Use the New Dynamic Symbols Feature of Adobe Illustrator CC 210

The Dynamic Symbol is shown in the Symbols panel and the instances of the symbol have been modified on the artboard.

Tom Green 

Symbols are marvelous. The beauty of symbols is they are in the category of “create-once-use-many” meaning your work can use instances of a symbol without adding extra weight to the file. Symbols have been an Illustrator feature for quite a while but the main issue with them was if you change the symbol — such as a color change — that change ripples through every instance of that symbol on the artboard. This all changed in December 2015 when Adobe added Dynamic Symbols to Illustrator. Dynamic Symbols let you create and change multiple instances of a master symbol without breaking the link to that symbol in the Library.

What this means is you can change the shape, color stroke or any other attribute of an instance and even apply transformations to the individual instances without affecting the master symbol.

Let’s see how all of this works. 

How to Create a Dynamic Symbol in Illustrator CC 2015

The Dynamic Symbol type is higlighted in the Symbol Options dialog box.

Tom Green

The first step in the process is to select the object to be converted to a symbol. In this case, we will be using a football helmet. To start we opened the Symbols panel – Window > Symbols – and dragged the helmet into the panel. This opened the Symbol Options panel. We named the symbol “Helmet”, selected Dynamic Symbol as the Type and clicked OK. The “+” sign in the thumbnail is your visual indicator that the symbol is dynamic


Various instances of the helmet symbol have been rotated, scaled andf distorted on the artboard.

Tom Green

Adding a Dynamic Symbol to an artboard is no different from adding a regular symbol to an Illustrator artboard. You have three choices:

  1. Click and Drag the Symbol from the Symbols panel to where you want it.
  2. Select the symbol in the Symbols Panel and click the Place Symbol Instance button.
  3. Duplicate the symbol on the artboard.

From there you can, as shown above, scale, rotate and skew the instances without affecting the master symbol.

Direct Selection Tool

Textures, patterns, gradients and solid colors have been applied to the instances of the helmet on the artboard.

Tom Green

This is where the whole concept of Dynamic Symbols really shines. The word “Dynamic” is the key. What you can do is to modify the symbol on the artboard without breaking the link to the symbol in the Symbols panel.

To do this make sure you have first deselected all of the artwork on the artboard. Once that is done select the Direct Selection tool – the Hollow Arrow – and then select the parts of the symbol to be modified. In the above image, we have added solid colors, textures, effects, patterns, and gradients to the instances of the Master symbol. If you look at the helmet in the Symbols panel it has not changed.

What you can’t do is to is edit the live text inside of a Dynamic Symbol. As well, you also can’t scale, move or delete the elements of a dynamic symbol.

Master Symbol

The Symbols area of the Illustrator control panel is highlighted and the Edit Symbol alert is shown.

Tom Green 

There will be occasions where you notice the symbol needs a bit of editing and that edit needs to be applied to all instances of the symbol on the artboard.

To accomplish this, select an instance of the symbol and click Edit Symbol in the Control panel. This will result in an alert notifying you that any change made will be applied to all instances of the Master Symbol. If this is not what you want to do, click Cancel. Otherwise, click OK to enter Symbol Editing mode.

This will look like the selected instance has been replaced by the Master Symbol. Not quite. You are in Symbol Editing mode. If you look in the upper left corner of the artboard you will see the Symbol icon. Another clue you are in this mode is the content on the artboard is greyed out, except for the original symbol.

At this point, you can select the Direct Selection tool and make your changes to the symbol. In this case, a bump was added to the back of the original helmet symbol. To return to the artboard Click the arrow and all of the instances now sport the change.

As you may have noticed, all of the fills, colors, patterns, and gradients have disappeared. This is due to the instances being returned to the original state of the master. What you can gather from this is you need to make your edits to the Master Symbol prior to modifying the Instances.

The other two buttons in the Control panel are self-explanatory. If you select an instance and click the Break Link button, that instance changes to simple artwork. The Reset button will reset the modified instance back to that of the Master Symbol.

One final note regarding editing a Master Symbol.

You don’t have to select Edit Symbol in the Control panel to enter editing mode. You can also double-click the symbol in the Symbol panel. In this case, the symbol appears on its own artboard in the Edit Symbol mode. Clicking the Arrow returns you to the original artboard and the symbols reflect the change just made but, again, have lost any modifications made to the instances.