Illustrator Dynamic Symbols

campervandynamicsymbolA really effective way of dealing with repeating elements in projects—especially in UX/UI work—is to use symbols; they are to graphic elements what paragraph styles are to text and changes to the “master” are reflected in all instances immediately.

However, there have been limitations that have required making hierarchical symbols structures or groups of symbols to work around—at least until Dynamic Symbols surfaced in CC2015. Dynamic symbol instances retain their link to the master symbol even when their shape and visual attributes are altered—and this gives you a lot of flexibility. If symbols are like the graphic equivalent to paragraph styles, dynamic symbols give you the character equivalent (and then some) in that you can override certain local attributes as well, as well as effect transformations over the whole object (sticking with the type analogy, this would be like a “based-on” style).

Any fundamental changes to the master symbol are automatically applied without undoing any previous change or overrides to the individual instances of the symbol, and in the video below you’ll see some of what can be achieved with them and discover many new possibilities.

Dynamic Symbols: Video

Modify Illustrator Shortcuts to Work Faster

Once the creative work is complete and a project moves into production, then speed is of the essence—especially if you’re freelance, but  it applies to everyone, so that their company remains profitable and competitive. Being faster doesn’t—and shouldn’t—just equate to more throughput, but buying you more time to be critical of your work, making sure that it is the best you can do for the job.

The Need for Speed? Hit the Keys!

The keyboard is mightier than the mouse when it comes to getting stuff done fast, and mastery of it is an essential skill.

Take selecting a tool from the toolbox, for example: in my experience—observing many users over the years—with a mouse it takes three-to-five seconds to travel from the working area (most users tend to work in the centre of the screen area) to the toolbox and back; pressing a key or key combo takes about a second or so, and it is of course a similar case for menu items.

There will be menu items you use that don’t have keyboard shortcuts, but there some that you never—or very rarely—use, so you can reassign them to the things that you wish had a shortcut. As an example, in my own work the Select > Inverse menu item is very useful and that gets used quite a lot, so assigning Cmd+I to it (usually assigned to Edit > Check Spelling…) makes more sense to me as I’m quite happy to select spellcheck manually on the rare occasions that it’s used.

The Hidden Shortcuts in Illustrator

Not all shortcuts are attached to menu items: for example SHIFT+CMD+C centre-aligns text (in case you’re wondering, switching out C for L or R sets Left or Right alignment) so you wouldn’t see these at all unless you went digging around in the shortcuts file. File? Illustrator’s shortcuts can be output as a text file, so you can see what is assigned to what in there (when you get to the next section, you’ll see that the dialog has an Export Text… button that will save you out the file).

Ask yourself how many times you’d use these randomly chosen examples:

  • Repeat Pathfinder: CMD+4
  • Toggle Auto Hyphenation ALT+SHIFT+CMD+H
  • Toggle Line Composer ALT+SHIFT+CMD+C
  • Switch Units ALT+SHIFT+CMD+U
  • Switch Selection Tools ALT+CMD+TAB

If the answer is hardly ever, or never, then it’s time to start considering where they or other shortcuts may be useful to you.

How to Modify Your Shortcuts

Before we begin, just a couple of quick notes, as I authored this piece on a Mac with a UK keyboard:

  • Windows users: for CMD read CTRL
  • American cousins on Macs—for ALT read OPT

Make your way to Edit > Keyboard Shortcuts… (or you can use the shortcut ALT+SHIFT+CMD+K and ask yourself how many times you use that one). You’ll be presented with the following dialog, that shows you the current shortcut set you’re using.01

Switch the next option from Tools to Menu Commands02

Then you can either search for the menu item you want or work your way through the twirly-arrow-thingys that represent the menus and some other items (see section below). Once you’ve found the item you’d like to assign, click in the Shortcut column, and then type the shortcut exactly as you would use it (so how down the CMD key, along with any other modifier keys and then press the letter you want to use).03

If there’s a conflict with an existing shortcut you’ll see a warning appear at the bottom of the dialog—if you’re happy with the conflict then ignore the warning, else you can undo it, clear it and type another, or go to the conflict and assign that a different shortcut04

Once you’re done you’ll need to save the set by tapping the little icon at the top, to the right of the current set dropdown and give your set a name (you can’t overwrite the application defaults).

Other Panel?

At the very bottom of the Menu Commands list you’ll find a quintuple of curious items, all prefixed with Other:

  • Other Select
  • Other Text
  • Other Object
  • Other panel
  • Other Misc

These items—as far as I can tell—are those lovely and largely undocumented (apart from on this blog) shortcuts that are not in any of the menus or panels in the main application. They are the Gold Seam of Illustrator, and give you seemingly magical powers in the app to the casual observer. This is also where you can assign some really funky schizzle that takes you from impulse power to warp drive. I’m an intensive user of custom views on large projects, and here’s where I assign CMD+1, CMD+2 and CMD+3 to my first three custom views (I usually only employ two or three), so that I can jump to those in a blink.

Note for Mac users: CMD-3 is usually associated with grab screen but you can assign that to something else. Alternately you could use either the excellent Snapz Pro (with amazing features, for a modest price) or the Grab utility for free (functional and not too shabby), with other shortcuts. To disable the usual shortcut go to System Preferences > Hardware > Keyboard > Keyboard Shortcuts > Screen Shots.

Summary Table

The table below shows the shortcuts that I have assigned to my basic custom version.

Command Shortcut Suggestion Normal Assignment
Object > Transform > Reset Bounding Box ALT+SHIFT+CMD+X Not normally assigned
Object > Path > Outline Stroke ALT+CMD+O File > Browse in Bridge
Select > Inverse CMD+I Edit > Check Spelling
View > New View ALT+SHIFT+CMD+C Toggle line composer
New Layer (usually CMD+L) ALT+SHIFT+CMD+N Not normally assigned and as a bonus this is the same as the shortcut in Photoshop
View > (Custom View) ALT+SHIFT+CMD+1 (2,3,4 etc.) Not normally assigned and as a bonus this is the same as the shortcut in Photoshop


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