Practical Adobe Illustrator

Let me preface this blog with the following admission: I am not a professional graphic artist. I sort of fell into this job in 1996 when I took a temp job at the San Antonio Express-News Art Department. My experience as a former military photojournalist, plus a degree in English, got me in the door. My ability to quickly and easily pick up the programs in use got me a full-time job. And I survived the 2008 drawdown that rocked the industry by diversifying my skills.

Macromedia Freehand

I began by doing my best to master Macromedia Freehand, which was the preferred standard for newspaper graphics when I started. I also started learning QuarkExpress and Photoshop, but to a lesser degree. I already had skills in Microsoft Office, which put me up a bit over the other artists who didn’t use them enough to care about learning them. I also was conversant with both the Mac and Windows operating systems, which may have been my saving grace in later years.

My first regular task was converting Associated Press graphics from their style to ours, using our fonts and column-widths. I quickly learned that a good template could increase my ability to convert a graphic quickly and accurately. I was able to put that template to other uses as I started doing locally-produced text boxes and data grids.

Given that we had a full staff at the time, my job creating simple graphics (the “scut” work) meant I didn’t have as much to do as my counterparts. Since I liked working at the paper, I started learning other skills on my own to keep myself busy and employed. I began to learn Flash and HTML, and started building websites on the side. They were rather crude, but most sites were in those days.

No Flash

My burgeoning skills in Flash meant that I could take our major projects produced for our print version and create an interactive version for our online site, These graphics were well received, but being self-contained, they didn’t bring in the almighty “click” numbers that a multi-page slideshow did. Flash began to lose its luster as a design tool when Steve Jobs famously dissed it for the iPhone and iPad. Today, Adobe has replaced Flash with Adobe Animate, but most animated graphics are done in HTML5 and CSS now.

In 2005, Adobe acquired Macromedia. The primary reason was to get its hands on Flash and Dreamweaver, but there was a hidden agenda as well: to kill Freehand, Adobe Illustrator’s main competition in the vector graphics arena. There was a loud cry of anguish from newspaper graphic artists all over the world over this, including me.

I had used both programs in my course of creating graphics and I much preferred Freehand. It handled text much better than Illustrator did and was more flexible in creating bar, line and circle graphs. We hung on to Freehand as long as we could, but wound up switching to Illustrator out of necessity.

As the Mac operating system (we used Macs at the E-N for graphics work) changed, the old Freehand program began its death rattle. It was obvious that it was time to embrace the change and begin doing everything in Illustrator. Now, we have a bunch of legacy graphics that can no longer be opened by Illustrator or any other program that I know of, which means anything we need to recreate must be done from scratch. (Current iterations of Illustrator won’t open any of them either, which is grounds for a whole ‘nother rant, but I won’t address that now.)

Adobe Illustrator

So, forced to convert to Illustrator, I was forced to reinvent my template to the new program. And that’s what this blog will be about: using Adobe Illustrator in a practical way for people who can’t draw at all.

I personally can’t draw worth a damn, so if you’re looking for ways to draw designs or trace images, this isn’t the blog for you. There’s plenty of resources on that out on the Web. This blog is about doing information graphics using Illustrator (and InDesign, but we’ll get to that later on down the line).

So, who is this blog for, then? This is for people who need to use Illustrator to build simple graphics: text boxes, graphs, locator maps. Or they need to convert graphics from other sources to their style and size. This is where you’ll learn how to create a graphic in a few minutes, not a few hours. When you’re on deadline, you don’t have the luxury of taking your time.

Let’s get started, then.

Step 1: Setting up the Workspace

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