Co.Design

Watch: How Adobe Illustrator Changed Graphic Design

A video tells the story of the revolutionary software, launched in 1987, and how it changed graphic design forever.

In the pre-Adobe Illustrator age, graphic design was a tedious, meticulous analog process: it could take a day to set one page of type, and then maybe a temperamental Rapidograph pen would explode ink all over the page. Physically cutting and pasting required actual scissors instead of just hitting ctrl-X and ctrl-V.

With the launch of Adobe Illustrator in 1987, “it was like magic,” as designer Ron Chan puts it. In this mini-documentary by Terry Hemphill that tells the story of the revolutionary software, designers like Jessica Hische, Ron Chan, Bert Monroy, and Dylan Roscover, as well as Adobe co-founder John Warnock, recount the pivotal moment when computers became indispensable design tools.

Prior to Illustrator there was PostScript, a software Warnock developed in the mid-'80s. "You could have any size type. You could squash it and stretch it. It could deal with images and graphics," Warnock says in the video. These were major breakthroughs--but PostScript could only be used by programmers. Warnock and his team began evolving a new version of the software with designers in mind. Illustrator required no coding to make drawings.

"When Illustrator went into beta, I wanted to do a drawing that would express something you absolutely couldn't program," Warnock says. "I drew on a piece of tracing paper a picture of a rose, but then executed it in Illustrator. When people saw that this was the kind of thing that you could do with Illustrator, they just went bonkers. They thought it was fantastic."

That doesn't mean it was universally embraced from the start--some industry leaders were resistant to the idea of drawing digitally. It required professionals to abandon their formal training and embrace an entirely new way of working. Skeptics questioned the quality of line--would Adobe be as sharp as their Rapidographs? As a marketing stunt, Adobe made a video of their senior design manager, Luanne Seymour Cohe, jumping out of an airplane, as a way of illustrating how scary it was to go out of your artistic comfort zone. Warnock gave skeptics personal trainings in the software--among them were artists like David Hockney, art editors at publications like Time and Life. Now, every infographic at Time Magazine is being done in Illustrator. 26 years after its inception, Adobe Illustrator is as crucial to designers as paints and brushes were to artists of yore.

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21 Comments

  • Nick Shinn

    Fontographer was introduced a year before Illustrator, with Bezier drawing tools non-programmers could use.

  • Ellen Crimi-Trent

    Man this is my life in a nutshell a 1989 Pratt Illustrator grad who had to use all those tools- I started to use the Mac in the computer lab in 87' I didn't like it much but when I worked in Children's Wear in the early 90's I had no choice and loved it! Now my illustrations are a combo of drawing and graphic using illustrator and photoshop- love this video its like 25 yrs of my life since this yr its my 25 yr college reunion!

  • Aimee Charbeneau

    I still have my Rapidographs, and in all honesty- I believe that Illustrator was the death of the REAL designers. Now any schmuck with a computer can "do graphics" and yeah, it's faster - but because of that, it's all less money that graphic designers are making if they're hourly.

    On top of this, it merged a lot of jobs into one. We lost typesetters, illustrators, keyliners, paste up artists, strippers, platemakers, copywriters, proofreaders... the list is huge. All those jobs have to be done by one person now and the money hasn't gone up since then. The last graphics job I had paid $14 an hour - that was this year. The hourly rates keep dropping. Now there are jobs advertised for $10 an hour for experienced graphic designers. In 1972, my mother made $12 as a keyliner.

    It's actually pretty sad. Not only did Adobe Illustrator screw real artists out of a lucrative job, they force you to pay them dearly and KEEP paying them dearly FOREVER.

  • Jason Edward Jones

    I totally understand what your saying. I started off as typesetter & plate maker before venturing into other fields in the industry.

    I have steadily seen wages drop and we always get the hacks that say since we can work faster and do more we deserve less pay. Well, I don't remember the power company lowering my bill any just cause they could deliver power for less than before, or gas for my car going down cause they can get it to me faster.

    It's called supply and demand and people don't realize we have the supply and the industry is full of demand. Stop cheating yourselves. Even as a Hack which I would venture the commenter making the statement about deserving less pay is. Should be charging competitive rates.

    I won't ever do graphics work for $10/hour ever. I would rather flip burgers and save my talents for my friends and family than become a low level prostitute of talent.

  • Phil Stewart

    Your argument about jobs is ridiculous. Technology moves on, the world moves on. It's like complaining that the electric light was a bad idea because it caused the mass unemployment of lamplighters.

    Adobe Illustrator making it possible for 'any schmuck with a computer (to) do graphics' is a good thing. It means that graphic art is not limited to the fortunate few. I certainly could not have my job if it weren't for Adobe Illustrator. And regarding the hourly rate dropping, the job is getting easier; more can be done in less time - so it makes sense to play less...

    I take it the 'keep paying them dearly forever' is a reference to the subscription model. Not only is it a cheaper option on the long term, but it is also the way that computer software is going nowadays...

    This is the future. Welcome.

  • The issue with Illustrator 1.X wasn't as much the quality of the program - tho 1.6 had a serious bug, but the 300dpi output of a LaserWriter was crap. You had to print things at 200% then shoot a PMT at half size to eliminate jaggies. Before they were service bureaus, most typesetters had Compugraphic equipment and they didn't have a Postscript RIP. You had to find a printer with a Linotype imagesetter who could output galley copy - no wider than 12 inches, at 1200 dpi for camera ready art. Illustrator was a great thing, but Pagemaker allowing you to place it into WYSIWYG layout was the game changer.

  • Dean Bilal

    I don't know why is it still until now we can't stretch a rounded corner rectangle without distorting the corners. Corel Draw does it.

  • Donald Reiber

    use the stylize command and the round corner will be editable until you need to flatten it.

  • Lolz...before Corel Draw, Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia Freehand there was vector based GEM Artline which ran under the same GEM GUI as Ventura Publisher, pre-dating Windows on a PC and loading via DOS. For its time quite competent and able to happily output via postscript devices...

  • mesonto

    Adobe Illustrator did a lot, but in its early days it consistently copied its best features from CorelDraw, Yes it eventually won out, but not for those smart people at Adobe but for those smart people at Corel.

  • Back in those days Mac users had to have Freehand and Illustrator to be able to do what Corel did under one roof.

    Also often forgotten was that Corel always bundled at least 100 free fonts with Draw, rising eventually to around 500 fonts, which given the rip off prices of postcript fonts for the Mac, left the professional Corel user laughing all the way to the bank...

  • Freehand was cleaner and easier to use than Illustrator. Which is why Adobe bought it, and cannibalized it.

    After Postscript, Adobe was done with innovation and stole/bought it elsewhere. Much like Microsoft.

    Still surprised that Microsoft never acquired Adobe.