December 6, 2006

ASK MORDY: Learning Illustrator

The following question comes in from Jacob Brunny:

"How did you get to know so much about Illustrator?"

Before I even attempt to answer that question, I should state clearly that while I do possess a fair amount of Illustrator knowledge, I am still learning. The first key to learning Illustrator is to realize that you don't reach a point and say "now I know Illustrator". Rather, as you learn more, you realize how much more there is to learn :)

But to answer the question directly, it's a combination of a lot of things. And I should also state that I'm sure there are PLENTY of folks out there who know a lot more about Illustrator than I do. I just do my best to share what I know.

- I started out by actually USING the program. This was back when I first decided to go into the Graphic Design field on my own. I had just bought a Mac. It was a Quadra 700, and stripped (no hard drive, no RAM), it cost me $4500. I bought a copy of Canvas, and while it was a cool program, no one would output my files. So I bought FreeHand 3.1 and Illustrator 3.2 and used both of them. I ended up doing most of my work in FreeHand, but after about a year, I found myself using Illustrator exclusively. Never being one who read manuals, I spent plenty of time experimenting with different features, trying to figure it out on my own. To help out a bit, I also subscribed to a magazine called Before & After, which offered step-by-step instructions on simple but very useful projects. So even when I didn't have real work to do, I practiced using the projects.

- I got close to others who also knew the program. Back when AOL had about 100,000 members, I used to hang out in one of their vector graphics forums. That's where I first "met" the likes of Sharon Steuer, Sandee Cohen, Jean Claude Tremblay, Ted Alspach, Sree Kotay (SREE!!), and others. I learned a TON from those folks and was learnng fast enough on my own to share my own findings with them as well.

- I used the program in a real world environment. Nothing is better than actually learning on the job. I worked in art production and therefore got to touch just about everyone's files. It was also up to me to get all files to "work" when ads were being sent out to publishers, when files were being printed, etc. The company I was doing work with also started an interactive agency in the late 90's and so I also ended up learning a whole lot about the web. In fact, the first public session on Illustrator that I ever gave was at Macworld in Boston -- I think it was 1996 -- and the topic was on web design with Illustrator (we're talking about the days when the gif89a export plugin was something you could download to create gifs from PS). It was also sometime around then that I started fooling around with a program called FutureSplash which was a web-based vector format (that would eventually become Flash).

- I attended trade shows and Illustrator conferences. I got to meet some people from the product team, and had my questions answered. This gave me a much better understanding of the program and gave me ideas for pushing the envelope. At shows like Macworld and Seybold, I spent time talking with Adobe folks. Be it feature requests, bugs, or just general workflow issues, sharing information was helpful both to me and to Adobe.

- Sharon Steuer asked me to help her write her Illustrator Wow! Book. That's how I found my way onto the beta program and was able to share lots of ideas with the product team. Writing about a product also helps you get a much clearer understanding about it. It's one thing to learn how to do something. Quite another to understand it on a level so that you can teach it to others. That's when I think I really started questioning a lot of things about the product and started to really understand things on a different level.

- I was approached to write my own book on Illustrator and that just continued the learning process. I wrote my book at night and worked using Illustrator during the day. This way, I could write about my experiences of how I used Illustrator that day for real world work (which is how I still do it today).

- I read other books on Illustrator. By now, the internet was also becoming a wonderful resource, and there were plenty of places to learn more about Illustrator. Most notably, the Illustrator User to User forum on

- Then one day, the phone rang. It was my friend Ted Alspach, who was working at Adobe at the time (he had just left Extensis). He asked if I might know someone to recommend as a new product manager for Illustrator. I jokingly laughed that I could do that job. Remind me one day to tell you folks the story about my interview for the job -- great story. In any case, 3 months later, I'm sitting in my new office at Adobe. Being the product manager of Illustrator allowed me to interract with the engineers on an entirely different level. And the work that I did covered many in-depth parts of the application. Being I was a long-time user of the product, I also took a very strong interest in the features, and the technology that went into them. Most of all, part of job required that I visit customers and examine their workflows. This was mind-blowing to me because as an individual user, I had a pretty good idea in my head of how AI should be used. But I was suddenly exposed to users from all around the world (literally), and found out that there are so many different ways of using Illustrator. I learned a tremendous amount from seeing how others work, and getting feedback from them on their own ideas and issues.

- After I left Adobe, I focused on sharing my knowledge as both a trainer and a consultant. Helping clients solve their problems is a constant challenge and a learning process as well. And touring the country giving seminars exposes me to more people who use Illustrator, and allows me to learn how they use it. So the learning process definitely continues to this day.

So that's where I am now. I got to know so much about Illustrator because it's what I've been doing for most of my adult life. And because I am never satisfied with the knowledge that I have, and keep pushing for more. I've never resisted a new version of Illustrator, and usually upgrade the day a new version comes out. Sure, there are always kinks that have to be worked out, but that's just an opportunity to learn more about it. That's my take on it anyway.

