Exporting from ArcGIS to Adobe Illustrator



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See also Adobe Illustrator for Cartography (Effects - SAL tutorial)

See also From GIS to Desktop (Adobe Illustrator tutorials for Cartography from Directions Magazine)

See also Tips for exporting to Adobe Illustrator format so CMYK colors are maintained (ESRI)

See also Exporting ArcGIS to Illustrator (Harvard School of Design)

See also Tips for Exporting into Adobe Illustrator (Columbia University)

See also Preparing an Exported .ai file from ArcMap for Work in Illustrator (YouTube)


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ArcMap has many cartographic tools and abilities. Still, a lot of professional cartography is done in a graphics package such as Adobe Illustrator (and/or an image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop). The main reason for using Adobe Illustrator is that Illustrator is a true graphics software package and provides tools and effects not available in ArcGIS. These allow you to access and manipulate each and every object on the page as a graphic object, even the individual vertices of the text letters. As we will see, many of these effects can be employed relatively simply to enhance your final map in ways that would be difficult (or impossible) in ArcMap.

There are two basic philosophies for combining ArcMap and Illustrator:

  • Some people attempt to do as much of the work as possible (up to 90%) in ArcMap, using Illustrator for only the final polishing of the map, or to get the map ready to be professionally printed
  • Others use ArcMap as little as possible (basically only to organize the data layers), doing as much as they can (up to 90%) in Illustrator

The decision on how much to use ArcMap vs. Illustrator (and/or Photoshop, etc.) depends both upon the map itself (what effects are desired) and the expertise of the cartographer. Keep in mind, however, that Adobe Illustrator is an extremely complex (and somewhat intimidating) piece of software (not unlike ArcGIS). And assuming Illustrator it is new to most of us, for this lab we will create a simple map (in ArcMap where we’re fairly comfortable) and then focus on the process of getting the map out of ArcMap and into Illustrator. Finally, we’ll look at a few simple ways to use Illustrator to enhance our maps.

Note: In Illustrator lines are called “Paths” and polygons are called “Closed Paths.”

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NOTE: The following instructions are were written for a specific lab in the Cartography class. They have been made somewhat more generic here. Adjust as necessary for your purposes, but the basic process should work.


Part I: Create a Basic Map using ArcMap (getting it ready for export)
Before doing any work in Adobe Illustrator we first need to assemble and prepare the map in ArcMap:

  • Recommended: start with a blank, new .mxd
  • Add data as desired
  • Arrange the layers in the Table of Contents as usual (polygons on the bottom, etc.)
  • If you have any Raster data move it to the very bottom of the Table of Contents
  • Choose the Projection for your data frame as desired
  • For starters, do not use rounded corners for your data frame – you could add these in Adobe Illustrator (but probably won’t)
    • You can use rounded corners on your page neatline, your legend, etc., just not for the main map frame
  • Symbolize your data:
    • Be sure that NONE of your data layers use ANY transparency at all (turn all transparency off)
    • You can use Adobe Illustrator for most of the custom annotation, but do what labeling you can in ArcMap and convert your labels to annotation (in the map)
  • Optional: Create a legend for the main map
  • Optional: Create a locator map:
  • Add the title, data credits, etc. as usual (again, you’ll be able to tweak these in Illustrator)


Part II: Export your .mxd as an .AI file to be Imported into Adobe Illustrator

  • Make sure all of the data layers are turned On (even if they aren't visible below other layers they have to be On in order to be exported)
  • With the map in Layout View choose Export Map from the File menu
    • For Save as Type choose AI (*.ai) - (as opposed to .pdf or .jpg as we have been doing)
    • For the Resolution choose 300 dpi
    • For the Output Image Quality choose Best
    • Click the Format tab
      • For the Destination choose CMYK. Note that the default Destination is RGB. As you may know, CMYK uses the subtractive color theory (subtract color pigment to make white), and is used for print. RGB uses the additive color theory (add color light to make white) and is better for screen and web products. If your final output will be a printed ap, choose CMYK. You will also have the option to change this in Illustrator, so you could ignore this option, but it is easier to do it now and good to know about this option in ArcMap, especially if you have chosen colors you would like to keep in your final product.
  • Save your .mxd file, and close ArcMap

