Adobe Illustrator 101: 10 Things You Should Know About Ai

by on 15th June 2011 with 43 Comments


Adobe Illustrator is one of my absolute favorite applications. For vector work, Illustrator simply can’t be beat and you should really set your reservations aside and give it a shot. Even if you’re commonly creating raster graphics for the web, there are a number of things that Illustrator simply does better than Photoshop so getting to know both apps and their strengths/weaknesses is a must.

Today’s article is for the extreme Illustrator newbies. You have the Adobe Creative Suite installed on your computer and have seen Illustrator sitting there quietly begging to be played with but you’ve never jumped in. We’ll go over ten basic things you should know before starting.

A Photoshop-Centric Discussion

In writing this article, one of the major assumptions that I’m making is that you’re fairly familiar with Photoshop. Most web designers live in Photoshop and/or Fireworks so this should work well for you if you fit that description.

As I go through the tips below, a lot of the explanation will be based on how working in Illustrator is different than Photoshop. The two apps are quite similar so you should be able to leverage your existing knowledge as long as you keep the information below in mind.

Like Photoshop, Illustrator is a huge app so we can’t possibly cover everything in one post but this is a decent overview of some techniques, tools and knowledge to keep in mind.

Vector Graphics Are Magic

The absolute first thing you should know about Illustrator is that it’s used to create vector graphics. As you probably know, vector graphics are very different than the raster graphics that you typically create in Photoshop (it’s true that Photoshop has some limited vector capabilities, but no where near what you can achieve in Illustrator.). Instead of being comprised of static individual pixels, vector graphics are mathematically drawn by your computer and can therefore be drastically changed with absolutely zero loss in quality.

What this means on a practical level is that when you create art in Illustrator, no matter what its original size is, at any time you want you can make it as big as a billboard or as small as a thumb tac. This has major positive implications to the way you work.

For instance, let’s say you’re in Photoshop and you have a circular logo that is small and you want it to be big. As you’ve probably no doubt run into a million times, if you try to increase the size of that element, it pretty much gets destroyed. Watch how much a simple circle loses quality as its size increases:


This makes creating and working with complex graphics in raster quite difficult because your freedom to change your mind is limited, even if you’re using Smart Objects you’re constrained to the object’s original size.

With vector graphics, these problems simply don’t exist, giving you the freedom to continually change your mind and your artwork at will without worrying about any visual degradation.


Also, since vector graphics are comprised of points and lines, you have an unlimited amount of freedom to go in and change individual line segments.


But You Already Knew That

Odds are, if you’re reading this blog you already know what the differences between vector and raster graphics are. The thing that you need to accept now is that Illustrator really does blow Photoshop away in this area (Fireworks is an interesting in-between that does both fairly well). Even better, you don’t have to choose one over the other but can instead use them and all the other apps in the Creative Suite synergistically throughout your various projects.

What’s All This Crap on My Screen?

The first thing that you’re likely to notice when you start using Illustrator is that there is a whole lot of stuff going on when you select and edit something. This is something that lots of new users tend to hate right off the bat because it looks confusing, but in reality all of the information and controls that Illustrator throws as you are extremely helpful.

The Bounding Box

For starters, whenever you select anything, you’ll see its bounding box. This is an intuitive feature that you should instantly understand, the part that’s not intuitive is why it won’t go away.


In Photoshop, you only see an object’s bounding box when you’re in the midst of a transform. In Illustrator, you see the bounding box whenever you have a complete object selected and the active tool is the Direct Selection Tool (V).

If you have multiple objects selected, the bounding box will appear around all of them, allowing you to move or transform them together. The same rules apply as you’re used to in Photoshop: hold shift to scale uniformly, throw in the Alt/Option key to scale from the center, etc.


One major different here is that you can’t grab and independently move a specific corner of the bounding box like you can in a Photoshop transform. This makes shearing and putting perspective on objects a bit trickier as you have to use the dedicated tools for these types of transformations. Later we’ll get a glimpse of how to use Free Transform, which will feel much more like you’re used to in Photoshop.

Smart Guides

Smart Guides are the major thing that bugs many newbies and pros alike. These are the little bits of information and outlines that pop up as you hover over, move or transform something. They may seem like they’re just getting in your way but try to get used to them and use them as much as possible, you’ll soon start to see their value.


