Drawing Conclusions

Introduction

Adobe Illustrator was the first advanced program I learned to use. Coming from an architectural drafting experience, I found that Illustrator was a far better match for my brain, skill and disposition than image editors like Photoshop.

Illustrator’s age and feature set, as well as it’s integration with graphic Adobe’s Creative Suite have made it the de facto gold standard of drawing applications at the present time. You may think (as I do) that it could be better, or that Freehand (which you are still using and will never stop using until they pry the mouse from your cold dead fingers) was always a better choice (one word: bezigon), but as vector apps go, Illustrator is considered by many to be the epitome of drawing and illustration apps.

So are there alternatives? And if there are, how do they stack up?

Well, being the obsessive software aficionado that I am, I set about finding out. There are alternatives. Fully 13 of them. And as to how they stack up, I am afraid I can only report on a handful of them, because well, there are only so many hours in a day, and I have already used more than my fair share. In fact I may have used yours too, for which I apologize.

Here’s a review and comparison of some modern vector drawing tools on Mac OS X, which I have done my best to analyse and render an opinion.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
Selection Criteria
Testing
Focus + Stated Goals
Installation + Updating
Icons
User Interface
Overview
Workspace
Preferences
Toolset
Comparing Pens
Comparing Shape Tools
Text Tools
Gradient Tools
Unique Features
Comparing Effects
Effects, CoreImage, and design applications
Using Effects
Memory + Performance
Exporting + Importing
Scripting + Plug-ins
Tonight’s Verdict
Final Thoughts
Linkage

Selection Criteria

In order to get the long list of candidates into a short list of contenders, I decided that the applications I would review would be native Mac OS X applications and exist only on Mac OS X. That decision took Canvas 11, Sketsa, Cenon, and Inkscape off the list. Priced under US$100. That eliminated design veteran Create 14. Primarily focused on drawing and illustration work. Well, sorry OmniGraffle. Two of the apps have really crappy websites. They’re out.

Five.

Out of these, I know that two are staying, they’re award winners. One took an Apple Design Award in 2006 and the other Best of Show Macworld 2008. But I’m gonna need to get this down to four or three.

So it’s back to the websites, and I am looking for a reason to eliminate one of the contenders. Maybe two if it’s obvious.

But it isn’t.

So after a lot of website reading and screwing around with some apps I decide to take WouldjaDraw off the table and keep Intaglio in the running. The deciding factor was the fact that Intaglio could read and write SVG and EPS as well as vector based PDF.

So here’s the breakdown:

In

Out

  • Canvas 11 – too expensive (also Windows only. I was recalling Canvas X whcih the last time I used was $349US. Apparently there is no current Mac version of Canvas. Thanks to my readers who pointed this out.)
  • Cenon – Linux/GNUStep
  • Create 14 – too expensive
  • DoodleCAD – the website and the wood grain title bars
  • EazyDraw – the website is a disaster (and so it the palette frenzy you can see in the screenshots)
  • Inkscape – Linux/Unix/Windows
  • OmniGraffle – Primarily for diagramming
  • Sketsa – Linux/Unix/Windows
  • WouldjaDraw – Not quite enough export, but boy it was close.

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Testing

For testing, I am going to be using my brand-new 20” iMac (2.4GHz Intel C2D) with 4GB of RAM. I’m running Leopard 10.5.1. You will note this is not the same machine I used for Image Is Everything for which I do not apologize. And those of you who do care, can assume that performance and launch times of the apps reviewed in that article, are better and much quicker overall.

I will be running a handful of apps alongside those being tested, as before. Here they are:

  • Finder
  • Terminal
  • Mail
  • iCal
  • iChat
  • iTunes
  • Safari
  • Scrivener
  • Yojimbo
  • Linotype FontExplorer X
  • Address Book
  • Version Cue CS3 running in the background
  • Snapz Pro X running in the background
  • xScope

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Focus + Stated Goals

When I am looking around at software and trying to get an idea of what it’s about, I always find that the developers try their best to clue you in about their offering. These guys are no different, so let’s take a look at their web pages and find out what they’re about.

Intaglio

“Intaglio is traditional Mac drawing with the power of Mac OS X.

Since the early days of MacDraw, Macintosh has always had powerful and easy to use drawing software. With the introduction of Mac OS X, the graphics capabilities of the Mac expanded considerably. Intaglio carries the legacy of MacDraw into the modern Macintosh world by combining ease of use with the power of Mac OS X graphics. Intaglio retains the feel of MacDraw while harnessing the full capabilities of Quartz and CoreImage. Old timers soon feel right at home and those new to Mac drawing pick it up quickly. Don’t take our word for it.”

So Intaglio is picking up where MacDraw left off. Not surprising. Years ago when Mac OS X first shipped, Intaglio was the second vector drawing program (Create was the first) I found that was Mac OS X native.

Lineform

Easy and affordable vector drawing!

Winner of a 2006 Apple Design Award, Lineform is the ideal Mac app for vector-based diagrams and illustrations. Useful features combine with a simple interface to create a wonderfully intuitive artistic process. Lineform has all of the most popular tools, including everything from freeform gradients to compositing effects, enabling you to create the designs you want without getting in your way with “features” you don’t need.

Lineform is the clear modern Mac alternative to Illustrator, FreeHand, and other more costly or bloated vector drawing apps. But don’t take our word for it, just read the reviews!

Lineform. Because serious tools shouldn’t put a serious strain on your credit rating!”

That’s pretty compelling. A modern seriously professional app that’s not going to cost a huge amount of money. But really? I mean I spend thousands on the tools I use for my professional work and Illustrator is my home. Can this $80 app really compete?

VectorDesigner

This came to my attention shortly before Macworld and then it won Best of Show at the expo which is a pretty fair accomplishment.

Their website says (in part):

VectorDesigner is a new vector drawing application designed to be simple, intuitive and powerful to use.It has everything you need to create fancy vector graphics such as posters, brochures, stickers, logos, web design, t-shirt and more. “

The copy goes on to highlight some of the features of the app and there are some movies, but that’s about it. Oh and the proudly displayed Best In Show Badge. Which I think will help convince a lot of people.

ZeusDraw

“ZeusDraw is a new vector drawing program with a fluid, graceful interface, great brushes and a host of other features. To learn more, take a tour of ZeusDraw and watch the movies. When you’re finished, download a copy and try it yourself. Your copy of ZeusDraw may be used for 30 days without a license.”

So we’ll be on the lookout for fluid and graceful. Which is something I like because I am a palette hater and a dialogue box hater, and fluid and graceful imply that there will be very few palettes and dialogue boxes.

So, over all, these apps present themselves as the descendants of MacDraw, and Lineform actually steps up and claim to be of professional quality.

Let’s see what happens next.

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Installation + Updating

I downloaded and installed the software from the respective websites and all of them install by dragging the app to your preferred (Applications) folder. I much prefer this to installers, so that’s good. VectorDesigner had an update when I ran it. It’s using Sparkle, as do Lineform and ZeusDraw. I went looking at Frameworks in the application packages.

I used Intaglio’s and Check for updates… command to be sure all was taken care of.

Just as I just passed the halfway mark (the very end of comparing the Text Tools), ZeusDraw updated from 1.2.1 to 1.3 and introduced some new features. I reviewed all that I had accomplished to this point and nothing had changed, so I updated and carried on.

I started the special effects section when vector Designer updated during the review as well. That was Saturday 16 February. It included some fixes for EPS handling, Tiger Performance and small improvements.

By the time I finished this article, two of the apps had been updated again. ZeusDraw to 1.3.1, and VectorDesigner to 1.2.1. The automatic update using Sparkle was just the way it should be. Every developer should be using this or something that is identical but better. Intaglio didn’t get an update during this time and remains at 2.9.7 as of this writing and Lineform is at version 1.5.

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Icons

Let’s take a look at the icons. Icons need to sell the app and make it identifiable to the user. I am not ashamed to admit that I have made purchase choices based on icons.

My reasoning is simple: If you care enough about the icon, you probably care enough about the program. If not, well, not so much. And when it comes to design applications, or art applications I think they should reflect good design and a feel for good artistic judgement.

Intaglio

The Intaglio icon is a squarish blueprint-like document of Vitruvian Man (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitruvian_Man), a nice green plastic French curve and a technical pen. The colours are very nice. It looks good in my dock too.