Part III: Open with Adobe Illustrator
(See also Adobe Illustrator shortcuts on the below)

  • Open Adobe Illustrator by double clicking on your .ai file (alternatively you can open Illustrator from the Start menu and then use File / Open to browse to your file)
  • Before the file opens you will be prompted to update the text (ArcMap uses an older version of the text from the current Illustrator)
    • Choose Update

  • Once your file is updated and opens, save it using “Save As” – this will preserve your original exported file in case you should ever need it
    • Save your file (using File / Save As) with a “_01”
    • Illustrator will add extra text to your file name “[converted]” – you can delete this text, and give it the name you choose
    • You will get this following Options window. The default should already be set to the correct Illustrator version that you are working with. Keep the “Create PDF Compatible File” and “Use Compression” boxes checked, and click OK

    • Recommended: With every major change and/or at the end of each work session, save a new copy of your file with a new version number. This will ensure that if you make a major mistake, you can return to a previous version if necessary


Part IV: Prepare the AI file…
In the export process, ArcMap exports your .ai file as though it is ready for printing or web publication. Among other things, this means that any layers with transparency will be rasterized into an Image and the different features of each GIS layer (the individual polygons or lines of a file) will be Grouped into Illustrator Layers. In addition, the portion of the data beyond the data frame is masked out (not visible) via a Clipping Path layer that is created and included in each group.

  • If your Layers panel is not already visible, go to the Window menu and choose “Layers” (or F7)
    • The Layers panel should include all of your data as well as the annotation and the map elements (neatline, north arrow, scale bar) as multiple Layers
    • The Layers are named (for the most part) the same as the layers (and/or Annotation Groups) were named in your Table of Contents in ArcMap
    • You can turn layers On/Off (toggle the visibility) by clicking the eyeball icon to the left of a layer’s name
    • Beside the eyeball icon is a check box that toggles the ability to edit the layer – when checked a padlock icon appears and the layer cannot be edited (by default the layers are editable and the icon is blank)
    • The triangle just to the left of a layer name can be used to expand or contract the contents of the layer
      • Note that most of your layers, when expanded, will consist of a <Group> layer, which can also be expanded to show the contents of the layer
      • Some of the layers will have multiple sub-layers, each with additional sub-layers…
      • Each individual feature from the original GIS data is shown as an individual layer within a Group, which means there can be a lot of layers in some of the groups
    • Note that each Group layer includes a <Clipping Path> layer as the first layer in the group
    • Your map annotation should be stored in individual layer(s) (which also are made up of a Group layer which includes each individual text string as a separate layer)
    • Manually placed annotation will be in a separate <Default> layer
    • The neatline for the data frame will probably be in its own layer titled Other #
    • The map elements (page neatline, title, legend) will be stored in one or more Other # layers, typically at the very top and/or very bottom of the Layer list
    • Note: you can double click on any layer to open its Options and change the name as desired

All this clipping and grouping is fine, if we were ready to print…. In order to do any editing to the individual features we will need to first ungroup the layers. And in order to ungroup the layers we must first remove the Clipping Path layer. In the short run, this will mean we will lose the clipped aspect of the map (the data will bleed out to the edge of the page instead of being nicely contained in the data frame), but we’ll fix that later.

