ILLUSTRATED: an In-depth Introduction to Adobe Illustrator

I have found within most architecture studios, be they in practice or university Adobe Illustrator is both the least utilised or understood program of the Adobe suite. I think this has much to do with fact that the tools people find that are of obvious necessity: a program to draw things, and a program to format things are filled by Photoshop and InDesign respectively. However if you are interested in making anything from either SketchUp or Rhino look good, to convert images into dwg, take the educational version watermarks off of your architectural drawings Adobe Illustrator is the tool for you.

Illustrator as a tool has many functions in the production of images as shown in the examples below. Together these demonstrate the vast scope of what can be achieved in the program. From a simple step-by-step massing diagram to an enormously complex image.

A simple diagram drawn in practice (Image from Ayre Chamberlain Gaunt)
Silver medal winning ‘Frackpool’ (Image from Jason Lamb of Unit 10 at the Bartlett school of architecture)

The reason for Illustrator’s versatility is that it can mange both raster images and dwg vectors. The elements produced within the program are vectors and not pixels thus can be made any size and are not constrained. You can format documents in Illustrator but I would not recommend doing this as it can increase the size of some of your files exponentially. In many ways Illustrator shares much of its DNA with Adobe InDesign both programs essentially organize Vector information and share the majority of hotkeys. You can even copy vector information clean out of Illustrator and straight into InDesign, (but this again will increase your file size). The reason you would want to use Illustrator however is that it can offer a great deal more precision in Vector editing than in InDesign and is a far more visual process than vector drawing in a CAD Software such as Auto CAD or Vector works.

03 Illustrator – a Halfway House


For our step by step guide I have first included an image showing the illustrator workspace and highlighted some of the frequently used tools and what they do. Seasoned InDesign users will notice that particularly the selection tools are very similar across both software packages.

Illustrator workspace

So considering the advantages of including Illustrator in your workflow, I am going to demonstrate throughout the rest of this article how some of these tools are used. We are going to be doing this through the image shown below. The Image has a variety of elements to it but we are going to break it down to show how each element is assembled and layered. Though this image is not a scaled drawing, it provides a lens for the following techniques:

  1. Bringing a scaled dwg into Illustrator with no watermarks
  2. Clipping an image
  3. Exporting 3D vector objects from Sketch up as a 2D Image
  4. Familiarization with the fundamental tools used in Illustrator
  5. Image trace: Converting images into dwg/vector format
  6. Vector resources for working with illustrator
Example Image

Though the image may seem complex, it essentially consists of three types of elements arranged on top of each other. The back layer is a 2D elevation drawn completely a CAD drawing software and brought into Illustrator from the drawing program. The layer on top of this consists of 3D elements produced in SketchUp then exported to Illustrator. Most of the people in this layer are from Pimp my drawing: a large library of vector peoples. The final element in the front is a circular clipping mask which crops the elements. See the image below for the breakdown of these elements.

Example layering


Step 1: Base Object

To produce the back elevation layer we are going to a take a drawing that you have produced and copy it into Illustrator. This is as simple as selecting the element you want, copying it and pasting it in Illustrator. Note that this will not work unless you are copying the element after you have scaled it from paper space. Notably in a Vectorworks based workflow you can get away from document watermarks, which can prevent exported elements from being opened in Illustrator. Once you have copied your vector into Illustrator it is worth checking elements such as line weights and hatches as these can change if you are copying and pasting element straight into the program.


1. To Crop an image in Illustrator create the shape of your crop region on top of what you want to crop.
2. Right Click > Make Clipping Mask

Footnote: Once created, a clipping mask acts in a similar way to a group in both layer navigation and in isolation mode.

Step 2: Clipping Mask
Step 3: Clipped Object


To produce the next layer consisting of 3D elements exported from SketchUp we need to go into SketchUp and export our chosen view. In File > Export > 2D Graphic you have variety of options at your disposal. The ones that are compatible with Illustrator are jpg, pdf and dwg.

Step 1: Export Image
Step 2: Export dialogue

Step 3: Export Options

Jpeg images are flat images so not particularly useful here unless you want an image for reference. DWG gives you something that will work well in illustrator however this will consist only of unconnected lines which would need to be composed elsewhere to make shapes. The most useful by far is pdf format, in this format SketchUp will export everything in the model as 2d fills and line work both of which can be accessed and edited in Illustrator.

Dependent on how you want to process your image you can also use colour by layer in SketchUp so that you can more easily separate different elements in Illustrator. By this logic you can have and immediate 3D Vector Drawing of anything that exists within the SketchUp warehouse, this can be useful not just for producing 3d images like our example but for other controlled drawings throughout your project as well.

Tip: Colour by Layer: If you hit this button on your layers palette in SketchUp it will colour your model by layer, which can be very helpful when editing things in illustrator.

STEP 3: Exported PDF (Colour by Material)


Once you have your pdf in Illustrator the main tools you will need is for separating your file into different layers. The Image below breaks down the tools in the Top Toolbar.

SELECT SAMESelect > Same: this will give you a vast number of attributes with which you can isolate elements.

MAGIC WAND  – Magic Wand is also helpful in selecting elements, can be accessed by pressing (Y). If you open the window for the Magic Wand: Window > Magic Wand you can manipulate the tool’s tolerance similar to Adobe Photoshop.

GROUPS – If you find you have too many layers you can group information: Cmd or Ctl+G and double click your group to isolate it. when you have Isolated information you can use the top bar to help navigate and describe where you are in in your drawing. If you ever want to ungroup simply right click and hit ungroup.

LAYERS – Similar to any image manipulation program Illustrator operates in layers. I recommend separating these out as much as possible to manage the file.


To make a DWG out of any image file in Illustrator is quite simple. I had to convert the NHS Decals on the side of the donation van into DWG format to apply them to the van model in Sketchup.

Step 1: Image Trace
Step 2: Trace Result


Step 3: Expand
  1. We start by opening the image we want to make a vector in Illustrator.
  2. Select the image and then pick the option Image Trace: If you select the arrow by the side of the button you can choose what setting you want the program to trace in. In most instances black and white logo will be what you need.
  3. Once you have you tracing result press ‘Expand’ to convert your drawings into vectors in illustrator that can be edited.
  4. Following this go to File > Export and select DWG in your format type to be able to use your image in other vector management programs.
Step 4: Export as DWG

You can also play around with this as vector in illustrator to create scalable graphics in the program.

Footnote: Image trace produces shapes it doesn’t produce the corresponding lines if you want to add these simply add a stroke.


Most of the 2D people in this image are produced using Pimp My Drawing you can download their people as either Illustrator documents or dwg and manipulate them from there. They also provide free vectors of trees, cars, silhouettes…

Footnote: I have added the skin tones of the people and their individual shadows in Vectorworks. I have traced all the people who are not on the Pimp My Drawing Website.

I hope this icebreaker has encouraged people to try Adobe Illustrator to solve their graphics problems. Once you become more familiar with the software there is almost nothing you cannot draw. In many ways Illustrator acts as a bridge between Photoshop and CAD Based programs and much of the imagery throughout my portfolio has been produced through constant back and fourth between AutoCAD/Vectorworks Illustrator and sketchup.