Lineform

This icon has the distinction of being the only one in my entire toolkit of being primarily composed of text. CS3 icons come close, but they’re doing that whacky 2 letter periodic table abbreviation thing. Lineform doesn’t goof around though, and goes for the whole word. Across 2 lines. The first part line is reversed out, and the second form is black with a slight halo or shadow both superimposed over black scribble.

In the dock, form virtually disappears if the desktop is dark. Line stands out though, like a beacon. So from the point of view of standing out in my dock it’s working. Well, at least the top half. And although I like the look of the Futura reversed out like that, I am not convinced that this is the best icon I have seen. Works okay, but I’d rather not have to read only half of the name.

VectorDesigner

This is an attractive icon from the same school as the Intaglio one. A nice green document, artwork of a screwdriver on it, a metal straight edge rule, a green pencil, and a screwdriver. Okay usually I associate tools like wrenches, hammers and screwdrivers with utility applications like disk tools or development applications. It turns out that Tweakersoft, this app’s developer, use the Screwdriver as a signifier in all their product icons. So okay, I’ll roll with it, but I would have thought the screwdriver artwork would be enough.

ZeusDraw

A sketchbook opened, a large Zed filled with a blue and violet gradient atop which sits a paintbrush. It reads well in my dock, and from my earlier reading of the website, I know that ZeusDraw has some painting/brush tools in it that Chomaticbytes are particularly proud of. Not so bad and works in my dock okay.

Summary

So the developers have spent some time on these and for the most part they work okay. I think that Intaglio has the best followed by VectorDesigner. If Lineform makes it into my toolkit I am seriously going to give it some CandyBar. I’m not even joking.

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User Interface

The workspace that these present, coupled with the toolset and the particular way the tools work, create the user experience of the app. When you’re spending any significant time using an app like this, you’re trying to convert ideas into drawings. You may be working from actual paper and pencil drawings, or not, but what matters is how easily you can make your idea into a reproducible piece of artwork.

Overview

Generally, these programs approach vector drawing in much the same way as one another. You have a canvas and some kit of tools in a palette or inspector. The canvas or art board may be on a pasteboard that can hold objects beyond the page that you’re working on. None of these apps offer multiple pages.

Usually, there are layers, as drawing programs create objects stacked on on top of the other in a long progression. Layers and document trees expose this behaviour and make drawing much easier and help the designer create useful well described artwork that can be readily used by others.

Tools behave differently from app to app, but for the most part a bezier tool will draw bezier curves in a reasonably typical fashion.

Coming from Illustrator, I have some definite and strong expectations from this primary tool, but I’m secretly hoping that there’s something better.

Vector applications draw a series of shapes and fill them and stroke them directly. That means that a circle is a single object and the colour, texture or gradient that fills it as well as any the colour, thickness and pattern of any line that describe it are attributes of the circle itself. Every point, line, and plane exist as discrete objects until they’re combined into one new object or are used to split each other apart into smaller objects.

Handling text, converting text into drawings, placing it inside objects and along lines are all things that are expected and required in my design environment.

Special effects, like Core Image filters and the like, I regard as being extra, especially since they require that the vector objects be rasterized in order to take on the effect, or they require the final output file to be a raster format like PNG. In my books this kind of defeats the purpose of using a vector application where I want the final file to be infinitely scalable with no loss in quality, something which you lose as soon as you apply raster effects to a drawing.

Many illustrators and artists will disagree with me on this, and I am sure that in their worlds, the provision of this capability, especially if it’s easily understood and applied to their work is much appreciated.

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The Workspace

Intaglio

Intaglio opens almost immediately, presenting a normal OS X window with toolbar, and a single toolbox just 1 icon wide for tools. It’s simple and nice, and when I drag the window larger than its default, the artboard is centered in the window. It’s showing its grid by default, which is okay, I can always turn it off.

In the lower left of the window is a little box with a pink line in it. You can click and drag on this to drag a guide into the work area. It has a mate above the vertical scroll bar. Next to it is a document zoom control that has zoom in and out buttons, a pop-up selector and a numeric input combined quite handily.

Well that’s pretty nice. The menus reveal that there are other palettes and things, but I’m not going to go there just yet.

Lineform

A single bounce and I’ve got my document window. Nice standard window with a white horizontal rectangle holding some tool icons in it and a couple of other icons in the toolbar. If you click on one, hints for its use are displayed immediately under the toolbar in a kind of info area called the Status Bar. This part of things is kind of ugly, but it is clear and utilitarian.

There’s a group of inspectors on the window’s left. They’re all nicely docked and can be rolled up or expanded with a click of the triangle. Nice and tidy.

There’s a zoom menu in the lower right of the window, and that rounds out the UI for Lineform.

I feel like it’s factually presented, with a little bit of grace.

VectorDesigner

VectorDesigner has a standard OS X window with a toolbar fully populated with tools including interesting looking ones like flickr, iSight, Effects, and Media. To the right is an inspector panel with 4 tabs, like a Pages inspector. The lower left of the window, below the scroll bar, is a zoom pop-up that doesn’t take numeric input. Next to that is an information bar that displays hints depending on the tool you have selected.

A nice presentation. The toolbar icons are good looking.

ZeusDraw

When I launch this app, it’s prompt and it opens a small window that contains its logo, with two small palettes behind.

I am not sure what’s happening here. I surmise that ZeusDraw needs to have some kind of content window or document window open on launch, perhaps to enable tools or keep them loaded into memory. The effect doesn’t detract from the experience, but it is kind of strange.

Creating a new document forces the palettes to dock into the window, and the icon window disappears. The palettes (View and Tools) can be dragged back to floating positions if you want, but dock only to the top of the window. The window doesn’t use the Toolbar like the other apps and along its bottom border provides a series of buttons called the Bottom Strip which are controls that affect general application behaviour and display.

So ZeusDraw is a little bit quirkier than the others, but it’s good and clear.

Summary

I like the feel of these apps, and overall they fell far less cluttered than Illustrator. In overall look and feel I like VectorDesigner and Lineform. Except for the weird window thing, ZeusDraw was all right. Intaglio feels the most “traditional” or Illustrator like.

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Preferences

It’s always useful to cruise through an apps preferences to see what general things might be available and to discover what kinds of arrangements the developer has made to handle aspects of the program’s features and behaviours.

Intaglio

When the Preferences panel opens, it defaults to the Documents tab, second in the list. You can set the Colour Space for documents (Automatic, RGB, CMYK or Gray). You can set the Author, Company and a Copyright claim. Then there are settings for showing the page margin, the visibility of the toolbar in new windows, appending the file name extension and adding image previews on Save.

The Tools tab reveals six general tool settings. The colour of control points on shapes (called Tool Color), and the opacity of those interaction points. You can set a delay before a global drag, but I don’t know what that means, and you can choose to have the tool box vertical or horizontal. Set a double-click to open a palette or to edit text in an object and define angles clockwise or counterclockwise.

The clipboard tab contains settings for how Intaglio should handle a bunch of different filetypes.

The Conversions tab allows you to choose global defaults for handling PDF, PICT and Text Elements.

A pretty extensive list, though heavy on the text labels which means you have to read carefully or don’t touch. I elected not to touch.

Lineform

This is a surprisingly simple Preference panel. The first option is a pull-down to select the type of measure (inches, centimetres, millimetres, Points / Pixels, and Picas.

You can have the document Auto-center, choose a key to use for scaling strokes (the default is z ) and set Soft-proof color space using a pull down list of printer colour profiles. The last option set whether a bitmap should be copied with an opaque background which apparently Microsoft Word requires.

And that’s it. There are no more preferences. I tried Option-selecting the Preferences just in case there are some hidden, but there don’t appear to be.

I hope I don’t find myself wishing for control that isn’t there, but we’ll have to see after I get drawing.

VectorDesigner

Maybe because it’s so brand-new, VectorDesigner, has all of three preferences. Check for updates on start-up, default units (Centimetres, Millimetres, Inches, Picas, Points/Pixels), and the default color space: RGB, CMYK or Gray.

Can you get simpler than this?

ZeusDraw

This app’s preferences resemble Intaglio’s a little more than the others. There are 4 tabs, the last and simplest of which is a selector to choose you preferred email application.

