1. Design & Illustration
  2. Adobe Illustrator

Layers vs. Artboards: Comparing the Methods for Exporting Icon Packs

PNG SVG EPS files illustration

Today I have something special prepared for you. We are going to compare two essential Illustrator tools, the Layers panel and the Artboards one, and talk about the advantages of one over the other when dealing with the export process of an icon pack.

So, if you’re into icon design, or you’re just getting started, you might want to read this article since it might help you work faster when it comes to the final step of individually exporting your files.

Before we begin our comparison, I want to take a couple of moments and talk about the two tools from an “intended use” perspective. In other words, let’s see what the purpose of each of them is, and let’s start doing that by first giving a short definition that briefly characterizes their nature.

The Layers Panel

If you’ve worked with Illustrator before, and I guess you have, you've surely tinkered around with the Layers panel. If you’re new to the game, well, have no fear—I’m going to be as explicit as I can.

the layers panel

From a structural / organizational perspective, this tool gives you the ability to oversee the positioning of all the objects and groups of objects that are part of the document you are currently working on, by isolating them on different Layers.

You can think of Layers as being transparent sheets of paper that can contain different objects, sheets which overlap so that you can create a hierarchical structure, and thus a detailed piece of artwork.

In case you didn’t understand much from that, let me put it this way: if you are working on an elaborate illustration that has sections of objects going under and over each other, you could easily separate these sections onto different Layers, making it easier to access, edit and rearrange them.

Hmm, but hold one for a sec, can’t you achieve the same hierarchy by using just one layer, and then creating the shapes one on top of the other, since the last shape is always the one that sits in front of the rest?

Of course you can, but why would you? I understand you can plan ahead and build using one shape at a time, but what happens once you need to work on a specific section of your design? Some of you might say that you could use the Isolation Tool. That might work, but you have to make sure that you group objects as you develop your composition, and sometimes you might find that you’ve created groups within other groups, which means that you have to go into a deeper state of Isolation, and that just complicates things.

If you choose to work with layers, not only will you fool-proof your design, but you will make it a lot easier to access and edit, thus giving you less hassle and allowing you to focus more on the creative process.

Also since Illustrator allows you to create and name as many layers as you want or need, you can go crazy and build some pretty interesting stuff.

The Artboards Panel

Whereas the Layers tool lets you organize your artwork, the Artboard defines the working space onto which you design. You can think of it as the painter’s canvas, a canvas that you can scale up or down depending on the project’s needs.

the artboards panel

The cool thing is that it will only show stuff that you have positioned on it, so anything outside its surface won’t end up in the final preview / file.

Now, compared to the Layers panel, which gives you the ability to structure one design, the Artboards panel takes things to a whole new level by allowing you to structure and display multiple artwork at the same time.

This is super helpful if you’re a UI designer and you have to create website mockups or interfaces, since you can create the different sections all in the same document, giving you a sense of continuity, and making it easier to ship the product to the client.

Even though it’s a great tool, it has a slight downside since it only allows you to create a finite number of artboards, around 100, and that’s when their size doesn’t exceed the working area that Illustrator has assigned to it.

Using the Layers and Artboards Panels as Methods for Individually Exporting Icons

At this point we have a basic idea of what the two tools were initially intended for, but let’s see how we can benefit from them in one of the most time-consuming and frustrating processes: that of individually exporting the files of an icon pack.

If you've ever worked on an icon pack, you definitely know how infuriating the final step of the process can be, since Illustrator doesn’t have any magic button to export them one by one.

Most of the time people who are creating their first pack find themselves in a pickle, since they don’t really know how to ship their product as PNG files and other formats. I know I did, and it took me some time to play around and see what worked best for me in terms of time and ease of use.

So I’m going to show you three scenarios for exporting the icons from a pack (which contains 12 rows each with eight icons, so exactly 96 icons), during which I will talk about both the benefits and limitations of each method.

icon pack used as an example

Exporting the Icons Using the Layers Panel

OK, so first we will use the Layers panel, and see how it performs in terms of workflow.

This method is a bit tricky since we will have to create a second document and set the width and height of our Artboard to roughly the same size as our icon’s base grid.

The icons that I am using as an example are built around a 128 x 128 px grid, to which I’ve added an all-round padding of 8 px, so that’s 136 x 136 px (highlighted with a light grey color underneath the icons themselves).

Since this method assumes that each icon sits on its own Layer, you might now understand why we need that second document, since we will copy the icons onto it, and then separate them using 100 Layers.

I won’t actually copy the entire set for this example, since a smaller number will make the example as clear as a larger one.

So, first I’ve created my second 136 x 136 px document, after which I started copying about ten icons over, putting each one on its own Layer, labeling them from “document 1” to “document 10”.

layers panel icons added

Now, since each icon stands by its own, I can easily hide all the ones that I don’t need, and make the one I currently want to export visible, which for this example is “document 1”.

setting only the current icon visible

This is super handy since I can gradually go through the pack, without losing track of the last exported item.