Smart Guides allow you to size objects on the fly using precise measurements and align whatever you have selected with points and lines from other objects around it. They make it really easy to create complex layouts very quickly and are much easier than “eyeballing” things. You also of course have a full set of alignment tools for these types of operations:


Turn It All Off

I highly recommend working with all of these extras turned on, but some users simply hate all of the distractions. Admittedly, I feel the same way about the extras for InDesign so I definitely understand this mindset.

Fortunately, Illustrator allows you to silence the noise and turn all of this stuff off. As a quick way to turn off the bounding box, hit Command-Shift-B, or go to View>Hide Bounding Box.

Similarly, turning off the Smart Guides is as easy as hitting Command-U, or going to View and unchecking Smart Guides.

Layers Are Different

When switching from Photoshop to Illustrator, it’s important to note the conceptual changes in the workflow. Despite the fact that the two applications share so many features, it’s frequently the case that the feature is used in a very different way.

Layers are an excellent example of this. In Photoshop, every piece gets its own layer. In fact, an individual object is really defined by the layer it’s on. If you throw two elements on the same layer, they become a single element and if they overlap, you won’t be able to separate them anymore. Also, applying an effect to an object affects the whole layer.

In Illustrator, layers aren’t so much the way to access every separate piece on the page as they are a convenient organization utility. If you choose, you can create an incredibly complex piece of art with thousands of individual elements all using a single layer. Further, the elements on that layer have their own sub-hierarchy and can be independently edited and arranged at any time.

So, for example, instead of having a layer for every item, it would be pretty typical to create one layer that holds all your various text items, another for your vector graphics and possibly even a third for imported Photoshop art.


How Layers Work in Ai

There is a ton of functionality in Illustrator layers that you won’t see in Photoshop. For starters, each layer has a little dropdown arrow that allows you to see the hierarchy of each element within that layer. Here elements can be rearranged to adjust the visual stacking order of the result (use Command-[ and Command-] to bring an item forward or push it back).


On the right side of the palette you should see a circle next to a colored square. Clicking on the circle allows you to easily select an element. Click on the layer’s circle to select everything within the layer or an individual element’s circle to select only that item.

The colored square indicates the color of that layer. For convenience, the bounding box and other pop-up graphics are color-coded based on layers, that way when you select something you can instantly see which layer it is belongs to. To move an item from one layer to another, simply click and drag its little square.

The Pathfinder is Awesome

Let’s face it, drawing on a computer is hard. Even simple shapes can be difficult to create if you’re not a master of the Pen Tool. As with most professional vector software, Illustrator makes creating complex shapes much easier through the use of boolean operations found in the Pathfinder palette.


The little previews on the Pathfinder buttons are pretty self explanatory. They all essentially allow you to combine two shapes in an interesting way. When you first use Ai you might be tempted to think that this is a novelty feature that you’ll never use, but trust me, if you’re going to be doing illustration, putting the Pathfinder to work will save you loads of time.

A little bit of creativity goes a long way and once you can learn to see the simple shapes that make up complex objects, the Pathfinder will be your best friend.

Shape Builder

If you have CS5, Illustrator gives you another way to perform complex boolean operations. The Shape Builder Tool (Shift+M) allows you to simply click and drag through overlapping objects to combine them.


Try holding down the Option key to subtract geometry rather than add it. Check out a video tutorial on the new Shape Builder tool here.

Artboards, Not Pages

For over a decade Illustrator users have mourned the fact that it’s impossible to create multi-page documents. Adobe intentionally keeps multi-page projects as a key feature of InDesign though so there wasn’t much hope for a solution.

Recently though, the problem was solved in an interesting way by allowing users to create multiple artboards. These can be used in any number of ways: separate ideas for the same project, designing both the front and back of an object, etc.


You can create as many artboards as you want in a single document. They can even be different sizes. Functionally, there are a lot of benefits to using multiple artboards within a single document instead of simply creating multiple documents. You can easily move/copy objects back and forth and print or export selected artboards all at once.

