Using Illustrator’s New Dynamic Symbols

The latest release of Adobe Illustrator (2015.2) added a new feature called Dynamic Symbols. This new option lets you make changes to symbols and have all instances automatically update.

The original object which will become a symbol.

The original object which will become a symbol.

Create and select the object you want to make into a symbol, then drag the entire object into the Symbols panel. In addition to giving the symbol a name, a new option, “Symbol Type,” is available. Choose Dynamic, name the symbol, and click OK. The newly-created symbol has a plus-sign next to its icon in the panel to indicate that it is dynamic. You can now create additional instances of that symbol by simply dragging the symbol from the panel to the artboard or choosing “Place Symbol Instance” from the panel menu.

Choose "Dynamic Symbol" when creating a new symbol to have the ability to make universal changes.

Choose “Dynamic Symbol” when creating a new symbol to have the ability to make universal changes.

The new Dynamic Symbol, indicated by the plus sign.

The new Dynamic Symbol, indicated by the plus sign.

What sets these dynamic symbols apart from the static symbols we are used to, is that the object’s individual elements are selectable using the Direct Selection tool. Once you’ve selected an element, you can change the color of its stroke and fill, add a different fill—such as a pattern, and even add an effect. What you can’t do is move, delete, or even scale those individual elements. You can also rotate, skew, and re-size the object as a whole.

To make changes such as deleting and scaling individual elements, you’ll have to edit the symbol itself. The good news is that these new dynamic symbols force the change on all instances of the symbol, so long as that attribute hasn’t been overridden in that symbol’s instance. If you’re used to basing items on other items—such as masters or text styles in InDesign—you’ll know that only items that share attributes will be affected by edits to the parent item.

Selecting any individual instance of a symbol will bring up the symbol editing menu in the Control panel.

Selecting any individual instance of a symbol will bring up the symbol editing menu in the Control panel.

Select any instance of the symbol (I prefer to select the original since the preview will display that anyway) and choose “Edit Symbol” from the Control panel. With the symbol selected, you can also name each instance, break the link between the symbols, and reset the appearance to the original symbol. Make any edits, then hit the Back arrow from the editing mode menu in the Control panel. The individual instances of the symbol now has the new appearance.

In symbol editing mode, select and manipulate individual objects, such as removing the leaf's stem in this example.

In symbol editing mode, select and manipulate individual objects, such as removing the leaf’s stem in this example.

Whether you’ve added instances individually from the Symbol panel, or used the Symbol Sprayer toolset, making Dynamic Symbols is a quick way to update several instances of graphics in your Illustrator layouts.

After removing the stem, the update is reflected in all instances of the symbol.

After removing the stem, the update is reflected in all instances of the symbol.

In Summary:

  • Create an item to make into a symbol.
  • Drag the item into the Symbols panel, choosing the new Dynamic symbol type.
  • Create additional instances of the symbol by dragging from the panel or using the Symbol Sprayer tools.
  • Make changes to individual instances of the symbol (you can’t select the individual symbol if you’ve used the Symbol Sprayer).
  • Edit the original symbol to see changes reflected in all instances (except overridden attributes).
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Posted on: December 9, 2015

Erica Gamet

Erica Gamet has been involved in the graphics industry for over 25 years. She is a speaker, writer, and trainer, focusing on Adobe InDesign and Illustrator, Apple Keynote and iBooks Author, and other print- and production-related topics. She is a regular contributor to InDesign Magazine, tech edited How To Do Everything with Adobe InDesign CS4, and served as leader of the Denver InDesign User Group. After living as a nomad for almost a year, she recently put down roots in El Paso, Texas, where she hikes and bikes every chance she gets. Check out ericagamet.com to see all of Erica's upcoming events, tips and tricks, and workbooks.

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