A Look Back: Adobe Type & 30 Years of Illustrator

It’s fitting to talk about Adobe Illustrator’s 30th anniversary with two people who have been the bedrock of the Adobe Type team for the last 30 years: our Principal Type Designer Robert Slimbach, who celebrated his 30th anniversary at Adobe at the start of this month, and David Lemon, who retired last month after being with Adobe Type for just over 30 years as well.

Type specimen of Adobe Garamond

The specimen for Adobe Garamond (released in 1989) shows the broad scope of the family, which is not unusual for an Adobe Original typeface. Adobe Illustrator changed the way typefaces like this were produced in-house.

Illustrator’s arrival changed the way designers worked inside Adobe, and both Robert and David experienced this first-hand.

“When Robert and I started at Adobe there was no serious desktop publishing software,” said David. “To do anything interesting, one had to write PostScript. The only way to make an attractive type specimen was to code it, so I did. It took me several days of futzing.”

When the first version of Illustrator came out, David was somewhat hesitant to embrace it. “It was clearly just a GUI on top of PostScript, and I wasn’t sure artists would find it worth learning.”

It didn’t take long for him to warm to the software, though. “The drawing behavior was different from the various font tools I’d experienced, but it opened new possibilities. I soon cut short my budding PostScript programming career, and went on to use Illustrator for publication design work. For some time all my specimens were created in Illustrator.”

Illustrator wasn’t intended to be a type design tool, but it quickly became a bridge for designers who wanted to more naturally draw letterforms before refining and developing the fonts themselves in a UNIX-based CAD tool called FE that ran on SunOS 3.

Robert had worked on similar UNIX systems before coming to Adobe, and was keenly aware of the technical hurdles they posed. “You couldn’t digitize in this UNIX system, which forced you to adjust outlines by typing in the coordinates,” he said. “You’d want it to be fairly realized before you brought into UNIX, because you couldn’t do any editing that involved a lot of shape manipulation. It wasn’t very intuitive to use. This is why a small Latin-only font seemed like a huge project. It was so painstaking.”

Slimbach's 1989 instructions for using Illustrator in type design.

This figure from the specimen for Robert Slimbach’s Utopia (also released in 1989) explains the process made possible by Illustrator’s easy-to-use drawing tools.

Illustrator allowed Robert to bring the act of drawing more directly into his type design process. “It only took a few minutes to learn to draw in Illustrator and miraculously it produced a nice curve. The ease with which you could refine shapes was really wonderful.” The technology simplified his workflow considerably as well: “You’d scan in a drawing, trace it with the pen tool in Illustrator, then import it into UNIX.”

Illustrator’s blend feature — which calculates the intermediate shape between two different selected objects — also made it possible to think about typefaces as masters for interpolating intermediate weights or styles. Right from the start, Illustrator allowed the type team not just to restore typographic features to older designs that were compromised during the phototype era, but immediately add something new to the idea of what a family was.

When did you first start using programs like Illustrator in your work? Whether it was also 30 years ago, or more like 30 minutes, we’d love to hear your take. Join the Illustrator 30th celebration over on the Creative Cloud blog — and stay tuned for more from us, too.

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