Meeting between Gill and Nisha, Thursday 22nd February 2018

The aim of the meeting was to review Nisha’s use of the visual elements to construct the conceptual figure for her upcoming methods paper (see the preceding two blog posts – part 1 and part 2 – for all of the relevant details).

Nisha was very positive about the advantage of having a range of visual elements available from which to build the figure, and the figure itself had received favourable feedback from her work colleagues. However, as Gill and Nisha reviewed the steps taken to make the figure, three main issues were brought to light.



The ability to make use of the Layer functionality with Illustrator is absolutely key to getting the most from the visual elements. The fact that different parts of each image are drawn on separate layers makes it much easier to both edit and adapt the image to suit a particular need. The header image to this blog post shows four variations on the image of a cannula, all created from the same single Illustrator file simply by toggling layers between visible and invisible. All of the visual elements supplied to Nisha had been drawn in the same way, to allow outline only, or colour fill only, images to be quickly created.

Although Nisha has experience of Illustrator, she uses it mainly to draw graphs and charts, rather than images. Consequently, she was not familiar with the concept of layers. Gill had supplied Nisha with Illustrator files in Creative Suite (CS) 5 format and some layers within the file were locked, to prevent accidental editing. Nisha was not aware that layers could be locked and assumed there was a problem with the files when she could not select parts of the image. Although Gill mentioned that this may be due to locked layers, this was not checked. Instead, Gill supplied files in the latest Creative Cloud (CC) format, with all of the layers unlocked, and Nisha used these files to create her figure.


Illustrator versions

Because Nisha was opening CC format files in CS5, a lot of the functionality was lost, including the separate layers. Instead, the entire image appeared on a single layer, which negated the ability to easily edit and adapt the files and meant that Nisha struggled more than was necessary to edit parts of the image. Once Gill had explained the issue of locked layers, it was obvious that the original files, supplied in CS5 format, worked perfectly well and would have made Nisha’s task easier.


Combining Illustrator files

Nisha was also unaware of the different ways of combining different Illustrator files in order to create a single image within Illustrator, e.g., ‘placing’ a file onto a single layer; copy and pasting an entire image onto a single layer; or copying parts of an image onto separate layers. Each method allows for different levels of editing in the combined file, and therefore it is important to know which is the most suitable to use.


Some conclusions …

Although Nisha had made a good job of constructing her conceptual figure, and was happy with the result, it could have been achieved more easily if she had been aware of more of the functionality availability in Illustrator and how to use it. Unfortunately, Nisha had missed the later part of workshop 2, where layers and combining files had been discussed, and had not reviewed the how-to guide on using layers that Gill had produced for the workshop.

Nisha also commented that it would have been very useful to sit with Gill at the start of the process, and then she would have seen exactly how the visual elements were built up using layers. Although Nisha had expressed a desire to have a go at using the visual elements herself, Gill should have ensured that she was at least familiar with the functionality needed to make good use of them.  In future, any scientist being provided with Illustrator files of visual elements will also be provided with guidance on how the files are made up and how to edit and adapt the images. This will preferably be done in person, with Gill sitting down with the scientists involved. However, Gill will also add an overview guide to using Illustrator to all of the folders that contain the Illustrator files relating to the online image library. A ‘Read Me’ pdf file has now been added to these folders, alerting users to the importance of the Illustrator file format and the layer functionality, and giving a link to the Illustrator how-to guides.

In future, any hands-on training in Illustrator may be better split into two parts, with the first being a general introduction to Adobe Illustrator (effectively a shortened version of workshop 2) for those who have never used the software before. The second training session could be one-to-one, or with a very small group, and would be focussed on the visual element files. In that session, Gill would show how the files are constructed and the best ways of editing, adapting and combining them to create conceptual figures.




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