Interview with Adobe Illustrator product manager, Brenda Sutherland

If you work with Adobe Illustrator, this is a very special interview with a person who you may not have heard of, but has probably had a major say in the way you work.

Brenda Sutherland is product manager for Adobe Illustrator. We had the great pleasure of meeting her last year when she visited our show stand in London in October. And it was a revelation, transforming the image in our minds of Adobe as a large anonymous corporate body into something altogether more personal. For we found Brenda to be experienced in design and pre-press, knowledgable and funny.

So we thought it time to introduce Brenda to you all in this comprehensive interview with questions contributed by some equally key figures in our industry. Enjoy!

Update 2 February 2012

Astute Graphics blog tutorial author Iaroslav Lazunov has opened this article up further to our international friends by translating this interview into Russian. This may be found on Iaroslav's Vectorboom website: ru.vectorboom.com/load/stati/intervju/intervjuillustrator/10-1-0-50

Update 26 January 2012

Monika Gause has very kindly (and amazingly quickly!) translated this interview into German. This may be found on Monika's Vektorgarten website: vektorgarten.de/interview-brenda-sutherland.html

Many thanks to Monika for her kind work!

The interview

Hi Brenda and many thanks for giving us the opportunity to ask you a few questions about a subject that is close to our blog follower's and customer's heart; Adobe Illustrator.

Firstly, congratulations on being one of the key custodians on a design product that has reached an astonishing (in software terms) 25 years of age. I won't pretend to have been on the scene at the product's inception, but I have spoken to, and worked with many who have. And they all say the same thing – it's possible to directly draw a lineage from the first version to the latest. As you well know, the Pen tool is something many designers have, and continue to, grow up with, with some having learnt their craft in version 1.

Historic Illustrator splash screens

But now we're at this milestone, we are at a point of looking both forwards and backwards. Therefore a series of questions have been compiled from not only ourselves but also key designers and associates. We'd all appreciate your insight into how you become the current ringmaster, the current state-of-play and perhaps a peek into the crystal ball.

About Brenda

Q: Being a product manager doesn't necessarily mean that you have a background in the product's market. Is design, art, illustration or similar something you had a passion for in your early years?

I've always had a passion for art and remember clearly the day my life seemed to take a new direction. I was seven years old and on a class field trip to see a Norman Rockwell exhibit. Of course I was absolutely amazed by Rockwell's paintings and Illustrations, but the biggest impact that day had on me was the realization that being an artist could actually be your "job". That coloring, drawing, and modeling things with clay wasn't just something to do during playtime, that it could in fact be your career.

Q from Monika Gause: What were your dreams after graduating from University? If someone had told you that you'd be travelling around the world being responsible for this kind of huge project, what would you have said to them?

A: While I've always been a dreamer, I have to say, if someone had looked into my future and told me this while I was in school, I wouldn't have believed them. As much as I love my job I'm glad I didn't know I'd be doing this then, because I think the path I took to get here, while unexpected, did a lot to prepare me.

While in school I worked at a print shop, doing graphic design and layout, but I actually graduated with a degree in Film and Television production. I worked in the television industry for a number of years before joining Adobe. Even while I worked in television, I continued to keep up with design, and freelanced as a graphic designer. That was when I learned Illustrator, on my Mac Classic. At the time I thought it was the most amazing program ever (and I still do!). It enabled me to create logos, illustrations, and various graphics, all from my little computer at home. No light table, Rapidographs, Exacto knifes or rub-on letters!

When I joined the Illustrator team I couldn't believe I was working on this magical product, alongside such passionate, talented people. I couldn't believe I was working on an application used by so many incredibly creative people around the world. After all these years, I still feel the same way.

Q: How long have you held the reins of Adobe Illustrator and how did the opportunity come about? What were your personal thoughts on the positives and negatives of the product when you became product manager?

A: I've been the primary Product Manager for the last year, and part of the Product Management team for the last five. When I joined as a quality engineer, we were just getting Illustrator 6 out the door. That was 16 years ago!

At that time, coming from a background of paste-up where everything was laid down on paper and edits were time consuming and difficult, the most compelling thing about Illustrator was that everything remained perfectly editable. It was so easy to adjust type, change colors, resize logos. Things we all take for granted now.

For me, the best part about being a product manager is providing solutions for our customers. I love meeting with customers and learning about how they use Illustrator. Being able to shape Illustrator into an even more powerful tool so they can do more in less time or expand their creative tool set is very exciting and fulfilling to me.

