Some of the tips covered in this tutorial may seem absurdly obvious to some, however, I can’t count the number of cluttered Illustrator files we’ve received from clients over the years that would’ve benefited from some of these simple but useful habits. Taking a few important steps in the beginning of a project or developing positive habits in the beginning of your design career can save you a lot of time in the long run. Even if you don’t see the current value in some of these tips, understand that as you become a more advance illustrator user, you will be extremely grateful that you developed good habits early on.
Habit #1 – Properly form and name your layers
I know, I know – it takes time and often if you are doing a simple design, what’s the point? Right?
The issue is developing the habit. Naming your layers from the start of a design project is far easier and less time consuming than getting half-way into your design and only then trying to do it. The moment you start using the pathfinder tool, especially when dividing objects, or deciding to recolour your work, you will wish you had properly layered your file.
Practically everything you will do in illustrator becomes easier when your layers are named and in order. Even if you do not understand why this is yet, start doing it and you will thank yourself later as you become a more advanced user.
A quick tip that will save a bit of time when naming your layers, hold down your “Alt” key when clicking on the “Create New Layer” icon – this will force a dialogue box open with your cursor already inserted ready to take on the name.
Habit #2 – Start using shortcuts even if it feels unnatural at first
Back when I first started designing, a more experienced friend watched me using my mouse to reach for all of my tools in the sidebar. He asked why I wasn’t using my keyboard shortcuts to do the work for me. He explained a few shortcuts and told me to force myself to use them and within a week I would be glad I did. He was right.
You don’t need to try to learn every short cut there is, just try to learn 3 to 5 new ones at a time for the actions you perform the most. Then, once those first few have become routine then add a few more. As with all skills acquired it will take some time but it will really pay-off in terms of productivity.
Here are a few high frequency short-cuts to get you started
- P = Pen Tool
- V = Selection Tool
- A = Direct Select Tool (allows you to select a single element within a grouped objects)
- I = Eye Dropper
- T = Type
- Ctrl/Cmd + G = Group Selected Objects
- Ctrl/Cmd + Shift + G = Ungroup Selected Objects
- Ctrl/Cmd + D repeat last action for a selected object
- Ctrl/Cmd + C ( Yes, copy) and then either:
- Ctrl/Cmd + B = Paste Behind the copied object or
- Ctrl/Cmd + F = Paste in front of the copied object
- Ctrl/Cmd + R = Turn on Rulers
Another tip, if you have a hard time remembering the shortcuts above or if changing the shortcuts would make more sense to you, then you can press Alt + Shift + Ctrl/Cmd +K to bring up the shortcut dialogue box. There you can customize your shortcuts as you wish, view the shortcuts as they are set or add shortcuts to actions you use frequently that don’t already have one set.
You can find a full list of Illustrator shortcuts here – be warned it is a bit overwhelming. Again, just choose a few and focus on them to start with.
Habit #3 – Save often & in legacy when possible ( Ctrl/Cmd + S )
Yep! Another short-cut. We purposefully didn’t add the Ctrl/Cmd + S save short-cut in the last segment as we felt it needed special attention. Again, I know this one sounds obvious but I’ve heard many groans and even more profanity over the years as co-workers who are experienced enough to know better forget to save their work.
It only takes a second to press the save short-cut and after you’ve saved once it won’t slow down your work flow. Perhaps it is overkill but I tend to save every 2-3 minutes. Now, even when I am not thinking it about, the habit kicks in.
Further to this, If you are designing in the latest version and it is possible to do so without losing any important features of your design (it usually is) save to a legacy version in CS3 or lower. You never know when you will need the file on another computer that has an earlier version than you or when another designer who may not have the up to date version may need to use your file. It is better to be prepared.
Habit #4 – Design in smaller scale
The great thing about vector graphics is that they are near infinitely scalable. Leverage that power and design in a much smaller scale then what the final product will need to be. This will reduce the load on your computer while designing and save you a lot of hard drive space in the long run.