Effects Are Weird

In place of “filters” like in Photoshop, Illustrator gives you various “Effects” that can be used to manipulate your artwork, and they take some getting used to. To see what I mean, let’s use one. Below I have some text that’s been converted to outlines and I want to give it some perspective. As I mentioned above, the bounding box doesn’t give me this freedom so I went to Effects>Distort & Transform>Free Distort.


Now, when I apply the tranformation, things get a little wonky. The effect can clearly be seen on my text, but when I select the object, all of my points are still in their original positions and don’t reflect my current artwork at all.


This is because the transformation isn’t actually applied in a permanent way. Instead of actually messing with the shape of your object, effects are applied “live”. This is actually a great thing because it means that you always retain the integrity of your original object and can go back and edit the effect at any time.

To edit the effect, select your object and bring up your appearance palette. There should be a little “fx” icon somewhere with the name of the effect that you applied. Simply double click that icon to edit it or drag it to the trash to delete it.


Photoshop Effects

You may have noticed that there is actually a set of Photoshop effects available inside of Illustrator. These can be fun to play with, but in all honesty I’d recommend using them sparingly, if at all. Illustrator effects are built for vectors and use mathematical calculations to adapt to changes in the artwork, Photoshop effects are raster and therefore not as reliable when attempting to apply them in a vector-driven workspace.

The Eyedropper Does a Lot

Inside of Photoshop, the Eyedropper tool grabs a color from your document or screen… that’s it. In Illustrator however, the tool is much more powerful. Here are a few things you can do with it.

Grab A Color from Another Item
This one you know about. Select one object, eyedropper another, the color of the second object will be applied to the first.

Example: Select red box, Eyedropper blue box, both boxes will now be blue.

Apply The Selected Object’s Color Elsewhere
An alternate way to use the Eyedropper tool is to select the object whose color you want to replicate elsewhere, then hold down the Option key and click on anything else that you want to give that color to.

Example: Select red box, Option-Click on blue box, both boxes will now be red.

Grab The Styling From Text and Other Objects
Illustrator’s Eyedropper tool not only grabs color but style as well. You can use it to make two text objects have identical fonts, color and size or to grab the stroke from a shape object.

Example 1: Select red Futura 12pt text, Eyedropper blue Helvetica 15pt text, both objects become blue Helvetica 15pt text.

Example 2: Select a white box with a black stroke, Eyedropper a blue box with a yellow stroke, both boxes become blue with yellow strokes.

Tip: hold down shift to only grab the foreground color of an object.

Fonts Make Sharing Files Difficult

When I pass a Photoshop document off to someone, no matter what fonts are used, they can actually open it up and see what the original design looked like. Without the fonts, they can’t edit the text, but they can at least view it.

In Illustrator this is not the case. If you create a piece of art for someone and send it along to them, if there are uncommon fonts used, odds are that person won’t be able to view your .ai file correctly (they’ll see the wrong fonts).

In practice, most people just send along the fonts, but this could be a poor choice for several reasons. First, font licensing is complicated and you’re technically not supposed to just give your expensive fonts to everyone who wants to see your file.

Also, it’s often the case that someone such as a commercial printer requests your files but you don’t really want them changing anything. In both of these cases you can save yourself a lot of trouble by going to Type>Create Outlines (Command-Shift-O). This essentially turns your text into vector shapes and therefore eliminates any font issues and takes away the viewer’s ability to change the text.


Alternatively, you could save the document as a PDF and share it that way. Many clients will request the “original layered files”, in which case a PDF won’t suffice, but if the person doesn’t care about file formats then PDF is the way to go.

Dealing with Missing Fonts

If you’re on the other end of this discussion and receive a file with missing fonts, there is little you can do to fix it. However, Illustrator does make it easy to target specific missing fonts and replace them throughout a document with something from your system. This is done in the Type>Find Font dialog.


Useful Keyboard Shortcuts

To finish off our Illustrator basics discussion, you should familiarize yourself with how to get around the interface quickly and smoothly using keyboard shortcuts. Obviously, hovering over any tool will show you the equivalent shortcut, so here are some other useful tricks you may not know. Many of these are right out of Photoshop so you should feel right at home.

I’ll just throw in the Mac shortcuts here. PC users should just know that ⌘ (Command) = Control and ⌥ (Option) = Alt.