OK, so I have the first icon visible, and I want to save it as PNG, I can easily do that by going to File > Save for Web and then simply picking a location within my folders and assigning a name to it.

exporting for the web using the layers method

Exporting using the Layers method is a great option when you have the time required to actually build up the second document. Yes, it might be more time-consuming, but I find that out of all the methods it’s the most helpful when it comes to keeping track of your export process.

Another benefit is that when it comes to exporting multiple formats, so not just PNG, maybe SVG and even individual EPS, the process is a lot faster, since you just select the layer and change the export settings—it’s as simple as that.

Its only downside might be the initial process, where you have to copy the icons to the smaller document, which might take you some time if you have a large icon pack (300+).

We’ve seen how we can export our files using the Layers method, so now let’s try the Artboard one.

Exporting the Icons Using the Artboard Method

Well, the Artboard method is a little bit different since it can be done in two ways. Yup, you heard me right, we have options.

The first one involves using just one Artboard, which we will resize using the base grids of each icon, one at a time, while the second one is similar to the Layers one, since we have to create a larger number of smaller sized artboards.

There are of course pros and cons, but we will get to those in a second.

Exporting Using Just One Artboard

Let’s start by talking about the single Artboard method. It’s pretty simple, to be honest. First you make sure that you’ve set up two Layers: one for the actual icons and one for the base grids.

exporting using the single artboard method

Once you’ve separated the two, you can start exporting your icons by selecting one base grid at a time, and then going to Object > Artboards > Fit to Selected Art.

using the fit to selected art to resize the artboard

This will resize your Artboard so that it will fit the actual base grid of the icon that you want to save. Since you will probably want to save it as a PNG (with transparency) or maybe an SVG, you should remove the base grid before you export it.

artboard resized to icon base grid

So as you can see, this is another relatively simple option for exporting your icons, but it too has some downsides.

First, let’s talk about its strong points. It’s fast—not as fast as the Layers method, but it easily takes number two for speed. As with the previous method, you can keep track of your last exported icon, since you will be deleting the base grids, making it easy to pick up from where you left off.

Also, as with the Layers method, it can handle larger icon packs, so no limitations in terms of the number of elements that you can hold and export, which is pretty important once you have a huge icon set.

Now let’s talk about the downsides. It gets boring fast, really fast, since you have to click, select, and then go through the same fit to shape option over and over again. So if your pack is larger than 100 icons, put on those headphones and grab a cup of coffee, since you will be needing them.

Exporting Using Multiple Artboards

And we are down to method number three, the Multiple Artboards one. As I’ve said before, this one is pretty similar to the Layers one, but unfortunately it’s limited to that maximum of just 100 artboards. So, if your icon pack goes over the 100 barrier, you will have to use one of the other methods, but if it’s within the limit, then boy will you like this method.

Compared to the previous two, the Multiple Artboards one can and should be implemented from the beginning. If you’re wondering why, well let’s just say it would be much easier to create a couple of Artboards and build your icons one at a time, instead of creating using one Artboard and then moving them over to a second multi-artboard document.

So if we use this method, we would simply create a New Document (Control-N) that has the same size as our icon’s base grid (136 x 136 px), but instead of leaving the Number of Artboards setting at 1, we would go with something higher, like 96. Then we could play around with the Spacing and Columns options in order to get the right setup, depending on how we like things to be arranged.

setting up a multiple artboard document

Once our document is good to go, we can start working on the design of our icons, positioning each one on its own Artboard.

icons positioned on multiple artboards

Now comes the sweet part. When you start the exporting process, you simply click on the icon’s Artboard and then go to Save for Web or whatever export method you prefer, and that’s it.

OK, OK, so maybe I lied when I said that the Layers method is the fastest, when clearly the Multiple Artboard one is the winner here. But, let’s be honest, today when somebody creates an icon pack, that person usually adds more than 100 pieces to it, and so the third method would not even be an option.

Hmm, wait a second, is that really true? I mean you could create two, four documents each with 100 artboards, and group the icons by categories. This way when you go through the exporting process, things would go pretty darn fast. The only time you slow down would be when you need to change the document, which really isn’t that time-consuming.

So, the third method is looking pretty good in comparison to its competition, but what about its cons?

Well if you’re working on a small icon pack, I could really say it has none. If you're working on a bigger one, well the only bad thing I can think of is that at some point you might lose track of the last exported icon, but if you use a good naming system, that won’t happen.


There you have it: a quick and thorough comparison of three capable exporting methods that can really help you decide what is the best option for you when it comes to delivering your precious icons as individual assets.

As always I hope you enjoyed the tutorial, and most importantly learned something new and interesting along the way.

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