Pathfinder Effects and Bad UX in Adobe Illustrator

I’ve just started creating the lineart figures for my next book. These need to be submitted to the publisher in print-quality EPS format, which means I’ve had to find and dust off my old copy of Adobe Illustrator and fire it up.

I don’t use Adobe Illustrator very often (clearly, from the accumulated dust and cobwebs on the box), and I’ve never had any formal training on it. However, I understand enough about vector graphics to think that I know the basic ways of working with shapes, and that it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out any well-designed user interface to let me achieve my simple drawing goals…

…I’ve just been wrestling for about an hour trying to figure out why a simple task, subtracting one vector shape from another, just kept on giving me the following warning “Pathfinder effects should usually be applied to groups, layers, or type objects”.


I’d Googled how to perform the task, and multiple sources all said the same thing.. “simply” select the two objects that you want to merge/trim/crop/union, and then click to select the appropriate Pathfinder action (“subtract”, in this case). No mention of anybody else experiencing this problem.

So, to cut a long story short I had to read the manual. And even though I’ve now found the answer, I’m disappointed… it seems that Adobe Illustrator contains two sets of similar, though effectively unrelated functions, both referred to as “Pathfinder”.

I had been selecting the Pathfinder option from the Effect menu. This gives you options for pathfinder effects such as “Add”, “Intersect”, “Exclude”, “Subtract”, etc. as follows:


However, the pathfinder menu options only work to add/subtract/intersect layers or groups of shapes. There is an additional pathfinder palette with icons that, when hovered over, show descriptions that sound very similar to the previous menu options: “Add to shape area”, “Intersect shape areas”, “Exclude overlapping shape areas”, “Subtract from shape area”, but these apply to individual shapes.


So, selecting two shapes and clicking “subtract” from the pathfinder menu = error. Clicking on “subtract” from the pathfinder palette = success. Sigh.

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2 Responses to Pathfinder Effects and Bad UX in Adobe Illustrator

  1. abc says:

    even though this post was from 6 years ago, just want to say thank you, extremely helpful! I had the same issue with pathfinder…

  2. sage says:

    This probably is a necropost, but still, the thing is that the difference between pathfinder effects and just pathfinder palette is there on purpose, because they actually perform different tasks. Pathfinder effects aren’t permanent and all shapes that participate in them remain intact no matter which effect you apply to them, whereas the palette version of pathfinder actually changes the shape as you need. If I remember correctly, in the older versions by default pathfinder palette created so called “compound shapes” which were still editable, unless you press “alt” when you click any of the options.
    Applying pathfinder effects to text fields is where this feature truly shines, because it always keeps the text editable, no matter what. So nope, it’s not bad UX, it’s just an option. What could be done better though is that they could actually pronounce the difference between those two things better.

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