Learn Adobe Illustrator Day 2 – The Interface – Know Your Tools!

In the previous Adobe Illustrator lesson you learned about the difference between vector and pixel based artwork and saw how to create a new document destined for printing. In this lesson we’ll take a look at the Illustrator interface and workspace. When you know where everything is and how to use the interface you workflow will become more efficient and you can focus on creating your lovely illustrations and designs.

Start Workspace

The Start workspace is displayed when Illustrator is launched or when you have no documents open. It provides quick access to documents you’ve already been working on, displaying either thumbnails or a list of your recently opened files. As we saw in the last lesson, it also offers a quick way to create a new document by clicking on the New button on the left side of the screen. To open an existing file, simply click on its thumbnail or filename and it will open.


This Start workspace is enabled, and is opened by default. If you find it annoying, or just don’t want to see it anymore, you can disable it in the Illustrator Preferences.

1. To open Preferences, choose Edit > Preferences (windows) or Illustrator/Preferences (mac) and click on the General tab.

2. Deselect the checkbox Show “Start” Workspace When No Documents Are Open.


The keyboard shortcut for quickly creating a new document is Ctrl/Cmd + N.

The shortcut to open files Ctrl/Cmd + O.

Inside Illustrator

Let’s have a look around the Adobe Illustrator workspace now, start by either opening an existing file, or create a new document for print. It doesn’t matter what size it is. Your interface will look something like this (click on the image to see a bigger version):



If your workspace doesn’t look like this (and you want it to), click on the Workspace Switcher at the top of the screen. It may say “Essentials” or it may say something like Automation or Layout or Web. Choose Essentials, then choose Reset Essentials. This will put your interface back to what is basically the factory default.



Now that we’re on the same page, so to speak, let’s have a quick overview of each part of the interface.

Application Toolbar

The Illustrator Application Toolbar holds a bunch of icons that give us quick access to various options and functionality.


From left to right, you can see the Adobe Bridge shortcut, Adobe Stock Photos shortcut, Arrange Documents, GPU Performance and Change To Touch interface option.

Menu Bar

The Menu Bar gives us access to a wide range of functionality and extra commands. We have the obvious commands such as File > Save as well as many others for dealing with Selections and Type.


Many of the commands on the Menu bar can also be accessed through panels and keyboard shortcuts. It is worthwhile making the effort to learn as many keyboard shortcuts as you can. It will speed up your workflow dramatically.

Control Panel/Options Bar

By default, the Control panel is docked at the top of the workspace, but you can (like many of the other panels) move it around the screen.


The options displayed in the Control panel vary depending on the type of object or tool you select. In the example shown here, I have drawn a path using the Paintbrush and the Control panel displays options for colour, line thickness and style, opactiy and brush tip.

The Control panel because it almost always gives you fast and easy access to settings you need, without having to wade through menus or panels to find the same thing. Once you start drawing, painting, or creating a design, you’ll use this panel more than any other.

When text in the Control panel is underlined, you can click the text to display a related panel or dialog box. For example, click the word Opacity to display the Opacity panel.


How To Change A Value In A Panel

As you can see from the Control Panel, there are lots of fields that we can change and we can make those changes in a variety of ways. You can:

  • Type a value in the box, and press Enter or Return. 2-09-Illustrator-Options-Bar-Type-Value
  • Drag the slider. 2-10-Illustrator-Options-Bar-Drag-Slider
  • Drag the dial.  2-10-Illustrator-Options-Bar-Rotate-Angle
  • Click the arrow buttons in the panel to increase or decrease the value. 2-10-Illustrator-Options-Bar-Up-Down-Arrows
  • Click in the box and then use the Up Arrow key and Down Arrow key on the keyboard to increase or decrease the value. Hold down Shift and click an arrow key to magnify the increase rate or decrease rate.
  • Select a value from the drop down menu associated with the box. 2-11-Illustrator-Options-Bar-Up-Drop-Down


The Illustrator Toolbar

2-12-Illustrator-Toolbar-OverviewThe Toolbar or tools panel, sits on the left hand side of the document window and it contains all the tools you’ll need plus plenty that you won’t need. In this short crash course we will be looking at many of the most frequently used tools but obviously some of them are beyond the scope of what we can do in 20 byte sized lessons.

One of the top five tips I can give to anyone learning Illustrator (or any of the other design software programs) is LEARN THE KEYBOARD SHORTCUTS! Yes, I’m shouting there. I’ll say it again.


One of the best ways to learn them is to actively take note of the shortcut as you run your mouse over a tool. A small tooltip appears showing you the name and the keyboard shortcut in brackets. Some of the shortcuts are really easy to remember, for example Z for the Zoom Tool or T for the Type Tool. Others are not so obvious but if you make an effort you’ll find that you start to remember them and this is a massive time saver. When I’m working I usually have one hand on the keyboard for shortcuts and one drawing with my pen tablet.

How to change the toolbar from a double to a single column of tools

Click the double arrow in the upper-left corner of the Tools panel to collapse the two columns into one column, to conserve screen space. Click the double arrow again to expand to two columns.


