September 24, 2008

INTERVIEW: David Macy, Illustrator Product Manager

Now that the details of Illustrator CS4 are out in the open, I thought it would be a great opportunity to get some insight on the release straight from the source—the current product manager of Adobe Illustrator, David Macy. I've had the pleasure of meeting David on several occasions, and his enthusiasm about Illustrator and the community is clearly evident. David was more than happy to answer a few of my questions, which follow below:

MORDY: First, congratulations on the release of Illustrator CS4. Having been a product manager myself, I know how it feels when you can finally tell the world about what you've been working on for the past couple of years. If you had to pick a central theme that defines this new version, what would it be?

DAVID: Thanks Mordy. Yes it is a great feeling. The central theme of CS4 is productivity. That sounds pretty generic, but really almost all of the features we've worked on for CS4 have been about making Illustrator easier and more productive. From long-standing feature requests to some great enhancements of existing features, everything is focused on making it easier to get the job done and easier to focus on creativity.

Multiple pages-I mean multiple artboards-yay! Finally! People assumed that Illustrator would never get multiple pages because Adobe already had a multiple-page product called InDesign. What makes Illustrator's multiple artboards feature unique?

When you're working in Illustrator, you don't always start with a fixed specification for your finished product. Illustrator encourages a fluid and creative way of working, so we had to make Multiple Artboards fit that mindset. This is why it is so important to allow artboards of any size and position, even overlapping, so that you can work with them in whatever way you want without being restricted to the traditional concept of a multiple page document. If your client comes back and says "can you show me this with a different color scheme?" or "can you make this work for my website", you can easily pull this off without reworking the whole document. Even moving between artboards in Illustrator is very fluid. Yes, there's an artboard navigator on that status bar like InDesign, but you really don't even need to use it. Simply click anywhere you want to work with any selection or drawing tool and where you clicked becomes the active artboard.

To FreeHand users (I was once in that category), Illustrator CS4 offers some welcome enhancements, especially the multiple artboards and clipping mask features. Is the Illustrator team still dedicated to helping FreeHand users become more comfortable with Illustrator?

Absolutely. When Adobe announced that we would not continue development of Freehand in the spring of 2007, a lot of Freehand users were forced to make a choice about their future. There was always a rivalry between Illustrator and Freehand, so it isn't easy emotionally for people to switch. The reality is that there were some great features in Freehand that were never matched in Illustrator and users built very efficient ways of working based on some of those features. What we're trying to do is to work on improving Illustrator based on some of those concepts, and to go beyond what Freehand could do when possible. A great example in CS4 is the Appearance Panel. On top of this, we continue to make it easier to open Freehand files in Illustrator - now when you open a multiple page Freehand file, Illustrator automatically maps the pages to artboards. What is really fun is talking to people who have switched to Illustrator and hearing about some of the things that they never knew Illustrator could do.

In the past, Illustrator had a reputation of adding new features, but never really going back to refine them in subsequent versions (i.e.,gradient mesh, 3D, brushes, graphs). With an improved Appearance panel, more capable graphic styles, a revamped gradient feature, better clipping mask behavior, isolation mode, and Smart Guides in CS4, it's refreshing to see the team adding much needed polish to some of these "older" features. Is there now a dedicated effort on the Illustrator team to focus on making existing features even better?

Yes, funny that you use the word "polish". I look at Illustrator as a treasure chest - when you open it, you see many beautiful glimmering gems and gold coins at the top, but as you dig inside you find an endless assortment of wonders. Some of these amazing treasures hidden beneath the surface are in need of repair, rebuilding or simply polishing to make them into valuable prized possessions. A really good example of this is Graphic Styles. Illustrator's graphic styles are a very efficient time saver, but until now they were limited by the fact that applying a graphic style to any object would totally wipe out the original appearance of the object. Effectively this meant a lot of extra work to use graphic styles with a variety of objects. In CS4 we've polished this feature by allowing users to add a graphic style (or even multiple graphic styles) to an object without removing its original appearance. I think this refinement will turn this hidden gem into a real must-have treasure for lots of users.

