Distributing / Aligning Objects in Illustrator (Mordy’s Real World Illustrator)

Republished from Real World Illustrator, Mordy Golding’s blog from January 2008. 

Today’s question [to Mordy] comes from Greg Walker:

Hey Mordy. Maybe you can shed some light onto one of my biggest Illustrator pet peeves.

Let’s say I have five boxes, and I want to distribute these boxes evenly. Seems easy enough, right? Select all the boxes and hit the “Horizontal Distribute Center” button. Often times this will work without a hitch and I can keep right on Rockin’ and Rollin’ right along. Other times, however, I’ll get the dreaded “Please choose a key object by clicking on one of the selected object(s) with the selection tool, or set the spacing value to Auto.” This drives me nuts. At the least I have to click okay and go over to the Align palette and change the spacing value to Auto and at worst I have to actually go to the trouble of opening the Align palette, which introduces even more clicks. What really gets under my skin is the apparent randomness with which Illustrator decides to change the distribution spacing from “0 in” to “Auto.” I would be quite happy for it to just stay at Auto until such time as I manually change it to some other number which will likely never ever be zero. Rarely do I draw five objects only to stack them all on top of one another.

Also, if you have the time and knowhow, is there a way to quickly center two (or more) objects both vertically and horizontally. The repeated “Horizontal Align Center” and “Vertical Align Center” click combo is a mine field of accidental clicks and subsequent undos.

Alas, the Align panel that appears in Illustrator also appears in InDesign. It is often that I lament about how difficult it is for one to decipher all the little “chicklet” icons on the panel. What makes it all the more difficult is that Adobe has combined alignment functions, object distribution functions, and spacing distribution functions all in one panel. So in addition to all of the icons, there are just so many combinations or choices at hand. As if that weren’t enough, Illustrator “hides” the spacing distribution functions in the “Show Options” part of the panel, meaning that many people aren’t aware that it even exists.

Hopefully my post here will relieve some of Greg’s frustrations, and maybe the frustrations of others as well.

To start, I’ll answer Greg’s second questions first. It would be nice if Illustrator had a “Center Objects Horizontally AND Vertically” option (but that would add yet ANOTHER chicklet icon), as it’s very often that designers need to center objects to each other in this way (or to the artboard if that option is chosen). Rather than click up a storm, this can easily be accomplished by recording a simple Action and assigning a keyboard shortcut to it.

  1. Draw two objects on your page and select them.
  2. Open the Actions panel by choosing Window > Actions.
  3. Click the Create New Action button at the bottom of the Actions panel. Give the Action a name and assign a keyboard shortcut of your choice. Click Record.
  4. Open the Align panel by choosing Window > Align.
  5. Click the Horizontal Align Center button. Then Click the Vertical Align Center button.
  6. Click the Stop Recording button at the bottom of the Actions panel.

Now you can select any objects in your document and press the keyboard shortcut you specified to instantly align the objects to each other both horizontally and vertically.

OK, so now on to the first question, which deals with the concepts of key objects and distribute spacing values and what we all affectionately refer to as “annoying dialog boxes”

The first thing one must understand about the Align panel is that it brings together three VERY different functions, yet that may not be readily apparent to the casual user. To fully grasp this, you need to make sure that the entire Align panel is expanded and visible. If it doesn’t look like what you’re seeing below, choose Show Options from the panel’s flyout menu. 

Continue reading at Real World Illustrator.com . . .

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4 Responses to “Distributing / Aligning Objects in Illustrator (Mordy’s Real World Illustrator)”

  1. Joiler says:

    Thanks A bunch for sharing
    god bless you 🙂

  2. Craig Bond says:

    I came here with a different problem, but thanks for the useful article!

    My problem is with Illustrator’s tendency to try to auto-align everything when I’m moving it around with the mouse or resizing it. I only want to move my object a fraction of a hair over with my mouse (the arrow keys make it jump too far) but when I try to move it, it tries to auto-align itself with some other object on my canvas so instead of getting that nice alignment I want, it jumps out of my control. I’ve tried moving it with all the different buttons held down (Shift, Option, Command, etc, but nothing seems to work)…

  3. Craig Bond says:


  4. Nathaniel says:

    Turn off snapping and guides. In preferences smake the mouse key units smaller (like 0.1 pt) and then use shift mouse keys to jump fast as needed.