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Pixels To Print: Pathfinder

If you asked any designer what their favorite tool in Illustrator is, you may more often than not get ‘pathfinder’ as their answer.  As one of the biggest time savers and easiest ways to create unique shapes, the Pathfinder panel is widely popular amongst the design community.  With the tools in this panel, you can quickly and efficiently manipulate shapes and paths to create complex shapes instantly.

Adobe Illustrator’s Pathfinder panel consists of ‘Shape Mode’ tools and ‘Pathfinder’ tools, both which ultimately create new shapes from layering and manipulating multiple other shapes, but in different ways.  The shape modes alter the final shape of the objects by uniting, excluding, intersecting, or eliminating separate layers, which results in one new shape, while the Pathfinder tools break existing compound shapes into distinct paths rather than forming a new shape.

Shape Modes

Let’s start from the beginning…to open the Pathfinder window, go to Window > Pathfinder, or click Shift+Control+F9.  In the top section of the panel, you will see the shape modes that we just talked about.  To apply a shape mode command, chose two or more overlapping objects and then click on the mode that you want to apply. 

Tip: The great thing about Pathfinder shape modes is that they have alt-modes as well, which allow you to combine two or more shapes without destroying their original paths so that you can go in and use the direct selection tool to edit the original path further! Just hold down ‘alt’ when you are applying a shape mode and you’ll see that the original paths will still be accessible even though the shape appears to be one combined shape!

As we said before, the Shape Modes are used to create a new shape from previously layered shapes.  The four shape modes include Unite, Minus Front, Intersect, and Exclude.  Now let’s take a look at this cheat sheet below to better understand what each of these means.

1) Unite: The unite action combines two or more shapes into one single shape

2) Minus Front: Just as it sounds, this action eliminates any overlapping top shape layer and leaves the remaining cut out bottom layer. 3) Intersect: Intersecting two or more shapes creates a new shape by leaving behind only the overlapping shape that is created by the overlapping layers.

4) Exclude: Opposite of intersecting, the exclude mode eliminates the overlapping area and leaves behind the rest of the remaining shapes combined together.


The Pathfinder commands allow you to essentially break apart overlapping shapes into distinct paths by creating a group of non-overlapping closed paths or lines.  (Unlike the Shape Modes, however, pathfinder actions can not be undone or manipulated once applied.)

The six pathfinder modes include Divide, Trim, Merge, Crop, Outline, and Minus Back. Check out the cheat sheet for these to get a better visual of what each means! 

1) Divide: The divide action breaks the original two or more overlapping shapes into 3 (or more) distinct paths: the top shape, the overlap shape, and the bottom shape.
2) Trim: Trimming overlapping shapes cuts away the top layer from the pieces of the bottom layers that are revealing.  Think of it like you are breaking apart the top shape from the bottom shapes and only leaving that top shape with the broken pieces of the bottom shapes!
3) Merge: In a group of many overlapping shapes, this pathfinder is used to merge overlapping shapes with the same fill color while trimming the outlines of the other exposed shapes.
4) Crop: Use this command to crop background shapes to the frontmost shape (like a clipping mask!)
5) Outline: Just as it sounds, the outline pathfinder creates outlines of the shapes that can be individually selected.

6) Minus Back: Opposite of “Minus front” command in Shape Modes, this action removes the bottom shape layer and its overlap, leaving you with only the remaining portion of the top layer.

Now that you have a more knowledgeable understanding of Pathfinder, try testing out these different tools the next time that you’re in Illustrator, and see how much of a time saver it really can be! No more shying away from projects with intricate and complex shape building – this is your solution. Not to mention that they leave your illustrations and shapes looking so much cleaner and sharper than trying to create the desired outcome by hand! 

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