Everything you always wanted to know about Symbols in Illustrator and were afraid to ask but you asked anyway…

So my friend Mike writes me:

O Captain Illustrator, I do beseech you to solve for me a symbol set conundrum:

I have a symbol set, and I would like to break the “set”, so that it is a bunch of individual symbol instances.  What I have come up with, which doesn’t seem right, is to first break the link to the symbol, and then ungroup (“ungroup” is not available as long as we’re talking about a symbol set).  Is there a way to do this?

Go ahead, make my day.  (Night, actually.)


The answer is a resounding NO, but we might as well use this as an opportunity to learn about Symbols.

Alright, first off, Mike refers to me as Captain Illustrator, a title I don’t necessarily think is appropriate. I do know a lot about Illustrator, but not enough to be regarded as a superhero, but thanks for the sentiment!

OK, Symbols… Symbols are a way to save artwork that you know you will reuse over and over again (like symbols on a map.) Every new occurrence of a symbol is referred to as an instance – which means that if you change the original symbol the instance will be updated so long as it is still linked to the original (more on this later)

the symbols palette

1. Symbols are created using any old Illustrator stuff including – shapes, lines. fills, patterns, gradients, even single 1-dimensional points in space – you name it you can use. Just draw a collection of objects and drag the entire collection to the symbols palette. There you go, you’ve just made a symbol. You will notice that once you’ve done this, the collection of objects becomes an instance of the symbol itself. If you do not want this to be the case or have plans of possibly revising the symbol, select the symbol then go to the menu on  the Symbols palette and select Break Link to Symbol, this will turn the symbol back into editable Illustrator shapes (but will group them together which means you will need to go to the OBJECT menu > UNGROUP)

2. I’ve made a symbol, now what? There are three ways to apply symbols, one is that you can simply drag the symbol from the palette into the Illustrator document, place it somewhere and transform it (move, scale, rotate, reflect or shear). Easy enough. Another method is to go to the menu in the Symbols palette and Place Symbol Instance. The final method is to use the Symbol Sprayer located on the tool bar. The Sprayer works differently than other Illustrator tools, for one it’s pressure sensitive even if you do not have a drawing stylus –  the longer you hold the mouse button down the more symbols appear on the screen. Second, the tool works kind of organically, meaning the flow of symbols appears scattered on your page. Of course, all of these things can be customized (like everything in Illustrator) and should be explored and considered. But first go ahead and try it out, select a symbol from the Symbols palette, click on the Sprayer and go to town. You will notice the entire collection of symbols acts as one unit (a Symbols Set) Here’s a link to a symbol set I made a long time ago. There are also a bunch of Symbol libraries to choose from, just click on the Symbols Libraries Menu icon on the bottom right of the symbols palette.

3. So what were those customizations for the Symbol Sprayer that you were talking about? If you double click the Symbol Sprayer tool on the tool bar you will get a dialog box that looks like this:

Diameter refers to the size of the Symbol tool you are using (this is essentially the area that is affected by the tool). Intensity refers to how many instances of the symbol will flow out or will be affected as you hold down your mouse button – a higher number (up to 10) equals more instances. Symbol Set Density refers to how clustered together instances will be – a higher number (up to 10) equals denser occurrences of symbols. For how the Symbol Scruncher, Sizer, Spinner, Stainer, Screener, and Styler tools adjust symbol instances you can: Select User Defined to gradually adjust symbols in relation to the position of the cursor. Select Random to modify the symbols randomly in the area under the cursor. Select Average to gradually smooth out the symbol values. [NOTE: most tools on the tool bar have extra functionality if you double click on them.]

4. The Symbol Scruncher, Sizer, Spinner, Stainer, Screener, and Styler? Huh? If you hold down the mouse button over the Sprayer tool, you will notice a bunch of different variations of the tool appear. It looks like this:

The tools include a Symbol Shifter, Scruncher, Sizer, Spinner, Stainer, Screener and Styler. When a symbol set is selected the Shifter will move instances of the symbol away from the cursor, again based on diameter, intensity and density (as will all of these tool). Holding Shift will bring an instance to the front, holding Shift + Alt (Option) will send instances backwards. The Scruncher will draw instances back towards the brush. Holding down Alt (Option) will send instances away from the cursor. The Sizer will resize instances, by default making them larger. Holding down Alt (option) will make instances smaller, Shift will scale (either up or down) to preserve the overall density of the Symbol Set. The Spinner will rotate instances of the symbols, the rotation follows the direction the cursor takes. The Stainer will colorize instances of symbols based on a graphic style (more on styles in a later post). Alt (option) will decrease the colorization, Shift will retain previously stained instances. The Screener will make instances transparent, Alt (option) will make them less so. The Styler will apply a graphic style to instances of the symbol. Alt (option) will decrease the stylization, Shift will retain previously styled instances.

5. Alright, I think the first symbol I made stinks and I want to change it, how can I do that? Very simply! Create a new drawing or use the original symbol that has been unlinked and ungrouped (see here) then select the symbol you want to replace in the Symbols Palette and in the Symbols Palette menu click Redefine Symbol. To Replace the symbol with another one in the symbols palette choose Replace Symbol instead. If you have a lot of instances of the symbol in the drawing (especially ones with styles and stains applied to them) it may take a long time for all the instances to update, just be patient.

6. So now we get to Mike’s question: I have a symbol set, and I would like to break the “set”, so that it is a bunch of individual symbol instances.  What I have come up with, which doesn’t seem right, is to first break the link to the symbol, and then ungroup (“ungroup” is not available as long as we’re talking about a symbol set).  Is there a way to do this?
So, if I’m reading this correctly, Mike has made a Symbol Set most likely (but not necessarily) from multiple symbols – remember a Symbol Set is simply a collection of symbol instances, but if you use the sprayer with a new symbol over top a set of existing symbols the new symbol will be added to that existing set. Here is what I think Mike is making (Mike’s a science-y kind of guy, so I guessed at the type of drawing he’s be making)

Each of the drawings above is it’s own symbol. When they have become a set like this, there is actually NO WAY to individually select or edit the location of just one symbol. [This is kind of ridiculous, and I hope the Illustrator folks fix this in later versions of the program] Mike’s workaround seems to be the only way to make it work. A further method, would be to Break the Link then remake symbols from each of the unlinked symbols elements, the original drawings would then become individual symbols that could later be redefined.

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