How to create icons with the Pathfinder Palette

Rebecca Creger

The Pathfinder Palette is one of the most useful tools in Adobe Illustrator. It makes it easier to combine paths, divide objects and subtract shapes. It’s really handy to master because it helps you make neater-looking vector images and speeds up your overall workflow. In this tutorial, we’re going to do a quick run-through of its basic functions.

The video is broke up into 4 parts, and the step-by-step transcript can be found below:

1. Shape modes

2. The expand button

3. Pathfinder buttons

4. Making icons with the Pathfinder tool

Step-by-step guide on the Pathfinder Palette

Here’s the Pathfinder Palette in Illustrator (Window > Pathfinder), along with the names of all the buttons.

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1. Shape modes

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Unite: Unite combines the selected shapes into 1 shape. The color converts to whatever the top shape color is.

Minus Front: Minus Front cuts out the bottom shape where the front shape overlaps it.

Intersect: Intersect creates a new shape where the other 2 shapes overlap.

Exclude: Exclude cuts the space where the selected 2 shapes overlap.

2. The expand button

The Expand button can only be used for Shape Modes. In the newer versions of Illustrator, when you use a Shape Mode, Illustrator automatically “expands” (combines) your selected shapes — this is why the Expand button is not clickable.

However, there may be times you want to GROUP 2 shapes together (as if they are 1 shape), but not actually combine them into 1 shape. You can do this by holding down the option/alt key, while clicking on 1 of the Shape Modes. Then, when you’re ready to combine them, click “Expand.”

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For example, I’ve selected the 2 shapes above, and while holding down the option/alt key, clicked the Unite button.

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You’ll notice your 2 shapes are now grouped together (not combined into 1). You can still double click them, and edit them how you’d like. Once you’re happy with where they’re positioned, you can combine them into 1 shape by simply clicking, “Expand.”

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3. Pathfinder buttons

These buttons are pretty much different combinations of what the the Shape Modes do. Except these are good for when you’d like to work with more than 2 shapes at a time.

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Divide: Divid separates the selected shapes into parts where they are overlapping. The overlapping shapes will take on whichever color was on top.

Trim: Trim separates the selected shapes into parts (just like Divide), but it doesn’t cut the top shape. See how everything is trimmed except the star on top?

Merge: Merge is exactly like Trim in that it separates the selected shapes into parts while preserving the shape on top, except it also unites shapes that are the same color.

Crop: Crop uses the top shape like a cookie-cutter to crop away everything outside of it, so that only whatever was inside it remains (kind of like a clipping mask). The top shape will disappear (in color), but show any of the other shapes that overlapped it.

Outline: Outline turns the edges of the shapes into individual segment of lines with a stroke of 0 points.

Minus Back: Minus Back is the opposite of Minus Front. It cuts out the top (not bottom) shape, and only leaves the path where the top shape overlapped the back.

4. Making icons with the Pathfinder tool

In this example, I’ve made icons of foods we should consume in moderation. 😉 The Pathfinder was extremely useful in making these uniform and symmetrical.

I’ve selected them to show how each graphic isn’t a series of strokes and fills, but instead is 1 entire fill. Not having different strokes is better for icons because they can be re-sized (big or small) without their proportions changing.

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Here’s a diagram showing the making of a lollipop just from using the Pathfinder Palette.

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Play around with the Pathfinder Palette so you can find unique ways of tailoring them to specific projects. The Pathfinder Palette is a HUGE timesaver in Illustrator, and hopefully this tutorial will help speed up your overall workflow!

When do you use the Pathfinder tool in your design work?

The author

Rebecca Creger
Rebecca Creger

Rebecca was born and raised in the Bay Area, where she currently lives. She has a BFA in Design with a Visual Communications emphasis from UC Davis. Her passions include travel, design, pasta, and hanging out with her Beagle, Spud.

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