One of the cool new features in Illustrator CS4 is the Blob Brush. I was particularly "drawn" to it (sorry, couldn't resist) because of how easy it was to create expressive art with my Wacom tablet. What was the inspiration behind adding the Blob Brush feature?

The Blob Brush started as part of the concept around Live Paint. The idea was to build a new kind of drawing mode where you could focus on what the artwork looks like instead of how it is constructed. Live Paint, the Eraser tool, and now the Blob Brush tool all work well together to make up this straight forward method for drawing and coloring. As these tools were built, people started to see parallels with Flash or even Photoshop and it emerged as really a different way to "paint vectors" than anything Illustrator had before. To me, one of the great things about the Blob Brush is that when you finish drawing a series of overlapping strokes you end up with one object instead of a bunch of paths that are hard to work with.

Illustrator CS4 has its share of big features, like the ability to adjust the opacity value of any color stop in a gradient. At the same time, I have come to appreciate many of the smaller features that go unmentioned in Adobe's marketing materials. For example, the Smart Guides feature allows objects to snap to each other and to guides (previous versions only allowed the cursor to snap), and you can now (finally) drag images directly from a web browser like Safari into an Illustrator document. What other "small but significant" features can users expect to find in Illustrator CS4?

Wow, this could go on for several paragraphs. I'm sure you'll have future blog entries about some of the details... a few of the important ones: Clipping Masks behave like you would expect - no more accidentally selecting clipped objects, in the Color Guide we added a nice indicator of the base color and the variation type, when you have several objects selected you can click on one of them to make it the key object for align and distribute functions and it is clearly indicated by a heavy outline, we fixed the problem of Outline Stroke creating too many points, Tiff import now supports all of the features that PSD does - layers and blend modes etc., Type On Path positioning has been improved a lot. You'll probably be better at filling out this list than I will Mordy! The great thing about these type of enhancements is that they address real problems that many users face every day, and a lot of them are reasons that the learning curve for Illustrator is steeper than it needs to be.

People are often quick to accuse Adobe of not listening to their customers. Can you talk about how the Illustrator team "tunes into the user" and keeps abreast with issues, feature requests, and the challenges Illustrator users face on a day to day basis?

I think that any company that is successful and grows based on this success becomes a target of this sort of accusation. The Illustrator team, like a lot of Adobe teams, tries to stay in touch with users through multiple channels. We read and respond to the User to User forum and blogs like yours, we have a very active and dynamic prerelease program where we share feature ideas and early builds with a small set of customers representing a broad range of markets under non-disclosure, we visit customers on-site on a regular basis, and we have a lot of interaction with Adobe's sales and support staff who are facing customers every day. In addition to this, we all use the software - many of the folks on the Illustrator team have some form of design or artistic background and we see firsthand some of the problems that users face.

Adobe Photoshop is now 64bit on Windows, and plans are to do the same for the Mac version in the future. It seems the main benefit of 64bit support is the ability to address more than 4GB of memory - something that certainly fits within the realm of Photoshop, but maybe not as much in Illustrator. Even so, are there any plans for a 64bit version of Illustrator?

Photoshop is blazing the trail for Creative Suite applications because it will see the biggest benefit, but as we've all seen the Photoshop team is also finding hurdles that they need to jump in this process. For Illustrator, it only makes sense to respond to changes in computing platforms, but as you said there will not be as much of a direct benefit for most users from a 64 bit app. So, yes we will be there eventually, but in the meantime there are a lot of other architectural areas we can focus on for performance improvement.

I have fond (and not so fond) memories of my days at Adobe. What do you enjoy most about your job as Illustrator product manager? What part do you find to be the most challenging?

The best thing is meeting Illustrator users who absolutely amaze me with there creativity, their craft, and their love of their work and Adobe products. When I look around the world at things that have been designed, regardless of the media I see so many things that Illustrator has touched and it blows me away. The most challenging thing is balancing all of the different needs that are present for different markets. Since Illustrator is used by such a diverse set of customers, it is tough to juggle all of the opportunities for product enhancement and weigh that against real limits of time and resources.