  • Select a Clipping Path (see graphic below):
    • In the Layers panel expand one of the main layers by clicking the triangle beside the layer name (make sure the layer is visible)
    • Likewise expand the <Group> layer within the main layer
    • Click on the <Clipping Path> layer within the Group layer (it should be highlighted in blue)
    • Next, click to the right of the circle beside <Clipping Path>: a small blue box should appear indicating that the Clipping Path is selected. There should also be a smaller blue box beside the name of the Group and main layers
    • Make sure you do NOT click the circle
    • To unselect a layer turn it off and then back on again
  • Delete the Clipping Path
    • With the <Clipping Path> layer highlighted and the blue box selected, delete the clipping path by pressing the Backspace button, the Delete button, or by clicking the Trash Can icon at the bottom of the Layers panel
  • Repeat this process of selecting and then deleting the <Clipping Path> for each of the layers except for the locator map
    • Leave the locator map layer(s) alone (with the Clipping Path still functioning)
    • Remove the Clipping Layer for all other layers in your project
  • SAVE your .ai file

NOTE: you can use Ctrl + Z (or Undo… from the Edit menu) to undo whatever step you have just done in Illustrator. You can also go back multiple steps. ‘Undo’ works far better in Illustrator than it does in ArcMap, allowing you to undo almost anything you have done)



The Layers panel, with a “Background” layer expanded to show the <Group> and <Clipping Path> sub-layers. The Clipping Path layer has been both highlighted and selected. Note that the Group and Background layers above the Clipping Path are also indicated by a smaller blue box, but the <Path> layer below the Clipping Path (the actual graphics of the layer) is not selected.


Next we want to Ungroup the layers so that we can edit individual features. Grouping is a way to package similar types of artwork. However, like the Clipping Path, it is unnecessary at this point. Also, Arc has exported your .mxd so that the layers are each in their own layer, which is a perfectly adequate organization. Having the features Grouped into a sub-layer is a redundant level of organization at this time. If you continue to work with Adobe Illustrator you will want to familiarize yourself with grouping, but at this point we want to simply ungroup each of the sub-layers so we can more easily work with them.

  • Ungroup all your layers:
    • As with the Clipping Path, expand one of your main layers in the layer panel
    • Highlight (click) the <Group> layer (it’s background should turn blue)
    • Click to the right of the <Group Layer> to Select it (blue boxes will display for all pieces of artwork in this group)
    • This time, however, instead of deleting this layer, you will need to ungroup this layer
      • To ungroup click Shift + Ctrl + G (or choose Ungroup from the Object menu)
      • You will see the grouping get released, and the <Group> layer disappear
  • Do this for all of your grouped layers except for the Locator Map layer(s): Remember do not Delete the Group, just ungroup it (the <Group> label will go away but the <Path> or text layers remain)
  • SAVE your .ai file

The Background layer before…                                  and after the <Group> layer is removed (ungrouped)

Now that we’ve removed the Clipping Layers some of the map data will show beyond what was the extent of your map frame. This will show up in your final printed product unless you remove or mask (cover) it. Rather than using a Clipping Layer (which we could recreate later if we wanted to) we will simply create a mask to hide the artwork that you do not want to show.

  • Create a new layer:
    • At the bottom of the Layers panel are 4 icons:
      • Make / Release Clipping Layer
      • Create new sub-layer
      • Create new layer
      • Delete selection
    • Click the Create new layer icon
    • Double-click on the newly created layer to open the Options and rename it Mask
    • Close the Options
    • Drag the Mask layer to the top of the Layer list (click, hold and drag it to the top)

 The newly created Mask layer (with other layers locked)

  • Before we begin editing the Mask layer, lock the other layers so that they can’t be selected, moved, changed or deleted inadvertently (see graphic above)
    •  Click on the grey box beside the eyeball icon to lock each layer (a padlock icon appears)


Part V: Adobe Illustrator Tools
On the left side of your screen is the Tools panel. The Tools panel contains tools for selecting items, adding text, erasing features, changing colors, etc. Hover over the different tools to see the tool tips for an idea of what the different tools do. Refer to the Help section if you want to try some of these out… The largest set of icons on the Tools panel is the Fill and Stroke tools. The “Fill” is the color of an object (like the fill of a polygon). The “Stroke” is the outline of the object. The Fill and Stroke tools are used to set the colors of the currently selected object’s fill and/or outline, or to specify the colors of new objects to be added. Note that clicking on either the Fill or Stroke icon will bring it to the foreground. Double-clicking either the Fill or Stroke icon will open the Color Picker. Using the Color Picker you can choose or specify a color by number.

