Adobe Illustrator CS3 New Features

Over the past 18 months or so Adobe has been working (and obviously working hard) to improve Illustrator in ways you probably haven't thought about. Along with fixing some minor annoyances that existed in the CS2 (12) version, they've added some beefy new features. Here, I'll go over a few of the main highlights of Illustrator CS3.

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User Interface

If you've downloaded and tried the Photoshop CS3 Public beta, you'll probably be a little familiar with the new interface - collapsable panels rather than palettes, single column tool bar if desired, pop out panel icons. All this is present in Illustrator CS3. There is one notable difference however. Illustrator CS3 offers a preference to control the tonal value of the interface. You can, globally, darken or lighten all the palettes at once.

468k Quicktime Movie showing the interface (no audio).

User Interface

These changes in the User Interface make working with a small screen much more feasible. There's no need to have palettes taking up 50% of the screen. The pop up panels make every panel readily available with a single click and then they can be set to collapse as soon as a user is finished with them. This keeps all the editing tools at the tip of the fingers while allowing maximum use of screen space at any time.

Even with a dual monitor set up the new User Interface is very effective. The single column toolbar makes better use of the the main window and giving a user almost a full screen view of their artboard.

One of the most handy new additions to the user interface are sub directories for libraries. If you use a great deal of swatch, brush, symbol, or other libraries, you've undoubtedly spent your fair share of time scrolling down a long list of libraries to find that one particular item. Illustrator CS3 makes this much easier by allowing a user to group libraries in subfolders (located on your hard drive in Adobe Illustrator CS3/Presets/). There's a new button at the bottom of all Panels which have libraries, highlighted below in red on the Swatches Panel.


Here you can see how the subfolders appear using this new panel item. It is possible to mix folders with single files. Folders simply have the arrow indicating more content is available. This sub directory listing is also carried over to each panel's flyout menu.


Obviously this serves to improve a long list of library items to a short, manageable, pop up menu

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Anchor Points and Handles

Have you ever been frustrated when trying to click an anchor point or handle only to get the alert that you've mis-clicked? Ever done this over an over trying to grab one specific handle? Ever wish you could make those anchor points or handles larger? Well, with Illustrator CS3, you can! The Illustrator team has dedicated an entire preference setting to anchors and handles, not just their size but the tolerance distance to click them.


Increasing the Tolerance setting will allow a user more room to click. If a user clicks within the tolerance distance an anchor or handle is selected. This, combined with the three preset size variations, makes selecting both anchors and handles a breeze in Illustrator CS3.

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Eraser Tool

Yes, that's right, an eraser in Illustrator. And it's completely vector-based too! It works similar to erasers in other applications, however it alters vector content on the fly rather than eliminating pixels.


244k Quicktime movie of Erasure Tool in action (no audio)

Changing the size of the Eraser Tool is similar to adjusting brush size in Photoshop - the bracket keys, [ or ], will increase or decrease the size of the eraser brush. Double-clicking the Eraser Tool will bring up a fairly familiar option window if you've every used brushes in Illustrator.

Erasure Options

These options allow you to take advantage of tablet pressure, tilt, and other dynamics by selecting options from the drop down menus.

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Color Guide

The Color Guide Panel is new to Illustrator CS3. This adds a huge amount of versatility with color -- instantly giving access to a variation of the current color based on a "Harmony." The Color Guide Panel allows you to see colors from complimentary and analogous, to shades, tints, monochromatic, triads, pentagram, and high contrast, among others. This eliminates the need for a user to find, configure, and save variation swatches for later use. This a huge time-saver.

Color Guide


Simply select one color and the Color Guide Panel instantly updates to show you the variations of that color based on your selected harmony.

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Color Groups

Color Groups are somewhat similar to a swatch library, however, they are also very different. Color Groups appear in the Swatches Panel and the Live Color Dialog (Live Color is covered more below). Color Groups can be created easily in many ways using the Swatches Panel, the Color Guide panel and the Live Color Dialog. Note the small folder icon with a plus symbol at the bottom of the Swatches Panel. Simply shift-click to select a number of swatches and then click the folder icon at the bottom of the Swatches Panel and a new Color Group is created.

Color Groups

Above there are two Color Groups located in the Swatches panel. These are indicated by the little folder icon next to the row of colors. In list view, below, the Color Groups appear as familiar folders with expand/collapse arrows.

Color List

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Live Color

It is impossible to write about Illustrator CS3 without covering Live Color - arguably the biggest new feature in this release. An entire book could be written to cover all of Live Color's options and abilities.

Live Color is swatch and artboard color management on steroids giving the ability to alter any color that is being used in a document and preview the results instantly. Don't like a particular blue in a file and it's used in several places including gradient meshes? Simply use Live Color to replace all occurrences of the blue with a color you do like. Need to convert a CMYK or RGB file to a 2 color spot job? Live Color can do that in a snap!

