Interview with Nicholas van der Walle


Today our guest is Nicholas van der Walle, the proprietor of Astute Graphics. Astute Graphics has become world famous thanks to its Phantasm CS and VectorScribe plugins that make our work easier and more convenient. Among their customers there are such world famous brands as Adidas, Apple, NASA, Nike, Philips, Washington Post and many others. In this interview Nicholas tells us about his company and its products. You will find out his opinion on the future of vector editors. Maybe Nicholas has prepared another surprise for the vector world? Check this out after the jump!

Q Hi Nicholas, welcome to Vectortuts+! Tell us a little about yourself. How and why did you start creating plugins for Adobe Illustrator?

Hi Iaroslav and thanks for the interview. You'd think that starting to trade as "Astute Graphics" in 1997 that I would be a true graphic designer. Sadly not.

My university education was in Automotive Engineering Design (the oily bits on cars) appropriately at Coventry University where the British car industry was traditionally centred. I always liked engineering, (cars, planes, boats, etc.) as a child, which is why I chose my course. But it's a cruel fact that when you have to decide on what you think you want to do for the rest of your life, and you're only 17, in reality you'd be lucky to get that choice right the first time.

After designing engineering stuff, which I'm still proud of, I started to realise that I enjoyed the technical illustration side more and more. So, when still young, I quit my steady day job and set up shop. I cringe now at the business errors I made in the early days, but sometimes if you don't jump into the deep end, you'll never learn to swim.

For many years I used not a Mac or Windows box, but a quirky British computer system developed by the long-defunct Acorn Computers. Their RISC OS machines and the major software products by Computer Concepts, which ran on it, was very much ahead of its time, but the momentum was lost (even though Acorn morphed into ARM and Computer Concepts to XARA). However, I'm very glad I had that particular foundation in computers, as many of the concepts of usage were to later emerge and are continuing to do so with our products.

So why did I change Astute Graphics to a developer of plug-ins for Adobe Illustrator? Well, to be honest, I only changed over to Mac and Windows 10 years ago and largely hated the initial years and experience of working with Illustrator 10. It felt very powerful, but I also sometimes felt like it cursed me for not knowing a 4 button keyboard shortcut to do something that I considered to be obvious.

I eventually became more comfortable in Illustrator, but always thought important aspects could be improved upon. I had experience with commissioning software (I am not a programmer myself, but hugely admire the talents of the programmer's I'm lucky enough to have worked with), so sat down to write the Phantasm CS specification document in 2005. It kind of snowballed from there...

Q Tell us about your company Cerilica.

In 1998, I co-founded Cerilica producing a very interesting complete vector design product for the RISC OS systems. Using the software's arbitrary ink handling allowed me to design the leaflet, which glimmered with an undercoat of silver metallic.

We're only a very small company with 3 employees plus contractors, but are growing steadily. In fact, we're looking to take on our first developer physically located in our Hereford (UK) office from around December to help accelerate our product plans. Currently, we exclusively produce Adobe Illustrator plugins: Phantasm CS was launched in 2006 - with several subsequent major upgrades and VectorScribe earlier this year.

Phantasm CS Photoshop-esque vector color adjustment tools was adopted from an early stage by print and pre-press operators, rather than purely creative users. However, when we released the Designer version with its vector Halftone tool, it caught the imagination of a much wider audience.

It is very satisfying to know that our product has been used directly or indirectly by the likes of Nike, where their shop murals featuring famous sports stars were rendered beautifully in the halftone dot effect.

VectorScribe has proven to be a successful and popular vector path control toolset amongst a very broad range of designers, from the fashion industry through to font designers.

It has also highlighted a general desire by Illustrator users for an alternative workflow, which answers long-held questions of efficiency and ease of use. That is such an all-encompassing quest by users throughout the design industry that we picked up even more multi-national customers, as well as a diverse array of freelancers.

QCould you tell us about the artwork "Convergence"?

It took one month of near-continuous work to draw "Convergence." But then you have to remember that this very high resolution artwork was created on a computer with 32Mb of RAM, 400Mb hard disc and a chip running at 200MHz. There's more power in many smart phones today.

QWhat type of computer products do you release?

Our expertise is in vector design tools, which is why we have never produced a Photoshop plugin, even though that market is much larger. I think that it's important to concentrate on what you know and refine the tools over time, rather than to have a scatter-gun approach where many smaller products are launched with varying success.