Undo allows you to set the maximum number of undos for Viewing and for Drawing. The defaults are set to ten, so I set them to 40. It strikes me as archaic though because it’s 2008 and I’d expect my app to just keep track. Making this change requires an application restart so I do.

The Colors tab allows me to set 4 colour options: New Document Background Color, Temporary Graphics Color, Attention Color, and Guideline Color. There is a note that the New Document background Color must be opaque and any transparent color will be converted to opaque.

The General tab allows me to set measurement units (Inches, Cm[sic], Mm[sic], Points). I can vary the degree of transparency of an object as it’s moved. I can choose to have objects displayed using Anti-Aliased Rendering, and Check for Updates on Startup.

There is a width field and a height field to set the size, but not position, of a New Window.

Lastly is a display resolution factor called Display Pixels Per inch set at 100.0. If you change this you have to restart ZeusDraw to use the setting. I don’t know what this is so I don’t change it but I am curious. Maybe I’ll look it up in Help a little later.

Summary

After the pages of preferences that Illustrator has, these are pretty simple and clear. I am eager to find out if the minimal settings in Lineform and VectorDesigner leave me wanting more, and I also am curious about some of the settings that I’m just not familiar with, like Display Pixels Per Inch factor, Temporary Graphics Color, and how scaling strokes might use the z key.

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Toolset

I am working on a design software postulate that goes something like this:

A single tool well implemented is probably more advantageous to me as a designer than many tools poorly implemented.

My starting point is somewhat modest. I hold that Illustrator doesn’t need both a Rectangle Tool and a Rounded Rectangle Tool, and that this poor situation is made work by the existence of Filter > Stylize > Round corners… and Effect > Stylize > Round Corners… (the only difference between these two being the presence of a Preview checkbox).

And I further maintain that a well designed polygon tool should address most of the needs of a designer.

I mention this because I am about to compare toolsets and then specific tools, and you should know that my thinking has led me to this conclusion. That is, I can assure you this section will not be a comparison of a shopping list of features.

Instead it will focus on how the tools work and are used. How do they feel? How much do I have to think about using them and how much can I just use them to think?

I am also assuming that the developers have done their homework and know roughly what their markets might expect in terms of capabilities, so I think it’s a safe bet that these apps will do most of the things you expect.

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Comparing Pens

In vector drawing, the pen tool is about the most important tool in the kit. It is responsible for describing the parts of a bezier object that compose the curve you draw.

It sets points and handles, their relationship on a Cartesian plane, and the extent to which the line arcs.

For the longest time, Illustrator’s pen has been the gold standard, with a smaller but vocal minority advocating Freehand’s Bezigon tool. Freehand no longer exists and these new contenders all implement pens that need to demonstrate their utility as being as good or better than Illustrator in order to be widely accepted. Let’s see what we have.

Intaglio

This tool is called the Path tool, and works almost exactly as you’d expect. Select it, click to get a point, click to get another and a line segment is drawn between. If you click and drag you’ll get a control handle and any number of straight and curved line segments can be drawn to create any shape you want.

To close an object with the Path Tool you need to Hold down the Option key and click from a point to the starting point of the object.

You can convert a point into a smooth curve by option-click-dragging it with the Point Selection Tool. The path must be selected first. You can convert a smooth point in a curve to an angled point by selecting it with the Point Selection Tool and then option-clicking a control handle and pulling it in the opposite direction.

Holding shift while using the tool will constrain the direction of the line as well as the snap of the control handles. And holding the command key snaps the handles to the grid.

You can continue a path by clicking with the Pen Tool on a path’s end point and drawing new segments. The you need to select the points where you want them to join with the Point Selection Tool and use the Object > Paths > Join command.

A pretty traditional showing, and other than having to hold the option key to close a shape, not really that much different to the Illustrator Pen.

Lineform

Yes, it’s the Pen tool and hitting the P key selects it. This tool performs almost identically to Illustrator’s tool.

As you draw a path in Lineform, the visual feedback is nice. The last point drawn is highlighted magenta, previous ones are shiny blue, paths take on a violet tint as you work. When you return to you starting point and hover over the point it changes from blue to magenta and the hint in the information bar changes to indicate clicking will close the shape and option-clicking will not close the shape.

When you are done with the path, double-click for your last point or hit Return.

The last point drawn is highlighted shiny blue and the entire shape is outlined in green.

Anchors with no curves are square, anchors that are parts of a curve are round.

You can hit Escape to cancel drawing the path entirely.

The visual feedback makes using this tool a nice experience, and the hints in the Status Bar are useful even if I have to pause to read them.

The option key can be used to break a smooth point into an angled point during the drawing operation or after it. And it’s when I tried adjusting a point in this way after I drew the path, that I ran into the unexpected.

I drew a few curves and then selected the path. I used the edit selection tool to see the points. You need to select the point to see the handles. Option dragging the handle broke the curve as expected. Then I wanted to fine-tune it. So I grabbed the handle that I just moved and suddenly the entire control point reverted to being a smooth curve.

Not what I thought would happen at all. I figured I would be controlling the newly made curve. I could get my desired result by holding the option key before I made the adjustment.

You can add nodes to a path with a command-click, and removing them is as simple as selecting it and pressing the delete key. You can add points to an open path by clicking on the point where you like to begin then adding points.

Further to all of this, if you control-click on an anchor, you get a 5 item menu for commands related to nodes. This is a nice touch, as it the fact that when you select an object path with the Selection arrow, double clicking will select the path and highlight the nodes, automatically switching you to the Edit arrow.

So pretty good except for having to remember to use the option key on corner nodes.

VectorDesigner

VectorDesigner has a distinctly iWork kind of feel because the toolbar icons and menus. The Pen tool is in the Sketch button, or in Insert > Path (Command-8).

Click to make a point. Click again to get a line segment. Click and drag to get a curve. Press the return key to finish drawing. To create a closed shape approach the first point with the pen it will “snap-to” and a final click will complete the shape.

After you create a path you can edit it by selecting it and pressing Command-E or clicking the Edit Path button in the toolbar.

You can select any point and move it. Double-click a point to convert it into the opposite type of point. This is handy because you don’t need a special tool to select the point. A selected point can be deleted with the Delete key. Not the Backspace key.

You can add a point to a path by hovering over the path and double clicking. Delete a segment by holding option and clicking the segment while the path is in Edit Path mode.

I can’t find any way to alter a path as I draw it, but the easy editability after the fact makes this issue moot.

What I can’t figure out, if it’s doable at all, is joining two paths at a point, or continuing an open path. I did discover while looking for ways that Command-E will not work on paths that are grouped or allow edit mode when more than one path is selected.

I’ll admit that I’m a little disappointed at these final details.

ZeusDraw

Get the Pen tool and get a load of this. You click to get your first point, then click to get your first control handle. Move your mouse and click for your second control handle then click one last time below that for you next path point. You’ve got a simple curve.

This sounds nutty, but it’s actually pretty freaking awesome. Even though it’s more mouse clicks, the curve that is described, is far more in keeping with what you imagine it should be. This is a an interesting minority case where more clicks are better.

When you’re drawing, all the points in the path show persistent handles. This is nice because you can go and make adjustments without changing tools or anything, just go to the point or handle you want and drag it.

Now I’ve gotten ahead of myself, because I wrote ‘get the pen tool’ and what is actually correct is to choose the Path Tools by selecting it in the tools palette. The default path tool is the Pen tool and you can select other path tools when this is selected by pressing a shortcut key or selecting it in the Tool Controls Palette.

The behaviour is much like Illustrator in this regard: The P key give you the pen, pressing the plus or minus key will make the pen add or subtract points on the path. Shift-C will change or create corners, and X will allow you to move points around. C will cut a path.

Now the thing I need to get used to with ZeusDraw is that you want to set your tools in the Tool Control palette before you use it. Not after. This is important because in ZeusDraw if you want your path to close you need to set it before you start or you’re going to be going back and selecting Close path a bunch.

You also want to set the tool behaviour before you start drawing because there’s no option-click to create corner points or anything while you’re describing the path.

This is kind of a pain and is going to take some practice to get used to. It does seem consistent with some of the design ideas in the program though. Things like an open object cannot be filled, so don’t even think about it.

