November 13, 2009

Ten Illustrator power moves you MUST know

In most professions, one goes through intense training—intended to help a person develop the ability to act on instinct—where the body learns to act automatically in response to a situation without the need to mentally go through each required step.

Even in everyday living, we’ve learned to adapt to our environment that allows us to perform basic functions without losing focus on the task at hand. Examples are dialing a familiar phone number, or adjusting the radio in your car. I’ve seen teenagers (like my own for example) who can literally unholster their mobile phone, send a text, and reholster the phone faster than Neo can dodge a bullet (all while holding a conversation).

When using Illustrator, you want to get to a point where basic functions become instinct – you do them without thinking about it. That’s a power move. In the title of this article, I referenced ten such moves, but the truth is, I’ve broken these down into ten specific feature areas, encompassing far more than just ten power moves—well over 30 in fact. I list Mac OS keyboard shortcuts, followed by Windows equivalents in square brackets.

If you’re serious about becoming an Illustrator speed demon, learn these power moves. Don’t just read them—practice them again and again. Force yourself to use them—even if it takes longer the first few times you do it. Trust me, you’ll thank me later. In yet another Matrix reference, “What are you waiting for? You’re faster than this. Don’t think you are… know you are…”.

This has nothing to do with your spouse (or your mouse for that matter). In Illustrator, using the arrow keys on your keyboard (up, down, left, right) to move your objects in small increments is called “nudging”. The default increment amount is 1pt (.0139 inches), but you can choose a value more relevant to your task at hand. For example, if you’re working in scale, use a number that is easily divisible. Or use specific amounts, like .0625 inches, so you can tap the arrow key 4 times in quick succession and know you’ve moved the object exactly .25 inch. I’ll often adjust the increment value several times a day, as needed.

Cmd-K [Ctrl-K]: Opens the preferences panel and highlights the keyboard increment field. Just enter a numeric value and hit the Enter key to change it.
Arrow: Nudges selected artwork the amount specified in the Preferences dialog.
Shift-Arrow: Nudges selected artwork 10x the amount specified in the Preferences dialog.
Option-Arrow [Alt-Arrow]: Nudges a copy of the selected artwork the amount specified in the Preferences dialog.
Shift-Option-Arrow [Shift-Alt-Arrow]: Nudges a copy of the selected artwork 10x the amount specified in the Preferences dialog.

With Illustrator CS4, you can snap an object’s boundaries to other objects or guides (previous versions only allowed you to snap your cursor to other objects or guides, requiring you to grab objects by their edges or anchor points). To get this to work, however, you have to have Smart Guides turned on—a feature that many find annoying or too “in your face”. Rather than get rid of it, learn to control it. First, open the Smart Guides preferences panel and uncheck all boxes except for Alignment Guides, then press OK. Now you can use a keyboard shortcut to turn Smart Guides on and off as you need it.

Cmd-U [Ctrl-U]: Toggles Smart Guide behavior on and off.

We probably make use of the Selection tools in Illustrator more than anything else, so it’s important to get familiar with NOT constantly switching between them. Instead, learn to use the shortcuts to make them all behave as one cohesive unit.

V: Selection tool (Solid arrow) — the inverted “V” looks like an arrow.
A: Direct Selection tool (Hollow arrow) — the “A” looks like an arrow with a hollow center.

Rather than constantly switch between the two arrow tools, most power users use the Direct Selection tool most often and use these shortcuts:

Cmd [Ctrl]: Temporarily toggles to Selection tool.
Option [Alt]: Temporarily toggles to Group Selection tool.

On the subject of making selections it can often be easier to select art without using tools at all:

Cmd-A [Ctrl-A]: Select all.
Shift-Cmd-A [Shift-Ctrl-A]: Deselect all.

How many times do you apply a color only to realize you adjusted the stroke when you meant the fill? How many times do you just want to get an object back to a white fill and a black stroke? Don’t answer—just learn the power moves:

D: Resets an object’s appearance to white fill, 1pt black stroke.
X: Toggles the focus between Fill and Stroke.
Shift-X: Swaps the colors of an object’s fill and stroke.
/ : Applies the None attribute.
Cmd-/ [Ctrl-/]: Applies a new fill (via the Appearance panel).
Shift-Cmd-/ [Shift-Ctrl-/]: Applies a new stroke (via the Appearance panel).

I cringe every time I see someone move their mouse up to the Object menu every time they want to bring an object to the front or send it to the back. Due to the stacking nature of vector graphics, these power moves are essential. While there are four possible settings here, the most important ones to remember are Bring to Front and Send to Back.

Shift-Cmd-] [Shift-Ctrl-]]: Bring to front.
Shift-Cmd-[ [Shift-Ctrl-[]: Send to back.
Cmd-] [Ctrl-]]: Bring forward.
Cmd-[ [Ctrl-[]: Send backward.

