Illustrator preferences to change
Like all Adobe applications, Illustrator has an elaborate Preferences dialog bristling with settings that control how the program looks and works. Of course, no group of settings is perfect for everyone, so to get the most out of Illustrator, you need to spend some time familiarizing yourself with its preferences and customizing them to your liking. Here are some tips from Illustrator pros on changing preferences to make your work more enjoyable and productive.
Get a new set of preferences
If you need to install a newer version of Illustrator, use the Creative Cloud desktop app. To install the new version as an update, the CC app offers to import your previous settings and preferences. Disable this option if you want to start fresh with all new factory default preferences.
Reset existing preferences
Even when you’re not upgrading, Illustrator lets you start fresh. First, go to Preferences:
- In Windows, choose Edit > Preferences > General or type Control-K.
- On macOS Choose Illustrator > Preferences > General or type Command-K.
- You will also find a Preferences button in the control bar when nothing is selected in your document.
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Click the Reset Preferences button at the bottom of the dialog when in the General section. You will be prompted to restart Illustrator to activate the new preferences file (you may need to close the dialog to see the warning). Go ahead and restart Illustrator.
Changing your preferences
Illustrator can be configured to work the way you want it to, so I like to think of Preferences as your own rather than the application’s. The 15 sections of the Preferences dialog can seem overwhelming. Here are some of the settings worth changing.
The appearance of Illustrator’s tools, panels, guides, and grids can be customized to your liking. These settings aren’t just cosmetic: they can help make UI elements less distracting for better focus on your art.
You will need to visit several sections of the Preferences dialog to find all the options. Start with the User interface section and adjust the app brightness. I prefer a lighter interface which is selected here. Any option you click is applied immediately.
Then set the canvas color. This is the area behind your artboards. You can choose pure white or make the canvas match the overall brightness of the interface.
You can change guide colors in two places: Guides and Gridand Smart Guides. Illustrator’s default colors for guides are saturated and highly visible, so I find them distracting. Click on any of the color swatches shown in Preferences to customize them with your operating system’s color pickers.
Another guide setting worth changing is suggested by Carlos Garro of Astute Graphics (instagram): It changes the style of the default line guides to points. This visually distinguishes the markers from the paths in your artwork.
The default appearance of path anchors, handles, and bounding boxes is also up to you: Click Selection and anchor display to settle them. Many Illustrator pros I’ve consulted change the defaults to better differentiate anchors and handles and make them easier to type.
Units, measures and increments
What measurement units and increments work best in Illustrator? The answer depends on the type of artwork you’re creating, and Illustrator’s defaults will rarely suit all needs. Set these preferences in the General, Type, Unit, Guides & Grid, and Smart Guides sections.
Starting with General, set the keyboard increment to control the movement of selections using the arrow keys. Remember that holding the Shift key while pressing an arrow key moves 10 times the amount specified here. Set the default to small for precise control. I set it as low as 1 pt or pixel. Conversely, when your artwork is measured in feet or meters, you’ll want to increase this increment considerably, otherwise you won’t see the elements move much when you use the arrow keys.
Under Typeadjust the baseline tracking and offset defaults to get finer control over the placement of glyphs when adjusting them with keyboard shortcuts Alt/Option+Left/Right Arrow (tracking and kerning), and Shift+Alt/Option+Up/Down Arrow (Baseline Offset).
Set your default Units next: pixels are great for out-of-the-box elements; Points, Picas, Inches, Millimeters and Centimeters and are widely used for printed matter. Feet, yards, and meters make sense for signage and environmental graphics.
You previously defined colors for Guides and grids. Return to this section to configure grid spacing and subdivisions. It is often useful to set the grid spacing to an increment that matches your units.
Other default settings to change
Several other default preferences are worth changing, and it may be necessary to experiment with these settings to determine which option works best for you.
In the Performance section, GPU performance is often enabled by default. Margaret Trauth, a prolific illustrator (website), recommends disabling this option. Margaret and other illustrators – myself included – experience display and preview issues when this setting is enabled, even with a compatible graphics card and processor. You can easily enable or disable the GPU outside of Preferences from the To see menu or pressing Cmd/Ctrl-E. Your document tabs indicate when CPU preview is used.
Carlos Garro changes the default selection behavior in the Selection and anchor display section, where there are many options. Specifically, it checks the Select objects by path only box. This reduces instances of accidentally selected objects with spurious clicks, which is especially useful when working with complex artwork.
Another setting in this section that many Illustrator users tell me they tweak to reduce clutter while working: Corner Widgets. By default, they are hidden for angles greater than 177°. Change this to a lower value as small as 3° and they won’t be visible most of the time, even if enabled from the View menu.
Then, when you want to use a corner widget, just press the Command/Ctrl key to make them appear temporarily.