You're an illustrator. You're creative. You can't be bothered with tasks that are tedious and mundane. Unfortunately, a good bit of the illustration process is just that. You probably do hundreds of repetitive things every day, and they can really get in the way of your creativity. With Illustrator's Actions, you can automate some of these tasks, leaving more room in your head to contemplate your next vector masterpiece.
An action is a like a little recording, and when you play it, Illustrator performs the recorded tasks for you. And it does it in a fraction of the time that it would take you to do it manually. Think about all the things you do repeatedly — placing a source image on your artboard, reflecting an object, saving for the Web — all of these can be done with one click of the mouse, rather than several steps. Better yet, you can assign a hotkey to the action and never have to touch the mouse. Too much mousing, as we know, can actually cause pain or damage to the wrist.
When you open the Actions panel (under the Window menu), you’ll see the default set included with Illustrator. If you click the flippy triangle next to the action’s name, you can see the individual steps involved. In this example, all of the save options are pre-recorded, and the action is named accordingly. That’s a lot of clicks — why not let the computer do them for you?
Let's start with something simple. Let's say you like to hide the artboard when you're working. This command already has a keyboard shortcut, but you want to use a different shortcut and add it to your own set. First, choose New Set from the actions panel flyout menu, or click the little folder icon at the bottom.
Now choose New Action, or click the new icon on the panel. Give the action a name and assign it an F-key, then press Record. Since "Hide Artboards" is performed via the View menu, choose Insert Menu Item from the flyout. You'll be presented with a dialog box, telling you to either select the menu item with the mouse, or start typing its name in the field. I usually prefer to select the item manually, to make sure I have the right one. This step can be confusing, though, because usually when you have a dialog box open, you can't access the top menu. Not in this case, however — go ahead and choose "Hide Artboards." (Note that Hide or Show is the same command, and will toggle depending on the current view status.)
Now click the stop icon on the panel, and you're done. If you look in the Actions panel, you'll see the step is now visible under the name. If you don't see this, choose Record Again from the flyout and try again. Now that the Action is created, you can just hit your function key and watch the artboard edges disappear.
Say you're creating a symmetrical pattern, and find yourself using the Reflect tool a lot. This transformation can be recorded as an Action. First you'll need and object to transform, so just draw anything. Now select it and record a new action. For this example, I double-clicked the Reflect tool and entered a Horizontal reflection of 90°, and I also clicked Copy. All of that was recorded, and now when I press the hotkey, the reflection and copy are performed in the blink of an eye.
This particular action is performed exactly as I recorded it, but you can also have it open the dialog box so you can enter different settings. There's a little icon to the left of the action's name, called a Modal Control. If the icon is visible, the action will display any dialog boxes associated with its steps. Turn of the Modal Control, and the action with play using the settings you recorded.
This is a nifty little feature to use if you have to pause in the middle of an action to do something that's not recordable, like using one of the painting tools. You can also have Illustrator display a message when it stops. To insert a stop, either select an action's name or a command within the action where you want it to stop. Choose Insert Stop from the Actions flyout menu. Then type the message. Select Allow Continue if you want the action to keep playing after the stop.
There's a lot more you can do with Actions, including running the same action on an entire folder full of files. If you're in a production environment, there's nothing more satisfying than batch-processing a load of files while you go to lunch.
But even the simplest tasks can be streamline with actions. Observe your workflow. If you find yourself reaching for the same menu item over and over, or performing the same transformation, or even just showing and hiding a particular panel — all of these things can be done with actions. Take some time to record actions and organize them logically. For example, if you always start a drawing by placing a source image, then hiding the artboard, then creating a new layer, you can set up the F1, F2, and F3 keys to do each of those things. Use the rest of the F-keys for successive steps, ending with one that saves the file as a version 8 EPS. If you prefer, you can show the Actions panel in Button mode (choose Button Mode from the flyout menu), and always have them visible, just a click away.
We often keep doing things the old, tedious way, just because we think we don't have time to stop and set up an action. And we vow to become more efficient next time. In the meantime, all that extra pointing, clicking and dragging add up. So remember, actions speak louder than words!