I suppose I'm also most comfortable with vector due to my background in CAD from the engineering days. I never was good at hand drawn art as such (as a couple of our well meaning beta testers have kindly pointed out!), so I like the ability to fine-tune a design to the n-th degree.

And I'm sure many would say I squeeze the life out of any of my own creativity that way, but I'm comfortable with it. Just look at some of my old portfolio images along with this interview - I'm the first to admit that I'm not going to win a D&AD pencil award. Perhaps they'll send me a pencil sharpener one day with a note "try harder"?

"Highlander" was created for a major engineering publication and harking back to my technical illustration days.

Q What are you working on now, what events is vector world expecting?

Making mistakes is not a sin. Not learning from those mistakes is. Which is why I have never publicly pre-announced a plug-in product that isn't ready. We just kind of throw it into the design arena when we're happy with it and enjoy people's reactions when they first see it. This philosophy is definitely related to the saying "Under promise and over deliver."

This proved to be very successful with the launch of VectorScribe. I was a bit naughty by producing an anonymous mock paparazzi-style movie a week before it was announced. That movie really made people ask questions about what it was, and who was behind it; there was genuine curiosity and excitement.

But things change and it's always good to try something new. That's why tomorrow at the London International Technology Show — the first physical show we'll be exhibiting at denote — I'm going to stand on the main show stage at 1pm for 15 minutes to preview one half of our third all-new product.

I don't want to spoil things too much, but it is another Illustrator plug-in that is planned to go on sale in the coming months when the other half is ready. The tool I'm going to demonstrate is complete and has already been beta tested by a growing and very kind professional design "clan" for the past two months and has produced some fantastic responses. Put it this way - it's made one of the oldest and most important Illustrator tools redundant for most of the testers.

It's all part of a bigger plan. But on that, I have to keep quiet.

Q Could you tell us about some of your logo design work?

I always loved creating logos. They are probably the toughest design challenge as something very simple has to convey so much. If only I had the Phantasm CS vector halftone tool to create the Cerilica logo at the time!

Q Undoubtedly, Adobe Illustrator is the most popular vector graphics editor in the world. Although a lot of people consider it to be very uncomfortable. Do you study the functionality of other vector editors such as Corel, Xara, Inkscape, and others in order to use their best characteristics in your plugins?

I must confess to only having had cursory glances at Inkscape. It's key point is that it is relatively feature-rich and of course, free, although not a native Mac program.

As previously mentioned, my background in vector design started with Artworks which later became XARA. I have spent a good amount of time behind XARA, but that was about 10 years ago. Sadly the rate of development for that package appeared to slow, even though some aspects are truly stand-out, including rendering speed and interactive tools (shadows, bevels, etc.).

But the versions I used also lacked some critical professional features, such as overprint preview, which makes sense when you consider it was more on-screen and "print-lite" orientated. However, by not porting it over to Mac OS years ago, they have condemned their own fate just as Corel did. Competition is good, and their presence alongside Illustrator on the Mac would have been very healthy for the market.

To answer your question, yes. I most definitely look for new ideas elsewhere, as well as dreaming things up. Very little true invention ever goes on in engineering (IT included) - most "concepts" are merely clever rehashes or other ideas. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as each method and accepted norm has room for improvement.

The trick with regards to plugins is to ensure that these ideas are integrated very well. Phantasm CS and VectorScribe both look like Adobe could have created them, which is very important to remove an unnecessary additional learning curve.

That's what takes most of the total development time (not just the programming). It starts with scribbles on paper and ends with feedback all the way through the beta tester phase. And even then it never really stops, as customers can point out the bleedin' obvious that we didn't pick up on.

Q Could you tell us about the project "Nucleus" you worked on?

Product design is the ultimate combination of engineering and graphic mastery. I doubt that I'll trouble Jonathan Ives or Ian Callum, but I really enjoyed this project which led to a darn nice production prototype. And I did design it way before Apple got there with its Power Macs. Perhaps Ives did notice?

Q Vector editors can sort of work with raster images, Phantasm CS adds them more functions in such work. Do you think that merging of vector and raster editors will happen in the future? Did you think about the future of vector editors?

I definitely think about the future of vector editors, usually daily. And technically it's possible to merge Photoshop's toolset with Illustrator's, and InDesign while you're at it. But can you imagine the UI? How many menus would it take? How much space would be left to preview the artboard? I personally think it would be a user's living nightmare.

You could argue that the toolsets could be trimmed back to the absolute essentials. But one user's "essentials" are guaranteed not to be another user's.

