By Andrei Stefan

PNG SVG EPS files illustration

I have something special prepared for you. We are going to compare two
essential Illustrator tools, the Layers panel and the Artboards one, and talk
about the advantages of one over the other when
dealing with the export process of an icon pack.

So, if you’re into icon design, or you’re just
getting started, you might want to read this article since it might help you
work faster when it comes to the final step of individually
exporting your files.

Before we begin
our comparison, I want to take a couple of moments and talk about the two tools
from an “intended use” perspective. In other words, let’s see what the purpose
of each of them is, and let’s start doing that by first giving a short
definition that briefly characterizes their nature.

The Layers Panel

If you’ve worked with Illustrator before, and I
guess you have, you’ve surely tinkered around with the Layers panel. If you’re new
to the game, well, have no fear—I’m going to be as explicit as I

the layers panel

From a
structural / organizational perspective, this tool gives you the ability to
oversee the positioning of all the objects and groups of objects that are part of the
document you are currently working on, by isolating them on different Layers.

You can think of
Layers as being transparent sheets of paper that can contain different objects,
sheets which overlap so that you can create a hierarchical structure,
and thus a detailed piece of artwork.

In case you
didn’t understand much from that, let me put it this way: if you are working on
an elaborate illustration that has sections of objects going under and over
each other, you could easily separate
these sections onto different Layers, making it easier to access, edit and
rearrange them.

Hmm, but hold
one for a sec, can’t you achieve the same hierarchy by using just one layer,
and then creating the shapes one on top of the other, since the last shape is
always the one that sits in front of the rest?

Of course you
can, but why would you? I understand you can plan ahead and build using one
shape at a time, but what happens once you need to work on a specific section
of your design? Some of you might say that you could use the Isolation Tool.
That might work, but you have to make sure that you group objects as you
develop your composition, and sometimes you might find that you’ve created
groups within other groups, which means that you have to go into a deeper state
of Isolation, and that just complicates things.

If you choose to
work with layers, not only will you fool-proof your design, but you will make
it a lot easier to access and edit, thus giving you less hassle and allowing you to
focus more on the creative process.

Also since Illustrator allows you to create and
name as many layers as you want or need, you can go crazy and build some
pretty interesting stuff.

The Artboards

Whereas the Layers tool lets you organize your
artwork, the Artboard defines the working space onto which you design. You can
think of it as the painter’s canvas, a canvas that you can scale up or down
depending on the project’s needs.

the artboards panel

The cool thing is that it will only show
stuff that you have positioned on it, so anything outside its surface won’t end
up in the final preview / file.

Now, compared to
the Layers panel, which gives you the ability to structure one design, the
Artboards panel takes things to a whole new level by allowing you to
structure and display multiple artwork at the same time.

This is super
helpful if you’re a UI designer and you have to create website mockups or
interfaces, since you can create the different sections all in the same
document, giving you a sense of continuity, and making it easier to ship the
product to the client.

Even though it’s a great tool, it has a slight
downside since it only allows you to create a finite number of artboards,
around 100, and that’s when their size doesn’t exceed the working area that
Illustrator has assigned to it.

Using the Layers
and Artboards Panels as Methods for Individually Exporting Icons

At this point we have a basic idea of what the two tools were
initially intended for, but let’s see how we can benefit from them in one of
the most time-consuming and frustrating processes: that of individually exporting
the files of an icon pack.

If you’ve ever
worked on an icon pack, you definitely know how infuriating the final step of
the process can be, since Illustrator doesn’t have any magic button to export
them one by one.

Most of the
time people who are creating their first pack find themselves in a pickle,
since they don’t really know how to ship their product as PNG files and other
formats. I know I did, and it took me some time to play around and see what
worked best for me in terms of time and ease of use.

So I’m going to show you three scenarios
for exporting the icons from a pack (which contains
12 rows each with eight icons, so exactly 96 icons), during which I
will talk about both the benefits and limitations of each method.

icon pack used as an example

Exporting the
Icons Using the Layers Panel

OK, so first we
will use the Layers panel, and see how it performs in terms of

This method is a bit tricky since we will have to create a second document and set the width
and height of our Artboard to roughly the same size as our icon’s base grid.

The icons that I
am using as an example are built around a 128 x 128 px grid, to which I’ve
added an all-round padding of 8 px, so that’s 136 x 136 px (highlighted
with a light grey color underneath the icons themselves).

Since this
method assumes that each icon sits on its own Layer, you might now
understand why we need that second document, since we will copy the icons onto
it, and then separate them using 100 Layers.

I won’t actually
copy the entire set for this example, since a smaller number will make the
example as clear as a larger one.

So, first I’ve created my second 136 x 136 px
document, after which I started copying about ten icons over, putting each one
on its own Layer, labeling them from “document 1” to “document 10”.

layers panel icons added

Now, since each icon stands by its own, I can
easily hide all the ones that I don’t need, and make the one I currently want
to export visible, which for this example is “document 1”.

setting only the current icon visible

This is super
handy since I can gradually go through the pack, without losing track of the
last exported item.

