September 13, 2011

Building A Better Pathfinder

It's true. Many of you have heard me utter the words "Pathfinder is dead to me". I'm surprised I haven't even received death threats from the Illustrator faithful for making such a remark. In all honesty, I made that remark when I discovered the power of the Live Paint feature that was added to Illustrator in CS2.

But then Adobe added the Shape Builder tool in CS5. And while I was initially unimpressed with it, I have come to love it. To the point that I've designated it as the surprise sleeper feature of CS5. It gives me the visual aspects of Live Paint, but the edit-friendly paths of Pathfinder without the need for group structure. And I'm able to apply variable-width strokes and brushes (something that Live Paint doesn't support). At the same time, I've been using the original Pathfinder commands every once in a while too.

But I still have a workflow issue with both the Shape Builder tool and with Pathfinder (they both use the same technology to work), and that is that once you use the Shape Builder tool, or once you apply a Pathfinder command, you lose your original paths. All you are left with is the result of the Unite, or the Minus Front, or the Divide (the three most-used Pathfinder functions). This is problematic when you need to reuse one or more of the original paths for other Pathfinder functions, or for other tasks.

Anyone who relies on Pathfinder is probably very much aware of this issue, and it's why many have trained themselves to always copy, paste, and hide, or lock the original paths before applying the Pathfinder. This way there's an original unscathed path that you can always go back to. But because I was away from Pathfinder for so long, this really stood out as an issue for me (this problem doesn't exist with Live Paint).

So I set out to build a better pathfinder -- specifically for the Divide function -- as it is the worst offender when it comes to this issue. My goal was to avoid adding tedious steps, but to make Divide into a non-destructible function so that I wouldn't lose my original paths. I call it "Super Divide" and I employed an Action to make it work. Here's what I did:

1. Create two overlapping shapes and select them. In order to record the Action, we'll need to have something to apply the commands to.

2. Click the Create New Action button in the Actions panel, and name the action (I called mine Super Divide). You can also assign a keyboard shortcut to make life easier if you're into that kind of stuff. Then click Record.

3. Choose Edit > Copy.

4. Choose Edit > Paste in Front.

5. From the Pathfinder panel, click the Divide button.

6. Click the Stop Recording button at the bottom left of the Actions panel.

That's it. You're done. Now, if you need to apply the Divide function, simply press the keyboard shortcut you assigned to the Action. Or, you can choose "Button Mode" from the Actions panel flyout menu and just click the Super Divide action when you want to apply it. It's the exact same click as clicking the button in the Pathfinder, only you still have your original paths to work with.

If you like this technique, then you might also want to create additional Actions for Super Unite and Super Minus Front.


George Coghill said...

I agre that the Shape Builder tool was uninteresting to me until after I had CS5 in my hands for a while. Now it's one of my fave tools.

Great tip on the Pathfinder, I pretty much just duplicate entire layers before I do and "Vulcan vector melds", but this would be handy for those spot instances where you need a safety net.

Sigurdur Armannsson said...

In complex work and layer intensive I almost all the time have a nonprinting layer with no-show on where I alt-drag items to that I think I may possibly have to use again.

(When possible I try to make it be the fifth layer I make with the dreaded yellow label :D )

But an action... maybe I'll consider that. I find that I should make actions more often.

Vdogg said...

"where I alt-drag items"

Mordy, for the love of all the good in the Universe- do you know what the best coping mechanism is for Windows users to deal with the Alt flaw? Every time I alt-drag or alt zoom or alt anything, I have to click back into my artboard or workspace area to get out of the outer menu.

This haunts me in my dreams! Maybe you've heard of a good way to deal with this?

Thank you,


Tiang Antrian said...

Thanks mas ndro.....

Anonymous said...

Well if you hold alt (on windows probably option in mac) down when using pathfinder then you WILL retain you original paths.

Anonymous said...

This be true. Hold the Option key when using Pathfinder and you keep the paths. Great!

Unknown said...

Holding down the option/alt key while applying a Pathfinder command via the Pathfinder panel doesn't "retain" the paths. It creates a Compound Shape which is an entirely different animal. Those paths are also not usable with others paths to create yet other pathfinder results in the way that I'm describing in this post.

Vasily, I'm not familiar with the problem that you describe. Then again, I use Mac exclusively.

Vdogg said...

Well, it goes like this- for Windows users CS3 used to work just fine, but CS4-5 things got ugly. Now the Alt key activates outer menus (File/Edit/Object/Type etc] every time it is used. So I'm using Alt as part of some key combination and "Ding ding ding" it starts beeping because I'm no longer active in the artboard, but rather in the program menu. Others have resorted to some crazy key re-mapping add-ons. I was wondering if there's some special fix only an insider like you may know! Quite an interesting issue, because it's annoying in just the right way.

Peggy said...

I always, always, always hold down 'alt' when I visit the Pathfinder palette; this way it stays live. Does this interact badly with Shape Builder's output?

I just tried Shape Builder for the first time and honestly it just seems like an interactive approach to the non-alt version of the Pathfinders. I rue the day Adobe decided to swap the default/alt behavior of the Pathfinders!

(Although upon reflection I also pretty much ONLY use the top row of 'shape mode' buttons, never the bottom row of 'pathfinder' buttons.)