Illustrator offers us great tools to create simple shapes, but how can we merge two shapes into one? Relax, that is why the Pathfinder palette exists. The Pathfinder palette offers us options to create a complex shape from several single shapes. Also, it offers many other shape-manipulation options.

PATHFINDER PALETTE:

This is the Pathfinder palette:
Pathfinder Palette
Open it by going to Window > Pathfinder, or press (Mac: Shift + Command + F9 / PC: Shift + Control + F9).
The Pathfinder palette is divided into two sections:

  • Shape Modes:
    Shape Modes
    Basic shape-interaction options: Unite, Minus Front, Intersect, and Exclude.
  • Pathfinders:
    Pathfinders
    Advanced shape-interaction options: Divide, Trim, Merge, Crop, Outline, and Minus Back.
    These options execute several combinations from the Shape Modes options.

Note: In order to utilize the Pathfinder options you need to select or group two or more shapes.

SHAPE MODES:

  • UNITE:
    This option will merge two shapes together.
    First, let’s create two shapes and overlap them. (Add a different color to each shape; it will help us to visualize the changes).
    Unite 1
    Select both shapes and click the “Unite” button in the Pathfinder palette:
    Unite 2
    Result:
    Unite 3
    Note: The shape will acquire the color of the top shape, in this case the orange circle.
  • MINUS FRONT:
    This option takes away the front shape leaving the bottom shape cropped with the shape of the front shape.
    Create two new shapes, overlap them, and click the “Minus Front” button in the Pathfinder palette:
    Minus Front 1
    Result:
    Minus Front 2
  • INTERSECT:
    This option leaves a shared area that was common to both shapes.
    Create two new shapes, overlap them, and click “Intersect” button in the Pathfinder palette:
    Intersect 1
    Result:
    Intersect 2
  • EXCLUDE:
    This option eliminates the area that was common to both shapes leaving the areas that weren’t shared.
    Create two overlapping shapes, select both shapes, and click the “Exclude” button in the Pathfinder palette:
    Exclude 1
    Result:
    Exclude 2

PATHFINDERS:

  • DIVIDE:
    This option separates our overlapping shapes into pieces.
    First, let’s create two shapes and overlap them. (Add a different color to each shape; it will help us to visualize the changes):
    Divide 1
    Select both shapes and click the “Divide” button in the Pathfinder palette:
    Divide 2
    Result:
    Divide 3
    Now, to perceive how the “Divide” option broke down our shapes we need to ungroup them. Go to Object > Ungroup, deselect the shapes, and move them apart:
    Divide 4
    Nice, easy, and fun, huh?
  • TRIM:
    This option separates the shapes leaving the top shape unbroken and trimming the overlapping shape.
    Create two new overlapping shapes, select them, and click the “Trim” button in the Pathfinder palette:
    Trim 1
    Result:
    Trim 2
    Now, to perceive how the “Trim” option divided our shapes we need to ungroup them. Go to Object > Ungroup, deselect the shapes, and move them apart.
    (Notice that the black stroke was removed):
    Trim 3
  • MERGE:
    This option separates the shapes, but it merges similar overlapping shapes together.
    For this option I am going to use the same blue square and orange circle shapes, and I am going to add two more shapes. One behind the square and one on top of the square. These new shapes will help you to visualize how this option works:
    Merge 1
    Now, select all the shapes and click the “Merge” button in the Pathfinder palette:
    Merge 2
    Result:
    Merge 3
    Now, to perceive how the “Merge” option separated our shapes we need to ungroup them. Go to Object > Ungroup, deselect the shapes, and move them apart:
    (Notice that the black stroke was removed and the blue shapes merged together).
    Merge 4
  • CROP:
    This option intersect the shapes and leaves a shared area that was common to both shapes.
    Create two new overlapping shapes, select them, and click the “Crop” button in the Pathfinder palette:
    Crop 1
    Result:
    Crop 2
    Now, to perceive how the “Crop” option detached our shapes we need to ungroup them. Go to Object > Ungroup, deselect the shapes, and move them apart:
    (Notice that the black stroke was removed, and part of the orange circle acquired the color blue of the square).
    Crop 3
  • OUTLINE:
    This option takes out the color of the shape, creates outlines, and cuts each overlapping line.
    Create two new overlapping shapes, select them, and click the “Outline” button in the Pathfinder palette:
    Outline 1
    Result:
    Outline 2
    Now, to perceive how the “Outline” option delineated our shapes we need to ungroup them. Go to Object > Ungroup, deselect the shapes, and move them apart:
    (Notice that the lines were separated at the overlapping areas).
    Outline 3
    Outline 4
  • MINUS BACK:
    This option deletes the back shape in combination with the part of the top shape that was overlapping with it.
    Note: This option only works with two shapes.
    Create two new overlapping shapes, select them, and click the “Minus Back” button in the Pathfinder palette:
    Minus Back 1
    Result:
    Minus Back 2

Cheers! Now you know how to create complex shapes without having to draw them from scratch.
I encourage you to continue practicing with the Pathfinder palette with different shapes and colors. This palette will make your design process easier.

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