In this article, we’re going to talk about the top ten most useful tools in Adobe Illustrator. Whether you’re into icon design, illustrations or any other craft, you’ll definitely want to read this article, since you’ll learn something new and interesting about the software that you use on a daily basis.
So, without wasting any more precious time, let’s start the countdown with number ten, which is the Ruler.
10. The Ruler
Whether you need to delimit your composition using precise guides or measure different objects off your Artboard, the Ruler should be your “go to tool”, since it was designed exactly for that use.
Now, by default, the tool is hidden, but you can easily make it visible by pressing Control-R or by going to View > Rulers > Show Rulers.
Once you turn it on, you can easily measure or set reference points by clicking on the top or left ruler bar and then dragging to create one or more guides, depending on what you are trying to achieve.
I use rulers in combination with the Grid almost all the time, since they allow me to achieve balance within my compositions. They also make the process a lot easier, since I can precisely position everything using just a couple of clicks.
If you’ve never played with the tool before, I honestly encourage you to try it out. I’m positive it will find a place within your workflow as soon as you start seeing its potential.
You can give this quick tip a go since it will get you started with everything that you'll need to know in order to master Illustrator's Ruler tool.
9. The Blend Tool
Number nine off our list is the Blend Tool, and it’s probably one of the most feared and underrated tools among people just starting out, since it will take some time to get used to.
The thing is, the tool isn’t all that complicated, but most of the time people just don’t know what it can be used for.
Well, like most tools in Illustrator, the Blend Tool is actually extremely versatile since it can be harnessed to create repeating shape patterns, color palettes or, as the name implies, color blends between two or multiple objects.
You can find it under the Object > Blend submenu, where you can play with its options (Blend Options) and of course trigger it (Make or Alt-Control-B) and create whatever you are trying to achieve.
I use it when I need to create color palettes based on handpicked colors but I’m not really sure which in-between tints work best. It's in these situations that I rely on the tool to automatically generate the color values that work best, and almost all of the time, they actually do.
The cool thing about the tool is that it’s really precise, since you can control how many steps (colors or repeating objects) it generates, giving you full control over the way it behaves.
If you use it to generate colors as I do, you should know that the higher the number of steps you use, the softer the transition from one value to another is, meaning that some of the colors might not be all that usable. Use a smaller stepping value, and the tool will harden the transition, giving you colors that you can actually use to build a palette.
To learn more, why not read our comprehensive guide on how to use the Blend Tool.
8. The Offset Path
Whether you’re trying to create a larger copy of an already existing object or give your shapes an outline, the Offset Path has you covered.
As the name implies, the tool works by pushing the path of a selected object towards the outside, thus creating a larger version underneath that object that is identical in form and color, but not in size.
I really love working with Offset Paths when creating line icons, since using just a couple of clicks I can easily achieve nice thick outlines that are far easier to select compared to stroke paths.
You can find the tool under the Object > Path submenu, and once you have an object selected and click on Offset Path you’ll be greeted with all the options that you need, from the size of your Offset to the type of Joins and the Miter Limit.
I’m pretty sure that you can find a use for it in your future projects, so be sure to check it out and play a little bit with it at the end of this article.
If you’re into icon design, more exactly line icons, I recommend you read this tutorial that talks about how Offset Paths work since you'll get a nice kick out of it.
7. The Clipping Mask
Wow, this one was probably one of those tools that I myself didn’t use all that often at the beginning, but once I started to, it completely changed the way I saw my shapes and compositions.
Now, if you don’t know, a Clipping Mask is, as Adobe perfectly puts it, an “object whose shape masks other artwork so that only areas that lie within the shape are visible”.
Usually, when creating complex compositions, you might be quick to think that the Pathfinder panel with its Shape Modes is the way to go if you need to adjust the shape of your objects. But as I’ve learned the hard way, the Clipping Mask can actually be a better solution almost every time since it gives you complete power over your masked shapes.
First, it’s incredibly easy to use once you get the hang of it, giving you the power to create complex and intricate shapes.
Secondly, the resulting shapes are unbelievably easy to edit on the fly, since all shapes from within a Clipping Mask can be resized, repositioned and adjusted as long as you enter the Mask, which is something that you can’t do with Pathfinder.
You can read more about the advantages of using Clipping Masks over Pathfinder’s Shape Modes and see for yourself how to use it, and most importantly why you should give it a try.
6. The Artboards Panel
Next on our list is the Artboards panel, which is probably one of the biggest features that Illustrator has to offer, since you can create projects with multiple assets within one document, and view them all at the same time.
This way, you can create variations of a composition, explore different styles, and have a direct comparison between them, making it easier to decide which road to take.
Now, since the Artboard is the actual canvas onto which we lay our artwork, it can also be a powerful exporting tool, especially when dealing with icon packs, since you can create multiple Artboards, and assign one to each icon.
