Using the right tool for the job is the key to efficient design, and most of the projects I work on usually require heavy use of Photoshop. Recently I was challenged with an internal project at Phase2 than required me to dig back into illustrator, an application that I only mildly use for vector graphics that I usually import into my web designs.
While reacquainting myself with the finer aspects of the Bézier curve I discovered three fancy new features included in Illustrator CS5 which are not only amazing, but change the way I will permanently work.
Shape Builder Tool
How many times have you drawn a series of simple shapes that you need to make into one shape? There is nothing more daunting than needing to connect a bunch of shapes and staring the pathfinder palette in the face and thinking "Which of you crazy buttons are going to make my shapes into a better shape?" The pathfinder palette, while very powerful never really made a the simple task of joining shapes an enjoyable process. But now there is the shape builder tool and it rocks my design world.
Variable-Width Stroke Tool
Illustrator is the best tool on the market for drawing on the computer. The problem is, that for so long it looked like illustrations were drawn on the computer. Hand-drawn illustration has imperfections and stroke widths that were really hard to achieve in earlier versions of the application. The New Stroke width tool allows you to pull the edges of a stroke to expand the width at any middle point. It takes a while to really master the possibilities of the tool, but it is very fun to play with. Jessica Hische makes it look easy in this video.
If you have ever designed a logo you know that your client will want to see what it will look like on various pieces of collateral. Mocking up a vector drawing on a billboard or the side of a truck used to require some talent and Photoshop, but this new tool makes it a lot easier. I will note that setting up your gird takes a bit of time, and brings me back to the days of "perspective" exercises in drawing class. Getting your grid to closely match the landscape in your mockup is the hardest part of the puzzle, but once you are there your drawing magically snaps to it. I only wish I had more reasons to use this new feature!