For example, if your final project delivery should be in the dimensions of 1920 x 1080 then divide that by ten and start your project at 192 X 108.
WHAAAAAAT Math! EEEEEKKKKKKK! I came here for vector graphics information not a math lecture! Yeah, don’t start booing your screen…Hey, you, put your claws away.
Don’t worry because we’ve got a sneaky tip to help you out of the horrible situation of having to do mental math- guess what, Illustrator will do math for you. In nearly any dialogue box that takes a number as a value you can use “ * / + – “ to multiply, divide, add or subtract.
So in the example above ( assuming your working with pixels ) you would write 1920 px / 10 . When you tab out of the field it will automatically input 192 px.
When it comes time to delivering your project in the final dimensions just do the following steps:
- Go to File / Document Setup
- After the Document Setup dialogue has opened click on “Edit Art boards”.
- Depending on which version of Illustrator you are using you will either get a second dialogue box or for those using Illustrator CC you will see the screen shown below.
- In either scenario, simple let Illustrator do the math for you but in reverse. For our example you would write 192 px * 10 and in the height column 108 px * 10
- In your newly defined Art Board select all (Ctrl/Cmd + A) then use your scale tool ( S ). Then scale to 1000% percent.
I personally find it best to always scale by 10. It simply makes it easier to remember years later.
Habit #5: Don’t randomly scale or create objects – Know your dimensions
I’ve watched so many new designers spend a time to lay out a professional design grid but then start randomly opening new shape objects or randomly scaling up and down their objects without knowing what their dimensions are. Of course you can pop over to the information panel and see your exact dimensions, however, you end up with sizes like 57.3845 PX x 187.9532. Retaining this habit of just sizing out objects by sight alone will wreak havoc on your final output’s aliasing but also limit how quickly you can understand how new objects will fit into your design as a whole. Knowing your dimensions is especially important when designing icons and logos.
By knowing your shapes’ dimensions and keeping mental track of them you are able to better balance your illustrations and better create images that will retain appearance when reduced to a small scale.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s say we are making an icon of a house. Within the art board, I will have the following elements:
- Square Icon background/base
- Square Base/body of the house
- Triangular Roof
- Square windows and window seals
Now what seems like the easiest approach is to just whip out a quick square, a quick triangle, grab the square base and copy it out four times and scale them down to make the window, throw out a rectangle for a door, switch to the align tool and start putting them in order. However, in doing this you end up with a final house for which you do not know exactly how tall and wide it is and your elements within are likely not well balanced as your door is a touch too tall or wide and your windows don’t exactly align to center. Finally when you output to png and reduce it to 32px x 32px dimensions you end up with a blurred disjointed final design that just doesn’t look quite right.
Had you taken a few more moments to make a square of known proportions and ensure that you don’t have fractions of a pixel. You can simply calculate out how tall your triangle should be, how wide your door should be and what the height of your total object is. You now have a clear understanding of how much you can scale and retain the appearance of single lines within the final output as you understand how many pixels they will be when scaled. The added bonus is you end up with highly improved aliasing without having to spend hours in Photoshop trying to fix it.
This is especially true when designing icon sets as the moment you don’t understand the dimensions and scale of your 1st icon, the rest of your icons can not maintain proportionate design.
Even if you don’t understand some of the terminology or why or why you should do the items mentioned above, trust me, develop the habit now and when you are more experienced you will, again, thank yourself for forming the good habit. I promise you, it will save you many frustrated hours and improve your overall compositions. Not to mention you will also save other designers time and frustration if they are ever given one of your files by a client.
To enter the dimensions of a shape just click once in the Art Board after you’ve selected your shape tool.
Taking time to develop these habits will make you an overall more efficient illustrator user and will assuredly save you quite a lot of time and hours of frustration. Most of these tips will, perhaps take you longer initially, but in the long run they will pay good dividends into you the time spent in your design’s workflow.
What time saving habits do you use in your work flow? if you have a time saving pointer, please do take a moment to share it in our comments below.
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