I won’t get into details, but I’ll leave you with a link to an article that teaches you all there is to know about the process of using Artboards to export your assets.
5. The Layers Panel
If the Artboards panel let you create a multi-asset document, the Layers panel gives you the power to create detailed compositions, using a logical structure that allows you to easily identify and adjust the different sections of your artwork without having to worry that you erased or misplaced an element by mistake.
Honestly, I use the panel with every project, since I like to establish a shape-details hierarchy from the beginning, by labeling each section of my composition, which in the end allows me to gradually work my way up until I have a finished product.
You can lock, hide, rename and reposition each layer, which gives you a better view and understanding of what you’re creating. This way, you can focus on one thing at a time and explore different style options, which of course can be deleted or hidden until you’ve made a final decision.
If you’re used to having just one layer, you probably know that it’s really hard to keep up with each shape, especially when you have groups and masks, so you might want to rethink your workflow by using multiple layers, which will make your life a lot easier.
Learn how you can become more efficient by reading this tutorial on how to organize your document using layers for a cleaner workflow.
4. The Pathfinder Panel
Number four off our list is the Pathfinder panel, or more exactly its four different Shape Modes, which allow you to create new shapes by manipulating the paths of two or more objects.
At this point, you might be thinking something’s off, since a few lines ago I said that the Clipping Mask is a better solution to Pathfinder. Well, if you need to adjust shapes and add effects and other elements, Clipping Masks will always be the more efficient way to go. But if you need to create an entirely new shape from something as simple as a rectangle, then Pathfinder is the way to go.
You can use Unite, Subtract, Intersect and Exclude to create new and interesting shapes as long as you figure out which Mode is better suited for the job.
I personally use the Minus Front Mode a lot when I need to cut things in half since I can easily create a rectangle, position it over my shape and then use it to create a cutout.
Sure, there probably is a better solution for this, but as you’ll come to see in time, each tool can become a means to something entirely different from one creative tinkerer to another.
By default, the panel is hidden, so if you want to play with it you’ll have to go to the View top menu and scroll down until you find it within the list. As soon as you click on it, it will appear within your screen, giving you the possibility to position it wherever you want.
You can learn more about Pathfinder by reading this in-depth guide that shows you how to use Illustrator's Shape Modes.
3. The Align Panel
Whether you want to align an object to the Artboard or distribute multiple shapes at a specific distance, the Align panel is the best tool to handle the job. It’s easy to use and blazing fast in every way.
I use it every time with every project, since I can easily center my shapes to one another, or align them to a specific side without having to worry that the alignment isn’t perfect.
By default, some of the panel’s options are hidden, so you will have to
click on the little down-facing arrow and enable Show Options to make them visible.
Once you do that, you’ll have a new function called Distribute Spacing, which will allow you to precisely position two or more shapes at a specified distance from one another.
You’ll also gain control over the way the alignment is done, since you can choose between a Key Object or the Artboard itself. Otherwise, Illustrator will always align your objects to the first option.
I personally keep the Align To set to Artboard, since if I need to align an object to another one, I’ll simply select them and then click on the one that I want to act as the Key Object in order to set the alignment to it.
Find out more by checking out this comprehensive piece on how to use the Align panel's options.
2. The Grid
I talked about Illustrator's Grid system some time ago when I tried to go as in-depth as possible and explain all there is to know about what it is, and how it can be used in order to create better compositions.
Even though it’s been out there for some time, all the information in that article is still valid, so I advise you check it out since I’m sure it will help you better understand how Illustrator works. Everything you create sits on top of a Grid, be it the default one or a custom one of your own choosing.
1. Snap to Grid / Pixel Grid
The Grid itself is a strong tool, but once you start dabbling with pixel-perfect compositions, you’ll have to combine its power with that of the Snap to Grid / Pixel Grid in order to bring your game to the next level.
I remember when I started out I used to create without giving any attention to the whole “is it pixel-crisp?” nature of my designs. Luckily for me, it didn’t take me long to realize that in my line of work (which is icon design), being detail oriented and obsessed with the way your objects snap to the Pixel Grid can set your work apart.
So, if you’ve never used the Snap to Grid / Pixel Grid option from within the View menu before, I strongly advise you start learning and playing with it since at some point, in some project, you’ll find that having the ability to create with perfection is a must.
For some months now I’ve been part of Adobe’s official test bench, where we’ve gotten the chance to see the future of the Snap to Pixel Grid, and even though things will change a bit, you’ll still be ahead of the rest if you spend a couple of hours and read what you can on the subject.
That being said, I’ll leave you with this in-depth article that talks about how the Pixel Grid works, and shows you how to correctly use the Snap to option, which will probably come in handy in future projects.
Time to Practice!
If you spend a couple of hours with each of the listed tools, I guarantee you’ll become better at what you do. These are the most used tools that top designers embrace on a daily basis, and they have proven to be the most useful.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the article and discovered something new along the way.