Tuesday, 12 April 2011

I ♥ FreeHand

I don’t purport to be an expert at much of anything. But I have to very immodestly claim expertise at vector drawing and the software that facilitates it. If there is one thing I have done more than most, it’s manipulating bezier curve points. I’ve used pretty much everything out there, starting in 1988. An early version of Deneba (now ACDSee) Canvas. Altsys (now FontLab) Fontographer from v. 1.0 onwards. Adobe Illustrator from v. 1.0 onwards. Aldus/Macromedia Freehand from v. 1.0 onwards. FontLab Studio 5.02. CorelDraw from v. 8 onwards. I’ve even noodled around a little with Aviary Raven. In addition to that I’ve also dabbled in CAD software like SolidWorks and Google Sketchup.

If Malcolm Gladwell is correct that to be an expert at something you have to devote at least 10,000 hours to it, I have earned my expert badge many times over as far as bezier/vector drawing is concerned.
Early in my career I worked at a small to medium sized printer that tackled loads of different things. We had both PageMaker and FreeHand. The computer when I got there was a Mac SE with a 20MB hard disc and the only backup medium was the floppy disc. Pagemaker, just to start an 8.5x11 page, created a 75k file. The same blank page in FreeHand created a 5K file. As soon as you began importing .eps files into PageMaker (which never displayed satisfactorily) the file would balloon in size. The logo in FH was tiny. Turn it into an .eps file and it grew huge; place that .eps into a PM document and it grew exponentially bigger. PM files were sometimes so large that they needed to be split across several floppy discs. In FreeHand I could simply copy and paste the logo into the business card, brochure, poster, what have you, it would look fine, and do everything else I needed to do. Text controls were robust. The only thing it missed was a spell checker. Since I’m a human dictionary, I didn’t mind that. I would always get someone to double check what I had done anyway, so I wasn’t too worried. Plus, and this was rather important in those early days of DTP, I ended up with a file that was relatively tiny. Under a hundred K, rather than the many hundreds, thousands of Ks for PM files. I could often put everything – logo, and all the collateral done with that logo – on a single floppy disc, as opposed to trying to spread even one file across several floppies. Which would then sometimes not reassemble properly when you put them back on the hard disc. Not to mention, why even deal with the nuisance of two separate programs and having to export files between them, when it could all be done in one program? Unless I was doing a book, or a catalogue, or a magazine, I saw absolutely no reason at all to deal with the less elegant and frankly less fun Pagemaker.
As I later worked with more powerful computers with larger hard discs and larger storage mediums, I still saw no reason to diddle around with PageMaker or Quark XPress. Again, unless it was a massive multipage document that required pagination or indexing, I saw no reason to not work in Aldus FreeHand.
So as far as I was concerned, FreeHand allowed me to be much more productive than PageMaker, or Quark XPress. So how did it stack up against the other powerhouse vector software, Adobe’s Illustrator? I tried Illustrator. I hated it. It was unnecessarily complicated and lacked the intuitive ease, precision and versatility of FreeHand. I kept forcing myself to use Illustrator, since I figured it would be good for me to be proficient with both. But I just could not force myself to actually enjoy that shit sandwich. The basic core of it, the way it handled bezier curve points was frankly, terrible. Only a pen tool, and a different tool to manipulate the control handles, and different tools to add or remove points, and different tools to handle the lines or select the control points. Joining points was idiotic. I was often swearing like a drunken sailor as I tried to use this maddening clunker. There is a reason I call it Frustrator or Ill-luckstrator. How the hell did this moronic interface ever allow Illustrator to gain any sort of market prominence at all? FreeHand was always a breath of fresh air. I could get the same job done in a fraction of the time, everything flowed smoothly, and it was just plain fun. Like a determined athlete that wanted to win, I kept forcing myself to get back at it despite the pain. I became familiar enough with Illustrator that I could show up at a new job and know what I was doing. But goddamn did I loathe that program. It was awkward, counter productive, the work flow in it felt like I was swimming in molasses... FreeHand was so clearly superior that I wonder how Illustrator managed to survive at all. How the hell had this program managed to bamboozle anyone into using it? People, through not knowing any better, bought AI, and not being made of money, were unable to buy anything else, so they had to suffer through it. If anyone had the resources to acquire both AI and FH, I suspect that FH would have trounced AI resoundingly. FH was simply a vastly superior program, outshining its competition in almost every way. It offered text on a path and layers long before AI did. I think it wasn’t until AI v. 3.0 that you could even do anything in colour. Many other features. Oh yeah, and then there was the fact that FH’s core functionality was so much better.