OK, so I have the first icon visible, and I want
to save it as PNG, I can easily do that by going to File > Save for Web and then simply picking a location within my
folders and assigning a name to it.

exporting for the web using the layers method

Exporting using
the Layers method is a great option when you have the time required to actually
build up the second document. Yes, it might be more time-consuming, but I find
that out of all the methods it’s the most helpful when it comes to keeping
track of your export process.

benefit is that when it comes to exporting multiple formats, so not just PNG,
maybe SVG and even individual EPS, the process is a lot faster, since you just
select the layer and change the export settings—it’s as simple as that.

Its only downside might be the
initial process, where you have to copy the icons to the smaller document, which might take you some time if you have a large icon pack (300+).

We’ve seen how we can export our files using
the Layers method, so now let’s try the Artboard one.

Exporting the
Icons Using the Artboard Method

Well, the
Artboard method is a little bit different since it can be done in two ways.
Yup, you heard me right, we have options.

The first one
involves using just one Artboard, which we will resize using the base grids of
each icon, one at a time, while the second one is similar to the Layers
one, since we have to create a larger number of smaller sized artboards.

There are of course pros and cons, but we will
get to those in a second.

Exporting Using
Just One Artboard

Let’s start by talking about the single Artboard
method. It’s pretty simple, to be honest. First you make sure that you’ve set up
two Layers: one for the actual icons and one for the base grids.

exporting using the single artboard method

Once you’ve separated the two, you can start
exporting your icons by selecting one base grid at a time, and then going to Object > Artboards > Fit to Selected

using the fit to selected art to resize the artboard

This will resize your Artboard so that it will
fit the actual base grid of the icon that you want to save. Since you will
probably want to save it as a PNG (with transparency) or maybe an SVG, you should
remove the base grid before you export it.

artboard resized to icon base grid

So as you can
see, this is another relatively simple option for exporting your icons, but it
too has some downsides.

First, let’s
talk about its strong points. It’s fast—not as fast as the Layers method, but
it easily takes number two for speed. As with the previous method, you can keep
track of your last exported icon, since you will be deleting the base grids,
making it easy to pick up from where you left off.

Also, as with
the Layers method, it can handle larger icon packs, so no limitations in terms
of the number of elements that you can hold and export, which is pretty
important once you have a huge icon set.

Now let’s talk about the downsides. It gets boring
fast, really fast, since you have to click, select, and then go through the same fit
to shape option over and over again. So if your pack is larger than 100 icons, put on those headphones and grab a cup of coffee, since you will be
needing them.

Exporting Using
Multiple Artboards

And we are down
to method number three, the Multiple Artboards one. As I’ve said before, this
one is pretty similar to the Layers one, but unfortunately it’s limited to that
maximum of just 100 artboards. So, if your icon pack goes over the 100 barrier, you will have to use one of the other methods, but if it’s
within the limit, then boy will you like this method.

Compared to the previous
two, the Multiple Artboards one can and should be implemented from the beginning.
If you’re wondering why, well let’s just say it would be much easier to create
a couple of Artboards and build your icons one at a time, instead of creating
using one Artboard and then moving them over to a second multi-artboard document.

So if we use this method, we would simply
create a New Document (Control-N) that has the same size as our icon’s base
grid (136 x 136 px), but instead of
leaving the Number of Artboards setting
at 1, we would go with something
higher, like 96. Then we could play
around with the Spacing and Columns options in order to get the
right setup, depending on how we like things to be arranged.

setting up a multiple artboard document

Once our document is good to go, we can start working
on the design of our icons, positioning each one on its own Artboard.

icons positioned on multiple artboards

Now comes the sweet
part. When you start the exporting process, you simply click on the icon’s Artboard
and then go to Save for Web or whatever export method you prefer, and that’s it.

OK, OK, so maybe
I lied when I said that the Layers method is the fastest, when clearly the
Multiple Artboard one is the winner here. But, let’s be honest, today when somebody
creates an icon pack, that person usually adds more than 100 pieces to
it, and so the third method would not even be an option.

Hmm, wait a second,
is that really true? I mean you could create two, four documents each with 100 artboards, and group the icons by categories. This way when you go
through the exporting process, things would go pretty darn fast. The only time
you slow down would be when you need to change the document, which really isn’t that time-consuming.

So, the third method is looking pretty good in
comparison to its competition, but what about its cons?

Well if you’re working
on a small icon pack, I could really say it has none. If you’re working on a
bigger one, well the only bad thing I can think of is that at some point you
might lose track of the last exported icon, but if you use a
good naming system, that won’t happen.


There you have
it: a quick and thorough comparison of three capable exporting methods
that can really help you decide what is the best option for you when it comes
to delivering your precious icons as individual assets.

As always I hope you enjoyed the tutorial, and
most importantly learned something new and interesting along the way.

Read more here:: Layers vs. Artboards: Comparing the Methods for Exporting Icon Packs