Summary and Info
While I've worked a bit with other components of the Adobe Creative Suite, I was an absolute beginner when it comes to Illustrator, and really needed a simple guide to become familiar with the interface, tools and basic strategies. While I'm primarily interested in After Effects and Premiere Pro and Photoshop, I wanted to learn Illustrator because it's one of the best ways to create some of the elements I'd want to animate in After Effects or include in my composite images in Photoshop, or use as Buttons in Encore CS5 - and if you go through any of the major training textbooks for those programs they will invariably include several elements originally created within Illustrator CS5. Still, Illustrator's not a program you can just jump into, since it's designed for precision - this is not really a free hand or free style drawing or painting program, where you just pick up a pencil and scribble or a brush and express - it's much more like a precision tool-driven drafting, design, and illustration program. Moreover, it's vector based, which means that the shapes and designs you create with it are size independent - and will have the same quality whether they're output in a small format (like on a postcard) or a huge format (like on a poster).
So I needed an introduction, and this is the one I picked. Apart from a few minor gripes, I'm quite happy with it. Unlike other software guides I've tried there's no humor here, and it's strictly business, but is straightforward and practical and clear. Some might call it dry, but what they're aiming for here and manage nicely is clarity and directness and practical impact, a thorough hands-on introduction to the basic tools and possibilities of Illustrator CS5. I've got a lot more to learn, but mostly that'll come from more doing. After working through this book, I have a pretty good idea how Illustrator CS5 works and am no longer an absolute beginner.
The basic pedagogical approach of the Classroom in a Box series is simple: tell 'em what they're going to do, tell them how to do it, then remind them what they've done (and suggest they try it again in different ways, without guidance this time). The emphasis here is on hands-on exposure, rather than explanation. That's good, in many ways, but sometimes I wish they'd tell me why a bit more often, sometimes I wish I had a bit more in the way of explanation. There's usually a bit of explanation at the beginning of each chapter, and then an exercise, and a few little explanatory tips throughout. Still, the emphasis here is on hands-on introductions to the range of tools and features of Illustrator, so that the reader can quickly get a sense of what can be done. It seems to me the basic assumption is that the whys will come later.
Each chapter leads you through the creation of one or more projects that introduce a new set of tools and strategies, from the basics of knowing how the program is set up and how to tailor it for specific needs, through using the selection and arrangement tools, creating and editing shapes, transforming objects and using the tools for drawing and painting and text, and then using layers and perspective and blending tools, and working with brushes and effects and styles and symbols. I really liked their approach in the drawing chapter, that led me through a series of exercises where I was learning to precision trace an established set of curves and lines and shapes - especially since the pen is so useful in Photoshop and After Effects and I've used it quite a bit, but I think I finally understand how to work it and get exactly the curves and lines I want. I will say in general that while occasionally I felt a bit confused when they asked me to do something I didn't understand yet, by the end of the book it was all making sense - the "whys" really did come later.
The opening chapter throws you into a fairly advanced project, and that was where I got stuck the most. Some of the options available in the Illustrator workspace are contextual, so that when I accidentally didn't follow one instruction I could be quickly lost and not know how to do what they asked me to do next. Eventually I figured things out, but it was a bit disorienting, and took a lot longer than the "one hour" they estimated, and it might have helped to have a few more helping hints explaining what to do when I didn't see the options they were asking me to use. But that's a minor gripe, because as the chapters advanced I ran into that less and less, since I was becoming familiar with the interface, and then the instructions had the advantage of leading me as quickly as possible through some very cool examples that I could easily see as applicable to real world uses of this program. The main point of the opening chapter, after all, was to get the reader into doing things quickly so I'd be excited about the possibilities before going back and mastering the basic skills. In that it succeeded quite well, and the rest of the book is more straightforward and step-by-step. The emphasis still stays with exposure over explanation, but for the most part the explanations are superfluous once you've seen how each tool works. Plus, there are several points where the book indicates resources for better understanding the tools introduced. The book comes with a CD that contains all the files needed for following along and completing each of the hands-on examples in the book. Highly recommended for beginners, and for those who are upgrading to Illustrator from an older package and want a refresher.
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