Complex artwork—especially those laden with multiple masks—can make for difficult selections. While the new isolation behavior in Illustrator CS4, which allows you to double click on any object to temporarily lock it and bring it to the top of the stacking order, is brilliant, there are still many times when locking or hiding elements can be useful, especially when spending a lot of time focusing on smaller parts of a larger overall illustration.

Cmd-2 [Ctrl-2]: Lock selected object(s).
Cmd-Option-2 [Ctrl-Alt-2]: Unlock all.
Cmd-3 [Ctrl-3]: Hide selected object(s).
Cmd-Option-3 [Ctrl-Alt-3]: Show all.

Since there’s no way to unlock a specific object, most pros will Unlock all, Shift-click on the object they want unlocked (which deselects it), and then Lock in quick succession. Same applies for Hide/Show.

Paste was delicious when you were younger, and just because you’ve grown up, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it now. The Paste command in Illustrator places art in the center of your screen, but you can also paste objects in place — either in front or in back. For those who were familiar with FreeHand, Paste in Front is the same as the feature once known as Clone. Paste in Front and Paste in Back are also helpful when you want pasted objects to be placed within groups or masks.

Cmd-V [Ctrl-V]: Paste.
Cmd-F [Ctrl-F]: Paste in front of the copied object.
Cmd-B [Ctrl-B]: Paste behind the copied object.

The Zoom tool and the Hand tool should be treated like museum artifacts—they can be looked at, but are not to be touched. Truth be told, those scroll bars along the bottom and right edge of your document are also off-limits. Learn the power moves to quickly navigate within your documents.

Space: Hand tool.
Cmd-Space [Ctrl-Space]: Zoom in.
Cmd-Option-Space [Ctrl-Alt-Space]: Zoom out.

A particular problem one runs into is that when you’re editing text, you can’t press Space to switch to the Hand tool, as doing so will actually add space characters to your text string. In those cases, this secret handshake will give you joy: Press Cmd-Space [Ctrl-Space] to access the Zoom tool, and then release just the Cmd [Ctrl] key, while still holding Space. This will give you the Hand tool. Release to return to editing your text with the Type tool.

Since we’re talking about navigating within documents, these are helpful as well:

Cmd-` [Ctrl-`]: That’s a Tilde, which appears just over your Tab key on US keyboards, and allows you to toggle between open tabbed documents.

You want to quickly add a few drop shadows, but want to make sure they all use the same settings. Sure, you could define a Graphic Style, but that’s too much of a bother, right? Instead, use a quick power move.

Shift-Cmd-E [Shift-Ctrl-E]: Apply last-used effect with the same settings.
Shift-Cmd-Option-E [Shift-Ctrl-Alt-E]: Bring up the dialog box of the last-used effect.

The Pathfinder functions—specifically Unite (Add), Minus Front (Subtract), and Divide—are used constantly when creating artwork in Illustrator. True, I’m a big fan of the newer Live Paint functionality in Illustrator, but for quick fixes here and there, Pathfinder proves valuable. While there aren’t keyboard shortcuts for the Pathfinder functions (in theory, you could always define an Action for them and apply a shortcut to the Action), there is a power move to re-apply a Pathfinder function—helpful for when you’re performing lots of shape editing—especially since you don’t have to shuttle your cursor between your art and a floating panel.

Cmd-4 [Ctrl-4]: Repeat last-applied Pathfinder function.

Want power shortcuts for Photoshop or InDesign? Check out these great titles from Michael Ninness over at Photoshop CS4 Power Shortcuts, and InDesign CS4 Power Shortcuts.

Got your own favorite power moves to share? Post them in the comments!


Sigurdur Armannsson said...

Thanks for this article. Always something one has missed or forgotten.

My most used Power Shortcuts that are not mentioned there are:

1. Everyone knows the Tracking/Kerning shortcuts Option + Arrows Left or Right. Add Command to that combo to make it really powerful.

2. You may have gone to far with your Tracking or Kerning. You can zero it in one click with Option + Command + Q.

3. To get the Character Panel open one usually clicks Command + T. But if you use Shift + Option + Command + F, you open the Character Panel and hi-lights the fonts name. Works too if the panel is open.

4. Changing the size of type with Shift + Command + Comma or Period, can be made ten times as powerful by adding Options to that combo.

erik said...

Thanks Mordy, this is really useful... I never saw an explanation which provided a memnomic for the two pointer tool shortcut keys.

I tend to think of Transform again (clover-D) as a power move because so often a transformation needs one more iteration to get it just so.

My documents tend to have between 100 and 500 layers... I move things between layers so often that the "Send to current layer" command (once I assign a keystroke to it) saves me an epic amount of dragging within the layer palette.

Fit in window (Clover-0) is hardwired in my muscle memory.

Esz said...

I can proudly say I use ALL of those :-) Great tips though!

escK said...