I feel that my biggest challenge to solve is that Illustrator is not an easy program to learn. My personal goal as a product manager is to continue to improve Illustrator's usability. I not only want to make it easier for new users to learn, but make it faster to work in for our long time customers.

Illustrator in the market

Q from Iaroslav Lazunov: Why do you think the Adobe Illustrator became the leader in the market of vector editors? Is it the best editor or is successful marketing a key factor?

A: At the risk of sounding biased, yes, I do think Illustrator is the best vector editing and creation tool on the market by far. With our extensive toolset, wide range of formats, and integration with other Adobe products we offer our customers solutions that are unmatched.

It's why we are not only the standard vector graphics tool for print, publishing and packaging designers, but also web and interactive designers. CAD and Industrial designers, fashion designers, medical illustrators, and many, many more consider Illustrator their primary, or one of their primary tools.

Q: What do you see as the three key advantages of Illustrator over, say, Corel, Xara or newcomers such as Artboard?

A:

  • Illustrator's integration and strong workflows with other Adobe products
  • Illustrator's ubiquity in the creative world
  • Illustrator's flexibility. While Illustrator's feature set more than meets the needs of the majority of our customers, thanks to independent plugin developers, like yourselves, the application can be expanded for a wide range of customers with specialized needs.

Stability and upgrades

Q combined from numerous contributors including Von Glitschka, Iaroslav Lazunov, Sean Ferguson and more:
Stability is a key concern for many users. When Illustrator crashes taking potentially hours of work, the frustration is understandable. The latest topic for stability appears to be CS5's interaction with Mac OS 10.7 with rendering issues and more. What is the best way for users to report issues? Can each bug report from a customer expect a personal answer and a commitment to a fix for verified/repeatable issues? And what priority does Adobe give to bug fixes over, for example, new features, licensing changes and accommodating new digital media?

A: Stability is a key concern for us as well, and is our highest priority! We track every crash log sent to us (via crash reporter) and read every bug report and feature request submitted via Adobe.com. While we are not able to answer every one personally, we are certainly tuned in and work hard to address these issues in dot releases and versions under development. We also work with partners, including Apple, to resolve compatibility issues with their products.

Q: Adobe is now offering a new licensing model which allows professionals to access a product which usually retails in the UK for around £600 GBP (about $900 USD / €700 EUR) on an alternative monthly subscription basis. Does this herald a new development cycle intent, moving away from the suite-wide 18-24 month major updates? Will more frequent updates allow for regular stability and minor feature improvements?

A: More frequent updates will definitely allow us to make regular improvements that will include bug fixes, performance enhancements and even new features. We'll be able to offer far more than is currently possible with a onetime purchase and dot releases. That said, subscriptions will not be replacing the current release cycle any time soon. Customers will continue to have both options.

Q from Sean Hodge, Vector Tuts+ editor: Many people skip versions for various reasons (cost, lack or requirement for new features in certain release, etc.). The new policy of only allowing upgrades from a previous version could alienate many users. Are Adobe confident that they will entice users to each and every new release of Illustrator without potentially losing existing customers for ever?

A: Customers have spoken out about this, and Adobe has listened! Customers with CS3, CS4 and CS5 will be eligible to upgrade through the end of 2012. If you'd like more details, they're available here: www.adobe.com/products/creativesuite/faq/upgrade-policy.html

Looking into the future

Q from Sean Hodge: Adobe recently announced its Creative Cloud offering to its customers. What do you feel the benefits to Illustrator users of Adobe's new Creative Cloud approach will be? Do you see it purely from an alternative licensing viewpoint or do you envisage that one day many Illustrator users will choose to store their artwork in the Adobe Creative Cloud? If so, would Illustrator's file size need to be condensed further to make it a practical proposition?

A: I see many benefits to our customers through Creative Cloud and subscription licensing. One of the most exciting to me is the cost of entry! I often meet students and designers who are just starting out and can't afford the latest versions of our products. The subscription model makes it's so much easier to get the latest products from Adobe and stay current!

Also, there is so much more to Creative Cloud than subscription licensing! It's a whole new way of working. Of being able to move freely between your Adobe products through your desktop, your tablet, even your phone. The best way to learn about what this really means is to check out our web site on Creative Cloud.

www.adobe.com/products/creativecloud.html

Q from Bjorn Willems, Product Manager at Esko: Is Adobe planning on making a server version of Illustrator like they did with InDesign?