Instead I think that Adobe largely got it right with the PDF and PSD formats. I never think "damn! I wish I could place this Illustrator file in InDesign" or "if only I could place this Photoshop file in Illustrator!". All that works.

What we did with Phantasm CS' embedded image relink and editing tools was fill in a functionality hole. I always found it a bit crazy that there was no way to truly access an embedded image in Illustrator, especially not being allowed to edit it in-line. Sometimes you have no choice but to end up with an embedded image; for example by expanding a raster effect. Implementing it turned out to be a harder than it looked, as there are so many color modes, etc. But it was worth the effort.

Q Could you tell us about your "drinks carton" design?

It's an example piece for Phantasm CS Publisher to demonstrate the technical features to the packaging and pre-press customers. It is possible to derive pleasure from creating technically-challenging artwork - this one requiring 7 inks.

Q You have a vector blog on your web site. What is it devoted to and how do you intend to develop it in the future?

Illustrator, more than any other Adobe product, needs good tutorials to get the most from it. 25 years of development have made a myriad of tools and potential methods to achieve simple or complex results.

Vectortuts+ is one of the leading lights with this. It has genuinely new and original articles that are professionally produced. And I'm not just writing that because that's where this transcript is heading!

We also wanted to create a similar resource in a much smaller scale that covered both Illustrator and our own plugins. Such material would benefit both our customers, helping them to get the most from their investment, but also to help sales by demonstrating the software further. Many of the articles have also proven to help general Illustrator users as well.

I started writing articles myself last year. It proved to be effective. But as the business grew, I had less and less time to devote to it (it takes much longer than you think, which is why I admire the Vectortuts+ authors so much), so last month we took somebody on to produce regular high quality articles. His name is Iaroslav - you may have heard of him?

The benefits to everybody are already starting to shine, even at this early stage. And it's great to have another person produce the articles as I can genuinely learn new techniques too!

QWhat is your typical working day? What are you interested in life other than vector graphics?

I work in an office in the center of the beautiful English market city of Hereford. I chose the office because I can see the ancient Cathedral out of this window. There's a lot to be said for that - even when they chime their bells for long periods of time!

It's increasingly becoming that 2/3rd of my day is taken up with email correspondence. I always try to answer queries by return, otherwise they just mount up and customers get annoyed.

I do less and less design in the day, apart from beta testing myself. Sometimes I produce example artwork, such as the rocket illustration and mock drinks packaging. But is it art? Not really. Demonstration pieces have very different requirements.

The rest of my working day is spent organising things, be it new products, the exhibition (3 months of preparation = 3 months of my life lost!) or business matters. But I still enjoy it because I genuinely get excited when a developer sends me a new build and a tool has suddenly come to life. I'm strange like that…

Outside work, my wonderful young son ensures that my wife and myself are never bored. Strange how you never visit old railway lines with steam trains running on them until you have offspring.

And then there's my old Mk1 VW Golf ("Rabbit" to non-European folk), which sadly gets driven increasingly rarely.

Q Could you tell us about the creation of "Rocket"?

Rocket is a second example for Phantasm CS, but this time for the more common Photoshop-esque color adjustment tools found throughout that plugin range. Being able to control colors with live effects is hugely powerful, especially when combined with vector/raster hybrid artwork.

Q I know that a lot of artists do not use plugins in their work and are even proud of that. Do you have any arguments that could persuade them?

If Illustrator is effectively your operating system - ie. where you spend most hours behind - you could consider plugins to be like any other program you buy for a computer.

I can see why plugins have that "third rate citizen" reputation, though. Traditionally they were mere toys allowing you to create a strange effect that, if lucky, you could use on a single job. And their user interfaces could also be best described as "experimental".

But I don't believe in these plugins. And, to be fair, the majority of plugins out there now are genuine workflow enhancements suitable for daily work with a professional look and feel.

However, no amount of words from me will, or should, convince you. Nowadays, virtually every bit of software out there has a trial version to download — and Astute Graphics is no exception. If you don't find that a particular tool benefits you, it would be crazy to buy it. But if you don't try it, you may have lost a way to save yourself hours (see the comments here) that could be much better spent with friends and family.

Q Could you tell us about the "Calm and Draw On" project?

This artwork was not drawn by myself, rather by the over-talented US designer Von Glitschka for our London International Technology Show presence. I appreciate designers such as Von so much as they take a crazy amount of care and apply so much attention to the smallest of details. It's what separates the greats from the also-runs in the design world.

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