Working with Symbols in Illustrator

Working with Symbols in Illustrator

If you’ve ever created art in Illustrator, you might find yourself using a specific collection of shapes or a small piece of art numerous times.  Whether copying and pasting your artwork, or recreating it from scratch whenever you need it, reusing art can sometimes be time consuming.  Symbols can help you save some time as you make artwork in Illustrator!

What are symbols?

Symbols, in Illustrator, are pieces of art that you can save and easily reuse as many times as needed.  Some examples of symbols that you might encounter include logos, button shapes, and small graphics that may be repeated a number of times in an Illustrator file.  Each time you add a symbol to your Illustrator document, that’s referred to as an instance of that symbol.

In Illustrator CC 2015, Adobe introduced Dynamic Symbols, which allow you to have one master shape saved as a symbol, but you can make changes to the specific instances of the symbol without changing every instance.  Plus, if you need to make changes to every instance of your symbol, you can edit the master symbol and all the changes will be made to each instance of the symbol.  You’ll still retain all the changes you made to any individual instances, which can be incredibly useful as you work.

How can they help me in Illustrator?

Symbols can help you save time, especially if you’re using a graphic a number of times in a specific document – eliminating the need to copy and paste numerous times.  Dynamic Symbols can also come in handy if you have similar graphics that need to be created, but one or two things might be different – for example, one shape may need to be different colors in different locations in your document, and this can be achieved with dynamic symbols.

How can I make a symbol?

First, you’ll want to create your art object.  For this blog article, I’ve created a simple drawing of a kitty.

Vector drawing of a black and white cat.

Once you’ve got your art created, select all of the pieces of your artwork.  When you’ve got everything selected, head over to the Symbols panel in Illustrator and click on the Add New Symbol button.  (If you don’t see the Symbols panel, you can open it by going to Window > Symbols.)

Screenshot of the Illustrator Symbols panel, with an arrow pointing to the Create New Symbol button.

A dialog box will pop up.  From here, you can give your symbol a name, and decide whether it should be a dynamic or static symbol.  Dynamic is selected by default.  If you want to be able to make changes to individual instances of your symbol, you’ll want to leave Dynamic selected.  However, if you want all of the instances of your symbol to look the same, you’ll want to select Static.  Once you’ve named your symbol and chosen whether it’s dynamic or static, you can go ahead and click OK.  Once that’s done, you’ll notice your artwork now shows up in the Symbols panel.

Screenshot of the Symbols panel, with the cat symbol we added highlighted.
See our cat in the symbols panel?

Now we’ve got a symbol we can reuse as much as we need to!

How do I use them?

To use a symbol, all you need to do is activate the Selection tool, then press and drag the symbol you want out to your artboard.  When you let go of the mouse, your symbol will appear.  It’s as simple as that!

How can I edit them?

To edit a symbol, activate the Selection tool, and then double-click on any instance of the symbol.  Illustrator will pop up a dialog box to indicate you are about to edit all instances of the symbol.  Go ahead and make any changes you want to make to the symbol, then when you’re done, simply click the arrow at the top of the workspace area, just under the Options bar, to commit your changes and exit symbol editing mode.

Screenshot identifying the Exit Symbol Editing Mode button.

These changes will be made to any instance of your symbol, even if it’s a dynamic symbol that’s been modified.

Image of the black and white cat graphic with the word "meow!" over its head.
Now our cat is meowing!

How about changing a dynamic symbol?

To change a dynamic symbol, you’ll want to activate the Direct Selection tool first, then click on the part of the symbol you want to edit.  Make the edits you want, and when you’re done, switch to a different tool – that’ll commit the changes you made to the specific instance.

Image of two cats, one black and white, the other different shades of brown. Both cats have the word "meow!" over their heads.
Now we’ve got two different colored cats, based off the same symbol!

Both of the cats in the previous image were made using the same symbol, but the gradient cat had some work done to it – if we were to make some more changes to the original symbol, they’d also show up in the gradient version of the cat as well!

And there you have it – the basics of creating and editing symbols in Illustrator!  If you want to learn more or practice some of your skills with symbols in Illustrator, check out this blog post by Jessica:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *