A beginner's guide to Adobe Illustrator: spy vs. spy edition

Feb 16 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

Do you have Adobe Illustrator on your computer?

Are you still making figures in PowerPoint?

If you just answered yes to those questions, allow me to bring you back in time a little bit to express how I'm feeling. Were you ever late coming home to your parent's house as a teenager and arrived home to your mother clutching a phone with the county accident report line on speed dial and your dad sitting in a chair with a fixed stare at the front door meant to melt a hole trough it? If yes, then you know the look I'm giving you right now. You know you're wrong and that I'm disappointed, I don't even need to say it.

So what is it going to take for me to get you to actually get off your ass and try the powerful tools you have at your fingertips but refuse to open? Clearly your manual spontaneously combusted in a tragic fire a few months back, so it looks like I'm going to have to pull you kicking and screaming through this.

Over the next little while I'll be posting pointers on how to get started with AI, but you'll need to do a little exploration yourself. I am not an expert with this program and learned it entirely myself, so others may be able to provide useful hints that I can't. However, I often get compliments on my figures, and I can assure you that no one is referring to my swimsuit bod.

Today's lesson is the first thing you will need to recognize in AI, the spy vs. spy arrows.

One is white, one is black and they sit side by side at the top of your toolbar. They are critical to everything you hope to accomplish, so get to know them. Know them well.

But before we get into their function, you'll need something yo play with. Open a new document and select the shape tool from the toolbar (likely a shaded box if you haven't changed defaults). Click on your document and drag in a diagonal direction. Congratulations, you've made a box.

Feeling good? Alright, let's do something with it. You might notice that your cursor is still a cross. This will allow you to draw more boxes, but if you want to play with the one you made you will need to chose an weapon arrow. Since the black one is on top, let's start with that one.

Clicking on the black arrow should give you white boxes around the perimeter of your box. If not, click an edge.

By hovering your cursor over one of those boxes you should get a bidirectional arrow that indicates the direction that you can move that side. For instance if you go to the box at the top, you'll get an up/down arrow and you can move that side up or down (extending or compressing the lines on the sides). Grabing a corner will make the box bigger or smaller. You may also see a rounded bidirectional arrow that will indicate that you can rotate the shape. If you click on the shape anywhere away from those boxes or in the middle, you can move it around your document. That is about it for the black arrow.

See, this isn't hard.

Now the white arrow. This tool is a little more complicated, but you can do a lot with it. Choosing the white arrow should give you white boxes at the corners of your shape.

Clicking on one of those boxes will cause it to become a black box. Grab it and move it.

ZOMG! You fucked it up! (I assume that this type of grade school flash back is the primary barrier to people playing with this software)

It's okay, breathe. The white arrow allows you to grab and move certain (black boxes) points, while leaving the others (white boxes) as anchors. You can drag your cursor to grab more than one box and move those points while leaving the others.

Notice the two filled boxes here on the left side allow me to move those while keeping the "white" corners in place. As always, "command Z" (or whatever you use on a PC) is your friend. It will undo anything you do.

If you want to get crazy, try playing with a circle. To make a circle, go back to your toolbar and click and hold on the little black corner of the shape icon (lower right). That will bring up a submenu of different shapes (all of the tools that have a black corner have submenues under them). Make a circle just like you made a square and see what the different arrow tools do with it.

You have no just scratched the surface of what AI can do. In the next post in this series we'll get into colors, fills and shading.

20 responses so far

  • OMG I LOVE YOU!!!!! I started making figures in AI over the last couple of years & have been teaching myself along the way. It has been, uhm challenging to say the least as AI is not very intuitive. Thank you for starting this series!

  • New Asst. Prof. says:

    LOVE this!! I too have been teaching myself AI (not intuitive, even when I consider myself quite proficient at Photoshop), and these are some great tips.

  • Spy vs. Spy. Ha! I love it.

  • Liz says:

    I am loving this series already. I definitely fall into the category that you are giving the dissapointed look to and it is really rather embarassing, as I consider myself to be fairly computer savvy but there is sonething about Illustrator that just scares me a bit

  • I have been using EazyDraw, since its a much cheaper alternative to AI and isn't so much of a pain in the ass.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    One person's pain in the ass is another person's powerful graphics program that will run circles around "easier" programs.

  • gerty-z says:

    YAY PLS! I am one of those on the scary end of your disappointing stare. I hope that I can pick up enough AI from this series to look a little more sophisticated than the lowly power-point dependent.

  • Dr Becca says:

    You rock my world, PLS!

  • Karen says:

    Having fumbled through learning both Illustrator and Photoshop by myself, I agree that they're both somewhat nonintuitive. But every minute spent learning the programs was worth it. It's valuable knowing both, since some image manipulations require both.

  • Yes! Keep. them. coming!

  • Heavy says:

    Great intro, I can't wait. I reluctantly use AI all of the time. Despite this frequency, I usually end up banging my head on the keyboard when I can't figure out how to do something that should be easy. I have a cheat sheet by my desk for things I commonly do but always seem to forget. The stupidest feature is the way AI crops images. I hate it so much that I sometimes crop in other programs and import.

    I went and visited Mad Magazine when I was a kid! Spy vs Spy was my fave.

  • chall says:

    ...if only I had AI on my computer at work... I miss it.

    Looking forward seeing your teachings on colouring 🙂

  • thehermitage says:

    Ohmygatz yay! I always wanted to be pretty pictures but advanced wingdings scare me. I shall blossom under you Elder Monk tutelage.

  • Joseph says:

    Illustrator is interesting, but they apparently don't want my money. So I use Inkscape instead. It also has the upside of not storing the result in a format which only it can use (it uses SVG instead of Illustrator's proprietary format, although it can read it in and perhaps store it, although not with 100% fidelity because Adobe keeps it secret).

    For those of you who want vector graphics goodness and can't/won't afford Illustrator (or for those of you like me who run on an operating system Adobe doesn't offer Illustrator for), you should check out Inkscape. It's free (as in moolah) and Free (as in the source code is provided for you, your friend, your dog (regardless of physics ability), your local programmer (what, you don't have a programmer? Do you also fix your car and appliances by yourself?) or anyone else to download, modify, improve, and give to others).

    You can get it for Windows or Mac from Inkscape.org

    There's a tutorial on Inkscape on, oddly enough, inkscape.org: http://inkscape.org/doc/basic/tutorial-basic.html

    (Other, more advanced tutorials are also available there).

    Seriously, if you're doing any sort of graphics work in PowerPoint (or Impress; Microsoft also apparently doesn't want my money), U R Doin It Rong. (Bonus: LibreOffice's Impress can natively import SVG now! Yay!)

  • Bashir says:

    Figures like for papers and such? Or slides for talks? I don't really use graphics that much.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Figures for EVERYTHING. Hell, I make figures for blogging in AI.

  • brooksphd says:

    I shall marry you one day PlS you wonderful, beautiful man!

  • Funk Doctor X says:

    Totally digging this. Ever since I started graduate school
    I've been using AI. However, I've been lucky because my significant
    other is a graphic designer and has been able to help me when I've
    gotten stuck doing stupid things. Nonetheless, I completely agree
    that learning the program is absolutely worth it for the control it
    gives you over your figures.

  • [...] been having a bit more of a practice with Adobe Illustrator (CS2), and with the help of these few posts from Prof Like Substance and a more extensive guide on the MIT website, I can now do the [...]

  • sween says:

    bravo!! thanks you so much^^

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