  • Zoom In/Out: ⌘+ or ⌘-
  • Fit Artboard to Screen: ⌘0
  • Zoom to Actual Size: ⌘1

Temporary Tool Switching

  • Temporary Hand Tool: Hold Space from any tool
  • Temporary Selection Tool: Hold ⌘ from any Tool (gives you Direct Selection if already in Selection Tool)
  • Temporary Zoom Tool: Hold ⌘Space from any Tool


  • Paste In Front: ⌘F
  • Paste In Back: ⌘B
  • Paste In Place: ⌘⇧V

Working with Objects

  • Duplicate an Object: Hold ⌥ while dragging
  • Group Objects: ⌘G
  • Ungroup Objects: ⌘⇧G
  • Bring to Front: ⌘⇧]
  • Send to Back: ⌘⇧[
  • Select All on Active Artboard Only: ⌘⌥A
  • Lock Selection: ⌘2, ⌘⌥2 to unlock all
  • Hide Selection: ⌘3, ⌘⌥3 to show all


  • Check Spelling: ⌘I
  • Show Grid: ⌘”
  • Make Guides: ⌘5 (select a shape first)


I hope the ten tips above have encouraged you to give Illustrator another look. It’s a complicated application but it can’t be beat for vector work and once you get the hang of how it’s different from Photoshop, everything starts to make sense.

Leave a comment below and tell us any great Illustrator tips that come to mind. What did you struggle with when you first picked up this application? What do you still struggle with?

Comments & Discussion


  • Chris Thelwell

    Nice article, however you missed possibly the greatest feature to be added to Illustrator over the last few version, ‘Pixel perfect’ mode! Accompany pixel perfect with the export as PSD option and your life becomes a lot easier when working for the web, especially if you are an illustrator fan like me!

    I often create whole websites within one illustrator file, using layers for different elements (like blocks in a template), using symbols for common used elements, when it comes to creating the web assets, it much easier than photoshop as I can ‘save for web’ individual components as and when required by the CSS, plus using the information panel I have complete control over every pixel on the page!

  • Pista

    I found this article irrelevant. I think you’ve never used photoshop for more than 5 minutes. If so you would realize there is bounding box as well as viewing content without proper font installed as well as smart guides or

    I think both of the mentioned softwares are excellent and I would love to see their merging one day.

  • Joe


    No please, keep them both separate. It may ramp up the cost of single software application but imagine both combined in one package. The interface would be far too robust and cumbersome. Add to this any functionality that may have to be scrapped to accomodate a popular feature.

    For example, 3D Studio Max.

    Generally Autodesk doesn’t get rid of older features.
    The result is a mass of features that aren’t used, or integration that is shoddy from a third party plug in they picked up.

    Adobe makes it very clear the use of their programs.
    Layout – ID
    Vector – IL
    Raster/Photo work – PS

    An overly simplified statement that leaves out quite a bit I know but boiled down very simply. They all function quite well for their purposes.

  • Ron

    Thank you for the article.

    There are programs that combine Illustrator and Photoshop features. One of the best ones is Canvas. Canvas could be so much more if its current owner weren’t just treating it as a cash cow to be kept on life support.

  • Brian Lucas

    @Pista – I think you didn’t read the article. Your criticisms are exactly what was said. Don’t just skim and slam.

    Great article. I use both apps all the time, and I wish I had seen something like this when I first moved into IL after Ps for so many years. I even learned something new in one of the shortcuts you listed. Thanks!

  • Cynthia McNbb

    Thanx for the short cut keys, I love short cut keys. I also love the multiple art board feature in AI. It allows you to set the art board dimensions separately, which is great for doing things such as a full binder cover design with the spine being only 1″ and the rear and cover being 8 1/2″. Plus you can use the Art Board Pallet to select which one you wish to work on, kinda like layers. And when saving to PDF you get the document with multiple pages, set at the size you determined.

  • Joshua Johnson

    Thanks Brian! You answered for me for the comment above :)

  • Danny

    Nice article! Good intro to Illustrator. I still prefer PS because it feels more intuitive, but I’m slowly managing to handle Ai better as well.

  • A@gmail.como

    Great article except the bounding box bit.The bounding box has been available on Photoshop since forever, not just on “transform” mode. There’s an icon for it top-left when you select an object.