Live Color Icon

There are several ways to pull up the Live Color dialog. Both the Swatches and Color Guide panels contain a new icon at their base, clicking this icon will bring up the Live Color dialog. The icon will also appears in the new, more robust, Control Panel.

Edit Colors

You may also choose "Recolor Artwork..." from the relocated Edit Colors menu item in the Edit menu (formerly located in the Filters menu).

Live Color

At first, the Live Color dialog will seem very complicated and wrought with confusion. However, after a little work you'll learn to absolutely love this toolset. Don't let it scare you. Dive right in and start playing with it.

Because Live Color can be so involved, I will be writing a special page covering all the features available with this powerful tool. Check back soon for an update.

If you are interested in merely viewing a 3mb Quicktime sample, without any audio, of what Live Color can do click here.

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Control Panel

The Control Panel in Illustrator CS3 has gotten it's fair share of attention as well. It now dynamically changes to show more options when working with specific tools. This eliminates the need to find menu items. Convert anchor points, remove them, cut them, select similar objects, adjust envelope distortions, all within the Control Panel now.

Control Bar

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Live Paint's New Cursor

Here's one of those items that appears minor at first but amounts to a HUGE improvement -- a new cursor for Live Paint. As you move the Live Paint fill cursor around you'll notice 3 small color boxes hovering with the cursor. What are these? Well, they are colors from the Swatches Panel. The center box is a visual cue for the current color - this is what will be used when you click with the fill bucket. The colors to either side represent the adjacent colors in the Swatches Panel. If you wish to change to one of these colors, simply hit the left or right arrow keys on the keyboard. The colors will shift moving a new color to the center box for use.

Live Paint Cursor

This tiny little feature essentially gives a user access to all swatches on the fly. There's no need to jump up to the Swatches, Color, or Color Guide Panel and pick a color, you can simply arrow through the colors landing on the one you wish to use. Very cool little addition here.

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Type on a Path

If you've worked with Type On a Path in Illustrator CS2, it's very likely you've lost a little hair due to pulling it out by the roots. Well rejoice! Illustrator CS3 has fixed the unpredictable, jerky behavior of Type On a Path. It's now a smooth feature allowing you to easily move type through out the path without large jumps of wild positioning that we so prevalent in CS2.

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Isolation Mode

Ever been frustrated by double-clicking and entering Isolation Mode too easily in Illustrator CS2? Illustrator CS3 resolves this issue by adding a preference option to turn off the double click behavior. You can choose to only enter isolation mode via the Control Panel rather than a double click. The previous visual indicator of a double grey box around the isolation group has been replaced by an elegant, unobtrusive, breadcrumb-like feature across the top of the document.

Isolate Icon Isolation icon in Control Panel


As a user delves deeper into isolation mode, objects are faded to a lighter value, allowing the isolated object to be in focus by displaying it in full color. This is a really helpful method of indicating the focused group.

However, here lies my biggest complaint about Illustrator CS3. When using Isolation Mode in Illustrator CS2 (12) the user still has the ability to lock and hide objects, as well as view the file in Outline mode. Well, when working in Isolation Mode in CS3, the user is not permitted to lock or hide anything and Outline Mode is not available either. Visibility can be turned off for an object via the Layers Panel only. Using the menu item to hide object is not possible. There's no form of locking whatsoever, therefore don't even bother trying. The same holds true for Outline mode -- it can not be done in Isolation Mode. This is exceptionally limiting and terribly frustrating. I, personally, have resolved myself to simply not using Isolation Mode with Illustrator CS3. The Direct Selection Tool offers the ability to select objects within groups and is not bound to the constraints of the new Isolation Mode changes. The AI Team has expressed that they really hope to address the isolation limitations in a future release. I sincerely hope they do.

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Crop Area Tool

Illustrator CS3 has also added to the Crop Area tool - allowing a user to easily set multiple crop areas by holding the Option key (PC: Alt key) when drawing various areas. The Illustrator Team has also pulled the crop display from Photoshop, darkening the region outside the crop area to focus on the area being retained.


There have also been many crop presets added to both the Control Panel and Crop Options dialog.

Crop Presets

This allows a user to quickly choose a preset crop area to match a desired size, no need to set guides and measure in order to guess at sizing anymore. The Crop Area Options also allow a great deal of control over how the crop areas are displayed.

Crop Options

One thing that is simply counter-intuitive to me is how you escape the Crop Areas' display. You must switch tools to set the crop area and escape the "dimmed" view. In Photoshop, you would hit the Enter key or double-click the crop area to set it. Neither of these work in Illustrator CS3. Double-clicking or hitting the Enter key will bring up the Crop Area Options dialog. To me, this is really odd behavior, but it's not a critical thing. Simply get used to switching tools when finished with the Crop Area Tool. After all, users will most likely be switching tools anyway.

