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The 7 Habits of Highly Efficient Adobe Illustrator Users


We all use Adobe Illustrator in different ways, to different ends. But we can all benefit from making our workflow more efficient. Here are seven ways you can automate or eliminate monotonous, repetitive tasks, so you can focus on being more creative and productive.

1. Use Workspaces for Easy Access to the Panels You Use Most

The particular arrangement and configuration of the panels in Illustrator is called a Workspace. There are several built-in Workspaces, each suited to a specific kind of work. These are simply the configurations Adobe thinks you’ll use for any given task, but you don’t have to agree. You can arrange the panels any way you like, then save the arrangement as your own personal workspace. Go to the Window menu to Workspace > New Workspace, give it a name, and click OK.

new workspace
You can save your preferred panel arrangement as a custom workspace.

TIP: If you move panels around and things start to get messy, simply click
Reset ____”, and everything will go back to its neat and tidy original configuration.

2. Use Keyboard Shortcuts to Work Quickly and Reduce Strain

You should familiarize yourself with the keyboard shortcuts for all the tools you use regularly (if not all the tools). Choosing tools with the mouse slows you down and, frankly, is a rookie move. But did you know you can change the shortcuts and even create your own? Go to the Edit menu to Keyboard Shortcuts. Find the tool whose shortcut you want to change. When you click on it in the list, you’ll be able to type a new shortcut in the text field. For example, I like to use ‘E’ for the Eraser tool, to make it consistent with other Adobe applications. So I’ll just highlight the existing shortcut, and press the ‘E’ on my keyboard to change it:

editing keyboard shortcut
Simply type a new key or key combination to change a shortcut. You can also assign a shortcut to a tool that doesn't have one. Just click in the blank space next to the tool name.

If this shortcut is already in use by another tool, you’ll get a message informing you of the conflict. From here you can jump to the conflicting tool and change its shortcut as well. So in this case, I’ll assign Shift-E, which was previously used for the Eraser Tool, to the Free Transform Tool.

shortcut conflict message
If a shortcut is already in use, you can resolve the conflict by assigning a new shortcut to the existing tool.

You can also set shortcuts for any of the menu items. Choose Menu Commands from the drop-down menu. Now you'll see a list of every menu and sub-menu, and you can add or modify the keyboard shortcuts for these as well.

menu shortcuts
Just about any menu or sub-menu can have a shortcut.

Once you click OK, you’re prompted to save this new set of shortcuts. You can always go back to the default set, and you can save different sets for different users. TIP: You can export the keyboard shortcuts to a text file to have as a reference or study aid.

3. Use Actions to Automate Repetitive Tasks

Shortcuts are a quick way to access commands. Actions can record a sequence of those commands, then play back the steps with the click of a button (you can even assign a shortcut to play an Action!). Taking a little time to set up Actions for repetitive tasks will save you lots of time in the long run. 

You can use Actions to batch-process a whole folder full of files. There's something very satisfying about clicking a button or pressing a key and watching the computer do all the work, while you kick back and relax... I mean, work on something else. To see how Actions work, check out this Quick Tip.

actions panel
An action is like a recording you play back to perform a series of commands.

4. Use Custom Views to Quickly Navigate Your Document

Let’s say you’re working on a fairly complex illustration, with lots of small detail. You keep zooming in on one part of the artboard to fine-tune the paths. Then you zoom back out to see how your changes look in the context of the overall illustration. Or maybe you want to concentrate only on one layer of the illustration so you aren’t distracted by the elements on the other layers. 

Rather than manually zooming back and forth, and turning layers off and on, you can create a custom View. Zoom in on one section of your document, then go to the View menu and choose New View. Give this view a name if you like. Now zoom back out, then choose your new custom view from the View menu. You’ll be taken right back to the exact magnification as before.

create new view
If you want to zoom back to a specific spot in your illustration, you can create a custom view.
choosing custom view
You can name your custom views, and access them from the View menu.

Views also remember layer states. So if you’ve hidden some layers in one view and shown them in another, these layer states will be preserved. This will save you lots of time zooming and clicking eyeballs in the Layers panel.

layer states
Any layers you have turned on or off are remembered in a custom view.

5. Use Libraries to Maintain Consistency 

5a. Create Custom Swatches, Brushes, Symbols and Graphic Styles

Swatches, Brushes, Symbols, and Graphic Styles are all stored in Libraries. You can set up your own libraries to ensure all your documents for a particular client are consistent. The steps for saving any kind of library are the same. Here's how to do it with Swatches:

First collect all the swatches you use in the Swatches panel. Delete any you don't use. Click the Libraries icon on the bottom of the Swatches panel and choose Save Swatches. Give the library a descriptive name and save the file anywhere you like.

save swatches

To open your custom library when working with a new document, click the Libraries icon at the bottom of the Swatches panel. Any custom Libraries you've saved will be available under the User Defined sub-menu. You can also access them from the bottom of the Window menu.

open swatch library

TIP: To make a swatch library appear each time you start Illustrator, select Persistent from the swatch library’s panel menu.

persistent swatches

5b. Use Symbol Libraries to Keep Artwork Handy

A Symbol is a vector object or artwork that can be stored inside a Symbol Library, and referred to when you need it. Every time you use a Symbol, an "instance" of that artwork is placed in your document. So rather than placing the actual object on the artboard multiple times, the Symbol links back to the original in the library. This can greatly reduce file size and lessen the time a document needs to render or save. 

