Flashy FreeHand Animates Web Design

SAN MATEO (03/20/2000) - Making your e-business stand out from the crowd requires sophisticated graphics design, and that requires sophisticated graphics design tools. Vector-based drawing products were originally created for designers to develop resolution-independent artwork for print design.

Currently, these same products are proving very useful for Web design as well as for print. One product that is particularly adept at both is Macromedia Inc.'s FreeHand.

Of course, FreeHand has strong rivals. Both Adobe Illustrator and CorelDraw have loyal followings and for good reason: Each product is mature and very capable. Although FreeHand doesn't match the large market share Adobe Illustrator boasts for the Macintosh and CorelDraw boasts for graphics artists creating artwork on the Windows platform, it takes a backseat to neither of these competitors in terms of features. And thanks to FreeHand's capability of exporting images in Macromedia Flash format and even creating simple Flash animations, neither Illustrator nor CorelDraw can beat FreeHand when it comes to livening up Web pages.

Available by the time you read this, FreeHand 9 offers a slew of new features with an emphasis on simplifying the development of vector graphics used by Macromedia Flash 4 and the Web. Moreover, additional design and productivity tools make this mature product well-suited to both new and seasoned graphics designers. Unfortunately, FreeHand is still hindered by a busy interface.

Despite the ability to fully customize menus and toolbars and consolidate numerous panels, new users may be put off.

I evaluated a late beta of FreeHand 9 that features a collection of improvements and new features. In addition to the new built-in tools for creating and exporting Flash 4 animations, the upgrade boasts improved (and expanded) menu options, new toolbar functions, new artwork creation tools, productivity enhancements, improved text support, expanded file exporting, improved color output support, and much more.

Design for the Web

Unlike image editors such as Adobe Photoshop, vector-based drawing applications are used to define graphics using straight or curved lines with color fills.

This results in much smaller files, and, unlike bit-map images, vector files can easily be enlarged without degrading quality. Ultimately, however, the Web requires conversion to bit-map file formats that browsers can understand (with the exception of the Flash file format).

FreeHand 9 simplifies Flash animation creation with the Release to Layers feature, which creates impressive Flash animations by using layers as groups of frames in animations. Release to Layers allows you to quickly animate a complex image such that it builds before the eyes of your Web visitors. Moreover, features such as the new Magic Wand Tracing tool let you take a bit-mapped graphic and convert it to paths so that you can further integrate it with other vector elements. FreeHand 9 provides many drawing tools not offered with Flash 4 that let you create sophisticated graphics much more easily than with Flash.

FreeHand 9 now offers a Flash-compatible Symbol library that lets you define graphic elements and then reuse them. When a change is made to a Symbol, each document that uses it reflects the change.

Productivity boosters

New design tools make it much easier and faster to create complex graphics. The new Perspective Grid feature makes it simple to create a skewed element that's similar to a 3-D graphic. For example, I drew a simple text element and then simply snapped it to the grid to automatically create the 3-D effect. The Perspective Grid let me alter the placement of my text without having to re-create the design. I was even able to move the element up and down the grid, or closer to the vanishing point, and the angle and scale of the text changed to reflect each new perspective.

Another time-saver is the new Envelope tool, which helps to simplify warping and distorting text and graphics. When I used this feature, I was able to extrude elements by simply dragging a handle to raise parts of an element.

Like Version 8, FreeHand 9 employs a collection of panels, toolbars, icon bars, and menu items. Although most of these components are customizable, it's not difficult to muddle the workspace and obscure both the pasteboard and documents. Unlike CorelDraw's capability of docking windows and Illustrator's minimalist use of screen elements, FreeHand's prolific collection of toolbars and panels can quickly clutter a screen. The ability to both hide/display and double-click the menu bar, which creates "zipped" panels, helps to a small degree.

During my tests, I used a 19-inch monitor running at a resolution of 1,024 by 768 and found that this provided enough room to work with my designs and move the assortment of panels and toolbars off to the side of the pasteboard, which helped immensely.

This was particularly important while using FreeHand's unique multiple page feature that lets you work with an assortment of pages on the pasteboard -- although the pages needed to be relatively small to view them all at once.

This newest version is a definite improvement over Version 8, and those currently using FreeHand will appreciate the new performance enhancements and excellent support for creating complex Flash content. Although you can purchase it separately, the best deal is purchasing the Flash 4 FreeHand 9 Studio version that saves a few hundred dollars -- a very good deal, particularly if you haven't upgraded to Flash 4 yet.

Senior Analyst Jeff Senna (jeff_senna@infoworld.com) evaluates multimedia and Internet-based technologies.


Macromedia FreeHand 9

Business Case: FreeHand 9 allows graphic designers to quickly and easily create sophisticated and even animated graphics for the Web.

Technology Case: Improvements to this full-featured vector graphics design tool include outstanding integration with Macromedia Flash 4 and productivity enhancements.


+ Slew of helpful print and Web-based design features+ Tight integration with Flash 4+ Excellent price for Studio versionCons:

- Busy interface

Cost: Macromedia FreeHand 9: $399, $149 upgrade; Macromedia Flash 4 Freehand 9 Studio: $499, $199 upgradePlatform(s): Windows 95/98/2000; Windows NT; Mac OS 8.1 and laterShipping: March 2000Macromedia Inc., San Francisco; (800) 457-1774; www.macromedia.com.

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