FreeHand allowed me to do just about everything I needed to do. I could create custom typefaces, draw a logo, do an illustration, design a poster, create any ancillary items meant to accompany that poster - tickets, maps, stationery, booklets, etc., all in one program. There was often little need for me to switch to any thing else. FH wasn’t limited to doing just drawings – it was an absolute powerhouse that suited the way I worked perfectly. What I liked about it so much is that it took a backseat and just let me create. I wasn’t struggling with an abysmal interface. The core of what it did, vector drawing and type handling were simple and powerful. It was user-friendly, logical, intuitive. I sang FH’s praises to anyone that would listen.
In 1993, I came back from a trip to Asia and heard that Adobe had bought Aldus. Oh no. Adobe has Illustrator, Aldus has FreeHand – what would happen to FreeHand? Would they bury it in favour of the inferior Illustrator? Fortunately, they were obliged by US antitrust legislation to divest themselves of FreeHand so that there wouldn’t be a monopoly on vector graphics software. This is how Macromedia came to own FreeHand. Later, when Adobe bought Macromedia, that same legislation wasn’t brought to bear. Truly, a tragedy.
When Adobe merged with Macromedia, many wondered what would happen to FreeHand. Did Adobe even realize what a gem they had in this versatile program? They continued to sell it, but they didn’t do anything to upgrade it. In May of 2007 Adobe finally admitted that they had killed FreeHand. They would no longer update or patch FreeHand for new operating systems or hardware (such as Intel Macs). Adobe created several migration guides to help long-time FreeHand users move over to Adobe Illustrator instead. Which really wouldn’t be anywhere near satisfactory.
Speaking with other people who were experienced with both programs, the same phrases kept coming up. FreeHand – simple, intuitive, quick, powerful, efficient. Illustrator – frustrating, complicated, awkward, confusing, clunky.
Some of the features that made FreeHand so great. This touches on a number of versions over many years. Some of the features were eventually adopted by Illustrator. Some have never been adopted.
Layer Control – Less complex to use and easier to select/de-select and move objects to and from.
Dynamic Palettes – I select a line and the stroke and fill options appear. I select some copy and the text options appear. Of course! The info and tools I require are always in the same place. I don’t have to search for a new palette – very intuitive, less clutter.
Cloning Objects – one keyboard shortcut rather than two. This is merely one example of many things that could be achieved in one step rather two or three in Illustrator. This may sound trivial, but it starts to add up over time.
Knife Tool – ability to slice over a bunch of lines and cut everything in one go.
Joining Paths – a breath of fresh air compared to AI.
Multiple Pages in One Document – not just multiple pages, but each in any size or format desired. Multi-page documents with linked columns, obviating the need for a program such as Pagemaker or InDesign or Quark Xpress.
Lock/Unlock – lock and unlock individual objects, not unlock all like AI.
Paste Inside Command - way better than AIs Clipping Paths
Text Handling – always better in FH. I could use tab features for instance.
Radial Gradation – were always smoother in FH versus AI.
Punch and Union – way better than PathFinder.
Collect For Output – quickly gather up all the elements used when it came time to send the file to a service bureau.
Name All Colors – made colour swapping very easy.
Find & Replace Graphics – amazingly powerful tool. The ability to alter all the stroke widths or colours in a document in one fell swoop - huge time saver!
Corner, Curve and Connector Points – ideal for drawing.
Bezigon Tool – yet another option for drawing that AI didn’t offer.
Rectangle, Oval and Polygon Tools – much better than in AI. Adjustable curved corner - great feature!
Editable Blends
Page Tool
Perspective Grid
Spiral Tool
Power Duplicate

There were so many other things – efficient selection methods, text attached to top and bottom of circular paths, well implemented point alignment and snapping controls, flowing text inside paths or around shapes, customizing toolbars, working with colour and gradients was always easier, being able to colourize tiffs, reliable film output, amazingly accurate point alignment.

