Review: Astute Graphics VectorScribe

The makers of the award-winning Adobe Illustrator plug-in Phantasm CS have come up with a brilliant Illustrator plug-in that simplifies design and saves time. Their new plug-in VectorScribe amazes from start to finish. It not only simplifies and speeds up design but makes executing creative ideas a lot more fun too. After having played with it a couple of days it’s as if Illustrator has become a clumsy program.

VectorScribe is a plug-in that brings dynamic shapes and art manipulation in five extra panels to Illustrator. A dynamic shape can be a square, rectangle, circle, ellipse, star or polygon, or donut. These shapes are drawn around their true centre point, and they have their own red coloured handles as well as a strange looking “stick” on the top.
The handles and ‘stick’ serve multiple purposes, including converting sharp angled corners into rounded ones, opening a path by simply dragging the ‘stick’, and more. In fact, so much more that in order to make the most of VectorScribe you’ll be happy to know there is over one hour (I’d say closer to two) of sceencast training on Astute Graphics’ site.

One side of the star is now an open path, using the 'stick' handle.

It really pays off going through the training videos one by one, then trying out stuff in Illustrator, than going back and taking the next, and so on. It’s not that VectorScribe is difficult to use, but there is so much functionality crammed into this plug-in you can’t possibly discover it all on your own.
So, what can you do with VectorScribe? For starters, the true centre point and the handling of shapes is completely different from Illustrator’s, as it allows for much more accuracy and makes your work less error-prone. And example is the square. In Illustrator you can draw a square and once you start working with it, it’s very easy to accidentally change its aspect ratio to that of a rectangle.

With VectorScribe, that is impossible, because a square is a square until you go back to the panel and change it to something else — explicitly.

VectorScribe also enables you to work faster. Converting a sharp corner in Illustrator isn’t a drag-and-drop operation. It involves either an explicit choice on your part or a time consuming tampering with corner points.

In VectorScribe changing corner type is as easy as holding down a modifier key and dragging. Opening the path to a free or pre-defined angle (like 30 degrees) is much easier too: just drag the ‘stick’ handle and release where needed.

With the SHift key, the dynamic star remains upright

VectorScribe’s dynamic shapes capability is not even its most useful or awe-inspiring feature. PathScribe lets you manipulate paths in ways you couldn’t imagine Illustrator to support. For example, if you draw a shape — with VectorScribe’s Dynamic shapes or a regular Illustrator one — and you select the PathScribe tool, you can click-drag anywhere on a shape’s sides to turn the line into a Bezier curve.

Once you’ve done that, PathScribe becomes a real power tool with which you can quickly convert corner points into smooth points and vice versa, create corners that are truly rounded, i.e. with the automatic addition of a point so the curve is perfect. You can select all points and manipulate all point handles (or only in/outgoing point handles) simultaneously. PathScribe allows you to split paths and close them again, but not necessarily the way Illustrator would do it. For example, if you want to keep Bezier curve handles while joining paths, PathScribe can take care of that, while with the Illustrator you lose the handles and get a different looking result. Hovering over a smoothly curved path with the PathScribe tool and a key modifier shows you potential points that would make a a path with round corners perfectly smooth and round, whereas Illustrator will not make perfect rounded corners by itself.

Another feat PathScribe pulls off is to keep corner point handles running parallel with the Bezier curve they’re on as you drag a curve that would normally make those handles rotate together with the drag direction. The icing on the cake with PathScribe is that you can get a view of points, curves and curve degrees, and more, in exact figures. What makes this feature even more powerful is that, if you have two shapes that you would like to make identical, you can copy those exact numbers from one shape to another!

More accurate design

Accuracy is one of VectorScribe’s unique features, in my opinion. When it makes sense, you can get accurate numbers that you can edit and copy over, right from within the VectorScribe panels. This is true for dynamic shapes and PathScribe. The Dynamic Measure feature is accuracy taken to the next level. Although I am reluctant to compare Illustrator with VectorScribe to a CAD program — for that it lacks many other features — the Dynamic Measure tool is extremely powerful for anyone who needs measurements in different units, with angle degrees, and the ability to either remove the measurement read-outs as long as they are “dynamic” or consolidate them on a locked layer.

I found further evidence for VectorScribe’s focus on accuracy when watching the Slow Drag screencast. As I don’t have artwork with details that require me to zoom in to the maximum supported factor on Illustrator, I couldn’t try out the feature, but it boils down to the ability to slow down curve, point and handle drags ten times normal speed. Needless to say, this gives maximum control over what you do.

I could go on and on about VectorScribe, because it almost covers as much ground as Illustrator by itself does. For example, two other areas where you can benefit from VectorScribe are text shapes and bitmap image masks. The only tool that I found of limited use, although it definitely is a time saver, is the Protractor. I imagined a real one to play with, while it actually is a rather simple constrain angle feature like the one in Illustrator’s Preferences. You can access different constrain angles by clicking a button though, so that the Protractor really is Illustrator’s feature on steroids.

After spending only a few hours with VectorScribe, you’ll find it irresistible, Illustrator as it’s supposed to be, and one of those rare, real must-haves. The Studio edition costs 79.00 Euros.

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