Last September wrote an article containing tips for a productive Photoshop workflow. This post is essentially the Illustrator version of Peter’s article, highlighting some Illustrator specific tips as well as some other tips that span several Adobe programs.

Global color swatches

Many designers have faced a design project requiring three or more colors and a combination of both strokes and fills. Normally, to try out color schemes within the design you would have to select the strokes and change the color, then select the fill and change the color separately.

Thankfully, global color swatches lets you do that all at once, without even having to select the objects! This technique allows designers to play with colors quickly and efficiently.

Global 1

When adding a new color to the swatch panel, simply check the “Global” check box.

Global 2

Global swatches have a small white triangular corner in the swatch panel to indicate they are global. These two objects, one fill object and one stroke object, have been assigned the global color swatch.

Global 3

This is where the magic happens. Notice that while editing the global swatch with “Preview” enabled, the color of the globally assigned fill and stroke object changed automatically. No tedious selection necessary!

Custom keyboard shortcuts

Keyboard Shortcuts

That’s right, every single keyboard shortcut in Illustrator can be customized. Taking the time to experiment with quick and easy shortcut combinations can save hours down the line. Additionally, a lot of the extremely forgettable shortcuts, particularly the function + shift + F10 style shortcuts (for workspace panels) can be trimmed down and actually made useful.

Hide the control and application bar

Control Bar

By default Illustrator has the control and application bars enabled. At first these bars seem convenient, offering quick access to various parameters. The truth is however, these bars are really unnecessary in an optimized workflow and all of these parameters are also available through panels.

Not only that, but by disabling these two bars a notable chunk of screen space is free for design space. This is huge for designers, like myself, who work on the go using computers like the 11” Macbook Air.


Above is an image of my entire workspace on an 11″ Macbook Air. Notice how no space is wasted!

Collapse, cluster and sort panels

Collapse Panels

Pictured above is my typical Illustrator panel setup. Notice how the panels to the right are all collapsed and methodically clustered. Furthermore they are sorted from top to bottom in relation to most use vs least use. Naturally layers are very important and sorted to the top, while the pattern panel (not shown) is rarely used and therefore at the bottom of the panel stack.

Name and organize your layers


While this tip was mentioned in Peter’s article, the great importance of layers makes it worth reiterating in Illustrator terms. Above is a common layer stack I use for attacking a design project.

Starting from the top, typography often sits above all other elements (not always of course). Vector shapes often interact with typography and source photos are often used as guides for creating vector shapes. Background colors are often used to explore brand moods. Finally, brief examples are commonly kept in the margins. A logical layer stack like this makes for a productive workflow.


The workspace featured above is extremely logical and proven to be efficient and productive (it is mine after all), but with that said it doesn’t have to be everyone’s workspace. I recommend trying many variations in panel stacking, label organization, keyboard shortcuts and swatch themes before settling down. Perfect optimization is different for every designer and their style.

Have another suggestion for improving designers’ Illustrator workflow? Share it in the comments!

Cover: steveartist (via Flickr)