Creating an Illustrator Document For Icon Design

Creating an Illustrator Document For Icon Design

This week’s article will be really technical. But I believe it will provide a hell lot of value for beginners and those who don’t use this technique.
I remember how massively it changed my workflow when I first started doing this. So how to you create Illustrator document for icon design?

Where does it all begin?

Creating your Illustrator document might seem like an insignificant thing, but don’t underestimate it. In the end, it determines your workflow and makes a real difference. In fact, it can take you from spending an hour exporting all your icons to just a few simple clicks.

I’ve seen a lot of icon designers creating icons on one big artboard. I was doing it myself for a long time too. But this isn’t very efficient when you need to export your icons, for example, prepare .svg files for the developer or export separate icon files for a client. Eventually, after long hours of copying/pasting and exporting icons one by one, I started looking for a better solution. While experimenting with various methods, I have found the perfect one for me.

The secret is, I switched from one big artboard to a lot of small icon-sized artboards. This was a game-changer for me! It is way more comfortable, because from the very beginning you get the predefined icon boundaries. Also, it saves a ton of time exporting the icons, as you can export to different files all your artboards just in a few clicks.

Let’s do a quick walkthrough of how to create your multiple artboards Illustrator file and how to make it even more suitable for icon design using guidelines.


What do we do first?

create new illustrator file

1) Easy to guess! Go to File > New (Cmd + N) to create a new Illustrator file. Type in your file name and let’s jump over to the really important stuff! As I mentioned before, the main difference is that you will be working with multiple artboards. You need to create as many artboards as there are icons in the set, but from my experience, you’d rather create even more artboards than icons. It will serve well for different versions of the icons and various iterations you will make on the way to the final set. After finishing the set you can delete extra artboards.

2) These 5 buttons determine how your artboards will be placed. I personally love the first option, because icons are stacked into nice groups next to one another, and you can easily check if they are cohesive and look similar in weight.

3) Spacing shows how big the gaps between icons will be. Don’t set it to a small value because your icons need to have enough space around them, but simultaneously, don’t make it too big, so that the icons aren’t too far away from each other. My favourite Spacing is 20-40px. But it really depends on the icon size you’re working on.

4) Columns show how many columns the icons will be stacked into. Most often, this field updates automatically depending on the number of artboards you’ve created, but you can enter your own value as well. I like to stack my icons into a nice rectangular form, this way if you’re creating 20 icons, you can make 4 columns with 5 icons in each, or 5 columns with 4 icons, or even 10 columns with 2 icons in each column.

5) So instead of creating one big arboard you should enter your icon dimensions. You probably already know that icons should be placed into square artboards. You could choose from the various icon sizes: 16×16; 24×24; 32×32; 48×48; 64×64; 96×96; 128×128; 256×256; and many others. Also, make sure all these values are set in pixels!

Congrats! You’ve just created an Illustrator file that is almost perfect for icon design. But there is one more thing to make it better!

Now you see a bunch of artboards, but it’s still not ideal for icon design, as the edges of the artboards stop you from seeing the overall view of the set, and they are constantly distracting you from the most important thing — icons. You could always turn the showing arboards off by clicking Shift + Cmd + H, but this way you won’t see where you should place your icons.

Luckily, we can fix everything with the help of guidelines!

Make sure you have rulers and guidelines visible first. Rulers: ( View>Rulers>Show Rulers or Cmd + R ); Guidelines: ( View > Guides > Show Guides or Cmd + ; )

Now simply click on the ruler and drag your guideline to the edge of the first artboard. It should “stick” nicely and easily. (A guide only sticks to the selected arboard). Repeat this step until you have guidelines on all four sides of your first arboard.

set guides

Make sure your guidelines aren’t locked (View > Guides > Unlock guides or Alt + Cmd + ; ) Using the select tool (V), pick two vertical guidelines, then press down, hold your mouse button and also press Shift + Alt to drag your guidelines to the right until they stick to the other artboard. You’ve just duplicated your guidelines.

copy guides

Now press Cmd + D a few times to see the magic happen! This step repeats your last action, so you should see your guidelines duplicate to the other artboards. Repeat the ritual, but this time with horizontal guidelines.

dublicate guides

Now you can turn your arboards off with Shift + Cmd + H and still see their boundaries. You can also always turn off your guidelines (Cmd+;) to see what the whole set looks like without any distractions. You can also change the colour and the look of your guidelines by going to Illustrator > Preferences > Guides and Grid.

Matas Grecevičius shared awesome technique how to make guides even faster. This why I love dribbble community! Check it out:

  • Draw a rectangle, exactly the size of an artboard.
  • Cut it out
  • Paste it on all artboards (shift + option + cmd + V)
  • Select all rectangles
  • Convert them to guides (cmd + 5)

Thats it for today! Stay awesome!


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