Customizing Illustrator for Maximum Efficiency

By Esben

I hope you didn’t miss Esben’s introduction to Illustrator last Monday! Go back and read it if you did! This week, Esben shows us how to set up Illustrator palettes so that you can work more efficiently and not always have to go hunting for the right palettes.

by Esben Thomsen

The first steps are often the most difficult ones, but you have to take baby steps before you can run off to start building your creative masterpieces in Illustrator. Here I will show you how to set up your palettes and explain which are the most important and why.

Remember, if you don’t automatically see some of these palettes on your screen, you can access them by going to the Window menu at the top of the Illustrator program.

Setting Up Your Palettes

I’m not going to say how it “should” be done, because it’s very dependent on your working style more than anything else, but some palettes are more important than others, no matter what you do.

The default Illustrator setup is both cumbersome and unfriendly, so these are very important steps to go through before you start working in order to maximize your efficiency.

My Illustrator Palette Setup

The most important palettes are:

  • Align
  • Transform
  • Appearance
  • Pathfinder

Less important palettes:

  • Gradient
  • Swatches

These palettes are meant to help you easily manage your work and give you an overview of everything you’re doing. I prefer to expand these palettes in the dock, because I use them constantly as I draw.


Align PaletteThe align tool is for lining up two or more objects with each other or against the art board. If you want to squares to be aligned even though they are far apart, you would select them and then use one of the align buttons instead of trying to manually adjust them. You can align objects to the top, bottom, left right or vertical or horizontal center, depending on their relationship to one another.


Transform PaletteThe Transform Palette is also called the Grid Palette. With it, you can place your drawing according to the X, Y axis–that little weird square grid on the left of this panel is which side of your object should align with the X, Y axis (this is essentially the center point, though it doesn’t have to be in the center of the object). You should always be paying attention to this palette. I personally always draw around the 0,0 point, because then I don’t have to do so much math!

Notice that all Illustrator documents have 0,0 (X,Y) in the lower left corner—turn on your rulers (cmd/ctrl+r) in order to see this–where as InDesign has it in the upper left corner. You can always adjust this by clicking in the upper left corner of the rulers and dragging the little coordinate marker to wherever you want the 0,0 axis to be.


Appearance PaletteEvery drawing you make will have some sort of appearance values. If you draw a red square with a stroke of 2px, then you will notice these attributes displayed in the Appearance palette (if you have selected that object)—everything from effects to mesh grid and so on will be displayed there. The more complicated your artwork becomes, the more this palette is essential. This of it as a kind of ”history” of every line, curve or figure. You can stack the items as you see fit; for instance, make more than one stroke in different sizes by selecting the stroke and clicking the Duplicate the Selected Item (looks like the New Layer icon) in the panel.


Pathfinder PaletteUsing the Pathfinder tool is a difficult concept to learn and get used to, but it is essentially a way to combine different objects into one shape. The best means to get a feeling for the concept is to draw two shapes overlapping of each other. Include a stroke for each to get a better feel for how they interact. Select both objects and try different Shape Modes and Path Modes. Experimenting is the best way to familiarize yourself with this tool.

Gradient & Color Swatch Palettes

I personally use gradients a lot and rely on having this palette readily available. It is flawed in the eyes of many Photoshop users, and I actually find it very annoying myself. The way to use it is to drag and drop colors from a swatch onto the palette and this is the reason I keep a color swatch palette just beneath it. Drag a color to the gradient bar and release. If you want to get rid of it, you just drag it off the gradient bar. Now you can go into the color pickers. The experienced Photoshop user will see that there are only two options for gradients–radial and linear—unlike the five or six options you have in Photoshop. You can make all sorts of gradients with the help with Mesh Tool, but that will come in a later article, as it can be quite complicated.

If you’re eager to learn the Gradient Mesh Tool, this article might help you in the meantime–and remember to read the comments!

To customize your regular gradients with the Gradient Palette, drag your colors from the Swatch Palette onto your gradient bar in the Gradient Palette. Then adjust the colours afterwards. (see picture 1 for placement of swatches and gradient)

Type & Glyph Palettes

On the left, right next to tool palette, I have some type related palettes. Actually there’s no reason why they should be on the left, just my habit I guess.

One of the palettes is a glyph map which I use constantly; instead of always going to window>type>glyph, I have it right as a fly out menu on my type palettes. I guess it depends how much you use text, but it’s really a time-saver for me and I love looking through glyphs (I can spend hours doing so!). Another reason is that I don’t like tons of floating windows, so it’s really just my particular tastes that are the reasons for this setup.

Type Palettes

On Wednesday Lauren will be posting about some common design mistakes and how to avoid them. Subscribe to Creative Curio (it’s always free!) now, so you will be notified as soon as the article is up! You can subscribe via email and have it delivered right to your inbox, too!