  • Double-click the Fill icon (the upper left icon of the two)
    • In the Color Picker choose a color (preferably a light color, possibly white)
    • Click OK (the Fill icon should now be the chosen color)
  •  Single-click the Stroke icon (the lower right icon of the two) – do not open the Color Picker
    • With the Stroke icon selected, click the ‘None’ icon just below the Stroke icon in the Tools Panel (a small box with a red line through it)
    • The Stroke icon should now have a red line across it (and no color shown)
    • The lower section of the Tools panel, with the Fill & Stroke colors set (note the Stroke is set to None)
  • Now, with the colors set, choose the Rectangle Tool from the Tools panel (a rectangular icon)
  • Using the Rectangle Tool draw a box beside your data frame
    • Starting at the top left corner of the page, draw a box that goes from the top of the page to the bottom of the page and from the left edge of the page to the left edge of the data frame
    • If you need to adjust the size of your box use the Selection Tool (a black arrow) to click and drag the edges or corners of your box
    • Don’t worry (for the moment) about covering up things like the page neatline, title, scale bar, etc. – we’ll fix that in a moment
  • Repeat this process to create 3 more rectangular boxes: one each for the top, bottom and right side of the page, covering everything on the page except for the map frame itself
  • Now we need to move the map elements above the Mask layer (in the Layer list) so that they are visible again
    • Identify by turning layers (or sub-layers) On and Off which layer contains the Title (assuming the title is outside of the map frame and thus currently being covered by the mask)
    • Move (click and drag) this layer to the top of the Layer list (above Mask) so that the title is now visible even when the Mask layer is on
    • Repeat this process to identify whatever other layers (or sub-layers) contain elements that are outside of the map frame (page border, map credits, etc.) and likewise move these above the Mask layer
    • Be sure to also move the layer with the data frame border above the mask
    • Some elements may be combined with other layers that are part of the map
      • You can move just the map element sub-layers as needed
      • You’ll need to un-lock the layers before you can move a sub-layer

The newly created Mask layer (above)

 The same map with title and map elements moved above the Mask in the Layer list.

  • SAVE your .ai file using Save As (creating version …_02.ai)


Part VI: Editing Symbology and Text
Now, finally, we’re ready to start working on the map itself. You’ll need to do three things: adjust the symbology as needed, work on the text and choose one custom effect to enhance your map. These three tasks will probably be somewhat iterative – you’ll need to do the symbology and your chosen effect before you can finalize the text, but likewise the text itself may influence your symbology and the parameters of your effects… Go back and forth as needed to arrive at a final product to your liking.

You will most likely want to tweak the colors that were imported from ArcMap. For one thing, you will note that the colors probably appear different in Adobe Illustrator from the colors you chose in ArcMap. This is due to the change from ArcMap (which uses the RGB color model by default) to the AI file (which we specified as CMYK). We could have minimized this difference by specifying all of our colors in ArcMap using the CMYK color model (instead of RGB or HSV), but even so some color differences would probably exist. Likewise, if we had not switched to CMYK but had stayed in RGB when we exported our .ai file the colors would be closer, but still not a perfect match. Ultimately, CMYK is better for printing (RGB is better for web or screen graphics). Since we are most concerned with our final paper print our choice of CMYK was the right one, we just need to get the colors to look the way we want. Note that you will probably find that the match between the colors of the AI file and the printed page to be closer than the match would have been if you had simply printed the original map from ArcMap. This is one of the reasons many cartographers prefer to do more of their work in Illustrator…

  • Start by printing a color draft copy of your map (see printing notes below)
  • Compare the printed colors with the colors on the screen – for this lab the printed colors are more important, so you may need to adjust what you see on screen to get what you want on paper…
  • To adjust the colors of your map features you will need to first identify which layer contains the features you want to change (turn layers on/off to help figure this out as needed)
    • Remember that you can rename layers (or sub-layers) to make it clear what they are
  • Once you know which layer you want to edit, unlock that layer and lock the other layers

(see the Alt + lock shortcut below)