Also, like VectorDesigner, returning to a path after it has been deselected doesn’t automatically allow you to continue the path. To do this you need to be sure that View > Snap to Point is turned on then draw a path from the end point of the previous path. Then select both paths and do a Join command. Not the end of the world and better than not being able to figure it out with VectorDesigner.

Summary

VectorDesigner sometimes takes a fraction of a second to draw the path after the click and the inability to continue paths in all the pass but Lineform was a surprise to me.

I like Lineform’s feedback, and I like VectorDesigner’s tool too, but I am completely blown away by ZeusDraw’s pen. The accuracy of it to describe the path that I am imagining makes its shortcomings pale. I encourage you to try it out.

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Comparing Shape Tools

After the Pen tool, shape tools are where the action is for object creation. I am going to lump line and arc tools in here as we take in an overview of the rest of the drawing tools, but leave Text tools for the next section.

Intaglio

The toolset for Intaglio is filled out with a Freehand Tool, Line tool, a Rectangle, a Round Rectangle, a Polygon, a ‘Bezier Curve Polygon Tool, an Oval tool and a Dimension tool.

The tools work pretty much the same way, you can click and drag the shape onto your artboard and holding Shift constrains the aspect ratio. Hold down Option to make the drawing happen from the polygon’s centre.

The Line tool and Dimension tool work this way as well: you need to drag out a line, not click for points. The Dimension tool automatically adds a dimension label to the line which could be handy if you’re headed down the architectural or engineering drawing road.

A few of the tools have settable values and double clicking their toolbox icon pops open a dialogue box so you can change them. They are: Polygon Tool (set the number of sides – you can’t do this as you draw), Round Rectangle Tool (set the type of corner curve -convex or concave- and adjust the radius with an imprecise ‘small to large’ slider), and the Freehand tool (set the Tolerance and smoothness of the freehand trace).

The arc tool is nice. Drag to see a circle and its radius. Then when you stop just click and begin to rotate. If you select it with the Point Selection tool you can adjust it’s three points and Option-dgragging the centre point will adjust the radius.

The freehand tool works as expected and creates as smooth a vector path as you think you might want, but of course the truer the line, the more anchors it has and the more lumpy it is.

Lineform

Here’s where we get really simple. After the Pen Tool there’s a Brush, a Rectangle and an Oval. And that’s it.

I like these primitives because when you drag an oval or a rectangle out, then select it with the Edit arrow, you get modification controls.

On a rectangle there’s a blue handle on the sides for control height and width with a simple drag, and there’s a red dot in the upper-left corner that if dragged towards the center of the object, defines a radius for rounded corners. Nice! I like this a lot. On the circle the red handle opens the arc making a pie chart-like thing.

Again, the Status bar gives you clues as to what you can do.

What this also means is that complex shapes are yours to create so polygons and stars need to be drawn with the pen tool, or made using shapes and following with boolean operations like subtracting the front shape from the back shape or combining to shapes into one. Not a problem, but definitely not an advantage and if I was in a tight spot for time, I would appreciate some more complex shapes.

The brush tool works as expected, although there’s no way to set smoothness and tolerance that I could find. Holding the option key while drawing with it disabled the smoothing a little.

Well, Lineform has obviously traded away some more complex capability in favour a a simple, easily learned toolset.

VectorDesigner

The iWork approach is in full force here with a Shape menu and options for rectangle, Oval, Rounded Rectangle, Polygon and Star.

Dragging a shape can be constrained by holding Shift and can be drawn from the centre with Option. Both at the same time? Nope.

After the shapes are drawn they can be edited with Command-E which gives you their Bezier handles.

But the real cool shapes are Rounded Rectangle, Polygon and Star. Dragging these shapes is just like the others, but as soon as you mouse-up you get a special panel that allows you to change the settings of the object. Deselect the object and it goes away , then come back and select it you have it again.

Exactly the kind of thing you can do to add utility to the tool in a clear and obvious way, but not junk up the interface with even more persistent palettes and gizmos.

If you select Make Editable in the special panel, you lose the ability to change its attributes, but you gain the ability to edit it in true Bezier style with a Command-E. A trade-off that you don’t have to make until you’re ready, if ever.

The smooth path tool works like the brush tools in the other apps we’ve looked at, and like Lineform, there doesn’t seem to be any way to adjust its attributes.

I really love the special polygon tools. It sure is nice adding and deleting points of a star in such an easy and obvious fashion.

ZeusDraw

If I pay attention, which I am learning to do, and remember: select tool, adjust settings, then draw, I’m going to be just fine.

ZeusDraw gives me a Line Tool, Arc Tool, Rectangle Tool, Oval Tool, Polygon/Star Tool, a Freehand Tool and a Brush Tool. We’ll talk about the Brush Tool in a bit.

Selecting, setting and dragging, give you the shape you’re after, and shift will constrain the aspect ratio and Option will allow you to draw from the centre. But I just set those in the settings panel so I don’t even need to remember this.

Once you get the kinetic pattern down it’s pretty fun.

Select set and draw. Think of the thing you need, get the tool to do it, set it so it will and then do it.

It’s a subtle difference but crucial. It’s a lot more like the way you might draw with a pen or pencil set where you select a colour or thickness to get you as close to a finished object as possible. When you finish an object it’s deselected leaving you free to drag a new one or change your settings and drag a new one. Feels very natural.

I am liking this a lot.

The Round Corners setting in the Rectangle Tool Options is a precise slide that also accepts typed values. The smoothness setting for the Freehand Tool works exactly like I expect and performs great. The secret I think is that ZeusDraw is designed with a silent recognition of Tablet users, though if I was a tablet guy I think I’d be pretty pleased.

I was curious and just went back through the other apps. Only Lineform mentions using a tablet.

Summary

The ZeusDraw approach is impressing me. I felt happy and comfortable with it and it’s funny but the other tools make less sense to me now. Next, I like the VectorDesigner tools especially the special attribute panels at the end of a drag. Lineform is fine but limited and could be time consuming for drawing complex shapes, and Intaglio is fine, though it doesn’t really offer a lot in the way of a better approach.

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Text Tools

Working in graphic design requires handling text at some point and for anything less than a multi-page document, many designers will turn to their vector tools.

Intaglio

You drag the tool to establish the width of the text object then begin typing. Words fill it up until you’re done. When you click away you can see the text object is a box and dragging the handles scales the whole thing. There’s a small arrow on the right edge and dragging it changes the width of the text area. There doesn’t appear to be a way to link text boxes, but that’s not fatal. Double-clicking the text tool opens the System Font Panel, and double-clicking the text object with the selection tool opens the Text panel so you can adjust Kerning, Baseline and Leading.

With the object selected you can handle the text’s fill and stroke without having to select the text itself with the text tool.

In a neat approach, Intaglio treats the entire box and text as an object which means you can rotate and skew it for example, but it also keeps track of the text within as text which means you can edit it even if it’s rotated with fills and strokes applied.

That’s pretty fun.

If you select the object and go Object > Convert > Text To Path it will convert all the text to paths, maintaining the current arrangement. Word of warning at this juncture. If you separate the paths using the Object > Paths > Separate they will separate and the counters of many shapes will reverse their path direction and fill in. Ugh. Use the point selection tool and zoom in close to edit just the one you want instead, and probably don’t do this if you have a bunch of text (until you need to ship the file).

You can add text to a path by selecting a text block and a path and going Text > Path Binding > Bind Text To Path. You can release the text from the path by selecting the opposing command: Text > Path Binding >Release Text From Path. This will separate the two elements but it won’t return them to their original positions.

Lineform

In Lineform you select the text tool and drag a text box. The text box acts as a normal rectangle, and dragging its handles will scale and skew it and the contained text as well.

If you double click the text box it will straighten it out and place your cursor in the text in edit mode. When you’re done click away and the object reverts to its former state.

Intaglio doesn’t do this, preferring to allow you to adjust the text in situ. Lineform favours making editing a separate cognitive task, which is fine.

You can convert text into editable shapes with Objects > Convert > To Outline then selecting the Edit arrow.

