How to Add Icons to Infographics with the Symbols Tool

By Justin Beegel, MBA, The Infographic World Team

Using the Illustrator Symbols tool for making infographics is pretty straightforward — an easy way to add icons, which are increasingly useful in the age of shareable graphics. To test-drive it, start by choosing Window→Symbols. The Symbols tab will open empty.

To make a symbol, simply select a vector object or a photo and drag it into the box. It’s that easy. Or go to the drop-down menu from the Symbols panel and choose Open Symbol Library. (Take a look around there first; there might be some fun stuff already made. Just click individual symbols to add them to your palette.)

How to make your own symbols

Here’s how to make a symbol from scratch. We’ll star — um, start — with stars.

  1. From the Tools palette, click and hold the Rectangle tool and then select the Star tool from the menu that opens.

  2. Make the star, select it, and drag it into your open Symbols palette.

    A dialog box opens where you can name the symbol.

    Give it an easy-to-remember name in case you end up with a lot of symbols.

  3. Choose what kind of symbol you want it to be, as shown in the figure:

    • Movie Clip: Movie Clip is important only if you plan to animate it later in Flash.

    • Graphic: This is what you want.

      You could also change the registration point of your object — the “center” that your object rotates around. You probably won’t need to change that very often.

  4. Click OK to finish creating the star symbol.

    Creating symbols of your own for your infographic.

    Creating symbols of your own for your infographic.

How to use your symbols

Activate the Symbol Sprayer tool, which is found in the Symbols panel and looks like a can of spray paint. If you click and hold it, a menu appears with all the tools in this set. Click the right edge of that window, and the tool will pop out into its own box. You can always just close it like any window in Illustrator.

With the star symbol selected, give the tools a test drive:

  • The Symbol Sprayer tool acts like a can of spray paint. Click and drag for a heavy effect, or just dab for individual instances of your star.

    Use the Symbol Sprayer to (in effect) create clones of the same “shape,” which makes using a symbol easier than a shape sometimes. (See the figure.)

  • Use the Shifter tool to move entire sets of symbols. You can move the symbols after they have landed, pull in stragglers, or move whole sections.

  • The Symbol Scruncher condenses areas, pulling the symbols more tightly together as you click and drag over key spots.

  • The Symbol Sizer has you click and drag to change the size of your symbol. This makes the collection of symbols less uniform.

  • The Symbol Spinner changes the direction of the symbols.

    Spraying a shape creates clones quickly.

    Spraying a shape creates clones quickly.
  • The Symbol Stainer tool changes the color of the symbols. Select a color, and then click and drag over the stars to see how the color is applied.

  • The Symbol Screener controls opacity levels. Like the Color Change tool, now your stars have varied levels of transparency.

  • The Symbol Styler tool allows you to apply specific styles to your symbols from the graphics style palette. Just click and drag over leaves to change to whatever style you chose from the palette.

    You can find the graphics style palette by choosing Window→Graphics. Look at the fly-out menu to find a library of styles that you can experiment with. Select a style and click the stars to see the results.

For more control, double-click any of these tools. The Options dialog box will open, giving you the ability to control the tools numerically.

Editing your symbols

The drop-down menu in the upper-right corner of the Symbols palette offers a full array of options for editing your symbols. Some of the functions are also available along the bottom of the symbols window. These are shortcuts to the most common actions.

Making the most of the Symbol tool

To swap a symbol with another, select a symbol on your pasteboard and then select the symbol icon in the panel that you want to use in its place. From the drop-down menu, choose Replace Symbol.

To change one instance of the symbol, select it. Then, from the drop-down menu, choose Break Links to Symbol. Now what you have are just regular graphics. When you make changes to those vector graphics, the symbol remains unchanged.

The Edit Symbol command opens the symbol itself. You can make changes to the vectors. You can add parts, change the shapes, whatever you like. Then when you go back to the main document (arrow at upper left of document), your changes will appear in that symbol. Those changes are not reflected in symbol libraries, though — just in the symbol within your document.

Saving your symbols

The Symbols panel shows what you’re working with at the time, within any given document.

To save a group of symbols — for example, to share with other designers, organize them into themes, or to keep a version untouched by edits — choose Save Symbol Library at the bottom of the drop-down menu.

Whatever you have in your palette will be saved as a new Illustrator document. The default will be to save your selection to the Symbols folder, but you can save it anywhere you like. For example, you could save it to your desktop and e-mail that document to other collaborators.