Adobe Illustrator for beginners

Game player T-shirt design - Blue PS controller

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Snapshot : Adobe Illustrator is a powerful graphic design tool. It creates vector graphics for typography, logos and any illustration where ‘sharp’ design is needed. Our Adobe Illustrator for beginners guide gives an overview on when and how. Learn the most common windows and tools used to create great designs.

Adobe Illustrator is a powerful graphic design tool that suffers from what we call Liam Hemsworth or Casey Affleck syndrome. It’s good at what it does. But it tends to be overlooked in favour of it’s noisier and more high profile sibling.

In the case of Adobe, that’s obviously Adobe Photoshop.

Thanks to the fashion industry, Photoshop is now widely known to the general public. Adobe Illustrator is well-known amongst graphic designers. But a quick Goggle Trends search shows Adobe Photoshop beats it two to one terms of search popularity. But we use Adobe Illustrator a lot in our business, and we believe it adds a lot of value. So read on for our Adobe Illustrator for beginners guide.

The product itself dates back to it’s initial development in 1985. It was developed as a way to commercialise Adobe’s font development software and since then has gone through a whopping 24 new releases. The latest release Illustrator CC 2020 came out in October last year. As a tool we use regularly, we wanted to share some learnings on how the product can be used in marketing and e-Commerce. 

Vector vs raster 

Adobe illustrator is a vector based graphics editor. Vector images are stored as paths, not pixels. For the non-technical reader, this means the image retains it’s integrity no matter the size. We’ve all seen images created through raster editors (like Photoshop) which are pixel-based. When you try to make them bigger, they end up blocky and jagged.

Vector graphic editors like Adobe Illustrator are therefore better to create images that need to be able to flex to different sizes. Typography and logos being obvious examples. Your logo might be on a matchbox and a 96 sheet outdoor billboard. But Adobe Illustrator is also great for any illustrations which require sharp edges (like cartoons, clip art and geometric shapes) or are technical or diagrammatic.

A less technical way to decide between Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop is that with Illustrator, you more often than not start with a blank page.

We start 90% of our T-shirt designs on an 11 inch x 11 inch black background blank page in Illustrator for example. Photoshop on the other hand usually requires you to have some initial photo or design that you want to add to or manipulate. We use both tools. But there is something about starting with a blank page that is more exciting from a creativity point of view. 

Where to start

Adobe Illustrator comes with so many options, it can be actually quite intimidating the first time you open it up. That’s why we put together this Adobe Illustrator for beginners guide.

The screen bears a passing resemblance to a the dashboard of the space shuttle, and it does take time to know what everything is, what what everything does and where to find it.

Two areas we would recommend you focus on that have worked for us as we continue to grow our skills in Adobe Illustrator are the Windows tab and the left-hand tool bar.

Commonly used windows

Firstly, the Windows tab controls what appears on your desktop at any one time. Adobe Illustrator has an amazing choice of 35 possible windows you can have open as you work on a design. While this choice is great when you are experienced, in practical terms, it’s too much. If you are at the Adobe Illustrator for beginners stage, you want to only focus on the windows you use most often.

As you can see from this screengrab, our set-up is to cut this down to the eight most common windows we use. That’s not to say we never use the other windows. But these are the ones we use by far the most often. Let’s go through them one by one.

Align

Alignment is a key design principle which brings balance and direction to visual design. You should use this window regularly to align objects. When you can group elements and find common lines of alignment with this window, your designs will look more professional. Adobe Illustrator gives a great range of options across vertical and horizontal alignment. 

On our T-shirt designs we lean to central alignments for images and short words and sentences. On other designs, particularly if there is a lot of text, left alignment is almost always the way to go. Left alignment makes text blocks much easier to read.

Appearance

Appearance gives you quick access to determine which element you are working on. You can quickly access the stroke, fill and opacity values associated with that element.

Color / Colour

Colour is an important part of any graphic design. The options that sit behind Adobe Illustrator are frankly phenomenal. RGB and CMYK options depending on whether your design is for screens or print. All sorts of quality settings to adjust files sizes and resolutions. Colour is an areas where it’s easy to lose your way. So the colour panel is a great place to grab swatches (saved colours) and make adjustments. Access to this window makes it easier to test out different options with your colour set-up.

Gradient

Gradient effects can add a professional and stylish look to any design. They can be used to create bold effects and texture and shading effects. In our Game Player T-shirt design for example, the shading which makes the handles of the controller look curved was done with the gradient tool. While you would never use gradient on every design, it’s used often enough that its worth keeping it open as a frequently used window.

Layers

This window is one that we could not live without. When you create more complex designs, you will want to work on individual elements. You will want to play around with how individual elements sit in front of or behind other elements. The layer window lets you switch on and off layers as you work with them. It helps you build up individual elements into an overall design. The Game Player design has 11 layers for example, which the design has multiple elements.

