6 Super-useful Adobe Illustrator tips & tricks every good designer should know

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If you’ve been hunting for Illustrator tips, you’ve come to the right place!

I love Illustrator so much.

Despite some snags that cropped up with the conversion to Illustrator CC, I have a very happy long-term relationship with Illustrator.

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But it CAN be frustrating, so here are a few Illustrator tips on how to make it work better for you, as well as improve the integrity of your design work.

If any of these Illustrator tips save you from DH (Design Heartache), I’ll consider this post a success. If I’ve missed anything, include your favorite Illustrator tip in the comments!

Illustrator tip #1: Align objects to an anchor object or to a grid

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 10.20.38 PM

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Here’s a huge tip for using Illustrator. When you’re aligning objects in Illustrator, it’s easy enough to select objects and hit one of the “Align Object” icons in the Align window.

But sometimes you need a little more control than that.

If there’s one item in the layout that you want everything else to align with, here’s a neat Illustrator trick:

  1. InIllustrator, select all the objects that you want to align.
  2. Then click on the object that you want to use as the anchor object. When you click that object, you should see the selection border become a little beefier – now it’s the anchor object. (See the left-most green star above.)
  3. Then, when you click on the appropriate Align Object icon, all of the selected objects will align with that anchor object in your Illustrator artboard.

You can also align to a guide, which is really nice if, say, you want to make sure that everything is perfectly centered in a layout.

  1. First, make sure that your Illustrator guides are unlocked (View > Guides > Lock Guides).
  2. Select the Illustrator objects that you want to align – including the guide that you want to align them to.
  3. Then click on the guide again and you’ll see that beefy border appear.
  4. When you hit your Align Object icon, everything will be lined up beautifully to that guide.

As an aside, I’m hoping that the folks at Illustrator will adopt the term “beefy border” – it’s pretty great. 😉

Illustrator tip #2: Enforce miter limits on offset paths

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 8.45.58 PM

This next tip addresses an issue that always pushes my buttons when I see it, and I most often see it occurring on the sides of trucks on the highway.

Someone has designed a logo or word mark and put an offset path around it, but he has ignored one simple thing – miter limits. This results in an overly jagged, menacing path which is completely distracting and inappropriate. (See above.)

You could lose an eye on those points!

The reason the “i” appears to be growing horns is because the miter limit is set too high. The lower the miter limit, the more beveled the corner. (The miter limit controls when a corner gets mitered – pointy – as opposed to beveled – squared off.)

Or use round joins and avoid the problem altogether!

Ahhhh – I feel my road rage subsiding already.

Bonus offset path tip! Once your type is perfectly adjusted, it’s also a good idea to do a Pathfinder > Unite on the offset path so that you don’t end up with a messy snarl of paths – the best paths are the simplest ones.

Hmm– I could probably apply that wisdom to other areas of my life…

Illustrator tip #3: Expand strokes

One dangerous issue I see often in finished logo files is that the strokes are not expanded on paths.

And all it takes is for one user to have “Scale Strokes and Effects” unchecked in her Illustrator preferences, and when she downsizes that logo, the strokes inflate like out-of-control balloon animals.

Your lovely logo is ruined.

Always keep “Scale Strokes and Effects” checked in Edit > Preferences > General – you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you??

Illustrator tip #4: Convert type to outlines

If your type isn’t converted to outlines, anyone with the ability to select the type tool can wreak havoc on it.

Why spend countless hours on a beautiful logo and then allow it to be adulterated (however unintentionally) by users farther down the line?

Especially when all you need is a simple Cmd/Ctrl + O to make those quick type to outline conversions.

Don’t let this happen to you.

Now that we’ve covered the serious stuff, on to the tricks!

Trick #1: Option/Alt + Star Tool

It bothers me that five-pointed stars drawn using the Star Tool look slightly overstuffed. What if I want a traditional one?

Fix this by holding the option (or alt) key as you draw the star for that classic 5-pointed star look.

Trick #2: Tilde + Shape Tool

Hold down the “~” key and try any one of the shape tools.

(I do this when my brain needs a break, and it gets even better with no fill and a very colorful gradient stroke.)

I won’t say more – just try it!!!

Want more software tips?

Check out these posts:

And then leave a comment on what types of software tips would be most helpful to you!

Do you have any can’t-live-without Illustrator tips to share?

There’s always more to say about Illustrator, but now I’ll turn it over to you. Do YOU have any Illustrator tips or tricks that you love? Please share them in the comments!

