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Working with symbols in Illustrator saves file size (since objects converted to symbols aren’t duplicated in the file), provides consistency whenever the same artwork needs to be used more than once, and makes it easy to update objects in your artwork simply by editing the symbol to change it wherever it has been used. Symbols can be made from almost any art you create in Illustrator; the only exceptions are a few kinds of complex groups, such as groups of graphs, and linked art (embedded art is allowed). Store and edit symbols with the Symbols and Control panels. The sections that follow cover unique ways to use and edit symbols beyond the standard editing tools.

  • To store selected artwork as a symbol, drag it into the Symbols panel (or click the New Symbol icon in the panel). In the CC Symbols panel, a + in the lower-right of a thumbnail means it’s a Dynamic Symbol, not a Static Symbol; Dynamic is now the default for new symbols (see the CC section later in this intro for more on Dynamic Symbols). Use the Libraries Menu icon to save the current symbols to a new library or to load other libraries.

  • To add a single instance of a symbol to your document, drag it into your document or, with it selected, click the Place Symbol Instance icon. Drag a symbol instance into your document as often as you like, but you can use the Place Symbol Instance icon only once. It’s most useful for modifying the symbol (see following).

  • To modify a symbol without modifying the original symbol in the Symbols panel, click either the Break Link button in the Control panel or the “Break Link to Symbol” icon in the Symbols panel.

  • To modify a symbol and all instances of it already in the document, place or drag it into your document, then click the Edit Symbol button in the Control panel and your symbol will be placed in isolation mode. After you modify the symbol and exit isolation mode, all instances of the symbol, including the symbol in the Symbols panel, will be updated.

  • To modify a symbol in the Symbols panel when you have already broken the link, Option/Alt-drag the modified symbol from your artboard on top of the symbol in the Symbols panel. This will replace the original symbol with the modified artwork and update all instances of the original symbol.

  • To restore a symbol to its original size and orientation after transforming it on the artboard, click the Reset button in the Control panel.

  • To quickly find all instances of a symbol in your artwork, select the symbol either in the Symbols panel or in your artwork and choose Select All Instances from the Symbol panel’s menu.

  • To replace one symbol with another without opening the Symbols panel, select the symbol in the artwork and click the Replace list arrow in the Control panel. A miniature Symbols panel opens, which allows you to swap out symbols.

  • To add a sublayer to a symbol’s artwork, in isolation mode click the topmost layer with the symbol’s name, and then click the New Sublayer icon. (You can’t add sublayers to a <Group> or <path>.)

  • To add a new layer above a group or path sublayer at the same hierarchy level, target the layer and then Option-click/Alt-click the New Layer icon. If the layer remains a normal layer (not a group or a path), you can continue to add new layers at that level merely by clicking the New Layer icon.

Working with the Symbolism tools

There are eight different Symbolism tools. Use the Symbol Sprayer tool to spray selected symbols onto your document, creating a symbol set. You can’t select individual instances inside a set with any of the selection tools. Instead, modify them with any of the other Symbol tools. To access the symbolism tools easily, tear off the panel and float it nearby, or if working in Illustrator CC, create a custom Tools panel that reveals all of the Symbolism tools as well as any others you need for your project (see the CC introduction to Your Creative Workspace for instructions). Add symbols to a selected set by selecting a symbol in the Symbols panel—the symbol can be the same as or different from the symbols already present in the instance set—and spray. To add or modify symbols in a set, make sure you’ve selected both the set and the corresponding symbol(s) in the Symbols panel that you want to affect. The Symbolism tools only affect symbols in a selected set that are also selected in the Symbols panel, thus making it easy to modify just one of the symbols in a mixed set.


Artwork by Lisa Jackmore created with symbols

To adjust the properties of the Symbolism tools, double-click to open Symbolism Tools Options. Vary the diameter (the range over which the tool operates), the rate at which it applies a change, and the density with which it operates on a set. If you’re using the default Average mode, your new symbol instances can inherit attributes (size, rotation, transparency, style) from nearby symbols in the same instance set. For example, if nearby symbols are 50% opaque, symbols added to the set will also be 50% opaque. You can also change the default Average mode to User Defined or Random. (See Illustrator Help for more information about choosing User Defined.)

To remove symbols from an existing instance set, you can remove one instance at a time by holding the Option/Alt key and clicking. To remove multiple instances with the Symbol Sprayer tool, click and drag your cursor over the ones you want to remove—they’ll be deleted when you lift your cursor.

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