  • 9to5

    AI cant handle bitmaps and PS is quite clumsy with vectors. Adobe Fireworks is the only hybrid tool that can do vectors and raster gfx with no problemos (but only for web work).

  • Tim

    Illustrator is better now, but still poor for actually illustrating things. Mostly because of it’s shoddy selection tools. Long live FreeHand! Illustrator still has nothing similar to FreeHand’s Find and Replace Graphics feature. If you have ever used this powerful tool you’ll know why FreeHand users are so bummed that Adobe bought it, canceled it, and won’t release the source code open source so that development can continue on it. The Graphic Find and Replace alone made FreeHand more powerful than Illustrator.

  • Justin

    I didn’t know you could turn off the bounding box in AI. That has always annoyed me.

  • DJPallotta

    Minor correction: the number of artboards is limited to 100.

  • Mineiro

    Thanks for the tips! Nice article.

  • alfredo

    I’ve been using AI for more than 12 years and I didn’t know about option+click to apply a color to several objects… this is very helpful, thanks!

  • Yuni Ardita Sari Dewi

    Definitely worth to bookmark. Thanks for share. :)

  • Diego

    I been using Photoshop to make websites, but now I’m trying some luck with Illustrator and comes really handy also! Thanks for this article :)

    (Sorry for my english…)

  • Francis Boudreau

    Thank you for this really nice article! AI is a really nice program.

  • RustyH

    I find Photoshops vector abilities quite useful and simpler to use than ai and fireworks. Useful enough to rarely open ai. I just wish photoshop had ai’s warp tool.

  • vectorism

    illustrator is for precision..

    the very basic of illustrator- how to use the 3 types of selection tool, group selection & direct selection.. many newbies still confuse of these..

    agree bout the smart guide, irritating for noob, but appreciated by pros.. i luv the power of smart guide.. perhaps not every task needs to enable it, simple on / off it [Ctrl+U].

    keyboard shortcut to move object by coodinate (precise move), select object > Enter > X:value, Y:value > Enter

    ..nice topic

  • Tubagus Arief Zulfianto

    Hallo, I,m newbie. I found when I make an illustration logo with adobe illustrator then I copy paste to Adobe In Design to make my book lay out, then it paste not same. Could anyone give me tutorial solution about that case?

  • Ben Neff

    Thanks for this article.

    A little tip regarding pathfinder. Didn’t know this for the longest time.

    Rather than using the pathfinder panel to intersect, merge, etc. an alternative is to group the objects, go to the appearance panel, click on the fx dropdown, go to pathfinder and pick what you’d like to do. This method is non-destructive and allows you to change your choice and preview options.

  • Rick Moore

    “One major different here is that you can’t grab and independently move a specific corner of the bounding box like you can in a Photoshop transform. This makes shearing and putting perspective on objects a bit trickier as you have to use the dedicated tools for these types of transformations. ”

    Press Command as you begin to drag a corner of the bounding box and it will let you distort just that corner. Add shift to constrain it to the vertical or horizontal axis. Pressing command+option will allow you to distort with perspective, and adding shift also constrains that perspective to the horizontal or vertical axis.

  • Ben Neff

    Thanks for the tip Rick Moore! Didn’t know about that.

  • Devang

    oh…. thanks…. there are hell lots of minor things that i didn’t know before reading this stuff… good work :)

  • Tubagus Arief Zulfianto

    I’m a beginner. How to make same copy paste from Illustrator to In Design?

  • Teee

    Nice tutorial. I think for those unwilling to commit to an either/or option, a discussion about smart objects Is key. I often use them to flow between indesign, illustrator and photoshop for projects in multiple media, and they can really give you the best of all of the software in creative suite.

    @tubagus: save your file as an .ai and then use the place command in indesign.

  • Aleksey

    Hey! I’ve been using Illustrator for nearly a year now, and on a daily basis, but still you’ve put some long-forgotten things in their place. Thanks!)

  • Michel

    “Adobe intentionally keeps multi-page projects as a key feature of InDesign though so there wasn’t much hope for a solution.”

    — That’s not exactly true. Since version CS3, Adobe Fireworks has Pages, which are a great addition to anyone doing Web design work! (In Fireworks CS4, users were also able to start adding a Master Page in each document, which saves even more time and effort!)