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  1. Hello! I don’t know many things about pantone colors. A client asked me which pantone i have used for a gradient ( a gold gradient) so she can tell to the printing company. Any suggestions how i can find out ? 🙂

  2. Very nice tutorial to learn. Its look like cool! The use of pen tool is really important in maximum design work. Thanks a lot for share.

  3. You are super awesome! Just turned on the Scale Strokes and Effects. Something that has been irking me for YEARS!

  4. This is great. Thanks for the great tips. Especially “Scale Strokes and Effects.” So much I don’t know! Thanks for making this fun to read, too.

      1. It reminds me of the Spirograph toy I had as a kid, but with better color options 🙂

  5. My fav vector drawing programme was Aldus/Macromedia Freehand. It was easy to use, intuitive and in 2002 it was streets ahead of Ill-frustrator in 2015. Illustrator is a piece of crap by comparison – there are two reasons why it has survived at all:

    1. After Adobe brought Macromedia there was no serious alternative if you worked on a Mac. And once Apple changed to Intel chips, Freehand wouldn’t run on the Mac platform under Rosetta (admittedly it ran like a bit of a dog on PPC macs under Rosetta but it was still better than Illustrator). If you’re on Windows there is Corel Draw which is more of a niche product. And (ironically) Freehand will still run on later versions of Windows.

    2. Adobe foist Illustrator upon all users of its Creative Cloud suite. It’s there already so why not try to use it (Microsoft has done the same thing with Internet Exploiter for years).

    While they have changed the wrapper, Adobe haven’t actually improved the usability of the software since 1995. I know of people who draw vector logos, etc in InDesign because it’s way easier to use than Illustrator! One would have hoped that they would have taken some of the usability of Freehand and incorporated it in later builds of Illustrator. But they haven’t. It’s not a case of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ but more a case of ‘OK, it’s broke but as there’s no serious alternative there’s no need to fix it, just give it another coat of paint’.

    Having said that, your tips and tricks are very helpful. But shouldn’t Adobe make these things more obvious for users in the first place? Illustrator, if not actually ‘user-hostile’, is certainly unfriendly and uncommunicative. Example: “To join two paths select two open points”? What? I thought that was what I just did? OK, try again. “To join two paths select two open points”. AAARRGGHH!! Illustrator, I HATE YOU!!

    ps: Ever done a search for ‘I hate illustrator’? Try it!

    1. Quick question: How do you draw a box with rounded corners in Illustrator?

      Answer: Draw box, then apply ’rounded corners’ filter Each corner has the same set radius. Great, huh?

      OK, say you want to create inner/outer strokes to the path (great for logos, as you mentioned above). Add required stroke weight, then apply ‘Objects/Paths/Outline Stroke’. Oh! WTF? My rounded corners disappeared!

      Right. Draw a circle to required radius and cut into four corners. Move corners to corresponding corners of box. Delete box. Select two open points on adjacent corners and join (Command+J). Damn! Try it again… Got it. Repeat for all for edges of box. Add stroke to required weight and go ‘Objects/Paths/Outline Stroke’. Done. Whew!

      Quick question: How do you draw a box with rounded corners in Freehand?

      Answer: Draw box. Set radius of corners (note, this can be applied to all corners, or each corner can be set individually.. Heck, if you want to make the top left corner square you can, no problems!)

      OK, I’m going to outline with a 2pt line weight. Done!

      1. Illustrator has gotten better about the outline strokes to rounded rectangles in CC, but I believe you’re right about there being no easy way to make individual corners rounded on the fly…

      2. Dude, I’ve been a loyal advocate-evangelist for Freehand since its version 7, but –to my pain at first– I (and an increasing number of my clients/provideers including Apple) decided it was time to move on and give ILL a chance. It is 100% true ILL was crap until CS6 (havent tried CC) which is the closer it can get to a Freehand experience. A proven useful-lifesaver trick is to replicate ALL of your shortcuts. You DO use shortcuts, do you? Same for custom workspaces/palettes/panes.

        It is also true that a number of things in ILL need to be re-thinked but to be honest, 80% of daily tasks are as easy as they were in FH.
        With the mix of custom shortcuts+custom workspace & (really) little effort, Illustrator’s learning curve eases heavily and can give at least as much good result than FH.
        And one last thing: We all learned from scratch to use Freehand, right? It was crazy those first times at it. So, what makes you think you can’t do the same with ILL? You did it once, why couldn’t you do the same again?
        Cheers mate!

        PS/Bonus tip: Every now and then I have to deal with rounded corners. Just try this: begin drawing a rc-square and WITHOUT releasing the mouse set corner radius with the up/down arrow keys.
        If you have your design/guides well aligned and stuff, it will match your desired size/corner radius at ease.

