Adobe Illustrator: Pathfinder Effects and Bad UX

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.