Maximise your shape building in Illustrator

We use the pathfinder to demonstrate some essential shape building techniques.

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Illustrator can sometimes seem like a daunting arena to become initiated in if you’re dipping your toe in the water for the first time. It’s certainly not as forgiving as Photoshop in that often there is a very specific way to achieve a certain task rather than being able to fudge or force your way through it which is often possible in photoshop.

The pathfinder panel in illustrator forms the backbone of all shape building within Illustrator and once you get your head round this you’ll find it far less daunting. Through the next several steps I’ll run through some essential pathfinder techniques for creating basic graphics and icons that will hopefully be useful to both fledgling Ai users and more experienced designers alike.

01. Create a simple tear drop shape

We'll begin with the basics of the pathfinder tool and how it can be used to create simple shapes from separate drawn vectors. Start by drawing a perfect circle using the ellipse tool by holding Shift whilst 'snap to grid' is selected from the view menu.

Create the circle to fill four of the larger grid squares and draw a perfect square that fills one of the larger gird squares as shown above. Select both shapes and use the unite function from the pathfinder to combine both shapes into one vector. Now simply hit R and rotate the shape to look like a teardrop.

02. Create an expand button

Start by drawing a square, then copy and use the Cmd+F shortcut to paste it in place on top of the existing square. Hit R to bring up the rotate tool and rotate the top square by 45 degrees by holding shift. Now with both squares selected use the 'minus front' pathfinder function to subtract the top square from the bottom one, creating four corner triangles and a simple expand button in the process.

03. Shape creation from strokes

Use the pen tool with 'Snap to grid' turned on to begin creating some simple vector strokes, in this case a simple arrow shape. Increase the stroke weight to 25 and choose 'Round cap' from the stroke panel. Now holding Alt and Shift, drag the shape to duplicate it, then Cmd+D to continue duplicating it a number of times.

Select all the shapes and navigate to Object>Path>Outline Stroke. Now that the stroke is outlined it will function as a shape so you can use the pathfinder with other shapes. In the example above I've knocked all the arrows out from a rectangle using the minus function.

04. Create a simple eye icon

Begin by drawing a perfect circle and then hold alt and shift to drag and duplicate it. The area where the two circles overlap will be the size of the eye shape so use your judgment here. Next, with both shapes selected use the intersect function to create a shape from the overlapping areas of the circles. Rotate the shape so that it looks like an eye and then used the technique from step 03 to knock out an outlined stroke circle.

05. Create a camera lens icon (i)

Now we're going to combine a couple of techniques to create a graphic camera lens icon. Begin by drawing a perfect circle, then draw a polygon using the polygon tool and place it over the top of the circle. With both shapes selected use the align panel to align the horizontal and vertical centres. Now simply use the minus front pathfinder command to subtract the polygon shape from the circle.

06. Create a camera lens icon (ii)

Now turn off 'Snap to grid" and horizontal line along the top edge of the pentagon extending beyond the circle bounds. Hit R to bring up the rotate tool and hover over the central grid point of the polygon and hold Alt and click to bring up the rotate tool.

Now enter the fraction 360/6, hit the copy button and press OK. Now simply hit Cmd+D to duplicate the lines. Use the technique from step 03 to outline the strokes and then subtract them from the circle thus creating our camera icon.


Luke O'Neill is the art editor of T3 magazine.