribe (opens in new tab) and the mass-adoption of the free SubScribe (opens in new tab) plug-in. Plus the nine other major plug-ins all designed to help the vector creative cause.

VectorScribe icon

VectorScribe is a "Swiss Army Knife" for Illustrator

Now that the dust of the Creative Cloud transition has settled, the pros and cons of a subscription-based toolset have been marked out. The reality is that for designers, you can't get away from desktop software for professional work. Adobe Illustrator remains indispensable for many and as with any major product aiming for a broad spectrum of customers, it will be flawed in some way for the majority.

Perhaps with the advent of CC, Adobe feel that their new tools have to be even more mainstream, to the detriment of professionals? This has been argued by the reduction in finer customisation, one example being cruder accuracy control with the native Pencil Tool in recent versions.

Plug-ins remain the best way to fill the voids left by ageing tools, or even new tools which don't quite hit the mark of a designer's workflow.

Subscribe icon

The free Subscribe plug-in has seen mass adoption

And does Adobe's heightened release cycle speed negatively affect the availability of these now essential plug-ins? With Astute Graphics having freely made available the latest CC2015 plug-ins upgrade within two days of Adobe's release… no.

If you're a professional and have demanding clients and strict targets to meet, sometimes the mass-market tools just aren't enough. Then it's time to look for the sharpest tool in the store to remain competitive.

Words: Nicholas Van Der Walle

Nicholas Van Der Walle is founder and managing director at Astute Graphics (opens in new tab), which creates imaginative tools for vector designers.

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