Speed Up Your Design Process Using Symbols in Illustrator

By Sheila Pen, Shutterstock Contributor

When you have a piece of artwork which you may need to use multiple times, shave minutes off your design workflow by turning it into a symbol and utilize the power of the symbolism tools in Illustrator. Symbolism tools allow you to manipulate copies of your artwork in different ways so you can use them to your advantage.

Creating a Symbol

You can turn almost any piece of artwork into a symbol; here we‘ll use a simple star. Start off by drawing a star with the star tool, then give it a nice yellow color fill from the swatches panel. Bring up the symbols panel by clicking on the menu Windows > Symbols. Then, using the selection tool (black arrow pointer), select the star and drag it into the symbols panel.

Drag the star into the Symbols panel.

The symbols options dialog box will appear, prompting you to name your symbol – let‘s call it “Star.” Check the Graphic radio button to define the symbol type as a graphic symbol, not a movie clip symbol. Click OK, and you’ve created a symbol!

The originally drawn star changes into what’s called an instance of this symbol that now resides in the symbols panel. Any more stars you create from this symbol will also be instances linked to this star symbol. You can do a lot of things to the symbol instances such as rotate, scale, and skew them or apply effects or transparencies to them, as if it were regular artwork.

Now that you‘ve created a symbol, let‘s examine creating symbol instances.

Name the symbol and select the graphic, then click OK.

Creating a Single Instance

One way to create an instance is to select the star symbol in the symbols panel and drag it to wherever you want it on the art board. Let‘s do this and place it on top of a gold colored wand drawn with the rounded rectangle tool.

Symbol Sprayer Tool and Symbol Sets

If you don‘t need to place symbols with precision, then you can quickly create many instances with the symbol sprayer tool. Having selected this tool, just click and drag where you want some stars and they will start appearing under the brush diameter, which is a circle around the spray can. To adjust the size of this circle, just press [ (left square bracket) to decrease, or ] (right square bracket) to increase.

If you‘ve sprayed too many stars and want to get rid of some, hold down Alt (Windows) orOption (Mac) as you click or drag over where you want to delete some instances.

The symbol sprayer does not create a single instance, such as what we created for the wand, but many instances grouped together in one box is called a symbol set. Since they are all encased within a symbol set, you cannot use normal tools to manipulate them. The only way to work with them is to use the symbolism tools, so let‘s find out how to use them.

Symbol Shifter Tool

When you want to move the symbol instances and change their stacking order, then thesymbol shifter tool is what you will need to use. To do this, select the symbol shifter tool,then click on the stars that you want to move and drag in the direction where you want to move them towards. Shift-click on stars to bring them forward, or if you want to send thembackwards behind other stars just hold down Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac) and Shift-clickon the stars that you want to send backwards.

Click and drag with the symbol shifter tool to move the stars.

Symbol Scruncher Tool

The symbol scruncher tool is a bit like a magnet and attracts nearby symbol instances to gather closer together wherever you happen to click. To do the reverse and push stars away from each other, hold down Alt (Windows) or Options (Mac) as you click.

The Symbol Scruncher tool on the left is used to gather the stars towards the wand. On the right, it is used to scatter the stars away from the wand.

Symbol Sizer Tool

We don‘t want all the stars to be the same size, so having selected the symbol sizer tool, simply click on the stars that you want to make bigger or to make them smaller hold down Alt(Windows) or Options (Mac) as you click.

The Symbol Sizer Tool is used to make stars smaller and bigger.

Symbol Spinner Tool

Next, we want to rotate the stars, so with the symbol spinner tool selected, just click and drag in the direction you want the stars to rotate.

Modifying a Symbol

Symbols are great when you change your mind about a design because changing the symbol artwork automatically updates all symbol instances to the new design. Let‘s try this by giving the stars a gold-colored fill with a bright yellow highlight.

Double click on the star symbol in the symbols panel and the screen will change into theisolation mode placing one single star in the center of the art board. Give this star a gold-colored fill and bright yellow stroke. Clicking the arrow icon at the top left will exit isolation mode and you will see all the star symbol instances updated with the new fill and stroke.

To finish the drawing, add a few lines with the line segment tool and move the wand slightly to the left, and as if by magic, you‘ve completed a beautiful wand and stars illustration!

In part two of this symbol series, we‘ll learn some more tools and tricks with Symbols.

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