A: While we don't have any current plans for a server version, nothing, and I mean nothing, is out of the realm of future possibilities.

Q from Sean Ferguson, Iaroslav Lazunov and others: The process for choosing new features appears to be a mystical one for many customers. For example, a call for multiple artboards echoed for years and was finally implemented in Illustrator CS4, whilst an equally called-for Auto-Save feature remains conspicuous by its absence. Does Adobe listen to customers, or even go out of their way to enquire what they may wish to see in the next version? Is there constant monitoring of Adobe forums for feedback and suggestions? How does a new feature make its way to the top of the list?

A: We absolutely listen to our customers and seek their feedback though all phases of product development! And that does include the User 2 User forums and our Facebook page as well as feature requests submitted to adobe.com

I know from the outside it seems like a simple matter of knowing that something is desired by so many, so why not put it in then next release? But there is a lot more to it than that. Every enhancement and possible new feature has to be researched. We need to determine what the use cases are, the problems we want to solve, and of course, what the best solution is. Then we look at the various ways we can implement the feature, thinking about function and usability. We do this for a large number of features and enhancements in every release. However, with any product that has to be delivered on schedule, we are limited in how much we can accomplish in any single production cycle. So we have to prioritize all of the things we want to do and make tough decisions every time about what makes it in, and what needs to wait for the future.

Brenda visiting LITS

Above: Brenda (front, centre) visiting the Astute Graphics stand at the London International Technology Show, 2011. And yes – she was taking notes following stand visitor comments as well as the chats amongst us all in the evening.

Q from Sean Ferguson and others: Adobe has a huge advantage in offering a suite of products. Whereas there is already much integration, do you see remaining holes being plugged soon such as comprehensive copying/pasting between Illustrator and InDesign? Or will there ultimately be one converged design and publishing app?

A: Our cross product integration improves with every release, and we continue to work hard to make moving between our products as seamless as possible.

As for eventually converging into one design and publishing app, I don't think that would serve our customers very well. Having separate applications gives our customers a lot of freedom in their workflows and is one of the reasons our products are used in so many different fields and industries. A videographer, a textile designer, and a web designer may all use Illustrator everyday, but their workflows, tools sets, and use of other Creative Suite products will vary considerably. Having just one application, one size fits all, would increase the app size, the learning curve, and the time it would take to navigate through all the menus and panels. That wouldn't benefit anyone.

Brenda and Illustrator

Q from Monika Gause: Do you still find the time for personal artistic work? Which media do you use?

A: I wish I could say I did, but between my duties as Product Manager and my duties as a parent, I don't have much time to spend on any personal art. I have enjoyed volunteering at my son's school, giving art lessons the last few years. So I guess my most recent media has been colored construction paper and tempera paints.

I also get a chance now and then to do things for friends and family. My husband brews his own beer, so my contribution is creating the labels [see example below]

Homebrew label

Q from Monika Gause and Sean Hodge: What is your favourite tool in Illustrator? Can you give a couple of short tips on tools which can help a workflow but often get overlooked?

A: Now that's like asking a mother to choose her favorite child! Honestly, there are so many features that are special to me for so many different reasons. But I'll share some insight into some tools that I think are often overlooked when they should be part of every designer's daily workflow.

Symbols are extremely powerful and many users never discover them. Symbols can help reduce file size, save hours of time when editing files, and have some fun, creative uses as well. The Shapebuilder tool is a lifesaver when it comes to combining and deleting objects to make new shapes. The Variable width tool makes it so easy to create strokes with a non-uniform width, so they look hand-drawn rather than computer generated. And if you are not using the Appearance panel now to change and apply attributes to objects, groups and layers, then I recommend you start because it's incredibly powerful and a tremendous time saver.

Many thanks for your answers. Illustrator remains a cornerstone for many designers across the world and we would like to wish you and the team a wonderful celebratory year!

A: Thank you Nick. It's been a pleasure! I also want to let you know that the Illustrator team and I are really excited about the tools you and your team at Astute provide that extend Illustrators abilities even further! We're really looking forward to seeing what you come out with next!

Nicholas van der Walle

A huge thanks to all who helped devising questions for Brenda. The above questions only represent a quarter of the ones received!

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