I have been working with Adobe Illustrator for close to 10 years now, and it hasn’t always been easy. The complexity of the software, with all of it’s tools and the fact that it’s getting more complex with each update, can be quite intimidating. Especially for someone who’s just getting started in the field of design. With this article I want to share with you the best Illustrator tips and tricks that I have learned over the years, and which have helped me to work faster and get better results. My goal is that at least one of these learnings will help you improve and optimise your workflow in Adobe Illustrator!
These are my 6 best Illustrator tips and tricks that will help you work faster and get better results!
What I also think that it’s worth mentioning is that the field I have been working in Illustrator is Graphic Design. Most of my work has been logo designs, stationery design, print design and also typeface design. But this doesn’t mean that if you are working with illustrations, doing UI/UX in Illustrator or any other type of design, that the following tips and tricks won’t help you. This is after all an article about how I optimised my workflow in Illustrator and I think it can help any designer.
Enough with the introduction, now it’s time to get started!
01. Learning the Illustrator shortcuts for the most used tools
One of the best things that have helped me work faster was starting to use shortcuts! Illustrator has shortcuts for mostly all of it’s tools, but that doesn’t mean that I have learned all of them. It would be quite hard to remember every single shortcut and it would be even harder not to forget the ones that I’m never using. What I found that works best for me is learning the shortcuts for the tools I use the most.
For example, the shortcuts I use the most are:
- Command + G (CTRL + G for Windows) to group shapes and objects, and Command + Shift + G (CTRL + Shift + G in Windows) to ungroup them. I use these two options really often in logo design and mostly any design I do, and it’s a real time saver than having to Object > Group / Ungroup or hitting right click and Group / Ungroup each time I needed to use them.
- P – for Pen Tool to create new free shapes
- A – for Direct Selection Tool to be able to select/move points in a shape
- V – for Selection Tool to be able to select/scale/move a shape or a group of shapes
- + and – – to Add/Delete Anchor Points – but to be honest for these I just use the regular Pen Tool, which gives me the same options when I hover it over a shape’s line or anchor point.
- T – for the Text Tool
- Command + R (CTRL+R for Windows) when I need to show or hide the Rulers
- Alt + Mouse Scroll or Alt + Shift + Mouse Scroll – to zoom in and out in Illustrator I use the Alt+Shift buttons plus the mouse’s scroll (works with Magic Mouse as well). Works without the Shift button too, but with it pressed it zooms faster.
- Command+S (CTRL+S for Windows) to save a file I have been working on or Command+Shift+S (CTRL+Shift+S for Windows) to use the Save As… option and save it as a new file.
There are even more shortcuts that you can use!
There are a lot of shortcuts for almost every tool and you can see them all by going Edit > Keyboard Shorcuts. And if your favourite tool doesn’t have a predefined shortcut, you can add one. Or you can change the ones you want with keys that are more handy to you.
The real tip & trick here is to think about the tools that you use the most in your daily projects and learn their shortcuts or set your own shortcuts for it. Using shortcuts has saved me a lot of time while working in Illustrator, Photoshop and mostly any software that has shortcuts and have helped me get more things in the same amount of time.
02. Naming and saving a project’s files
This may sound strange, because how would one have any work if he wouldn’t save the files. Right? Well, of course we all do that, but the way you do it may save you time or it may add time to your workflow.
Until last year or so, I as well used to save all of my drafts and revisions in one Illustrator files. And not even on different layers, but on different artboards scattered around my workspace. But this has all changed, and I can now easily find the exact file that I need, with the exact revision and version that I need to keep working with.
That all happened thanks to a tip from one of my colleagues, where he told me how he saves his files.
Here’s the structure that I now use to save my files:
- First drafts – when starting a new project, I create a file with that project’s name. Let’s use this as an example: project name – “Design a Lot” results in a file called “Design a Lot.ai”. So far so good.
- Revisions – now’s when it gets tricky, especially when you reach revision number 2413241 🙂 Now, here’s how I do it. If I get a revision for “Design a Lot”, I open the original file and hit Command+Shift+S and save it as a new file. That file I name it either “Design a Lot 1stRev.ai” or use a short version of the name like “DAL1stRev.ai”. After the file is save, If I’m working on a logo, I just copy the elements that need to be revised, create a new layer, paste it there and lock and hide the original layer. This way I have the original versions in the same file, and I can access it faster whenever I need it.
- Final Files – it doesn’t usually happen for me that after a file has been confirmed as final, that the client comes back to do more changes. If that happens, and the final files are already save, any other changes should be charged as extra. But the way I name my files is by placing them in different folders that are numbered. For example “Files 01”, “Files 02”, “Files 03” and so on.
Remember to also the files you are working on as often as possible by pressing Command+S (CTRL+S for Windows)! You never know when Illustrator crashes, or your Operating System crashes, your power drops or your battery empties. Illustrator has indeed that Recovering option, but there have been cases where it didn’t work. So better safe than sorry!
When sending work to clients use the same name to save your previews as you use for your source files. For example, the first revision should be like this: source file – “DAL1stREV.ai” > preview files “DAL-1stREV-01.jpg”, “DAL-1stREV-02.jpg” and so on. That will help you connect source files with previews. And it’s also a great way that your client can give you feedback using the name of the file.