Hopefully, I'll inspire others to do what I've done and take it all another step further.


Gary Spedding, Ph.D. said...

Sorry to post so many comments here - if I'm bugging you let me know. I think you are right in what you say. You have to play with the program and get a feel for it (don't be afraid to "break it") but it is also great to be able to ask questions and know who to ask (folks such as yourself). Many folks are afraid to ask but as you noted there is so much sharing of ideas going on out there. So my advise to others is to do what Mordy suggests in his essay here and let it be fun - the rest then comes easy.

Anonymous said...

Mordy Rocks

Anonymous said...

Hey, Mordy. I hear you have a great story about your interview for a certain job at Adobe. Spill the beans!

Unknown said...

Hee hee...

OK, so like I said, I get a phone call from Ted Alspach, who was then a product manager on the Illustrator team. They were looking to hire another PM, and we had joked about me taking the position, but being that I lived in NY and the positioned was based in San Jose, CA, it didn't seem realistic at all.

A few days later, Ted asked me if I could do a favor for Adobe and help staff a trade show at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Dave Burkett (Ted's boss at the time) suggested that since I was going to be so close anyway, why not stop by the San Jose office and say hello. I had never been to the Adobe offices before and so I thought it would be awesome to see it and meet the engineers that I've been speaking to for years, but never actually met.

So I drive down to San Jose from SF (about a 45 minute drive) and Ted and Dave Burkett greet me (I had met both before).

Then Ted slips me a piece of paper with a whole bunch of names on it, with times next to each name. He says "these are the people you'll be talking to on your interview today".

I was shocked! No one said anything about an interview! I wasn't prepared or anything. But I went through with it and spent the rest of the afternoon interviewing with a variety of engineering and marketing managers, all while getting to meet many of the engineers (that's when I first met Teri, etc.).

On the drive back to SF, I couldn't believe what had just happened. But a few weeks later, I was sitting at my own desk on the 11th floor.

Anonymous said...

It was interesting reading that, Mordy. Thanks for taking the time to do so. I liked the story about the interview!

Out of interest, and please ignore me if you don't want to answer this, but why did you move on from Adobe? It sounded like the dream job for you.


Unknown said...

I decided to leave Adobe because I felt that for my family, it was best to live back east in NY. Both my and my wife's extended families live on the East coast and while living in San Jose was really very nice, we're New Yorkers to the core.

It was a classic case of dream job vs. family and life priorities. It was an awesome opportunity and am thankful that I was able to partake in it. While it was tough to give up the job, I thoroughly enjoy what I do now and the freedom it offers as well.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mordy,

Understandable. This US is kind of bigger than the UK and whereas we grumble at a 30+ mile commute... ;-)

All the best,


Anonymous said...

I can't figure out where to ask a question, so I'll stick it here. Maybe you'll see it, maybe you won't.

I just watched the video tutorial "Using a blend to create an animation," and you make a blend between two balloons that basically duplicates the balloons, and then he releases the spine to a path.

A) My balloons blend into a mess, even if I specify steps. They do not look like duplicated individual balloons like his blend does.

B) I can't choose "release spine" unless I have blended a simple shape like a square. Grouped objects won't give me the option; it's just grayed out.

So what is it that I'm doing wrong?

You can reply to amazon284(at)yahoo(dot)com.

Joe Borman said...

Mordy - I'm a big fan - could you point me to a resource for taking Illustrator content into Dreamweaver?

Catherine Holmes said...

Phew! Thanks for your site Mordy, I've ventured out of Painter IX for a bit and have had a heck of a time
navigating my way through Illustrator, you've provided
an incredible compass for me as a new 'Illustrator

Anonymous said...

Hey Mordy

I just completed the essential Illustrator training at, which was fantastic by the way!, but I have a problem when it comes to resizing the area of the symbol sprayer tool. In the video you say that to enlarge or decrease the area of influence you press the bracket-keys. I'm sitting on a HP-computer (windows) and when I hit the keys with the bracket-symbols on nothing happens. Any idea why that is?


Unknown said...

Are you using the square bracket keys? The ones immediately to the right of the "P" key?

:) Mordy

Anonymous said...

Since I reinstalled Illustrator CS4 in my computer I've noticed that the vectors look pixelated, this is driving me crazy!
Some people say I should reinstall again but I'm not sure if that is a good solution.

Has this happened to anyone else? Does any one knows how to fix this???

j rez said...

I am having a problem saving to a pdf after creating and saving to cs3 illustrator. Can I get some help on this 9 layer sign bkground, clipart and text. Saved in ia perfectly but all out of artboard as a pdf.
thank you
j rez