Illustrator Tips From Andrea

By on July 30th, 2012

I wrote about transitioning from PC to Mac earlier this summer, but I haven’t really talked about another technical challenge I had: getting comfortable with Adobe Illustrator CS5.

It’s not that I haven’t worked with Illustrator before Barrel. I have used it to design vector illustrations and logos, but I normally work in Photoshop for everything else – web layouts, print designs, graphic images. In my first week, I didn’t know my way around Illustrator well enough to really get “in the zone.” I spent more trying to figure out how to achieve an effect (especially those I could have done in Photoshop in 2 seconds flat) than concentrating on the actual design problem at hand.

Luckily, Barrel has an Illustrator genius on board. Say hello to Andrea.

Andrea Horne, Barrel Designer and Illustrator

I must have asked her a million questions since I started my internship. She walked me through her favorite tools and processes, giving me a ton of “I-can’t-believe-I-didn’t-know-that;I-could-have-saved-so-much-time” moments. Since Photoshop is still more popular than Illustrator (for now), I thought I’d share some tips you may not have known about.

Note: I learned a lot from all of the other Barrel designers too! I just asked Andrea the most questions.

1. Shape Builder Tool

Shape Builder is right between Free Transform and Perspective Grid.

Since there’s nothing similar to the Shape Builder Tool in Photoshop and I’m not the type to experiment with different, strange tools (even though I should), I probably wouldn’t have come across the Shape Builder Tool on my own.

This tool is a lifesaver. It helps you combine or punch out areas of multiple selected shapes, allowing you to work in the way you would if you were cutting and pasting paper together.

Combining shapes is really easy:

  1. Select all the shapes you want to combine
  2. With Shape Builder selected, click and drag to combine every shape that the drag line touches.

Quickly combine shapes without touching the Pathfinder toolbox.

Shape Builder also helps you cut parts out of another shape:

  1. Select all the shapes involved.
  2. With Shape Builder selected, press down option and click into the area you want to punch out.

You could achieve the same effects by using the buttons in the Pathfinder panel, but those aren’t as easy and intuitive to use. It’s hard to remember which button does what, and using it seems to be a case of trial and error (for me, at least). The Shape Builder Tool eliminates the guesswork, so I can get on with designing without googling how to use the Pathfinder panel tools.

2. Offset Path

Back in the old days (two months ago), if I wanted to make an outline of a shape, I would do the following:

  1. Copy and paste the shape.
  2. Transform one shape so it’s slightly smaller or bigger.
  3. Make sure the bigger object is below the smaller one.
  4. Use the align panel to center both shapes vertically and horizontally.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work perfectly. The edges of the new shape aren’t equal distance from the edges of the original shape.

Some outlines don't turn out to be equal distance from the edge of the original shape.

Andrea introduced me to Offset Path (from the menu, Object > Path > Offset Path). With an object selected, open the Offset Path dialog and adjust the settings to your preference.

This would create an outline 10px away of the object.

Here’s the breakdown:

Offset: The distance between the outline and the original shape. A positive number moves the outline away and outside of the shape; a negative number creates an outline inside of the shape.

Joins: I usually keep it at Miter, which makes the outline identical to your original shape. You can also use Round for rounded corners and Bevel for beveled corners.

Miter Limit: The miter limit specifies how far the points can extrude from angles in the shape. I usually leave this alone.

Also, check Preview to see the results before you press “OK”.

Using Offset Path, I can achieve the effect I wanted in just one step. Here are the results:

All the lines are equal distance from every point on the original shape.

3. Copy, Place, and Duplicate

This process doesn’t fit neatly into one label, but I’ve used it so many times that I can’t imagine how I’ve ever gotten things done without it. It makes use of three keyboard shortcuts, used in this order:

  1. Copy - Cmd + C
  2. Paste in Place - Cmd + F (This pastes a copy right on top of the original object)
  3. Duplicate Transformation - Cmd + D

Duplicate Transformation repeats the last transformation you’ve made to the object, which include moving, resizing, and rotating a shape.

