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.