Why read this? : We look at the basics of Adobe Illustrator. Learn how to create vector graphics for typography, logos and illustrations where you need ‘sharp’ design. We go through the most common windows and tools you’ll use in this powerful graphic design software. Read this if you’re looking for tips on Adobe Illustrator for beginners.
Adobe Illustrator is a powerful graphic design tool which 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 its noisier and more high profile sibling.
In the case of Adobe Illustrator, that’s obviously Adobe Photoshop. Thanks to the fashion industry, Photoshop is very widely known.
Adobe Illustrator on the other hand, is less well-known. It’s mostly known by graphic designers rather than the general public.
A quick Google Trends search shows twice as many searches for Photoshop as for Illustrator. But just because it’s less well-known doesn’t mean it’s less valuable. It can be very useful in many marketing and e-Commerce projects.
In this Adobe Illustrator for beginners guide, we’ll cover examples of where, when and how to use it.
Vector vs raster
The first point to learn is that 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 its 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, like the example here. (you may need to zoom in to the image).
Vector graphic editors like Adobe Illustrator are therefore better to create images which need to be able to flex to different sizes.
Typography and logos are obvious examples.
Your logo needs to fit on different sizes of materials, from a matchbox, to a huge outdoor billboard. Vector graphics give you the flexibility to fit graphics to all sizes without losing sharpness.
Adobe Illustrator is also great for illustrations which require sharp edges (like cartoons, clip art and geometric shapes), are technical or diagrammatic.
It’s also perfect for creating icons, as these generally have to be vector graphics and have sharp edges.
Also with Illustrator you typically start with a blank page and create a design. In Photoshop, you usually start with an existing image, and then edit and refine it.
We start our T-shirt designs on an 11 inch x 11 inch black background blank page in Illustrator, for example. When we use Photoshop on the other hand, it’s usually to edit an existing photo or design.
Both tools have their place. But there’s something about starting with a blank page that’s more exciting from a creativity point of view.
Where to start
Adobe Illustrator can be intimidating when you first start. That’s why we put together this Adobe Illustrator for beginners guide.
Open it up and there’s lots of options to choose from. The screen bears a passing resemblance to the dashboard of the space shuttle.
It takes time to know what everything is, what everything does, and where to find it.
There’s 2 areas to focus on at the start. These are the Windows tab and the left-hand tool bar. Learning how these work helps you navigate the rest of what this tool can do.
Commonly used windows
First, the Windows tab controls what appears on your desktop at any one time.
You can have up to 35 different windows in Adobe Illustrator as you work on a design. That’s great when you know what they all do. But it’s a lot to take in when you’re starting out.
If you’re at the Adobe Illustrator for beginners stage, it’s better to focus on a few of the most frequently used windows.
As you can see from this screengrab, we set out windows up to show only the 8 most common windows we use. That’s not to say we never use the other windows. But these are the ones we use the most often.
Let’s go through them one by one.
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 text. On other designs, particularly if there’s lots of text, left alignment is the way to go. It makes the text easier to read.
Appearance gives you quick access to see which element you’re working on. You can quickly access the stroke, fill and opacity values associated with that element.
Colour is an important part of any graphic design. Adobe Illustrator gives you a wide range of options. You can use the RGB and CMYK colour systems depending on whether your design is for screens or print. You can also use Hex and HSB if you prefer to use those instead.
Colour is an area where it’s easy to lose your way. So the colour panel is a great place to grab swatches (saved colours) and make adjustments for lighting and shading.
Access to this window makes it easier to test out different options with your colour set-up.
Gradient effects can add a professional and stylish look to any design. They can be used to create bold, texture and shading effects.
For example, the shading in our Game Player T-shirt design which makes the handles of the controller look curved was done with the gradient tool.
While you wouldn’t use gradient on every design, it’s common enough that it’s worth keeping it open as a frequently used window.
We would struggle without the layers window. When you create more complex designs, you’ll want to work on individual elements.
You’ll 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, as the design has multiple elements.
Along with ‘appearance’, the properties window tends to be the one we go to when we lose track of what we’re working on.
It pulls 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 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.
The final window we use most often covers transparency and the blend mode. You use this when you combine design elements together. It covers how these elements look when they sit on top of each other and the opacity which is how ‘see-through’ a design element is.
The left-hand tool bar
The left-hand tool bar has all the main tools you use to create and manipulate design elements.
There are 36 elements on this toolbar as standard.
You may end up using all of these at some point, but it’s unlikely you’ll use all of them when you’re just starting out.
To keep it easy in our Adobe Illustrator for beginners guide, we recommend you start by prioritising using these 9 tools :-
This obviously selects an object. As you use Adobe Illustrator, you find yourself coming back again and again to this tool, as when you select another tool from the menu, it stays “live” until you choose another tool.
Let’s say for example, you click on the “text” tool to add some text. And then you want to move another image to sit nearer the text.
You have to click the select tool to grab the image. If you try to grab it while ‘text’ is still the live tool, it assumes you’re 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 selection tool, 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. You use this most often when you’ve 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.
Used to draw lines. The start point of most designs, and frequently used. You can add straight and curved lines with the pen tool. But there’s 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 to if you “draw” in Powerpoint or Keynote, for example. Like the selection tool, it’ll make you swear at first until you get used to it.
Anchor point add / delete
Most designs start 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 you want it to go.
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 want to ‘curve up’ a design.
Type is how you add text to your design. You create a lot of text in Adobe Illustrator for logos and other graphic design projects.
The Type tool has a number of sub-headings including Area type (type within a shape or area), Type on a path (useful for creating curved text for example) and Vertical Type.
You can do these manually. But the automation of the process with these tools saves a lot of time.
(Rectange / Rounded rectangle / Elipse / Polygon / Star / Flare)
Along with “type”, shapes are the basic elements where most designs in Adobe Illustrator start. You’ll find you pull these shapes out often at the start of a design. Flare is probably the one we use least (it creates a photography flash effect) as it can be fiddly to set up.
But all of them, we’ve used in our designs at one point or another.
Shape builder tool
Geometric shapes on their own look quite basic. But when you combine them together you make interesting shapes which 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. For example, we really like the Eyedropper tool 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 recommend. We hope this mini Adobe Illustrator for beginners guide helps take away some of the initial feeling of being overwhelmed when you start.
And if you don’t want to pay for Adobe Illustrator?
The utility and creativity which Adobe Illustrator brings does have a cost in terms of a monthly subscription fee.
There are alternatives like Inkscape and Affinity Designer, which can potentially give the same results at less cost. See our Adobe alternatives article for more on this.
However, Adobe Illustrator sets the standard. And in our case, we get enough out of the tool to justify its place on our monthly expenditure list.
These are also many online graphic design resources. Use sites like Behance and Dribbble for inspiration. Educate yourself on how to use tools like Illustrator on sites like Adobe Education Exchange. And search out quick and cheap solutions on sites like Envato and Canva.
Conclusion - Adobe Illustrator
In conclusion, when your business needs to create images and graphics that are ‘sharp’, Adobe Illustrator is a powerful tool to help you create those. However, it has a large learning curve and takes time to master.
Our Adobe Illustrator for beginners guide was written to help you get started. But it’s by no means a comprehensive guide. Check out You Tube and online learning graphic design courses on sites like Udemy for more specific training on the different elements.
See also our graphic design guides for more on this topic. Or get in touch if you need advice on how best to use Adobe Illustrator as a beginner.