Improve your design skills - Illustrator

Computer Arts' Luke O'Neill helps you draw more from.

Mastering the tools that you work with on a day-to-day basis is no easy feat. In fact, it takes years to become so adept with tools that you barely even need to think about how to create a desired effect. But it's this knowledge that's going to give you more time to be more creative on projects; more time to brainstorm, sketch up ideas and bring them to life. Without a true knowledge of the industry's leading software tools, your creativity is likely to be stifled, and your productivity lessened. Adobe Creative Suite is the de facto standard in the design industry.

Whether you work in print, web or motion, the tools in Adobe CS are essential to your output. And so we're bringing you 112 invaluable tips for working in Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, InDesign, Dreamweaver, Fireworks, After Effects, Premiere and Encore.

So, whether you work in CS2, CS3 or the recently updated CS4, you'll find snippets of advice that will help you to work faster, more efficiently and, ultimately, improve your design skills.

Luke O'Neill on Illustrator

01: Make a sketch
This might seem a bit of old-fashioned, but you may find that by sketching out what you intend to do before launching Illustrator you will have a much clearer idea of how to approach a piece and will not waste time staring at a blank screen. You could even scan the sketch in, double-click the layer, dim the image to 50% and use this as a starting point from which to build the rest of your piece .

02: Build libraries
As everyone's artwork has a particular look and feel, it is worth compiling libraries of your regularly used elements, colour palettes, symbols and brushes. You will find that once you have a decent sized library of these elements, your work rate will speed up considerably.

03: Appearance palette in CS4
Take advantage of the new functionality of the Appearance palette in CS4. Whereas in previous versions of Illustrator you had to go through a multitude of palettes if you wished to edit the effect, fill and stroke weight of an object, now all of this is achievable through just the one palette.

04: Start with the basics
If you are just starting out with Illustrator, you may be baffled by the sheer number of tools, palettes, menus and effects that are achievable, and be left struggling to know where to begin. My advice to anyone starting out would be to fully master the Pen tool and Pathfinder palette first. Once you have gained a certain finesse in using both of these, you will find that you can achieve what you want much more quickly.

05: Stay organised
It is paramount to make sure that you keep your Illustrator document organised so as not to cause confusion later. This is especially necessary in the Layers palette, where you should keep elements on separate, appropriately named, layers. For example if you are tracing skin tones, a simple way to keep things clear would be to split these layers into shadows, mid-tones and highlights.

06: Know your keyboard shortcuts
This is a bit of a no-brainer really, but it still surprises me how many people don't use keyboard shortcuts. You don't need to learn every single one, but by mastering the simple commands you should find that your speed increases and you have more time to think about what you're doing instead of trying to locate a function.

07: CS4 Star tip CS4's Multiple Artboard function
This is pretty much the feature that most Illustrator users have been waiting for. Instead of having many separate AI documents set up for different output purposes, you can now contain all of this within one document, edit the number of Artboards, the size, add bleed and more. Now you can have one document set up to include, say, a business card, a flyer and a web-banner, and then output all of these from just the one document.

08: Use Isolation mode
Isolation mode is a function that was introduced in Illustrator CS3. It enables you to work on objects independently from the rest of the document by simply double-clicking the object. This is a bit of a godsend when you're working on a complex, multi-layered piece of artwork and dealing with lots of grouped objects.

09: Scaling strokes
Illustrator's default settings prevent you from scaling the stroke of an object at the same time as the actual object itself, and it can prove time consuming to correct the attributes of many objects individually. To counter this, either convert your strokes to outlines or, if you want them to remain editable, simply select 'Scale Strokes & Effects' from the Transform palette's drop-down menu.

10: Don't overlook the 3D Effects tools
Many people who use Illustrator will often overlook the 3D Effects tools, as they wish to create flat-looking artwork and graphics. However, if you are selective with your preferences, these tools may be of use. The 3D Rotate tool, for example, takes the legwork out of giving your drawn objects depth and perspective, and can often add that little something extra to a piece.

11: Edit your preferences
Everybody works slightly differently, and to ensure that you are getting the most out of your time it is worth editing Illustrator's preferences to best suit the way you work. For example, if you do a lot of typographic work it may be beneficial to adjust the tracking within Illustrator's preferences to best suit you. Also, if you share your computer with someone else, you may also want to save your own workspace so that you can start work straight away without the hassle of re-arranging palettes.

12: Symbol Sprayer tool
The Symbol Sprayer tool enables you to quickly and easily repeat any object you may have in your Symbols palette. You can then edit, resize, rotate and affect these until you are satisfied with the results. This can be a quick and easy way of creating a background or texture.

13: Object>Blend>Make
This is a very powerful technique that enables you to quickly blend one object into another. Simply select two objects and go to Object>Blend>Make. You may also want to play with the Blend options to achieve the desired effect, or even adjust the resulting path to create a new blend shape.

14: Blob Brush tool in CS4
Another new addition to Illustrator, this tool enables you to 'live' edit existing objects and draw with expanded paths, meaning that no fiddly point editing is necessary. It's very useful when you have nearly finished a piece and want to quickly edit some fine details.

15: Pasting into InDesign
Often people think that Illustrator documents must be placed into InDesign as linked files, which can be the case if it is a particularly complex piece of artwork. If, however, it is a relatively simple graphic, it can be copied and then pasted into InDesign and edited directly on the page.

16: And finally...
When dealing with objects that have both a fill and a stroke colour applied to them, and you want to get rid of one or simply swap them, it can become very tiresome trawling through the palettes. A quick way to switch the stroke and fill colour is by selecting the object and simply pressing Shift+X. If you then want to get rid of one of them, all you have to do is hit the '/' key.

Luke O'Neill
Deputy art editor of Computer Arts, Luke received a Highly Commended accolade in the 2008 PTC Magazine Journalism Awards' Young Designer of the Year category. Luke has been designing magazines and creating digital illustrations since graduating in 2005, turning his hand from everything to complex InDesign page layouts to detailed illustrations.