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Web Integration / kuler / knowhow

Another interesting addition to Illustrator CS3 is it's integration with Adobe world wide web applications, specifically kuler and knowhow. What does this mean? Illustrator CS3 actually accesses the web and pulls in valuable content right from within the application.

If you are familiar with kuler you know it's a color tool allowing you to configure color swatches. With the integration in Illustrator CS3, you can save your swatches at the kuler web site and access them right in Illustrator. If you aren't familiar with kuler... run and check it out, you'll love it!

kuler knowhow

knowhow is a nifty little as-you-go style help panel. As you select a tool or click an object the knowhow Panel updates to show you hints and tips. You can also use the panel to search topics to get more in-depth assistance, should you need it. Because it's tied to a web application, I imagine this gives Adobe the power to always improve and update the content without requiring an application update to do so.

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Flash Integration

Adobe has reportedly accomplished some great integration between Illustrator CS3 and Flash CS3. Copy objects directly from illustrator to Flash and retain everything - Layers, symbols, gradients, masks, anchors. All making the overall workflow much easier. To be honest I'm not a heavy Flash user so I can't comment fully on this feature. I've done some rudimentary copy and pasting, however, without being a more advanced user I can't explore the capabilities to their fullest.

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Illustrator CS3 has really boosted overall performance. It's said to be more than 300% faster than CS2 on some systems. I've not run any time-trials myself, so I have no hard and fast numbers for you. But after using the application time-trials aren't really needed to see improvement. Not only is it now Intel-Mac native, but it's faster on absolutely any platform you may be using. This isn't just Adobe hype, it's real and immediately recognizable when working with files. Whatever they did under the hood is fabulous. I had files that were sometimes agony to work with in CS2, often taking a minute or two to completely redraw. CS3 has a marked improvement in redraw as well as panning and zooming.

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Document Presets

A cluster of new Document Presets have been added the Welcome Screen as well as the new document set up dialog. This allows users to quickly open a document for various workflows - print, web, mobile devices, video.


You may ask why the "Welcome Screen" is the last item on my list when it's the first thing a user would see when launching the application. While some users may find this addition very useful, I really do not. The presets are nice, but often I don't find a great deal of use for them. If there were an easy way to save a custom document preset, then I'd find this feature more worthy of detailed coverage. As it is you pretty much get only the presets Adobe feels you need. Select a preset from the list and it opens, nothing spectacular.

There is a rather involved method in order to add new custom document presets or change existing presets on a Macintosh. More on that later.

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I haven't covered every little aspect in the upgrade. There are many more minor things that have been improved when compared to Illustrator CS2.

Overall, I find Illustrator CS3 to be an absolutely great product and well worth the upgrade cost. Ultimately purchasing and software depends upon a users workflow and their needs. However, with the addition of the the anchor point and handle adjustments, speed increases, and Live Color, I can not envision a user that would not benefit from Illustrator CS3. Yes, there are items that can be improved. But I've not found any major issues that would make me regret the purchase. My largest complaint are the restrictions present in Isolation Mode but even this is not a "deal-breaker" in my opinion. If Illustrator CS3 were a movie I'd give it 4 and three-quarter stars out of 5 and a "must see" rating.

I was exceptionally vocal about how unhappy I was with Illustrator versions 9 and 10. It seemed at that time that every new version was simply slower and worse than it's predecessor. I longed, at the time, for Illustrator 8 that was Mac OSX native (of course, I knew that would never happen.) In fact I stuck with Illustrator 8 (and Classic Mode on the Mac) in order to completely avoid versions 9 and 10. I let the CDs collect dust. I can confidently say that Adobe has turned this around. Illustrator CS1 was a solid investment. Illustrator CS2 simply improved upon CS1 - refining and adding better tools without suffering from bloat and lag. Illustrator CS3 is perhaps the best release of the application since it's inception in the early 1980s. This includes being better than the tried and true version 8.0.1. Yes. it's that good. Every user will greatly benefit from this release.

Wishes for CS4

There are a few things I would have loved to have seen in CS3. However, I understand time and budget constricts the Illustrator Team to a set path addressing a specific number of items. Obviously everyone at Adobe has worked very hard on these latest releases. It clearly shows when using the applications. I still would have loved to have seen the 3D effects get some attention, as well as the shape tools - why not a tab and pill shape a la Imageready CS2, or better yet a custom shape tool a la Photoshop CS2/3. Some perspective and isometric tools would have been nice. Symmetrical handle editing would be loved by many. Single corner rounding would be a fantastic addition. The list goes on and on. There is no telling what Adobe and the Illustrator Team has in mind for CS4 but let's hope they do as good a job in the future as they've done with Illustrator CS3.

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