When I went to figure out text on a path I was a bit baffled but it soon became clear: The Text Tool is actually a combined operation that creates a rectangular box with a fill type of ‘Text’. This is evident in the Fill Inspector. When you select a Fill of ‘Text’ you can punch a button labelled Edit… and it starts your cursor in the rectangle.

Well in the same vein, path or object can have a stroke type of ‘Text’ as well. Very clever. The pain is that for the stroke you have to type or paste the words in a small text field in the inspector. Okay whatever, but setting the font size is based on setting the thickness slider and I checked the text inspector when I did this and it doesn’t change. So you’re going to be totally visual here and just go for looking good and not know what the size of text is. With your text path selected, you can use the text inspector’s gear menu to select Spacing… which pops a sheet in the inspector with sliders and fields for setting linespacing and such and going Format > Font > Kern you can roughly adjust letterspacing.

While exploring all of this I discover that Lineform has a Table Inspector for making tables, as well as a List maker and a Link maker. These are under Format > Text.

You can also set up text styles like in TextEdit using the Format > Font Styles… command. Someday I might get that but for now, I am going to move on.

VectorDesigner

In VectorDesigner, when I use the Type tool, I can click once I get a text box that expands as I type, or click and drag a box that stays the size I make it. If the text overruns it I can drag it out to accommodate it all.

I can colour the text by selecting the box and then selecting a new colour in the text Inspector’s colour well or I can double click to select the text directly and select a new colour.

A text box can be edited using Command-E, this makes it so you can reshape the box and the text reflows within it. The text is not transformed. If you rotate the box and then edit the text it will flip to normal horizontal mode for editing and then back its position when you’re done like Lineform does.

Selecting Format > Convert Text To Path separates the text from its bounding box and draws another box around it all as a fine blue line. Then you go Arrange > Ungroup to get the individual letters which are then selected objects. To edit the actual vector handles you need to select a character and go Command-E. Now usually unless you’re designing your own typeface or a logotype, you don’t need to get this far in, because outlined type will print without the font files, but I am always interested in this kind of thing. Plus I have been known to draw letters.

Other font features are typical Mac OS X: the Font panel and its associates (Characters, Typography, Manage fonts….), and the Kern Ligature Baseline options in the Format menu.

Placing text on a path is easy and pleasant. Select the Text tool, mouse over the path you want to place your text on and click when the cursor changes to an I-Beam. Vector designer places a dummy “Lorem Ipsum” on the line, and selects it for you so you can just start typing. This is great. Click away when you’re done. To adjust the text you can select the path and a Text property HUD appears offering sliders for adjusting Spacing, Baseline, and Position of the text’s starting point. There’s a button that removes the text from the path completely. To continue or edit the text hover over the path and click when you get the I-beam cursor and you’re editing.

ZeusDraw

When I select the text tools, the Tool Controls updates with text handling features. Remembering the “select tool, select options then use tool” workflow, this is petty okay. This is also not the Mac OS X Font panel.

Which to me seems a good thing.

I understand the advantages of having the system-wide panel and what it does for developers (less code, easier developing) and users (predictable behaviour and met expectation), but sometimes if you rethink the task, you can get to something better.

ZeusDraw has rethought the task flow and has made the text tool match instead of copping out and just accepting the default. Kudos to you guys at Chromatic Bytes for staying true to the design approach and doing the extra work.

The Text Tools panel is great. Starting at the to and going down: there’s a preview of the settings, typeface pulldown, type style pulldown, a Font Collection pull down, a pair of buttons for bold and italic which are gigantic, a font size input field/pulldown combo with a size slider too. But wait there’s more: a set of alignment buttons,a color well and a toggle for selecting the stroke or fill of the type. Then there are more parts that are closed by default because they’re not used as often: Effects with Blend Modes (like in Photoshop) and Shadows (which expands into a palette containing a colour well, angle, offset and blur controls); and then a set of controls that expose the Character Spacing (Kerning), Baseline, Linespacing, and ligature controls.

What this means is that the system Font panel and the other typographic controls usually exposed to the user in Format menus are nicely consolidated in a very useful and well thought-out panel focusing activity into a single place.

Converting text to paths is simple. Select the text box and go Tools > Convert Text to Paths (Command-Option-Shift-T). To control the vectors just select the Pen tool then the Move control points tool (or press X).

Currently there is no way to place text on a path in ZeusDraw. You have to convert the text to outlines and then ungrorup it, and place it along the path.

Summary

A pretty okay showing. I think I like text to stay oriented a placed when I am editing it, even if it’s sideways. I doubt this is easier cognitively, but I like to see things develop in place. For this reason I like Intaglio and ZeusDraw.

ZeusDraw also impressed me with the consolidation of the Typographic controls. No, it’s not Mac-like in the way using the defaults are, but it’s a well designed departure. A true improvement.

VectorDesigner’s text on path tools are great, and I like doing this every so often, though I wish its convert text to path had fewer steps, like 1 or two instead of three.

I am going to say VectorDesigner has the edge here, because of the text on a path experience, But ZeusDraw so close, it was hard to write this sentence. A nod to Lineform for its use of styles, something I appreciated when Illustrator’s text handling was brought more in line with InDesign’s over on the Adobe planet.

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Gradient Tools

I was surprised and gratified that I found such a range of approaches to this tool.

Gradients can be hugely useful to illustrators and designers and sometimes you’d like to get a gradient aligned right or goof off and create visual effects with more than a couple of colours.

Well, a long time has passed since Illustrator was little and gradient fills were new. They’re fills are pretty commonplace these days. Let’s see how these apps approach the problem.

Intaglio

The gradient tool has it’s own tool button and a double click opens the corresponding Gradient Palette.

Select the object you want to fill and click the tool once to fill it. If you have the palette opened (double-click the tool as mentioned or go Window > Solid Colour > Gradient) you can make any changes to the gradient that you want.

The gradient editor is a nice straight forward dialog arranged in two rows. The top row is a colour well, a colour space pull-down (RGB,CMYK, or Grayscale), a gradient type selector (linear or radial) and a reverse switch that allows you to switch the order of the colours in the bar.

Clicking in the bar crates a new colour point and opens the system colour picker. Clicking the colour well of any point opens the system colour picker too. You can drag colour points back and forth with their corresponding triangle control and drag the diamond points between colours to adjust the ‘ramp’ or transition between colours.

If you have a colour point selected and you create a new one, the one that was already selected stays selected. Makes me crazy. And another crazy-maker is that the opacity slider has moved from the system colour picker to Intaglio’s Solid Colour palette. So you can pick a colour and adjust its opacity and have it as a colour point in your gradient. I like this a lot better than Illustrator’s transparency mask thing to get these effects, but it’s crazy about where the opacity tool is.

If you had an object selected while goofing around here it will take on the gradient directly. You can also drag a gradient onto an object, but only if it’s selected.

You can remove colour points dragging their controls upward. If you try to directly manipulate a colour point you will get a ‘Can’t complete this command. -1875’ error. Every time.

Adjusting the gradient inside the object is a matter of clicking and dragging across the selected object with the tool.

Overall, it’s a pretty good analogue to Illustrator’s gradient tool.

Lineform

To apply a gradient to an object select the object and then select Gradient from the Fill palette pull-down. There isn’t a separate tool for gradient which means that the gradient editor as well as its use controls reside in the palette.

There’s a mysterious and unexplained non-zero checkbox that didn’t seem to do anything when selected or deselected, and a colour bar for working on the gradient. Below that there’s a Position… button and a linear/radial pull-down.

To edit your gradient you can add colours by clicking immediately below the colour bar. You’ll get a colour stop which is indicated by a colour pointer below the bar and a little diamond control above. To remove a colour, drag the diamond control up from the bar.

Click a colour stop to get the system colour picker and adjust its opacity. You can move the points with the triangle controls. You can move colour between points just by dragging a colour from one point to another.

To adjust the gradient’s position and extent you click the Position… button. There’s an arrow control on your object which you can reposition with a click and drag or by dragging its end points. A radial gradient offers two perpendicular arrows. The black arrow controls the extent and the white one controls the ellipse. The corner point controls the position of the origin. Option clicking a point allows independent control giving you a high degree of precision with the tool.

I like the fact that the control is on the object directly, and this feels pretty good.