If you do page layout in InDesign, you're familiar with this concept. If you have an eight-page document that has the same logo on each page, you do not need eight separate copies of that image in your links folder, just one that links to each instance in the document. A cartographer, for example could create a library full of map symbols. If you work in a corporate environment, you might want to keep a library of all the different logos your company uses. For more on how Symbols work, see this Quick Tip.

symbols in use
Use a personal Symbol library for artwork you use often.

6. Change the Default Type and Color Styles to Match Your Branding

Do you work for a company that uses a particular font for all its documents and branding? Do you get tired of changing from Myriad Pro every time you create something new? You can change the default font by opening the Character Style panel (Window >Type > Character Styles), then double-clicking the Normal Character Style. Click Basic Character Formats in the sidebar. From here, you can change to the font you use most often, and add any other character attributes, like tracking, scale and even color. Now when you select the Type Tool and begin typing, those settings will be preserved.

character styles panel
Access the Character Styles panel from the Type sub-menu under the Window menu. Double-click the Normal Character Style to edit it.
character formats
Change the font and other attributes of the Normal Character Style.

You can also change a document's default color swatches. So let's say you work for a client who uses a custom palette for all of their materials. You can change the default swatches to match that client's palette.

First, create a new Graphic Style. The easiest way to do this is to simply draw an object and give it a fill and stroke of the new colors. With that object selected, click the New Graphic Style button at the bottom of the Graphic Styles panel.

new graphic style
Create a new Graphic Style, using your custom colors.

Next, hold down the Option key (Windows: Alt) and drag the new Graphic Style on top of the Default style. This will replace the default with the new style.

replace default style
Hold down the Option key (Windows: Alt) and drag the new style on top of the Default style to replace it.

Now, whenever you press the 'D' key, the default colors will be set to the new colors. And as long as the new defaults are the active swatches, anything you draw in this document will take on the new fill and stroke colors.

new default colors

Note: Default Styles follow the document. Any custom styles you create will not be available when you open a new document. See #7 for how to create and use a template that contains all your customizations.

7. Create a Template for the Ultimate Custom Workflow

Swatches, Symbols and Graphic Styles all reside in Libraries, which follow the document. That is, any custom library you create in one document will not automatically open when you start a new document. The same thing is true for Views, Paragraph Styles and Character Styles. 

So if you've taken the time to create libraries and customize your defaults, you should save it all in a template. Templates let you create new documents that share these custom settings and elements. You can have as many custom templates for as many clients or types of jobs as you wish. Things that can be saved in a template are:

  • Artboards
  • Brushes
  • Default Fill and Stroke
  • Default Font
  • Graphic Styles
  • Guides
  • Layers
  • Perspective Grid
  • Rulers Units
  • Swatches
  • Symbols
  • Type Styles (Character and Paragraph)
  • Views

In the example below, I have a group of business cards. My Illustrator document has custom Swatches, Type Styles, and a Symbols Library containing the logos and icons. The document also has guides and crop marks on dedicated layers.

This document will be used to create a Template.
template panels
Some of the custom settings used in this document

To create a template, first customize a document to suit your needs. Include any artwork you want to appear in new documents you'll create from this template. Artwork can be stored in a Symbols Library and/or in the work area. Delete any existing Swatches, Styles (both Graphic and Type), Brushes or Symbols you don’t want to keep. Remember to include the magnification level, rulers, guides, grids, and Views. You can even set options in the Document Setup dialog box and the Print Options dialog box.

When you're ready, choose Save as Template from the File menu.

save as template

The template file format is .ait, and by default, will be saved into the Templates folder inside your Illustrator folder.

ait file
Templates are saved in a special AIT file format
save template
By default, templates are saved into the main Templates folder.

When you open a new file from your template, an Untitled document will be created, which contains all of the custom settings in the Template. Once you start using templates, you'll realize just how much time you used to spend on unnecessarily tedious tasks!

new document from template
When a new document is created from a Template, it is a brand new, untitled document which contains all the custom settings in its template. You can then save it as a regular Illustrator file.


It might initially take some time to change your settings, learn keyboard shortcuts and create actions. And there are times when you'd rather do something the old familiar way, even if it takes longer. But if you take some time up front to make your workflow more efficient, it will pay off in the long run. You'll soon see that getting rid of daily annoyances will free up your creativity and leave you with a more pleasurable Illustrator experience.

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