While Illustrator CS4 is about to hit the shelves, you've no doubt already started thinking about CS5 and beyond. How can we -- the Illustrator community -- help you do your job better?

Great question. Well, obviously helping to make CS4 a big success is the start! Try out the new features and talk to friends and colleagues about them, and be vocal. The more active the Illustrator community is, the easier it is to push the product forward in meaningful ways. So, discuss Illustrator on blogs, write tutorials and articles, show off your work and let people know it was done with Illustrator (or even that some parts of it were). Focus especially on talking to anyone you know that works in web design or any kind of non-traditional media and let them know how Illustrator can contribute to their projects. Support others in the community as well - when someone writes a good book about Illustrator, buy it and recommend it to friends. It is easy for people to feel jaded about a "mature" product, so if you really love Illustrator let people know it!

Beyond that, if you want to give direct input on features for "CS-Next", make sure to log requests through the Feature Request/Bug Report Form on


George Coghill said...

Great interview Mordy. Does Macy have his own Adobe blog like John Nack of Photoshop?

Also, here's the link to the bug report/feature request form over at Adobe:

Remember users, if we don't tell Adobe, they won't know what we want :)

Unknown said...

An interesting interview and an interesting perspective.

David finished by talking about Illustrator in new media. When it comes to raster art for the Web, Photoshop and Fireworks will win. But Flash is a different story. Rich graphics for a Flash project can be done better and faster in Illustrator, and exported easily; Flash's strength is in animation and interactivity. A proficiency in Illustrator should stand to any Flash developer in these competitive times.

This may extend even to AIR/Flex development. According to an O'Reilly blog, Flash CS4 integrates with Flex 4 in that it can export FXG graphics. So Illustrator, using Flash as a conduit, could create more interesting graphics or UI elements for these apps. The ability to recycle such graphics from Illustrator for documentation or marketing would also be an advantage.

ibeamcarver said...

Do I have a blog?
Not so far, but I do envy John for the fact that he's got about 6 other Product Managers working with him on Photoshop and that frees up some time for blogging. That and the fact that he's a much better writer than I am. ;-)

Unknown said...

aongus - I haven't had the time to read the O Reilly blog you mention yet, but there's no need to go from AI to FL to get to Flex. Illustrator CS4 does have the ability to save files DIRECTLY as FXG as well. In fact, just as with SVG, PDF, and EPS, you can roundtrip FXG files. In other words, design in AI, use in Flex, back out to AI for design changes, save and update in Flex.

And with Thermo on the horizon, that whole story just gets even more exciting :)

George Coghill said...

David -- Once the vector art gets recognized for it's awesomeness and usurps Photoshop in the public's eye, you'll have your team and bloggin time. :) Best to hone those writing chops now.

But seriously, for us vector geeks it's nice to hear from the team/team leader. It's interesting to us outsiders regarding the thoughts and approaches you guys take in regards to Illustrator.

I've been a fan since AI8 when I first learned the Pen tool, but since the Macromedia takeover I hear lots of grumblings from other illustrators about the Freehand features they wish they had in AI.

I'm sure you guys have a lot to juggle as far as pleasing all the segments of users to some degree -- every group thinks their requested features are the most important and the others are useless. It's interesting to hear why you guys make or need to make the decisions you do.

Thanks for the followup.

Hans Sep said...

David, don't be shy. Anyone with a PR picture like that _must_ be a great writer! ;-) Greetz.

Niklas said...

FINALLY! Took you a decade to finally add transparency to gradients. Good job! Must have been really hard.

ibeamcarver said...

hanssep - hello her greetz!

Hans Sep said...

mr macy :-) you know how to get in touch with me through your previous and my current employer. would love to meet you at an adobe event in europe!

Jean-Claude Tremblay said...

Hey! David/Mordy thanks for this interview. Very informative.