Properties

Along with ‘appearance’, this window tends to be the one we go to when we lose track of what we are woking on. It collates together key attributes like transform, appearance, character and paragraph into a single panel. So you can check on and edit the properties of the design element directly.

Stroke

Stroke refers to the outer line which goes around any element. You adjust the weight and style of a stroke element frequently on designs. And so again, it’s another must have window for quick access in our panel set-up. 

Transparency

The final window we use most often covers the blend mode. This is used when design elements combined together. And it covers the opacity which is in simple terms how ‘see-through’ a design element is. 

Key tools used most often

The left-hand tool bar contains all of the actual tools you use to create and manipulate design elements. There are 36 elements on this toolbar as standard. But to keep it easy in our Adobe Illustrator for beginners guide, we recommend you spend the most time with these 9 tools.

Selection tool

This obviously ‘selects’ an item. As you use Adobe Illustator, you find yourself coming back again and again to this tool, since when you select another tool from the menu, it stays “live” until you choose another tool. 

Let’s for example, you click on the “text” tool to add some text and then want move an image you already created to sit nearer the text. You need to click the select tool in order to grab the image. If you try to grab it while ‘text’ is still the live tool, it will assume you are trying to write more text. This can be frustrating at first. There was a lot of swearing when we started with this tool. But once you get in the habit of using the sectional tool it. it actually makes sense to use it that way. 

Direct selection tool

While select grabs an element, you’ll find yourself also using direct selection frequently. This is most often used when you have a line that contains multiple anchor points and handles. Direct selection lets you grab and manipulate these to change the shape of the line and adjust the curve of the line for example.

Pen tool

Used to draw lines. The start point of most designs. and frequently used. The pen tool can add straight and curved lines. But there is a learning curve on how to create these based on when you click and drag. It works slightly differently from what you’d be used if you “draw” in Powerpoint or Keynote for example. Like the selection tool, it creates some swearing at first until you get used to it. 

Anchor point add / delete

Most designs will start off with a basic pen outline, but as you finesse a design and add detail, sometime the original pen anchor points don’t work. The add / delete anchor points can help pull or push a line in the direction that you actually want it to go.

Curvature tool

Drawing curves with the pen tool alone is entirely possible, but can be fiddly. The curvature tool takes away a lot of the pain by automatically adding curves based on Adobe’s clever creative algorithm that sits behind the tool. It doesn’t get it right every time. But more times than not, it can save a huge amount of time when you are try to ‘curve up’ a design. 

Type tool

It creates text. You create a lot of text in Adobe Illustrator for logos and graphic design purposes. The Type tool has a number of sub-headings including Area type (type within a shape o area), Type on a path (useful for creating curved text for example) and Vertical Type. These are all possible to do manually, but the automation of the process with these tools is a great time saver.

Shape tool

(Rectange / Rounded rectangle / Elipse / Polygon / Star / Flare)

Along with “type”, shapes are the basic elements where most designs in Adobe Illustrator start. You will find you pull these shapes out often at the start of a design. Flare is probably the one we use least (it creates a photorgraphy flash effect) as it can be fiddly to set-up. But all of them have been used in our designs are one point or another. 

Shape builder tool

Geometric shapes on their own look quite basic. It’s when you combine them together that you start to make interesting shapes that look more like design elements. The Shape Builder tool is one of our favourite parts of Adobe Illustrator. You combine shapes together and add or remove elements to create something completely new. 

Fill / stroke

These speak for themselves really, and outside the above tools are the ones we use most frequently.

A number of the other tools come in handy for specific design tasks you need to do. We’re particularly keen on the Eyedropper tool for example which copies all style elements from one object to another, But as our ‘go to’ set of tools when we work with Adobe Illustrator, these would be the ones we would recommend. We hope this mini Adobe Illustrator for beginners guide helps to take away some of the initial feeling of being overwhelmed when you first open it up.

And if you don’t want to pay for Adobe Illustrator?

The utility and creativity that Adobe Illustrator brings does come at a cost in terms of a monthly subscription fee. There are alternatives like Inkscape and Affinity, which can potentially give the same results at less cost. However, Adobe Illustrator continues to set the standard, and in our case, we get enough out of the tool, that it justifies it’s place on our monthly expenditure list. 

Inkscape logo

In conclusion, when your business needs to create images and graphics that are ‘sharp’, Adobe Illustrator is a very powerful tool to help you deliver your creative needs. It has a fairly large learning curve and takes time to master. Our Adobe Illustrator for beginners guide was written to help you get started but is by no means a full comprehensive guide. Check out You Tube and online learning graphic design courses on sites like Udemy for more specific training on the different elements.

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