VectorDesigner

Gradients here are also controlled from the Fill palette. Select Gradient from the pull-down and you get a few parts for your controls. There’s a proxy gradient tile, two colour wells, a double arrow switch to swap the colour positions and 3 radio buttons to choose gradient type: Linear, Radial and Gaussian. Gaussian is a radial gradient with a smooth Gaussian blur applied and looks very nice.

Clicking the colour wells bring the system picker up and you can select colours and opacity in the usual way. Nice for gradient masks.

Controlling the gradient position is done by adjusting a rubber band thingy in the proxy gradient tile in the palette. The effect is live and updates in the object as you do it. I really don’t like this. It requires a lot of back and forth eye movement and concentration , and fine motor control which is a drag. Direct 1:1 manipulation like Lineform has with its arrows, or even dragging an invisible line like in Intaglio is better than this.

Too bad this doesn’t match the persistent local controls local on an object like the polygon tool.

ZeusDraw

Select the gradient tool (Press the G key) and go to the Tool Controls The options are a toggle switch between Linear and Radial. A dial and a input thumb for angle and two colour wells for setting the colour. The usual system colour picker and opacity apply.

I like the little thumb dial less than the proxy picture thing in VectorDesigner. Ugh. But here I am, happily following my new taskflow, select tool change settings then I select a rectangle and lose my settings.

Huh? I was following the ZeusDraw paradigm. Well sort of.

The gradient tool here is kind of a new thing. In this one you need to deploy the Color > Gradient Builder and the Color > Swatches palettes. Then using the tools in the Gradient Builder, develop the gradient you want and drag it into the swatches palette. Now you have a swatch that you can drag onto any object on the canvas (selected or not).

The Gradient Builder is pretty nifty. Working from the top down there’s a large proxy tile, the Linear/Radial switch and the orientation dial controls. Then instead of a couple of colour wells there’s a vertical gradient colour bar. Inside that there’s an arrow the bottom of which is an origin colour and the top of which is the gradient destination colour. Each of these locations has a corresponding rectangular colour well for select a colour and adjusting its opacity. In the centre of the arrow is a small circle and this drags to control the gradient ramp.

To add a colour, click in the colour bar or on the arrow. A new colour stop is added and a new gradient edit point is inserted. Colour stops are squares on the arrow and you can drag them to any position. Remove them by dragging the square controls on the arrow to outside the colour bar.

So far this is okay. At least there’s enough size in the tool to make this comfortable enough.

The real magic begins when you drag a gradient onto an object then select the object and then the gradient tool. Now you get the exact same arrow that you had in the Gradient Builder applied directly to your object. You can adjust it on the object and dragging the origin adjust it’s position and the arrowhead its angle. You can remove colours from the gradient by dragging the colour stops outside the bounds of the object and you can add colour stops by clicking the line or dragging a colour from the color picker or swatches palette directly. You can convert from a radial to a linear gradient using the Tool Controls palette.

The only down side to all of this is that you have to make a gradient and make a swatch from it to apply it to objects. Well maybe that’s okay, but it seems to me that the tool could be a little easier to use. Maybe add the Gradient builder tool to the fill controls. I know it makes it longer or more complex, but it would only be revealed when Gradient was selected as a fill type and then you could also have it set to apply for the next shape.

Summary

After I got it, ZeusDraw had me. Vector draw was disappointing and Lineform’s was okay. Intaglio’s was useful and powerful, but doesn’t offer the kind of control and fun that ZeusDraw does, and really doesn’t bring new things to the table.

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Unique Features

Every program on offer here has unique features which are aimed at doing something better, or enticing you the designer/illustrator with a promise of flexibility and power.

I have touched on only a few of the tools so far, the ones I think typify the basic approach that the apps employ. And comparing things that are unique is extremely time consuming.

What I am going to do here is highlight some of the things that struck me as outstanding in each application.

Intaglio

Intaglio is a solid offering and its most unique feature is its quiet concentration in addressing so many of the expectations that designers might have of an illustration program.

While it doesn’t wow me with brand new approaches, it also offers nice things like the ability to import and make editable artwork from PDF, EPS, SVG, and even PICT files.

Having this kind of flexibility in file type makes sharing and deploying artwork easier than say just PDF, especially if the PDF output is strictly raster based, not vector based.

Intaglio appeals to traditional Mac users who might have legacy artwork from MacDraw and ClarisDraw that they might want to recover and update or use.

Intaglio also has a pattern tool which I haven’t yet used.

Lineform

What’s really cool about Lineform is its lack of dialogue boxes. Man it’s amazing to me how many dialogue boxes we see all day. In Photoshop, it’s just brutal now, but in other apps it’s pretty bad too. Lineform is just there and getting what you mean. The ‘dialogue’ with this app is easy and pleasant.

Lineform also has Linkback to enable image editing after you lineform drawing is placed inside another Linkback supporting application like OmniGraffle. Nice touch. Lineform also offers a soft-proof of CMYK which can be useful if you’re going to press with your work.

VectorDesigner

This app really shines in showing a neat and useful deployment of HUD interface elements. The trace tool looks wicked, and I like the integration of having iSight input and Flickr input and output for illustrations. I mean, come on, Flickr is your media library? That’s great!

ZeusDraw

Well beyond its risky re-thinking of how to draw, the cool tools in this app are the Gradient tool and the Brush tool.

I am not a brush kind of guy, because I am not really an illustrator or a freehand artist. If you are, you want to check this out. You can build a brush by drawing a bunch of elements and the adding them to the brush builder. Now you have a brush. Paint a line with it. Paint several. Select all of those and add them to the brush builder. Now you have a brush that paints brush lines. It’s crazy. And it supports tablets.

Also ZeusDraw has some potent copying tools and stencils.

A pretty nice showing actually with the basics covered of solidly all the way thorough to using modern technology to create original tools and experiences.

And speaking of modern tool, these programs cross the line and enter bitmap territory, implementing CoreImage in some fashion or another.

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Comparing Effects

Special Effects are expected by users and for the most part these are delivered in modern Mac apps by taking advantage of the CoreImage framework and Image Units.

Applying effects and working with them in these programs is something that a lot of people would do, given the prevalence of drop shadow effects and blur effects that are part of the present visual culture.

Effects, CoreImage and design applications

It’s interesting to me to see the use of CoreImage in these applications. When Illustrator was young I think Illustrator 88 allowed you to place a scanned image into a document so you could trace it. Tracing is a time honoured techniques of all artists and designers and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

As time went by, Illustrator gained more image editing functions as the Adobe teams worked to make the Photoshop filters apply directly in Illustrator.

The current iteration is a dismal failure where I have a Filter menu and a companion Effect menu with fair overlap between the two but enough difference to be dumb. So far what I have figured out is that Illustrator CS3 Effects menu items usually provide the option to see a live preview in the object in the artwork. And there are fewer options in the Filter menu.

Anyway, this convergence can be a good and handy thing in a design and production environment where I may need to assemble different files into a final piece or where I can utilize a raster effect for a particular look, without a trip to Photoshop.

The hidden downsides (as opposed to the glaringly evident Filter/Effect fiasco), is that to a young workforce and a generally un-illuminated public, the conflation of Photoshop with any and all visual creation is reinforced.

Challenging when you need to get some RGB 72ppi file to print in CMYK on a nice press.

It happens more than I care to admit and I want it to stop.

The reverse is also in play though, as many bitmap editors take on more and more vector tools. DrawIt, which I reviewed in Image is Everything is an excellent example of this, where the tools are primarily vector based even though you’re working in a raster environment.

Photoshop has this too, and I think that what we’re seeing in CS3 is another step in the convergence of art programs where little or no distinction will be made when using these distinct elements.

The challenge in this will be twofold. Printing technology requires certain technical criteria be met (like CMYK colour and a certain resolution dependent on printing method), and if it’s not met, it becomes a crap-shoot. This is a big deal, because print is not dead and if I can use a convergent tool to make a file, I need to be able to get it right so I don’t waste time and money. And on the other hand I’d like to be able to use raster effects and the like without weird limitations in terms of resolution (check out Scribbles for an example of infinite resolution) and RGB colour.

Original thinking embodied in DrawIt, Acorn, and in this review, VectorDesigner and ZeusDraw, will make this convergence exciting rather than painful. But it’s going to be awhile.

