Vector editors, like Adobe Illustrator, can be handy tools for designers to make communication documents – overhead maps, diagrams, etc. If you’re a designer like me, though, you may not exactly be an expert in Illustrator, and maybe you only use it just often enough to forget all the tricks you learned last time.  Or perhaps you are a student or fledgling designer who doesn’t have access to Illustrator, how do you do Illustrator tricks in free vector programs?

My department head at Insomniac, Mike Ellis, taught me these Illustrator tips which I find extremely helpful when making 2D maps.  In turn, I dug around to see if the same things could be done in a free vector editing program.  I looked at Aviary Raven, a browser-based vector editor.  Most of these beginner-tricks have some comparable versions in Inkscape, but Raven is still a bit simple (although supposedly Booleans are planned for the future, so hopefully it’ll get there too).  For now I’ll stick to Illustrator and Inkscape.

Now, onto the tips!  Note, that I am using Adobe Illustrator CS4 and Inkscape 0.48 for these examples.  They may or may not apply in older versions of the programs.

Booleans and You…leans

Let’s say you want to do a quick 2D overhead map, and just want to lay out some quick-and-dirty floor plans. You can use the boolean features in Illustrator to quickly make a single irregular shape out of a bunch of rectangles. Try this…


  1. Lay out a big gray rectangle as the basis for your floorplan. (M for rectangle tool)
  2. Lay down several white rectangles to represent different rooms.
  3. Draw rectangles overlapping rooms where you want the doors to go.
  4. Select all the shapes. (V will put you in Select mode)
  5. To get to the boolean operations, go to Window -> Pathfinder (or Shift CTRL F9)
  6. Click the second option under Shape Modes, “Minus Front.”  This will subtract all the white boxes from the big gray box, leaving you with an irregular shape for your room.  You can adjust this new shape by messing around with all the new anchor points.


You can also do the same thing in Inkscape, it just takes two different boolean steps instead of one.
  1. In Inkscape, follow steps 1-3 above (F4 for rectangle tool)
  2. First select all of the white boxes (F1 for Select mode)
  3. Go to Path -> Union (or CTRL +) to combine all of these top level shapes into one big shape
  4. Now select all the shapes
  5. Path -> Difference (or CTRL -) will subtract the white shape from the gray shape, leaving your new irregular room shape.

Duplicating Stuff at a Radial Offset

Sometimes  you want to make a layout of something with even spacing, and want to do so without having to think too hard.  This tip lets you easily create shapes (or groups of shapes) at a radial offset.  Let’s say we want to make a little yard surrounded by evenly-spaced columns.


  1. Make your shape, or group of shapes, and select them
  2. Press “R” to go into rotate mode, now wherever you click will place the pivot point for the rotation.  You’ll want to place it directly below your shape, where you’d want the center of the yard to be.
  3. Hold ALT as you click to bring up the dialog box, which will let you enter the degree offset you want.  You can play around with the preview checkbox to see what the spacing will look like.
  4. Click Copy, which will create a copy of the object at the given offset
  5. Now press CTRL + D over and over again, to make duplicates of the object using the last rotation offset setting.  Instant evenly-spaced objects!


  1. You can do this in inkscape in a similar way, but as you’ll see, there isn’t the luxury of super-time-saving shortcuts that illustrator has.
  2. Make your shape and select it
  3. Drag the center cross down to where you want the rotation pivot to be
  4. Open the transform dialog (Shift Ctrl M, or Object -> Transform) to get to the rotate tab and choose what angle you want the offset to be
  5. Here’s where it gets tedious.  There’s no “make a copy with these settings” button, nor is there a “duplicate using the last settings” option, so to get the effect, you’ll have to copy and paste in place the object before applying the rotation offset. EDIT: As per the second example below, duplicate in Inkscape *will* preserve the new center.  See the second video for a better example.
  6. There’s bound to be an easier way to do this in Inkscape, but if so, I do not know what it is.  Maybe YOU know.  If so, leave a comment.


Edit: I knew the comments wouldn’t let me down.  It turns out that Ctrl + D (Duplicate) in Inkscape does preserve the center of the rotation, so you can get the offset by just rotating the duplicate, which is way easier than applying the rotation every time.  See this much better video..


Messing with Organic Shapes

Building floorplans and even offsets are all fine and well, but sometimes you just need a squiggly organic blob to represent an island or a treetop or landmass.  Both Illustrator and Inkscape have pretty good pencil tools for making quick-and-dirty organic shapes.  Here’s a couple of tips about manipulating them.

Redrawing a Shape

This is the “1/2″ tip I mentioned in the title, because it only applies to Illustrator.  When you draw a shape in Illustrator with the pencil tool (N for pencil mode),  it creates anchor points all along the shape, which does some handy things.
  1. Remember, if you draw a circle with the pencil tool, the shape will not be closed by default.  Hold ALT when you finish drawing to make a closed shape.
  2. If you want to redo part of the blob, just draw from one anchor point to another and it will adjust the entire shape to match.

Warping and Tweaking


If you just want to push around parts of an organic shape without redrawing the whole thing, the Warp tool (Shift R) can come in handy.  Double click on the warp tool icon to adjust its settings, and play around with how it pushes the line of the shape you’ve drawn.


You can do the same thing in Inkscape, using the tweak tool.  Draw a shape with the pencil tool (F6) then use the tweak tool (Shift F2) to sculpt the shape.

There are no doubt countless more powerful ways to use vector editing programs, but if you don’t have a deep handling on vector editing but still want to use it to whip together a map, I hope these tips will be useful to you.  Now, go make some maps!