How to select hidden tools in the toolbar

A tiny triangle in the lower-right corner of a tool icon indicates there are even more tools that are grouped with this icon, but they are hidden. To show the hidden tools, press and hold on the tool icon, slide the pointer over one of the hidden tools (still holding), then let go of the mouse or trackpad button. In the example below you can see the many Type Tools hidden under the main Type Tool.


You can also cycle through the hidden tools: hold down the Alt key (Windows) Option key (Mac) as you click a tool icon. Each click reveals and selects the next hidden tool.

How to create a floating panel of the tools in a group

1 Press on a tool icon, then slide the pointer (while still pressing) to the right edge of the hidden tools flyout menu.

2 When the right edge of the hidden tools menu turns dark, let go. A floating Tools panel replaces the flyout panel.


3 Drag the title bar of the floating panel to move it.

4 To close the floating panel, just click the X on windows or the red button on the mac.

How to pick colours using the toolbar colour picker

The Fill and Stroke color attributes

When you start drawing objects – lines, shapes, you’ll be using the Fill and Stroke options to put color inside objects (the fill) or borders around the objects (the stroke). The Fill and Stroke icons appear at the bottom of the Tools panel. These icons overlap each other so the one on top is the active attribute that shows the color of the selected object, and it is also the attribute that will get applied when you choose a new colour.


  • To choose a new color for selected objects (or for something you are about to draw) double-click the Fill colour icon or the Stroke colour icon to make it active and open the Color Picker.
    Choose a color; click ok. The new color appears in the icon.
  • To switch the Fill and Stroke colors, click the tiny double-headed arrow in the upper-right corner of the icons. Or tap the X key on the keyboard.
  • To reset Fill and Stroke colors to default settings (white fill, black stroke), click the small Reset colour icon. Or hit the D key on the keyboard.

We’ll talk about colour in much more detail in a future lesson.

Screen Modes

At the very bottom of the toolbar, there is a small button icon which allow you to change how you view your artwork. This is helpful when you want to see your work free from the clutter of the interface and various panels that are normally on the screen.
To change Screen Mode, click on the Screen Mode icon at the bottom of the Illustrator toolbar or hit F key on the keyboard. Tap the F key to cycle through the options.You can choose one of the following modes:


  • Normal Screen Mode displays artwork in a standard window, with a menu bar at the top and scroll bars on the sides.
  • Full Screen Mode With Menu Bar displays artwork in a full-screen window, with a menu bar at the top and scroll bars.
  • Full Screen Mode displays artwork in a full-screen window, with no title bar or menu bar. To access panels when in Full Screen Mode, position the cursor at the left or right edge of the screen and the panels will pop up.

Working With Panels

The last major part of the interface that you need to become familiar with are the panels located on the right hand side of the screen. Panels provide extra functionality and give you quick access to many tools that make modifying artwork easier. If you have chosen the Essentials workspace (as mentioned at the start of this lesson), you will see a dock of icons like the one below. A dock is a collection of panels or panel groups displayed together, generally in a vertical orientation. You dock and undock panels by moving them into and out of a dock.  The icons you see below are essential buttons you can click to open or expand a panel or panel group. For example, if you click on the Swatches icon, a group of panels holding the Swatches, Brushes and Symbols panels opens up. Because you clicked on the Swatches icon, the Swatches panel will be the active one, meaning it will at the front of the group and it’s tab name will be highlighted.



The specific panels that appear in the vertical dock are determined by the workspace layout you choose from the Workspace Switcher in the Control panel. You can add extra panels to any workspace at any time. Because you will be opening, closing panels, and docking panels constantly, it’s worth taking a bit of time to understand how they work and how to customise your workspace.

1 How to add another panel to your workspace

Sometimes the panel you’re looking for is not visible on the screen. Every single panel in Illustrator is listed under the Window menu and you can open the panel you want by choosing Window > Panel Name and choose the panel you want. It appears as a floating panel (see below) or it pops out from the dock on the side.


2 How to close a panel

Click the X on the top of the Panel.

To close a docked panel, click the right-pointing double-arrow symbol.

To reopen a closed panel, choose it from the Window menu again, or single-click an icon in the panel dock.

To collapse or expand a floating panel, double-click its title bar.

To float a panel that is docked, drag the panel icon out of the vertical dock, then drop it anywhere in the window. Double-click its title bar to expand it.

5 To expand a panel, double-click its title bar.

To further expand a panel and show even more options, click the tiny cycle button on the tab. Each click expands the panel another level, if the panel includes multiple levels.


If you are rearranging your workspace, it’s a good idea to create groups of like-minded panels so you can have them easily accessible for your projects. For example, you might group your Brushes panel with your Stroke panel and your Colour Panel with your Swatches panel.

To group a panel to another panel, drag a title bar on top of another panel icon, between docked icons, or into the name tab. Drag the panel until a blue bar appears where you want to drop the panel, then let go.

To ungroup a panel from a group and float it, drag its name tab out of the group, then drop it somewhere else in the window.


Phew! So that’s the Illustrator interface. We covered a lot here but it’s so important to get your head around the various parts of the workspace in order to improve your skills.

In the next lesson, we’ll do some drawing! Specifically we’ll be using Illustrator’s shape tools.

Thanks for reading.  If you have any comments please use the comment box below and if you have any Illustrator questions, I’ll do my best to answer them. If you find this useful, please share it using the sharing buttons on the page. Thank you very much!