        1. Excellent rounded-corner tip, Juan. And I agree – it’s worth the short-term pain to dig into Illustrator, and YES, replicate your shortcuts to lessen the pain. I love your positivity, btw – thanks for joining in the convo 🙂

    2. It’s always been interesting, and baffling sometimes, to follow the evolution of Adobe products – seeing what Freehand remnants remain in Illustrator, for example, and how the different Adobe products have become more aligned yet not aligned with each other as time goes by. And what remains frustrating. There’s probably not a designer out there who hasn’t sworn colorfully loudly and often at Adobe, and yet I’m so happy it exists.

  6. After all the 100 and over sketches of ideas for an iconic brand identity project, Illustrator simply tells me: “I understand all your hard work, you deserve to be understood.”—wrytpage

    Great tips and tricks!

    1. Thanks Simon! Yes, Illustrator talks that way to me, too, and it’s a wonderful thing 🙂

      1. Thanks Rebecca! I’ve been using illustrator for 10 years now – including the “publica” InDesign and the “magico” Photoshop – and they’re all awesome.

        But Illustrator does the “iconics” — clean, shape, resizable, vector-base iconic brand identity. (Ask David Airey, Saul Bass, and *Paul Rand)

        1. THAT is what I love most about using Illustrator, Simon – making clean, simple vectors for brand identity projects. I started as a fine artist before I was a designer, so drawing in Illustrator makes me happy (despite occasional frustrations).

          1. Sometimes I think Illustrator is an “Apple-thing” — clean, light, powerful, simple, and beautiful.

        2. Well, you don’t want to ask Tony Brook from Spin, which is a Freehand user/lover (as he told once in a workshop I attended). At the end we all can agree it doesn’t even matter the tool but the problemsolving, approach and the result, don’t we? 😉

          1. I agree. But, I’ve been thinking “What will this world be without great tools?” — Tools that have pushed “makers at heart” to the extremes, and ultimately creating the solutions we never would’ve thought is possible.

    2. Really? It never said that to me after spending hours on an iconic brand identity project. In fact it’s never told me that at all.

  7. Illustrator is my go-to tool for designing just about anything 80% of the time!

    1. I used to work in the packaging world, and I was using Illustrator about 80% of the time for years – it’s still my favorite. Thanks for sharing, Christopher!

  8. Great tips! Been using Illustrator for YEARS and learned several new things in your post (slightly embarrassing) – but SO thankful! Thank you!

    1. I’m glad you found some good stuff in there! And share your favorite tricks too, please! Sometimes I’m amazed at the simple things I’ve missed…

  9. draw a box that will be the margin of your poster then convert guide CMD + 5 (same with lines and any shape). I find a bit annoying working with long guide lines across the artboards, that is the most important for me on Ai.

  10. I’ve been using Illustrator for at least a decade and there are still some tips here I never heard of before! Awesome. Illustrator is my go-to design tool. Thanks Rebecca.

      1. Here’s one: Create a couple of color swatches. Select them all, and in the swatches panel menu, choose “Create new color group”. BAM all your selections in a separate color group. Nice for initial design packages.

    1. What do you like about Corel Draw vs Illustrator? I haven’t used Corel Draw much, so I’d love to hear your opinion. Thanks!

      1. I think it comes down to the user, I learnt design with CorelDraw first then I learnt Illustrator and I was frustrated that I couldn’t create pages as I would in CorelDraw. I like the features on Illustrator but I can achieve same results in CorelDraw.

        1. If it works for you, that’s great – that’s one think I love about design: we all come to it from our own perspectives, and there’s no one “right” way to do it.

    1. Yes, isn’t the Tilde magic the coolest?? I haven’t used it for any practical purposes – I just love to play with it…

      1. Is that just on the latest version of Illustrator? I can’t see any difference. Seriously.

        1. Mike, the tilde + drag should work on earlier versions of Illustrator. Are you on a US keyboard?

          1. Hmmm… Maybe it’s more recent than CS4… It should create multiple duplicates of your shape!

          2. I have already stated the trick as an answer up above but I’m sharing it for everyone to see as well:

            Begin drawing a round corner square and WITHOUT releasing the mouse set corner radius with the up/down arrow keys.
            If you have your design/guides well aligned and stuff, it will match your desired size/corner radius at ease.

            Maybe it is not the “trend” in accuracy as you do not enter fixed numeric values but most times work for sketches/quick tests…

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