I think DrawIt is a pretty great indicator of how the convergence could work. The image creation tools are vector based, but the attendant operations for effects and filters are raster based.

The output of DrawIt is limited to a handful of raster formats for now, but the vector basis holds promise for implementing an SVG exporter. That would enable the export of a vector format that supports some filter effects (maybe there’s some overlap with CoreImage, and can embed data that it doesn’t directly support as part of a CDATA element).

Implementing this wouldn’t be trivial though, so I suspect we’ll have to wait awhile to see it.

I also noticed that here in these tests there’s varying support for vector based PDFs and EPS files. These would be very handy and facilitate printing and file sharing in a creative workflow.

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Using Effects + Filters

Accessing the special effects in these apps and applying them is an interesting exercise.

Intaglio

With an object selected on the canvas, go Window > Effects to get the Effects inspector. The inspector is a sparse palette with a pane on the left, a blank area on the right, an Add button-menu gizmo, a Minus button (initially disabled) and a Gear or Actions button-menu gizmo.

Select an effect from the Add button-menu and it’s placed in the left pane and its options are displayed in the right panel allowing you to alter and adjust them. The effects are cumulative and can be re-ordered in the left mane by dragging up and down.

The effects are applied on a per object basis and persist across saving and closing the document. This is a nice feature.

Initially the available Effects are limited to a set of Standard Effects that work on Mac OS X 10.3 and modest video cards, and can be expanded to include Advanced Effects using the gear button-menu. The Advanced Effects are CoreImage options for OS 10.4 and compatible video cards.

Standard effects are happily ones that people want most often: drop and interior shadows, glows, blur and Gaussian blur, sharpen and 3D lighting.

The gear button-menu also gives you options to add effects to your Add button-menu list and to set Intaglio to respect Color effects and ignore resolution issues.

Importantly, effects are applied to vector objects as well as bitmap objects on the canvas but everything with an effect is converted to a raster object on export to another file format.

Lineform

In Lineform, Effects and Filters are two different things but the distinction is a lot clearer than in Illustrator. Effects in Lineform are found in the Effects Inspector and are settings for Opacity, Blend Mode and Shadow.

CoreImage tools are available in the Filters inspector (Inspectors > Filter or Command-7). This is an neat inspector. You can enable filters on a per object basis and set the raster effects level on a per object basis too. Then you can use the Add button-menu to select a filter. The Filter is applied to the list and if it has options they will be displayed immediately below the filter name with a disclosure triangle so after making the settings you can roll it up. Each entry Has an x button to delete it from the list.

The filters are applied in order cumulatively from top to bottom. You can re-arrange the order by clicking and dragging. The filters persist after the file is saved and closed allowing subsequent manipulation.

VectorDesigner

VectorDesigner is the most Mac-like so far. With an object selected on the canvas, Open the Inspector and click the third tab. Click the Add Filter… button at the bottom to select a filter from the filter sheet, which is conveniently divided into categories and filters list.

You can’t preview the filter effect until you select the item, but that minor inconvenience is more than compensated for by the controls once the filter is added to the inspector. The first control is an enable checkbox which toggles the filter state.

Available controls are displayed below and a default button is provided to return the filter to it’s normal state. There is a disclosure triangle next to the filter title so you can collapse its display. At the bottom of the inspector there is an Apply To: pull down and you can select None, Fill, Stroke, Fill & Stroke, giving you fine control over how any filter is applied to the object and its component parts.

Again the filters are applied in sequence top to bottom and dragging them up and down allows you to reorder them The visual cue for this is very nice. The filter bar becomes a translucent lozenge so you can drag and see the target position line very clearly. The filter states are preserved with the document through saving and reopening.

ZeusDraw

Marching to the beat of its own drummer, ZeusDraw doesn’t implement CoreImage filters.

Effects are found in the Object Inspector when an object is selected, and like Lineform, limit themselves. The options under the Effects panel are Soft Edges (applies only to vector objects), Opacity, Blend Mode and Shadows.

ZeusDraw does handle bitmap graphics and they can be added to you work via copy/paste, Import or rasterizing a vector object. You can manipulate the raster object in scale size and mask (Cookie Cutter) as well as define a raster as a Stencil Object. Stencils Objects can contain a single colour so you can do some neat effects on a bitmap graphic in your artwork and use it multiple times after that.

Summary

My favourite filter implementation was VectorDesigner. It felt nice and Mac-like although it would be nicer still to see the filter applied when the sheet was down to enable an even better guess about the outcome. I really like the fineness of control offered by the per object enabling, and the application of the filter to the parts of an object. Lineform was nice although the Effects and Filters difference perpetuates the problem that Illustrator demonstrates, even if it’s correct in a formal Cocoa Application sense. Intaglio’s implementation was fine, and I’m surprised that I was disappointed about ZeusDraw’s exclusion of CoreImage technology, given my ambivalence about bitmap operations in vector tools.

Also I should point out that CoreImage filters impose resolution restrictions on output as well as file type restrictions, so if you need to output for print you’ll want to understand these apps fully before you rely on them.

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Memory + Performance

Generally speaking, vector art is a little easier on RAM requirements and doesn’t have scratch disk requirements that bitmap editors may have. That doesn’t mean that vector files are always small as complex drawing with many layers and objects can really make some Mac killing files.

Lineform used the least real memory, about 21MB, ZeusDraw about 28 MB, Intaglio just a little more than 28MB and VectorDesigner 43MB. Their use of virtual memory tended to be up around a 1GB: Intaglio 971MB, Lineform 967MB, VectorDesigner 1GB, and ZeusDraw 971MB. It looks like VectorDesigner’s memory footprint is roughly analogous to the iWork apps in terms of real and virtual memory use. This makes sense because it feels like it come with the same architecture and would therefore use the same frameworks in roughly the same ways.

Performance-wise, the applications all felt snappy and responsive. I found that VectorDesigner probably had the most crashes as I worked on this article, and ZeusDraw gave up inexplicably on a few occasions. I regret that I don’t have a record of these events but will be paying closer attention in time and report the crashes to the developers.

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Exporting + Importing

When it comes time to getting your artwork out into the world, these programs provide some good options. Depending on what your workflow is like and what tools you use, you’ll want to pay close attention to these features.

Here I am going to focus on PDF Export and Import because this should be the most flexible way to hand off graphics to others for output or to different applications for further manipulation.

Intaglio

This app is the oldest of the bunch and sports well chosen file formats and export controls. The Save As… sheet offers 14 file types including the native Intaglio file.

I saved out a PDF file and opened it using Illustrator CS3. The shapes were editable but the objets had been drawn in their component parts (a fill object no stroke and a stroke object no fill). Not a problem, unless you don’t expect it. These objects were not grouped either. The size, placement, strokes etc., were all completely accurate.

When I opened a PDF made from Illustrator (Preserve Illustrator Editing Capabilities enabled), Intaglio treated the objects as one big object. I went Object > Convert > PDF For Editing and the shapes were available to edit as vector objects. Nice.

I will also mention that Intaglio’s information about sharing files with other applications is useful and clear. A nice little primer.

Lineform

In Lineform you use File > Export… to create different file types. Lineform offers 7 types and you set the export resolution for files containing bitmaps (or file types that are bitmaps) here on export.

Importing into Illustrator revealed the same outcome as Intaglio. The objects were decomposed into separate stroke objects and fills though fidelity was perfectly true.

Opening the PDF created by Illustrator meant having a document already opened and doing a File > Import… where the PDF objects were placed on the canvas a single object. Selecting that and then going Objects > Parse PDF gave me editable object. Sort of. One of the objects proved to be grouped with an invisible page frame but when ungrouped and the page frame deleted, the objects were fully editable vectors.

VectorDesigner

Like Lineform, exporting happens through the File > Export sheet and provides options for 14 different file types not including VectorDesigner’s native format. I selected PDF and then opened it in Illustrator, concluding definitely it must be the way the files are saved that make Illustrator parse the fill and stroke as separate objects. Fidelity was true and the parts fully editable.

I opened the Illustrator made PDF directly with the open command in VectorDesigner and then ungrouped the shapes. Interestingly, VectorDesigner parsed the parts of the shapes making separate elements of fill and stroke. I enabled edit path for them and they were editable in the normal VectorDesigner way.