And then we get back to the point I keep hammering on about, the very essence of what a vector program is supposed to do. Namely placing and manipulating points, which was infinitely easier in FreeHand, rather than a frustrating exercise like it is in Illustrator.
Another thing that always annoyed the hell out of me is that FreeHand allowed you to export many more file formats. Including exporting Illustrator formats. Illustrator on the other hand would not export Freehand formats – which always struck me as utter petulance on Adobe’s part. Yeah, there is another program out there, one that happens to be better than your offering, and refusing to concede that fact isn’t going to make it go away. Oh right, but you can buy it and make it go away. Assholes.
There are things I like about Illustrator: 3D Effects, Live Paint, Open Type support, Make Warp presets, Brush tools, Live Trace, Lens Flare tool, Mesh tool, Opacity masks, PDF output, and great consistency and nearly seamless integration between the other CS apps.
And there are certainly drawbacks that FreeHand had at various points. (No program is ever perfect.)
PDF export in general was kinda lousy.
OpenType and UniCode wasn’t supported.
Freehand wasn’t Postscript level 3 compliant for quite some time. Meaning that only 256 levels of grey were produced rather than say a gradient with 4096 levels of grey, which PS Level 3 allowed.
Pattern fills and strokes could not be output to high-resolution devices.
When making a PDF of a FH document with a 2 spot colour linear gradient using Adobe Distiller, while the other elements appear in their spot colours, the gradient came out in CMYK.
Text that had been underlined, when converted to paths, would lose the underline.
A high resolution PDF generated from a FH11 document with a spot channel EPS DCS 2 as a composite, spot colours would disappear and convert to a low rez 4 colour.
FH 11 lost information (strokes would disappear) when ungrouping objects.
Freehands transparency effects did not work well. A grey-scale scan made transparent, became a bit-map with all the grey gone.

But a lot of the latter ones were somewhat obscure flaws. Some of these things were conflicts that only become apparent in the crucible of a production environment. Just plain awkward vector tools with crappy anchor point and handles controls is something that should be apparent right from the get go.

And the flaws of the later versions showed signs of Adobe allowing their acquisition to stagnate and not bothering to update or amend flaws.
Admittedly both programs have had bad versions in the past: FreeHand 4 and 10 and Illustrator 7, for example. Not all so-called ‘upgrades’ are improvements; often the interface gets worse and the software becomes increasingly bloated. What users never want (but what the big software firms are always giving us) are more and more functions patched on, meaning more bugs and conflicts, and a bigger and slower program.

I realize that all software has its strengths and weaknesses. Some will say that Illustrator and FreeHand are just vector illustration tools utilizing anchor points and paths, with the ability to change the attributes of these vector objects’ fills and strokes. But strip away the filters and effects from AI and what you end up with in my opinion are abysmal vector tools with crappy anchor point and handles controls.

In the last decade I’ve been forced to use Illustrator since it’s often all I have access to, and I’ve sucked it up and gotten more proficient at it. If it’s the difference between getting an idea out of my head or not, well...I guess I’ll eat that shit sandwich. But I don’t have to like it. The whole time I realize that something exists which would be faster and more fun. I would still happily take FH 7 or 5.5 or even 1991’s 3.1 over the latest version of AI. How’s them apples?

If Adobe was to come to its senses and resurrect Freehand, or allow someone to resurrect it, some features I’d like to see include:
Proper PDF engine, with an ability to import and export PDFs
Adobe type engine, with support for OpenType, UniCode, font grouping, optical kerning etc
Support for SVG
A history panel would be great.

There is now an organization dedicated to spreading the word about FreeHand, http://www.freefreehand.org/. Trying either to get Adobe to revive it, get them to sell it to someone who will do something with it, or release it as open source software.