I follow you on twitter and wanted to mention it will be good to include the text editing "power moves"

I love to change font size on the go with this

(while selecting text) cmd + shift + . increases font size by 2pt
(while selecting text) cmd + alt + shift + . increases font size by 10pt

(while selecting text) cmd + shift + , decreases font size by 2pt
(while selecting text) cmd + alt + shift + , decreases font size by 10pt

(while selecting a text line) alt + up arrow reduces leading distance
(while selecting a text line) alt + down arrow reduces leading distance

there's a bit more, but cannot remember right now, as I'm not using AI now (shame on me :( )

saludos from Mexico

Ralfy Papacino said...

I must disagree about the EFFECTIVE EFFECTS shortcut. Short term your method may be quicker, but if you take the few extra seconds to create a Graphic Style, then any change you make in the future to the style will be reflected by all items using it, which is much more of a timesaver in the long run.

hoshimo said...

great article. i am proud to say i actually use all of those! well except in my keyboard shortcut prefs i switched cmd+E to being "save for web" since shift-cmd-opt S was cramping up my hand...

another tip that is useful for selections: you can set your keyboard to cmd-I or cmd-opt-I to invert selection (like in photoshop). makes it easier to isolate a selection sometimes.

Thierry said...

Hi Mordy,
I just want to add one of my favourite trick (almost explained in your post);
Cmd-F [Ctrl-F] and Cmd-B [Ctrl-B] are often faster (and the shortcuts are easier to remember) than send to back and bring to front command. Just cut the object that you want to move then select another object. If you use Cmd-F or Cmd-B or behind, the pasted element will be placed directly in front or behind the selected object.

Frilli said...

The "escape-the-text-to-navigate" was new to me. Always glad when I find something new in Illustrator. :D

Good points there SigurĂ°ur. I will definitely use that one that zeros out kerning and "jump-to-font-selection".

kio said...

very good, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Great article -- I think I'll print it out and tape it to the side of my Mac, until I memorize them!

I create lots of info graphics with many labels. It slows me down to constantly move the cursor to the tools palette to switch from the type tool to the selection tool, so I can reposition the label I just created. After entering or editing text, I hold down the Command key and click away from the text box to de-select it. I can then type a V or an A to select the appropriate tool, without accidentally adding a character to my text box. Same results as Shift-Command-A, but sometimes a little easier than simultaneously pressing three keys.

Senph42 said...

I use most of these shortcuts, but I still learned new things which I didn't know about, but still use these actions very often...

LukeSF said...

That's impressive how many things I used to ignore... Will practice those asap. Really useful.

LukeSF said...

I guess it's worth adding a Ctrl+1 for zooming sections. A really useful thing to View all worksheet

Lynn Dalton said...

I've been a proponent of power moves or the "Finger Dance" for years.

In your Lock & Hide section please mention these important shortcuts - Shift-Cmd-Option-2 [Shift-Ctrl-Alt-2] locks everything that's not selected
Shift-Cmd-Option-3 [Shift-Ctrl-Alt-3] hides everything that's not selected.

In Yummy Paste it should say Paste in front or back of the SELECTED object because after copying or cutting to the clipboard you can select something else & paste the clipboard contents relative to that object.

If you add Option [Alt] when using the Pathfinder to expand the effect & then Cmd-4 [Ctrl-4] to repeat it, it is not expanded :>(

Anonymous said...

Well I acquiesce in but I contemplate the post should prepare more info then it has.

Anonymous said...

great article, love the hand tool trick during text editing :)
I've spotted one mistake though. shortcut for adding a new stroke in Windows is Ctrl+Alt+/ not Shift+Ctrl+/

Tyler said...

I love this, I use Illustrator at work all day and every single one of these shortcuts can be used. Great job!

Joseph said...

Select your object
Hit Shift+Option+Command+3 to hide everything that's not selected

Hit Shift+Option+Command+2 to lock everything that's not selected

Betty said...

I like them shortcuts a lot, but it always takes me so much time to learn to use... regards Betty

Uma fulaninha said...

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XD *happy* XD

Christian said...

Nice article. I use most of the shortcuts daily.

On important it's missing: Shift + X to toggle between outline and filling. This one is usefull when you need to work on the outline of an object AFTER working on the filling of another object...

John said...

Good stuff. But I think I found a typo.

You said, "Shift-Cmd-/ [Shift-Ctrl-/]: Applies a new stroke (via the Appearance panel)."

For me this only works if I press Option-Cmd-/.

justin said...

Thank you - you don't know how long I've been trying to figure out tabbing between open docs on a Mac. This post was gold!

Kells said...

Did you know that in illustrator, you can change the default stroke weigh of 1 pt?

Steven said...

I tried this for accessing the hand tool while typing (in Illustrator CS5):
"Press Cmd-Space [Ctrl-Space] to access the Zoom tool, and then release just the Cmd [Ctrl] key, while still holding Space"
You can access the hand tool, but it still adds space to your text.

Ctrl+Shift+[ and ] doesn't increase the font size, only the spacing between the characters.

Anonymous said...

Steven, if you're on a Mac you may not be able to use cmd + Space if your system is using that as a Global Shortcut for Spotlight.