To show you how this process works, I’ll walk you through positioning lines perfectly around a circle like this:

First, draw a circle to use as a guide. Then, using the line tool, make a line with a stroke of 1px. Center it vertically to the circle using the align panel, and position the line so that it’s touching the circle.

If you don't see the Align panel, make sure it's checked under Windows in the menu.

It should look like this:

Select both the line and the circle. With the rotate tool selected, hold down option and click into the very center of the circle (this should be marked with a tiny square when the circle is selected). A rotate dialog box should pop up. Set the angle to 10°, and press “Copy” instead of “OK”.

You should have something that looks like this.

You won’t need the circles anymore, so delete both of them. Here is where the shortcut process comes in. Select the slightly rotated line to on the left. Copy it (Cmd + C), paste it in place (Cmd + F), and duplicate the rotation (Cmd + D). Keep doing this until the shapes go completely around in a circle.

Keep duplicating until you get a circle of lines.

Using this series of shortcut saves time and reduces redundancy (Pressing the three keys is a lot easier than going back into the rotate dialog box every time).

4. Rounded Corners

Rounded corners are easy to make, but they’re not the easiest to transform, even in Photoshop. However, there are two ways to create and scale rounded corners gracefully.

If you’re interested in making a rounded rectangle, you can use the Rounded Rectangle Tool. Select the tool and start dragging on the canvas to make a shape. You can also click anywhere on the canvas to open a dialog box, which allows you to specify the size of your shape and how round you want the corners to be.

Scaling these are a little tricky, however. You’ll notice that transforming the shape using either the Selection Tool (black arrow) or the Free Transform tool will skew the corners, making them look disfigured and ugly.

Nobody likes ugly rounded corners.

To work around this, use the Direct Selection Tool (white arrow) instead. Select all the points of the shape on one side (left/right to make the shape wider, or top/bottom to make the shape longer). Those points should be black instead of white when they are selected.

Holding down shift, drag these points to the desired width. Your shape will transform, but the corners will stay exactly the same.

Alternatively, you could draw a regular rectangle (or any other shape) and use the Round Corner Effect. With your object selected, go to Effects > Stylize > Round Corners to open the dialog box. 

The rounded corner dialog box applies a scalable rounded corner effects.

With the rounded corner effect, you can scale the object using any transform tool (Selection, Direct Selection, Free Transform) without skewing the corners.

You can also change the corner radius any time by double-clicking “Round Corners” in the Appearance Panel (this brings up the same Round Corners dialog box). You can also delete the Round Corners effect from here (drag it to the trash can icon), or apply other effects using the “fx” icon on the bottom of the panel.

Note: If you don’t see the Appearance Panel, make sure there’s a check mark next to it under Windows in the menu.

5. Blend

Jan and I sat through an informal Illustrator tutorial from Andrea, and one of the things that wowed us was Blend. Blend creates steps between selected objects, sort of like a gradient. However, the tool takes into account the shape and stroke size of the selected objects instead of just color.

To open the dialog, go to Object > Blend > Blend Options from the menu. Or double click the blend tool in the toolbox.

There are three spacing options:

Smooth Color: This creates a smooth color gradient between two objects. If the two objects are the same color, it creates just one step in between the two shapes.

Specified Distance: This creates paths between the two objects that are the specified distance apart from each other.

Specified Steps: This makes the specified number of steps between the two objects.

These can be hard to visualize without actual graphics, so here are some examples of how blend works with circles:

Blending with objects of the same color.

Blending both colors and shapes.

Blend can do a lot of other cool effects, and it’s incredibly useful.

With Andrea’s (and everybody else’s) help, I’ve learned a lot about Illustrator, from how to properly align things to working with artboards.

After getting used to Illustrator, I’ve realized that it’s so much faster and more efficient than Photoshop. I’m not completely sold on Macs, but Illustrator has definitely won me over.

More resources:

Blend Tool: A Comprehensive Guide
Creating Shapes with Shape Builder Tool

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  1. meghan says:

    Numbers 2, 3 and 5 will be insanely helpful. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Tyler Mason says:

    I also agree with you Meghan and also think that the number 2 and 3 are the most interesting and enticing ones from all of these illustrations.

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