Pathfinder Shape Modes Adobe Illustrator tutorial: 4 simple steps

Pathfinder Shape Modes

How to use Pathfinder Shape Modes

The Pathfinder tool is classic Adobe Illustrator. Timeless, like Back to the Future, Tetris or, dare I admit, Comic Sans. In this tutorial, we’ll learn about the four Pathfinder Shape Modes. That’s Unite, Minus Front, Intersect and Exclude. Believe me, it couldn’t be easier. In our next article, we’ll take a deeper dive into Pathfinders and the Shape Builder Tool.

Unite Pathfinder Shape Mode

This is Pathfinder basics 101. Graphic design and icon design for beginners. The front shape is combined with the back shape. Colour is adopted from the font shape.

To open the Pathfinder panel select Window, then Pathfinder.

To move a shape forward, click Object > Arrange > Bring Forward (⌘]). To move a shape backward, click Object > Arrange > Send Backward (⌘[).

Unite Shape Mode

Minus Front Pathfinder Shape Mode

Minus Front is the next Pathfinder in our list. The front shape is subtracted from the back shape. In this example, the back shape splits into two shapes. This action doesn’t affect the shape’s colour whatsoever.

Minus Front Shape Mode

Intersect Pathfinder Shape Mode

Where the two shapes intersect, the shape material is left intact. The excess front and back shape is deleted. The remaining shape colour is inherited from the front shape.

Intersect Shape Mode

Exclude Pathfinder Shape Mode

Remember Intersect? Exclude is the opposite of Intersect. Exclude will produce a new combined shape—but delete the section where the two original shapes intersected. Much like the first three modes in this tutorial, the new shape is rendered blue—a colour inherited from the front shape.

Exclude Shape Mode

Pathfinder with several shapes

Now, what happens when we manipulate several shapes simultaneously? Two shapes seems straightforward—what about three? Let’s take a look at each Pathfinder Shape Mode again, this time with three shapes selected.

Pathfinder Shape Modes with three shapes

Unite three shapes

The Unite Shape Mode doesn’t depend on any number of shapes. This indestructible tool combines each selected shape. Much like before, the combined shape inherits the front shape’s colour.

Unite Shape Mode with three shapes

Minus Front three shapes

Minus Front could be interpreted in two different ways. The first interpretation—the tool will subtract only the front shape from the selected shapes. Alternatively, the Minus Front Shape Mode could subtract the front shape, middle shape, but not the back shape. The latter is the correct interpretation. The example shape was formed by deleting the front and middle shapes from the back shape.

Minus Front Shape Mode with three shapes

Intersect three shapes

With three shapes selected, the Intersect Shape Mode will remove all shape material except—as the name suggests—the material where all three shapes intersect. In this tutorial, this leaves only a small intersection present on the artboard.

Intersect Shape Mode with three shapes

Exclude three shapes

The Exclude tool—with three shapes selected—is the hardest Shape Mode to predict without prior knowledge of its behaviour. Before I explain, see the example below. Where two shapes intersect, the shape material is deleted. Where three shapes intersect, the shape material is not deleted. Where the shape material doesn’t intersect whatsoever, the shape material is not deleted. In this tutorial, we’re left with a pleasing chequerboard pattern. How delightful.

Exclude Shape Mode with three shapes

Exclude… four shapes

Now we understand Exclude with three shapes, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see how Shape Modes work with four shapes or more. See below—discover how the Exclude Shape Mode creates a spherical pattern with four shapes. Spend some time experimenting with Pathfinder Shape Modes. Predict what pattern the Pathfinder Shape Modes will generate before clicking that Exclude button.

Exclude Shape Mode with three shapes

What’s next?

That’s all for now. See, that wasn’t so difficult, was it? Can’t wait to read more? Learn How to design a colour wheel in Adobe Illustrator. Don’t have Adobe Illustrator? Click here to make an account.

Pathfinder Shape Modes