I also tried importing a PDF to an already open document, making sure Parse file contents was enabled. The result was identical to the Open operation.

ZeusDraw

Export is the Command for creating files other than ZeusDraw native files. ZeusDraw exports 7 file types (5 bitmap and two vector types).

In Illustrator, the objects were true to the originals, but handling them meant going carefully as the parts were grouped as well as made with clipping masks. A pain for the unwary and kind of a hassle for me. I would hate to have to decompose a complex illustration or drawing in this way.

Then came a real disappointment. The objects were rasterized and could only be treated as such in Illustrator.

It wasn’t until I looked in ZeusDraw help that I was able to figure out that I should have deselected Transparent Background when I did the export. Sure enough, the resulting PDF was parsed by Illustrator as a vector based drawing, fully editable.

ZeusDraw couldn’t open the PDF directly so I used File > Import in an open document to get the contents of the Illustrator-made PDF. The artwork was placed on the canvas as a single object. I selected Tools > Convert PDF/PS/EPS To Objects and the objects were converted into ZeusDraw objects. Well, sort of.

In this case the objects selected and deselected as a single item even though I could see their separate strokes. I selected Arrange > Ungroup to get at each one and discovered ZeusDraw handles the objects just as VectorDesigner, separating stroke and fill components.

Summary

The object fill stroke separation is really the only thing you need to be wary of when sharing these files. Make sure that you brief yourself on how these apps import and export so you can make moving files and sharing files easier for yourself and others.

Importing the PDF made by Illustrator proved to be okay, although the use of ‘Parse this object or file’ style commands means you have to be aware of the fact that PDFs need to be translated in order that their component parts be understood.

Also, in doing this part of the article, I was impressed by how many options were concentrated in the save procedure, so you could selectively save out parts of an illustration, the selected objects the area filled by the illustration or the entire page depending on the application. All the apps used sheets and made options available appropriate to the file-type selected which was great.

These apps are pretty much even when it comes to export and import of PDF and I found that the only reason I like ZeusDraw the least was the experience stemming from my misapprehension about what was going on.

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Scripting + plug-ins

I will be frank with you. I don’t program . I wish I did, and I can think logically like a programmer owing to my close friendship with a programmer. So a lot of scripting stuff is just magic thinking to me.

This is not to say that I don’t get it. I do. I created a set of actions in Photoshop for a huge scanning project and worked on automating a lot of a production workflow in one place, but I was always using built-in tools that were essential action recordings that could be saved and replayed.

These are fine as far as they go, so I was interested in seeing if any of these apps implemented Javascript (Adobe apps do in addition to their internal engine), Applescript, or even better for me, Automator.

Intaglio

Intaglio uses the OS Script menu to handle Applescript which also gets it screen recording for free using Script Editor. Intaglio also exposes some very infrequently used commands strictly to Applescript and not to the UI. These include Arrow Scale, Display Resolution (the resolution of the computer screen (in dots/inch)), Initial Window Position, Line Direction (property of a text block), and Undo Levels. Intaglio also allowed me to record macros using Script Editor.

Lineform

This app eposes an AppleScript dictionary for Applescripting capability. The Dictionary appears to be very comprehensive. Unlike Intaglio Lineform didn’t seem to support Script Editor Recording.

VectorDesigner

There doesn’t appear to be any way to automate VectorDesigner. There are no Automator actions, nor is there a Applescript dictionary. No mention in the app’s Help or on their website either.

ZeusDraw

This app is on par with VectorDesigner. Nothing available for Applescript and nothing made for automator. Help didn’t reveal anything and the single forum entry about Applescript revealed that it was not supported but was being considered.

And Automator

As far as I could tell, only Intaglio exposed it’s abilities to Automator, and these were limited to operation relating to bitmap images. Too bad.

Summary

I favour Intaglio’s approach because it allows me direct access to automation tools without programming should I need them, as well as the opportunity to create Applescript plug-ins should I desire. Lineform gets this too, but all of them are a far cry from say, Create 14 which can save files as Applescripts and when run from within Create re-create the original file.

I think this could be more exploitable too as these apps move long their capability curve, they could well become contenders for production environments where scripting is desirable or critical.

None of these apps offered alternatives to Applescript like some other apps provide. Adobe CS3 allows work to be done in Javascript, and Acorn, the image editor from Flying Meat, offers development API which supports Python scripting.

Lastly, lacking scripting support passes on the opportunity to create a user culture and other business opportunities for users and developers.

Help

Getting adjusted to an application always send me to the help files. For those who want to be recognized for their computer skills and application understanding, the Help files are the secret weapon of choice.

Intaglio

The help file shows a hyper-linked graphic of the menu bar and clicking on an item takes you to a help file about the commands in that menu.

Commands not directly available through the menus are covered in a list of topics and a section about the palettes and windows.

The writing is straight-forward and items within are well linked to other parts of the help file. Especially useful was the part about Exchanging Graphics With Other Applications and Scripting Intaglio.

Lineform

This app opens a PDF in Preview which because of it’s nature is searchable and pretty useful though I prefer the hyper-linked environment of the Help system. The advantage here is that the manual is well illustrated with explanatory graphics and is clear and concise.

VectorDesigner

Probably the most concise Help there is. There are four video tutorials which focus on important parts of VectorDesigner and the rest of the items are strictly procedural which is far less valuable that contextual and procedural information in tandem.

ZeusDraw

ZeusDraw’s help displays sections on the left and selecting one of them reveals topic which you can read with a click. The help is well written and provides good contextual information which is very valuable with this iconoclastic application. It has a good rationale for the design decisions and paying the Help close study will illuminate the approach and aid in the use of the tool.

This kind of thing is generally pooh-poohed as being a mark of failing the naive user “intuitive” test. Not only is intuitive not the right word to describe something intuitable, but the idea that any tool should be instantly understandable is foolish. Context and objectives and technical consideration always play a role in creating files and using tools on a computer and they all require learning and practice.

In this case the elaboration is welcome. It was eye-opening and refreshing, and I hope the developer finds some time to share his design ideas with the wider community of developers and users.

Summary

All the Help menus provided an item to open the app’s website in your browser with the exception of ZeusDraw which places the link in the help file.

Overall I liked ZeusDraw’s help the best, Intaglio’s next and the others not really much.

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Tonight’s Verdict

In Tonight’s verdict I am going to choose ZeusDraw as my favourite. Maybe it’s my disposition to apps that are unique and quirky, but I don’t think so. Understanding how it handles PDF and files is useful, it’s major disadvantage of not having layers was addressed during the writing of this review, and it’s original pen tool and brushes were just fantastic. It does take getting used to, but it’s some learning that I found paid well.

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Final ThoughtsThese apps are fine tools, and the newer they are the more original they are, at least in terms of doing vector work.

They run the gamut of traditional to original interfaces, and I am encouraged by VectorDesigner’s use of Mac conventions to make the drawing experience more flexible and of ZeusDraw’s persistent originality. If I was to rank this I would say: ZeusDraw, VectorDesigner in close second. Lineform in third because it’s more traditional although it’s banishment of dialogue boxes was sure welcome, and then Intaglio which falls victim to my dislike of the way things are or have been.

Applescript support would be nice but even better would be a move to support a plug-in community and get supplemental tools into their environments. ZeusDraw might be a technical challenge in the regard, but it’s also the most original and I’d be excited to see what these guys could come up with.

In my current capacity as Creative Director in a small design and web development company, I use Adobe CS3 to ensure cross-platform compatibility in the workflow, but I am always interested in tools with unique capabilities, approaches and features. These apps are worthy contenders for your time and money if you don’t have the obligation to support business workflows, and could even be used in a pinch to bridge to Adobe CS3 workflows if it was necessary.

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Linkage

Here are links to all the apps:

  • Canvas 11 – too expensive
  • Cenon – Linux/GNUStep
  • Create 14 – too expensive
  • DoodleCAD – the website and the wood grain title bars
  • EazyDraw – the website is a disaster (and so it the palette frenzy you can see in the screenshots)
  • Inkscape – Linux/Unix/Windows
  • OmniGraffle – Primarily for diagramming
  • Sketsa – Linux/Unix/Windows
  • WouldjaDraw – Not quite enough export options, but boy it was close.

The Reference App

Adobe Illustrator CS3


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