I don’t know the first thing about programming. I’m merely an end user of programs. But I feel so passionately about this, that if somehow someone is able to wrest control of FreeHand away from Adobe and turn it into an open source project, I want to learn about programming so that I can contribute in some small way to that most worthy project. FreeHand was (and in so many ways continues to be) such a vastly superior program, I want to help get it out there again. The more I learn about open source projects, the more I like it. I realize open source has its flaws, but a monopolistic software giant that refuses to listen to the pleas of a huge user base, and buries a better product, doesn’t have flaws? FreeHand deserves better than to be bled to death by a company who looks at this as another victory over its competition.

Even if it was just a simple stand alone drawing program, that used FHs beautiful tools, (maybe at the level of v. 5.5 or so) that would be fine with me. Do all the drawing I need to do, and then take that into Illustrator. Anything to avoid the aggravation of having to use AIs drawing tools.


  1. You have spoken the words many of us feel about FreeHand. The shame of this long-time design application being removed from the market is a stain on the design/illustration community and those companies that serve it. While looking at the splash screens of over twenty years existence (!) I can't help but feel how shameful it is that so many of us looked the other way as if this was Fate. I still don't understand how the assumed power of one company can scare its own customer base into accepting actions that otherwise might raise outrage. Are designers, in general, really that complacent? or does it take a direct slap in the face to get a response. I mean, how many times have you heard "time to move on" or "just accept Illustrator" or "use the tool others use" as if that solves the fact that a thriving, longstanding, competitive software was pulled out from under its customers and the market.

    I was involved recently with editing the Wikipedia FreeHand page and both its history and story are compelling. The ending paragraph about its future and the ongoing rebellion by FreeHand users reveals petition after petition since the acquisition was announced in 2005. At the time, I was discouraged but thought a "super" app that combined the features of Illustrator with the intuitive ease and speed of FreeHand would be the result. What a joke on me! The worst was merged and a sluggish, bloated Illustrator was built instead. Intuitive? You know the answer to that.

    So here it is 2011 and 6 years later, we FreeHand users are still hungry for it and angry at the shame of its imprisonment. In reading your article, Exploriment, I appreciated you writing the REASONS why FreeHand is still exceptional as well as what is lacking because of non-development. Many of those features you like in Illustrator could be in FreeHand today if it had survived the 2005 merger.

    I can say that the FreeHand base is a fiercly loyal lot and Macromedia would have been under customer scrutiny as much as Adobe is now if it had neglected FreeHand in any way. But here we are now and Macromedia is but a ghost. FreeHand isn't. So where do we all go from here?

    Thanks for posting this article! I too am a longtime user and this brought back the joy of all my years using this great program. (Unfortunately, I also got a bit angry at the end.)

    Support www.freefreehand.org

  2. Wow, this really is a great statement for FreeHand. I doubt anyone will ever find such a kind of article about Illustrator!

    And consider FreeHand ist now about 6 year without any update, and in its mayority it is still better then the newest Illustrator.

  3. I could not have put it, even remotely, as well. Thank you. FreeHand is my favourite tool and for all the reasons you give.

  4. Excelent piece of text!! You said it all...

    I use Freehand since 3.1 i still use it (MX now)...but now it's difficult..i receive a lot of work in Illustrator that i have to redo in Freehand because i can't control the end result in Illustrator.

    Freehand and Photoshop are the tools i use everyday...

    Adobe doesn't have to be ashamed because it has the greatest image editing software...in the other hand Illustrator it's not...

  5. Having been a cartographer for 15 years, there is no better tool for making maps than Freehand. Sure I use AI because I'm forced to do to so, but left to my own freelance devices, I can work much faster and more organized from Freehand.

  6. You had me at "shit sandwich". I laughed out loud more than a couple of times. Now it's up to who ever it's up to to make something happen.
    Thanks for carrying the torch!

  7. A first class comment on FreeHand (and Illustrator) indeed!

    I wonder whether anyone has ever really gotten to the bottom of why that same anti-trust legislation wasn't brought to bear when Adobe bought Macromedia as it was when Adobe previously bought Aldus? Surely, this has to be the focus of any new attempt to wrestle FreeHand back from Adobe's evil grasp?

    Whilst your analysis of the program reminds us all once again of what we may have lost, it is heartwarming nevertheless to be reminded of the many good years we once had.

