Layers vs. Artboards: Comparing the Methods for Exporting Icon Packs (2023)

Layers vs. Artboards: Comparing the Methods for Exporting Icon Packs (1) Andrei Stefan

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Adobe IllustratorVector

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TodayI have something special prepared for you. We are going to compare twoessential Illustrator tools, the Layers panel and the Artboards one, and talkabout the advantages of one over the other whendealing with the export process of an icon pack.

So, if you’re into icon design, or you’re justgetting started, you might want to read this article since it might help youwork faster when it comes to the final step of individuallyexporting your files.

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

The Layers Panel

If you’ve worked with Illustrator before, and Iguess you have, you've surely tinkered around with the Layerspanel. If you’re newto the game, well, have no fear—I’m going to be as explicit as Ican.

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From astructural / organizational perspective, this tool gives you the ability tooversee the positioning of all the objects and groups of objects that are part of thedocument you are currently working on, by isolating them on different Layers.

You can think ofLayers 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 youdidn’t understand much from that, let me put it this way: if you are working onan elaborate illustration that has sections of objects going under and overeach other, you could easily separatethese sections onto different Layers, making it easier to access, edit andrearrange them.

Hmm, but holdone 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 isalways the one that sits in front of the rest?

Of course youcan, but why would you? I understand you can plan ahead and build using oneshape at a time, but what happens once you need to work on a specific sectionof 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 youdevelop your composition, and sometimes you might find that you’ve createdgroups within other groups, which means that you have to go into a deeper stateof Isolation, and that just complicates things.

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

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

The ArtboardsPanel

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

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

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

This is superhelpful if you’re a UI designer and you have to create website mockups orinterfaces, since you can create the different sections all in the samedocument, giving you a sense of continuity, and making it easier to ship theproduct to the client.

Even though it’s a great tool, it has a slightdownside 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 thatIllustrator has assigned to it.

Using the Layersand Artboards Panels as Methods for Individually Exporting Icons

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

If you've everworked on an icon pack, you definitely know how infuriating the final step ofthe process can be, since Illustrator doesn’t have any magic button to exportthem one by one.

Most of thetime 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 otherformats. I know I did, and it took me some time to play around and see whatworked best for me in terms of time and ease of use.

So I’m going to show you three scenariosfor exporting the icons from a pack (which contains12 rows each with eight icons, so exactly 96 icons), during which Iwill talk about both the benefits and limitations of each method.

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Exporting theIcons Using the Layers Panel

OK, so first wewill use the Layers panel, and see how it performs in terms ofworkflow.

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

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

Since thismethod assumes that each icon sits on its own Layer, you might nowunderstand why we need that second document, since we will copy the icons ontoit, and then separate them using 100Layers.

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

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

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

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This is superhandy since I can gradually go through the pack, without losing track of thelast exported item.

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

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Exporting usingthe Layers method is a great option when you have the time required to actuallybuild up the second document. Yes, it might be more time-consuming, but I findthat out of all the methods it’s the most helpful when it comes to keepingtrack of your export process.

Anotherbenefit 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 justselect the layer and change the export settings—it’s as simple as that.

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

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

Exporting theIcons Using the Artboard Method

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

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

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

Exporting UsingJust One Artboard

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

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

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This will resize your Artboard so that it willfit the actual base grid of the icon that you want to save. Since you willprobably want to save it as a PNG (with transparency) or maybe an SVG, you shouldremove the base grid before you exportit.

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So as you cansee, this is another relatively simple option for exporting your icons, but ittoo has some downsides.

First, let’stalk about its strong points. It’s fast—not as fast as the Layers method, butit easily takes number two for speed. As with the previous method, you can keeptrack 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 withthe Layers method, it can handle larger icon packs, so no limitations in termsof the number of elements that you can hold and export, which is prettyimportant once you have a huge icon set.

Now let’s talk about the downsides. It gets boringfast, really fast, since you have to click, select, and then go through the same fitto 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 beneeding them.

Exporting UsingMultiple Artboards

And we are downto method number three, the Multiple Artboards one. As I’ve said before, thisone is pretty similar to the Layers one, but unfortunately it’s limited to thatmaximum 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’swithin the limit, then boy will you like this method.

Compared to the previoustwo, 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 createa couple of Artboards and build your icons one at a time, instead of creatingusing one Artboard and then moving them over to a second multi-artboard document.

So if we use this method, we would simplycreate a New Document (Control-N) that has the same size as our icon’s basegrid (136 x 136 px), but instead ofleaving the Number of Artboards settingat1, we would go with somethinghigher, like 96. Then we could playaround with the Spacing and Columns options in order to get theright setup, depending on how we like things to be arranged.

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

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

OK, OK, so maybeI lied when I said that the Layers method is the fastest, when clearly theMultiple Artboard one is the winner here. But, let’s be honest, today when somebodycreates an icon pack, that person usually adds more than 100 pieces toit, 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 gothrough the exporting process, things would go pretty darn fast. The only timeyou 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 incomparison to its competition, but what about its cons?

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

Conclusion

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

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

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Andrei Stefan

coffee addict / pixel grinder

Just another young gun coffee fanatic from Europe, designing colorful worlds one pixel at a time. When I'm not "making stuff" you can usually find me at my place, flipping news and catching up on all the crazy things happening in both the tech and design realms.

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