7 overlooked tips for Adobe Illustrator you should know
By Jordan Wilson
Posted on 09-17-2020
Look – I’m a humble creative. I put my paths down one anchor point at time, and I’ve been doing it for over a decade. Adobe Illustrator has been my go-to vessel for design since first loading it onto my Bondi Blue G3 iMac and tapping into a fresh pack of Dunkaroos. It’s the Hal to my Oates, the basil to my tomato, the Netflix to my chill. And while I don’t claim to be vector’s greatest gift to the masses, I’m comfortable in my little corner of the home office, blasting “Rich Girl” and anchoring away.
Illustrator is a dense program. Being self-taught, I learned by indiscriminately clicking my way through the minefield. Exploring the nooks and crannies of the software, I was incentivized by leveling up my creative character and tapping into newfound abilities. But, eventually, discovery took a backseat; aimless clicks were replaced with tight deadlines and the realities of running a freelance business devoured any remaining focus. It wasn’t until recently, when a colleague mentioned a tool I had never bothered to learn, that I felt a sense of disconnect with a piece of software that saw me through my 20s. And in that mind, I’ve spent the past number of weeks rekindling that lost excitement of clicking the unknown, being confused, and digging through the underbelly of Adobe Illustrator.
Through my reintroduction, I unearthed some (personally) game-altering tools and methods – things that, had I found much earlier on in my career, would have saved me countless days of wasted time. What are they? I’m glad you (hopefully) asked.
Let’s be honest: Fonts can come in all sorts of shapes and spaces. And while many “high-quality” typefaces often have solid kerning already set in, that one you pulled off “www-dot-freeforareason-dot-com” might have some alignment surprises in store. Initially, my solve was always to manually adjust each letter accordingly (Hotkey: OPT + SHIFT + Left/Right), but that can sometimes be painstakingly arduous. Luckily, Illustrator offers a built-in solution called “Optical Kerning,” and it’s found in your Character panel. Is this a new feature? The year 2003 (and my recent discovery of it) would say yes!
True size view
For the most part, I live in the world of print – where colors are “less than” and the realities of limitation is a shared kink. It can be a tough go never truly knowing what the printed version of your design will look like until you send it off. Fortunately, Illustrator tosses “ink-infatuates” like me a bone with the “True Size View” option, found in Preferences > General > Display Print Size at 100% Zoom. Now, when selected at 100% Zoom, your artwork will display the exact size it will be at print, so your business card, for example, will be the size of, well, an actual business card. (Are they still a thing in the new normal?)
**Consideration: Be sure to disable when designing for digital!
Recolor artwork tool
When I first discovered this option existed, I was devastated. I genuinely can’t express how many hours I’ve wasted clicking through wormholes of clipping masks trying to select that one blue stroke buried in the haystack of design pieces. If you were to adopt and provide a loving home to anything on this list, this tool will make a wonderful companion. It’s also beyond simple: Just select anything in your artwork you want to recolor and click “Recolor” in the Properties panel. Here you can easily swap individual colors, link them together to shift everything in uniform, switch the order of colors, or even randomize them in specific harmonies. And if you get too far into the weeds, just click the eyedropper icon in the upper right to bring you back to where you started. Praise be, you are now an unstoppable demigod of the spectral rainbow.
Auto spell check
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve had some “oopsy daisy” spellings hit the public. Mee no gewd at werd math. But it seemed like Illustrator was an inhibitor of my shortcomings because I’ve also been known to forget things – like manually spell-checking before sending artwork off to become said “oopsies.” I’ve grown accustomed to having every typing touchpoint make me seem smarter than I am, and to be frank, I was always unsettled that Illustrator didn’t encourage my veil-covered failings. Fortunately, some brilliant, beautifully minded individual at Adobe snuck in the Auto Spell Check option (Edit > Spelling > Auto Spell Check) and, well, let’s just say, “Porland Orgeon” won’t be seen on any of my work anytime soon … again.
Scissors + eraser tool
Before you start, I realize that I may be in the minority of having not bothered with these tools at first. But this old dog was perfectly happy adding three anchor points to a stroke and deleting the middle one just to split them. (I’m not saying I’m proud.) Honestly, I wasn’t sure I should include them until talking with a significant amount of other designs and realizing that they, too, foolishly neglected these two time-savers. Regardless, if you are already privy to the anchor-vanishing magic, well done (thanks for telling me). If not, abracadabra.
Simplify anchor points
Like many things, this tool really needed some time to learn how to fly. In the early stages, its caterpillar-like functionality was, let’s say, grounded – but in the more recent updates, it has emerged a completely useful and well-executed butterfly. As someone who does a lot of sketching on the iPad before tracing them into Illustrator, having a tool to help clean up the wonky anchor points afterward is a welcomed feat. The biggest upgrade is how the tool operates; it gives us real-time previews and a deep well of setting options to really dial in the final output. You, too, can shed the anchored weight by going to Object > Path > Simplify. Summer design bods all around!
If you’re like me, you can often find yourself in a sea of complex illustrations and buried clipping masks, making it very difficult to select particular groups of elements that I want change – like increasing a stroke width throughout the entire artwork, or deciding I want to change all of my blends from Multiply to Overlay. It can be a bit of a nightmare. Luckily, there is a cheat. By selecting on a single part of the design you want to change, you can then click on Select > Same > *Your Choosing, and Illustrator automatically selects any and all elements that share that same feature/appearance, giving you immediate access to make your changes. Don’t dissect – select.
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