    I think of Fireworks as a hybrid app (vectors+bitmap editing), which is pixel-perfect and quite powerful (Pages, Layers, States, Styles, Symbols, ability to export interactive HTML prototypes, etc.), and it works very well for any kind of screen/web/ui design work… (If you work in the Web field, worth to check what Fireworks has in store…)

    Overall, for me this article was quite useful. I’ve played with Illustrator a few times and I find it much more pleasing to work with than Photoshop… It’s more intuitive, for starters, and has a lot of vector power. It can be used for Web work, too, although I find Fireworks to be easier and more powerful for web and screen design (since it merges well vectors and bitmaps)… :)

  • Gayle

    Excellent article–bookmarking it. Thanks!

  • Colm Delaney

    When comparing Illustrator to Photoshop, the one glaring omission is Layer Comps, one of the most useful features to be added to Photoshop. Photoshop has had it since CS, and I use it almost every day. Its omission is the main reason I use Illustrator as little as possible for web design.

  • squareart

    A good, well written basics article for beginners just getting started with Illustrator. Which for anyone out there that doesn’t use it, you should really try it out.
    It is a fantastic program and combined with photoshop you can really do anything. You can paste vector shapes into photoshop, giving you greater flexibility to create and edit them in Illustrator first. Go for it!

  • geniestreiche

    I think Ai ist one of the worse application of the creative suite. I would like to see Corel Draw come back to Mac. What the hell is the idea that the shortcut for zooming in is ⇧⌘= while in photoshop or indesign is ⌘+. To generate a pdf file you must use the command save in Ai while you must export in InDesign. There a subtl things but sometimes it is frustrating.

  • atomicwammack

    I very much appreciate your article. While your points regarding the merits of Illustrator are well-taken, Tim is absolutely correct about Freehand being superior. I encourage you to try it.

  • karthik

    great info. Loved the read. thanks :)

  • Susan Rubinsky

    Thanks for the article. There were a couple of little things in here I didn’t know.

    I found this article as the result of a search for turning off the annoying sound Illustrator makes when you go to grab a handle in an illustration but miss. Does anyone know how to turn off that sound? I still can’t figure out how to do that.

    Overall I love Illustrator and use it predominantly with Photoshop for website design. One thing I HATE is the very annoying handling of fonts and the inability to find/replace font upon opening a document. Almost every file I get from someone else has this problem. The biggest source of the issue is when you’re crossing platforms from MAC to PC or vice versa. Even though both platforms may have the same font, each system handles the font nomenclature differently and Illustrator is “dumb” in this regard. Thanks for the info about the find font dialogue box — it’s an OK workaround for now, but Adobe really ought to fix this issue.

    One other thing — You mentioned “change fonts to outlines” — I NEVER do this. There is an advanced option when you save to PDF that allows you to automatically outline all fonts and lines in the PDF you generate, all without disrupting the original Illustrator file. One mistake I see newbies make all the time is “Change fonts to outlines” and overwrite the original illustration. Once, you do that, there’s no way to go back and edit the original file so you then have to recreate it from scratch.

    Also, this article is very MAC centric. The shortcuts you provided are for MACs, not PCs. Also, because PCs have a two-button mouse, there are a lot more things you can control/change with just your mouse.

  • Megan

    Great article! As a web designer and programmer I have been using Photoshop for years and have decided to venture to Illustrator.. and am LOVING IT! There’s a lot to learn, but I feel it’s worth it. I feel designers should be using the whole Creative Suite to their advantage!

  • Alex Noble

    I have designed my logo in PSD and you have given me the tools I need to vector it so that I can have it printed on a banner or a business card. I struggled with this issue for a year before I happened upon your artical. Now I can move forward to my next project in my CS4 Suite!

  • Techielog

    Thanks for the nice artile. I am new to AI and it gave me good information.

  • xin

    Great article! Love e fun way you wrote it too(e.g. What’s all this crap on my screen?)

    After using PS for years I’m finally venturing into AI. Another thing PS pple migrating to AI might notice is that instead of e foreground/background color swatch on the tools panel, its now the fill/outline color swatch.

    That’s pretty self-explanatory I guess, but it’s juz one of the many things newbies like me have to get used to.

  • Jamie

    Great Article! Such a smooth read, and very helpful!

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