03. Master the Pen Tool
You have probably heard this a lot by now, I know I did. But one of the best tips that helped me create better work and in a shorter amount of time is to master the pen tool. Pen Tool is one of the best tools in Illustrator, in my opinion, and that’s mainly because puts all the power in the hands of the designer. Working with it means that your work will be as better as you make it. It’s one of the simplest tools, which can create some of the most complex designs.
I got better with Pen Tool over time, while working with it almost every day for the past years. The only way you can master it is by practicing, as in any great skill. To speed up the process and learning at a faster pace, I used to watch online tutorials and courses where I’ll see other designers working with the Pen Tool, learning how it works and how to better put it to use.
Some of the main things I do when creating shapes with Pen Tool is:
- Trying to stick to as few anchor points as possible, which forms smoother and more cursive lines
- Pressing Shift button to add an anchor point at exactly 45 or 90 degree angle from the previous anchor point, or to extent the anchor point’s handles to a straight 45 or 90 degrees.
- Paying attention to the curves so they the transition is as smooth as possible
- Press Alt button and drag one of the anchor point’s handle to change it’s angle, which is a great way to stick to fewer anchor points
- And sometimes I just go crazy with it by creating random shapes, from random anchor points with random angles of the handles
Remember: if you’re not that good with Pen Tool, don’t worry! Just keep practicing and you’ll get better and better.
04. Optimise your Illustrator workspace
One of the best ways I managed to work faster in Illustrator was to optimise my workspace! I did that by adding the tools I use the most on my workspace, and removing the ones that I don’t. That saves me time by having all the tools I need at close hand.
You can change your workspace to one of the predefined setting that Illustrator offers by going to the Window > Workspaces menu and selecting one of those. You can also create your own workspace or modify one of the predefined options by activating or deactivating panels found in the Window menu. Stick to the panels you’re most likely to use on a daily basis, like: Character, Brushes, Swatches, Color, Stroke, Gradient, Layers and more.
After you’ve reached the workspace that works best for you, there’s an option to save it by going to Window > Workspaces > New Workspace… This way you’ll have it saved and can always switch in between your favourite ones, depending on what type of project you are working on.
As I work a lot with fonts, what I’ve done is activating the Typography and optimising that one. The panels that I use the most are: Character and Paragraph, Color, Stroke, Gradients, Transparency, Layers, Pathfinder, Align, Color Guide and the list is even longer.
05. Save your favourite fonts
A great time saving trick that I’ve started using is saving my favourite fonts. Even though I know the name of most of the fonts that I love, it’s harder to keep track when you’re working on a project. So the best way I to reach exactly the fonts I need is by saving them.
For the past couple of years, Adobe introduced the option to Star fonts, which saves them in a separate list. You can do that by clicking the star symbol that appears in the list of fonts in your illustrator, when you hover over a font.
Keep adding fonts and typefaces there whenever you find one that you love, and soon you’ll start to have a beautiful go-to collection. You can even save an individual font style, instead of the whole typeface, by expanding the typeface and clicking the star of the font style you want to save.
It’s a lot faster browsing your own list of favourite fonts, than browsing the thousands you have installed on your system (you know that number’s correct!).
06. Use Smart Guides
Smart Guides is an option you can turn on and off in Illustrator by going to View > Smart Guides or by pressing Command + U (CTRL + U). What it does is automatically showing you guides for alignment and distance. For example, when you drag a shape and it gets aligned to the sides or to the centre of another shape, these little guides appear, showing you the aligned points.
Another great example is for distance. You have to shapes that are at a certain distance from each other, to the sides or top to bottom. Adding a third shape that is continuous to the first and dragging it closer to the shape that’s next to it, the smart guides will automatically activate when the distance between shape 2 and 3 is the same as the distance between 1 and 2, by showing you a <—> symbol between the shapes.
I found that smart guides help me save time by scaling or aligning elements based on the size or position of other elements. Therefore, this is a time saving tip & trick.
Best Illustrator Tips and Tricks Conclusion
In this article I have talked about 6 best Illustrator tips and tricks that I’ve learned in close to 10 years since working with it. These have helped me work faster and get better at what I do. The summary of the tips and tricks mentioned in this article are:
- #1: Learn the shortcuts for the tools you use the most in Illustrator. You will work faster and get more done in the same amount of time.
- #2: Create a structure for the way you name and save your files. It will be easier for you to find what you need and for clients to give feedback for each draft.
- #3: Pen Tool is one of the simplest and most powerful tool in Illustrator. Mastering it can both improve the quality of your work and help you work faster.
- #4: Set up your Illustrator workspace by having the tools you use the most at a short reach. It will help you work faster.
- #5: Create a gallery of your own favourite fonts in Illustrator. Browsing through a few dozens of fonts is easier than browsing through the thousands you have in your system.
- #6: Benefit from the Smart Guides option that Illustrator has. It will help you optimise your work by scaling and aligning elements a lot faster.
That’s it! I hope that you have found value in this article and that at least one of these Illustrator Tips & Tricks have helped you optimise your work!