Make the most of Adobe Illustrator’s Symbol libraries

I was helping a friend with some Illustrator techniques the other day and Symbols came up. Long story short, I realized lots of Illustrator users never really take full advantage of some of the app’s built in features, like the Symbols. I decided to offer a little information on some of the ways I use the Symbols. I’ve also included a small sample Symbol library that you can download and use in Illustrator yourself. Click this link to download the zipped file.

Symbols Library - A Free Sample
Free Symbols -a preview of the samples

One of the things I find symbols most useful for is logos and other graphic elements that a person tends to use over and over every time you start working on a project in Illustrator. A good example is when I am working on a new project for a client, like a poster or direct mail piece for example, I always need to use their logo in the design somewhere. Rather than hunting through my folders of stuff on my hard drive for the right logo, and going through the process of opening, copying, pasting and closing the file, I keep a Symbol library of all my clients’ logos active in Illustrator at all times. All I have to do is drag the logo onto my art board from the symbols panel. Done. The best part is that a symbol instance can be used repeatedly in a document without making the file larger. Here’s how Adobe describes the symbol:

A symbol is an art object that you can reuse in a document. For example, if you create a symbol from a flower, you can then add instances of that symbol multiple times to your artwork without actually adding the complex art multiple times. Each symbol instance is linked to the symbol in the Symbols panel or to a symbols library. Using symbols can save you time and greatly reduce file size.

Symbols also provide excellent support for SWF and SVG export. When you export to Flash, you can set the symbol type to MovieClip. Once in Flash, you can choose another type if necessary. You can also specify 9‑slice scaling in Illustrator so that the movie clips scale appropriately when used for user interface components.
Note: For information on using symbols in Flash, see Flash Help. For a video on using symbols effectively between Illustrator and Flash, see

After you place a symbol, you can edit the symbol’s instances on the artboard and, if you want, redefine the original symbol with the edits. The symbolism tools let you add and manipulate multiple symbol instances at once.

For more details on symbols and how to use them on Macs and Windows, visit Adobe Illustrator CS4 help.

Open the Symbols Panel

Creating a symbol is easy. You can use almost any vector graphic in Illustrator, but no placed images (psd, jpg, etc.). If you have a graphic or logo you’ve created and want to use it as a symbol, open the symbol panel if you don’t have it open already. Go to your menu, Window > Symbols.

There are a few ways to create a symbol from your graphic. Select your graphic, or group of vector elements, and drag them as a unit into the symbols panel.
You can also click “new symbol” on the symbols panel when you have your graphic selected. Either way you get the same result; a new symbol instance in the symbols panel and a dialog box, “Symbol Options”, where you can name your new symbol, select “Graphic” or “Movie Clip”, “Flash Registration” and “Enable Guides for 9-slice scaling”. By default, the “Movie Clip” option is usually selected, which is perfectly fine for what we’re doing.
The options are mainly for use of the symbol in Flash.
Again, go to the Adobe Illustrator CS4 help for more details on the options.

Create Symbol Instance
Create new symbol instance

Save menu in Symbols panel

Once you have your graphics saved as symbols in the symbols panel, whether it’s a single logo or a bunch of images (see the symbol libraries already available in Illustrator’s presets) that you wish to reference later, you can save your new group of symbols as a library that can be pulled up whenever you need it or open every time you launch Illustrator. To save the library, select every symbol in the panel window you wish to save, then go to the Symbols panel and click the Symbols Libraries Menu (icon in the lower left corner of the symbols panel) and select “Save Symbols…” at the top (see the image).
locate symbol libraries folder

Next, you’ll get another dialog window, “Save Symbols as Library”, prompting you to name your library and save it to a location.
For Illustrator to recognize these library files and display them as choices in Symbol Libraries menu, the file needs to be saved in one of two specific locations. By default, Illustrator should point you to User >Library > Application Support > Adobe > Adobe Illustrator CS4 > en_US > Symbols. You can also save them to your Presets > Symbols folder in your Adobe Illustrator application folder located in Applications on your system. Either location will work.

That’s it. Your new library is saved and you can go to the Symbols Libraries (icon in lower left corner of Symbols panel) in the Window >Symbol Libraries > User Defined (if you saved to default location) to open the library. If the library happens to contain graphics that you use frequently, go to the Symbol panel options menu (upper right corner of Symbol panel) and select “Persistent” to have the library stay open every time Illustrator is launched. If you don’t check “Persistent”, you won’t see the library open next time you launch Illustrator, but you can easily open it from the menu.

Hopefully you will find this useful. I sure do. If there’s something I missed that you’d like to know about, feel free to post a comment and I’ll follow up with an update.
For more free graphics and Adobe Presets, check out my downloads page. Enjoy!

4 comments on “Make the most of Adobe Illustrator’s Symbol libraries”

  1. Why can’t the symbols tables that are opened be edited or redefined? Is there a way to turn off that “line through the pencil” icon in the lower left of an opened symbol table? We want to be able to use and redefine symbols from one symbol table in more than one document.

    Thanks in advance.
    – Alex

    1. I assume you are referring to a Symbol pulled from the Symbol Libraries and placed in an Illustrator document.

      Symbols are Flash movie instances and intended to be used repeatedly in a document or movie. In their normal state they are not editable, however, there are a few ways to make them editable as vector objects like any other Illustrator graphic.

      With the Symbol instance selected, here are three ways to make them editable:

      1) right click > select ‘break link to symbol’ from the contextual menu.

      2) from the Symbols panel (window > Symbols) click the broken link icon at the bottom of the panel to ‘break link to symbol’.

      3) go to Object menu > Expand > check Object in Expand panel > Ok.

      Hopefully that is what you are looking for. All Adobe Symbols and all Symbols I’ve created are vector based objects at their core, and just need to be expanded to make them fully editable.

      I like to create Symbol libraries from graphics that I use frequently, such as icons for website graphics & iPhone apps, textures and logos, etc., so that I can keep them right at my fingertips for when I need them. It’s much faster and easier than hunting for an Illustrator file
      containing the graphic that I need somewhere on one of my hard drives.

      Please let me know if this does not answer your question.

  2. Hi,
    just wondering if you could help me on an issue i am having with saving a symbol.

    I have a cover of some packaging work i have done and want to present it on a AI 3D rendered box.

    There is a linked image in the artwork, that i have embedded, then i have made a clipping mask over the entire artwork so nothing overlaps.

    My problem is the symbol still picks up the box around my linked image which overlaps the mask giving me extra blank space which doesn’t allow me to apply it to fit to my 3D box.

    Any ideas?



    1. I know the issue but have several ways to resolve it depending on the image.

      The simplest solution is to crop the excess image for this one instance.

      Is there any way you can email the image to me? I can give you a better answer if I can see the problem in detail.
      If it’s a proprietary image that you cannot share, then maybe send something similar.

      I’ll help you if I can.
      – Jeff

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