Quick-Change Artistry: Using Illustrator Symbols for Efficient Icon Iteration

The Symbols feature in Illustrator allows you to create master objects that can be changed en masse when you change your mind. If you have a document that has repeated instances of a certain embellishment—whether it be a logo, ornament, or even a text element—you can save a master version of that element which can be easily duplicated, replaced, or updated en masse when you (or your client, or your boss) have a change of heart.

To demonstrate how symbols work to efficiently duplicate and iterate graphics, I stole this tutorial from Deke’s upcoming Illustrator CS6 One-on-One: Mastery course due out at lynda.com this week. In this project, we’ll take a simple page icon and make variations of it in Illustrator, as if to visually document a completely abridged history of the written word from the advent of a single sheet of paper on (sorry, no stone tablet icon to work with). Like this (although I’m not sure what phase of communication technology the clipboard is supposed to represent):

Psst: If you want to follow along, you can download the file I’m using at the end of this post.

Here are the step-by-step illustrated instructions. (If you’re not a member of dekeOnline, you can become one here, it’s free.)

1) Start with a simple graphic.

Start with the graphic in Illustrator that you want to the the basic archetype. In this case, I’m using the standard computer-program based symbol for “new document.” It’s a page with lines and (for reasons I’d defy anyone to explain) the corner turned down. (Why would you need to dog-ear a single page document?)

2) Select the graphic and turn it into a symbol.

With the white arrow tool, marquee all the way around your graphic, then click the page icon at the bottom of the Symbols panel to create a new symbol. In the dialog box that opens, you’ll see some interesting choices (which you can learn about in Deke’s new course later this week). But for the purposes of this exercise, name the new symbol and click OK. You can see I’ve created a page symbol in my panel below.

3) Copy the original and move it to the right.

At this point, my free-floating graphic is now a mere instance of the Platonic page that lives in the symbols panel (thus you’ll see a + in the middle of it). To make a copy, double-click the black arrow tool, and in the Move dialog box, set the Horizontal value to 78 points. Then click Copy. You’ll get another instance of the page symbol to the right.

Copy the icon

4) Duplicate like crazy.

Next, create a bunch of iterations of this symbol, in order to serve as foundations for the other icons.

First, ensure your Keyboard Increment is set to 1 point: you can check it by pressing Command-K (Ctrl-K) and checking the top entry of the General Preferences panel.

Then press Shift-Alt-Up Arrow (Shift-Option-Up Arrow) to create a duplicate of the new copy that’s 10 points up. Then press Shift-Right Arrow to move it to the right. The result is a universal sign for multi-page document.

Next, double-click on the black arrow icon to get the Move dialog box. Change the Horizontal value to 88 points and press Copy to make the third set. This will eventually become the eBook symbol.

Finally, press Command-D (Ctrl-D) to repeat the duplication of the duplicated duplication to get a fourth icon set (that we’ll eventually turn into the clipboard.)

Note: you could drag out new iterations from the Symbols panel, but doing it the way described above ensures everything is evenly spaced.

5) Replace the back page symbol on the fourth icon with a clipboard symbol.

To turn the fourth icon into a page-on-a-clipboard, select the rear page symbol. Then in the control panel, click the downward arrow next to the word Replace and choose the clipboard symbol (made by Deke ahead of time) to swap it for the back page.

6) Align the page to the clipboard, then align the clipboard to the back pages of the other multiple icons.

Shift click the page icon that’s sitting on top of the clipboard and click Align in the control panel, then choose the Align Horizontal Center button (the second one from the left in the top row.)

To align the clipboard icon with the other back pages in the set, deselect the page icon on top of the clipboard (by clicking it again) then Shift-click the bottom page of the third icon set. At this point you should have the just the third bottom page and the clipboard selected. Click the third bottom page again to set is as the key object for aligning purposes. Then click Align again and choose the Vertical Align Bottom icon.

7) Add a new symbol to the third icon.

To make the third icon set represent an ebook, we’ll add an ePub symbol. In this case, I just dragged it out from the symbols panel and positioned it in the lower right corner of the third icon.

8) Edit the symbol by editing one instance in editing mode.

The beauty of using symbols is that you can edit them all by editing one. So if we wanted to change the dog-ear flap from black to white, we just have to operate on one of the instances. For instance, when I double-clicked on the top page of the second icon, I go into a symbol isolation-style mode.

In fact, Illustrator warns you that you’re about to change the symbol definition. Yes, Illustrator, that’s exactly what I had in mind.

9) Change the inexplicable dog ear to white.

Now that you’re in the special editing mode, you can use the white arrow tool to select the triangular dog-ear shape and press Shift-X to exchange the stroke and fill colors. Since this creates an unfortunately pointy miter join, click the diagonal line and press Delete (Backspace) key to get rid of that line and its itinerant pointyness.

10) Watch all the symbols update automatically.

When you press Esc to escape the editing mode, all instances of the page symbol update with the white dog-ear automagically.

icon variations created with symbols

These days, it’s all about efficiency, and symbols can be used any time you need to multiply a graphic (or even text) a myriad of times, but maintain efficient editability over all those instances.

If you’d like to learn more about the power of Symbols, Deke’s Illustrator CS6 One-on-One Mastery course will have a whole chapter dedicated to their usefulness. In fact, if you download the sample file I’ve attached, you’ll see that this icon sequence is part of a larger project, a book cover file, that will give you a sneak peek into the other movies in the chapter.


Next entry:Deke’s Techniques 218: Precisely Aligning Illustrator Artwork to the Bleed

Previous entry:Steal from the Best: Get Your Gradient Swatches for InDesign by Lifting Them from Illustrator


  • Nice tutorial

    I love the versatility of symbols in Illustrator. They really do save time in similar cases like this.

    I’m curious about what screenshot application you use to create your step-by-step screens. I’m a terrible video tut guy (can’t stand listening to myself) and like to do some simple step-by-step tuts like this.

  • I use Snapz for screenshots…

    ...but I manipulate the hell out of them in Photoshop: cleaning up edges, removing void space, adding graphical cursors. It’s a standard I learned working on Deke’s One-on-One books.

  • Thanks Colleen!

    Thanks Colleen!

Share your feedback, work, homages, questions, wisecracks, advice, critiques, riffs, derision (within reason), frustrations, and love of all things graphical. Log in (or register) to lend your voice.