Illustrator’s five most easily fixable problems

When you start a blog like this one there are a few customary posts which stuck up idiots like me are compelled to make. This is not any attempt to demean those who have not been sucked into the ridiculous obsession I have but simply my chance to help you improve your  Illustrator workflow.

Interacting with shapes

The number one most common area I get questions about in Illustrator is about interacting with shapes. It’s a really basic area of Illustrator which you need to get before you can do anything else. The question tends to be “How do I put these two shapes together?” or “How could I take this shape out of that shape?” and there’s a simple answer to every question.

Illustrator Shape Builder
Shape Builder in action


My solution is one tool which makes it easy for me to visualise things and it’s the Shape Builder tool (Shift+M). The Shape Builder tool lets you interact with lines and fills – you can create them, subtract them, add them or separate them. It has a cousin in the Pathfinder menu which is a tab (pictured) that lets you do the same things but it revolves around layer order and a lot of the time I find it difficult to predict the results of the Pathfinder. More on the Pathfinder tool.

Illustrator's Pathfinder tab
Illustrator’s Pathfinder tab


Shape Builder has a fairly basic interaction – hold down alt to subtract which will basically hollow out a fill or completely erase a section of a line up to the next intersection within the selection or leave the alt key as it is and you can separate fills or lines within the intersections of shapes and lines. More on the Shape Builder tool.

Scaling evenly

Illustrator's offset path tab

The next problem is also a very common one that I find myself having all the time. I don’t know when to scale and when to offset. I try to steer clear of scaling irregular shapes as much as possible but that’s not to say that it can’t look good. The picture here shows the difference and they are both useful for different things. The art with the tube-looking thing is an example of an interesting way to use the scale tool.

Illustrator Blend toolScaling vs Offset path in Illustrator


Closing Paths

Illustrator Meme
Courtesy of Digital Synopsis

It’s the bane of every Illustrator user’s existence. That one little point you forgot to join to that other one little point. It’s really important to close paths. It’ll probably never stop being important but it will stop being undetectable. The Shape Builder tool is a great way to figure out where your holes are. It shades a selected area on mouseover and I find it’s very helpful sometimes to figure out that last missing point. If you’re ever connecting points make sure you have Smart Guides turned on! (Cmd/Ctrl+U)

Not duplicating

I like to duplicate my work at every major change. I do it so I have a resource I can refer to later or go back to in case I mess the next step up. Using artboards is the easiest way to do this (Shift+O opens the Artboard tool) and you can copy the artwork in position on it’s artboard every time. Every time I expand an effect or change an attribute I like to duplicate the artboard or make a copy. You have to be careful because you do sometimes end up with massive files but it saves time and makes for a better workflow. More on Artboards.

Too Many Anchors.

Illustrator is making it easier and easier to make sharp lines with careful edges without having to use a compass and stencil but it’s very easy to get sucked into using too many anchor points. Using the pen tool always aim for modesty: not only does itmake the page cleaner and give it more natural curves but it reduces size which is really important when you come to work on a larger scale when using three points instead of nine will cut your latency in half. The picture shows excess points on a straight line and then all the points on straight lines removed and the curves simplified.

Illustrator optimisation

If you have a path already with too many anchor points then there’s a quick (but not always reliable) fix for that which avoids having to manually select points or recreate the path. Go to Object > Path > Simplify… and check preview to find your savings and your new image!