    Yet, I completely agree with you that even if FreeHand was resurrected just as a simple, no-frills, standalone bug-free drawing program with all its inherent speed, simplicity and intuitiveness of operation, that would be heaven once again.

    Is Adobe really so big that, between us all, we can do nothing to make this possible, even when legislation has acted in the past to ensure that there could not be a monopoly on such a program?

    One has to wonder. Adobe is not Goliath after all -- just a bunch of old timers pandering to the whims of their shareholders.

    Maybe we should all attend the next shareholders' meeting and make a case for FreeHand's own strengths as being complementary to those of Illustrator. The shareholders might not understand the needs of the creative professionals that the company claims to serve, but if they could be persuaded to see the dollar signs floating before their otherwise blinded eyes, they might even vote in favour!

    Ultimately there just has to be some justice for this wonderful product, so...

    Please do support www.freefreehand.org

  8. Sincerely good description of freehand and all facts, I am also user for several years, and Freehand always did what had to do, is a powerful tool for vector design. Hopefully there is some possibility that remains in place and works just like and better than now ...

    Force freehand, still have thousands and thousands of loyal users who appreciate the ease and safety in the design.

  9. artisans graphic art studio14 April 2011 at 22:59

    I began my computer-graphics life in 1986 using Illustrator and Pagemaker combined to produce work, until 1990 when I found an unopened Freehand box at a new job and thought I'd give the tutorial a go. I haven't even opened a Pagemaker or Illustrator file since! I began my own art studio business in 1996 and use Freehand (MX) and Photoshop exclusively - brochures, business cards, magazines, catalogues, posters, etc. - ALL the printed material my customers require. And to send these job to print, I just export the files to PDF. My various printers NEVER have a problem with any of my PDFs. In fact, I regularly get emails from one of them asking me to fix up PDFs sent from other graphic artists that use InDesign! (UnDesign, more like it.)
    I will NEVER buy Illustrator or UnDesign for my business. I refuse to be bullied by that lot. I would rather leave the industry and become a farmer. And I bloody well will, if ever comes the time when I am unable to use Freehand on my Mac.

  10. Thanks so much for putting my love for the extension of my brain and right hand into the right words.
    Especially your last paragraph, it's all about the drawing tool. Illustrator is just simply impossible to use. Freehand rules supreme, still!

  11. Adobe has no incentive to re-write Illustrator as they did with InDesign as there is no direct competition. To be fair, I thought InDesign was quite good.

  12. Agreed. I also like InDesign a lot.

  13. GREAT article! Freehand and Mac are a delight to use. I've struggled with trying to use Illustrator for years - it seems designed to frustrate and irritate its users at every step. Illustrator is to drawing what sumo wrestling is to ballet dancing.

    Let's hope the FreeFreeHand org is successful in getting FreeHand back in the living world where it belongs... or at least getting a comparable new vector drawing app into the hands of designers.

  14. Freehand saved the day for me so many times... excellent drawing and page layout capabilities. I remember my sister and pop going crazy trying to print the her phd dissertation in Word. I happened to drop in for a holiday and redid the whole thing in Freehand, graphics and pics nicely placed here and there, all pages in full view in the Pasteboard, intuitive, easy... I saved the day with it.
    As a character designer in games, I also got my company to buy Freehand licenses, with it I vectorized my sketches and looked great.

    Tried illustrator, it was always a pain.

    I miss Freehand so much.

    Thanks for the excellent article!

  15. Ahh, this takes me back.
    Overall I agree that Freehand was the superior program, it was SO much faster to use that Ai in almost every way. I loved the way in FH you could have multiple page sizes in one document. It sorted the bleeds out and everything.
    Things that were better in Ai:
    The way the .eps file was fully editable, so you didn't need two separate files like in FH.
    Copy and pasting to Photoshop was better.
    PDF export was seamless.
    PDF import not too bad.

    The one thing that still gets my goat after about 10 years of using Illustrator is that awful "stroke/fill" selector at the bottom of the toolbar. It's SO counter intuitive. It adds an extra click for no reason. It felt like it was added just so it was "like Photoshop". Why on earth is it still like this?