30+ years of isometric drawing in Adobe Illustrator

The process of doing isometric/axonometric drawings in Adobe Illustrator really hasn’t changed much since the mid 1990s, or even since the late 1980s, something I hadn’t fully realized until doing the first AxoTools video. How many of you can relate to this?

Working in Illustrator 88, I would project art to isometric by manually doing the scale-rotate-scale method. When the QuicKeys keyboard macro utility came out, it automated that process and also allowed me to change the constrain angle by pressing an otherwise-unused function key.

In 1994, when Illustrator 5 added support for plugins, I wrote one called Isometric that I shared free on my web site. It added menu items to project art to and from isometric planes, and to create box and cylinder primitives. Does anybody recall using this? I also wrote a free companion plugin Isometric Line Tool to draw straight lines in isometric, which was around quite a while and later merged into AxoTools.

In 1998, Illustrator 8 added recordable Actions, which was easier to maintain than updating the plugin as Illustrator’s API became more complicated. It also added Smart Guides, which I relied on when QuicKeys had compatibility issues with operating system changes.

About this time, Adobe had a simple 3D app called Dimensions (not the same as their current Dimensions product) that exported shapes to a file Illustrator could open. This app was the origin of the “Off Axis” projections I use in my Actions and in the current AxoTools presets. I used Dimensions in my first locomotive cutaway rendering. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. Some of you may use SketchUp in that same way today.

Has anybody found Illustrator CS’s 3D effect actually useful for scale isometric drawings? I had high hopes when it appeared, but it never proved truly useful to me.

Hot Door’s CADtools has had support for isometric for several versions now, and in recent years supports axonometric views. I’ve found CADtools indispensable for technical drawing, but knew there had to be an easier way to assemble the pieces.

So for over 30 years, the process has been to project a shape to an isometric plane, then manually move it into position. This worked OK when one plane served as a sort of floor plan that other shapes could be snapped to, but it didn’t work well for most things I drew, like vehicles, machinery, and electronics. In order to get objects positioned correctly, I often drew a temporary “armature” with projected lines along two or three axes.

I’d actually envisioned today’s AxoTools plugin decades ago, using virtual armatures to position art and tools with custom constraints to move art along any defined axis. Using geometric formulas by Ron Kempke, it became possible to add support for any axonometric projection showing the left, right, and top views. Why it took so long, I’m sorry I can’t answer. I hope you agree that doing axonometric drawing in Adobe Illustrator is significantly easier than ever with AxoTools.