  • Use the Selection Tool to select a feature you wish to alter (for example you could select a particular country, such as Laos
    • The vertices of the selected feature will be highlighted
  • With a feature selected, double-click on the Fill icon (in the Tools panel) to open the Color Picker
  • Choose a different color as desired and click OK
  • Repeat for other countries, cities, etc…
  • For the ocean, create a new layer (as we did for the Mask Layer)
    • Name this layer Ocean
    • Arrange it at the bottom of your Layer list
    • Set your Ocean layer as Editable (and lock the others)
    • Specify your Fill color
    • Draw a rectangular box that fills the map frame (creating an ocean background fill)
  • Optional: If you want, you can experiment with Gradient fills, etc. – refer to the Help files, or better yet, Google, for advice and tips…

Line Features (“Paths”):
The colors of lines can be changed using the Stroke icon (from the Tools panel). You can also change the style of the lines using the Stroke panel.

These instructions detail how to change the linework using these stroke options to create a dashed line for the Equator and the Tropic of Cancer…

  • Unlock the Geogrid layer and lock all of the other layers (you might turn the other layers off too)
  • Expand the sub-layers of your Geogrid layer
    • The Geogrid layer should have only 2 Path layers: one for the Equator and one for the Tropic of Cancer (unless your map extent included the Tropic of Capricorn, in which case you would have 3 layers)
  • From the Windows menu, choose Stroke to open the Stroke panel
  • Using the Selection Tool select the Tropic of Cancer line
    • Double-click the Stroke icon (in the main Tools panel) to select an appropriate color for the line
    • In the Stroke panel click the Dashed Line check box
    • Enter/change the values of the Dash and Gap and Dash and Gap boxes (as many as you like) to create a dashed line to your liking
    • Repeat and adjust your dashes and gaps as needed…
  • Repeat this process to create a different dashed line for the Equator (it can be the same color if you like but should have a different dash pattern)
  • If your map includes the Tropic of Capricorn set it to a dashed line to match the Tropic of Cancer
  • Adjust the location of the Geogrid layer in the Layers panel so that the Equator and the Tropic of Cancer lines are above the land (you can have the lat-long lines below the land if you wish)
  • Print a draft of your map to see how the dashed lines look on the printed page
  • Adjust the colors, widths, etc. of your other lines as desired
  • SAVE your .ai file


Graphic Shapes (vertices):
Though you probably won’t care to, you can also edit the shapes of the graphics themselves...

  • Lock/unlock layers as needed
  • Zoom in as needed (see shortcuts below)
  • Use the Selection Tool to select a feature (the vertices will be highlighted)
  • Use the Direct Selection Tool (the white arrow next to the Selection Tool) to select an individual vertex (the chosen vertex will be blue, the other vertices will be white)
  • Adjust the selected vertex as desired by dragging it to alter the shape of the feature
  • Save your .ai file

The labels that were exported from ArcGIS may not be the final text that you will want to keep. Illustrator provides much greater control over your text and in some cases you may prefer to simply re-create your text rather than trying to modify the text that came from ArcMap. You will also need to create some new text for some of the Ocean features, etc. We’ll start by labeling the major Oceans, Seas, Straits and Bays.

  • Using the Create New Layer icon on the Layers panel, create a new Layer titled New Text (or something more appropriate)
    • Relocate the New Text layer in the Layer list as needed
    • Make sure the New Text layer is editable and the other layers are locked
  • Select the Type Tool from the Tools panel (the letter T icon)
    • Note that when you select the Type Tool the Control panel at the top of the screen changes
    • Click the Character option from the Control panel (or from the Window menu you can choose Type / Character)
    • Specify the font, style and size for your text
      • You can also specify the character spacing, height, rotation, etc…
    • You can choose a color for your text using the Fill tool or the color selector at the left side of the Control menu

  • Click on the map where you wish to add some text and type away…
  • As with graphic objects, you can use the Selection Tool to select, move, delete or alter text
  • Double-click a text string using the Selection Tool or the Type Tool to edit the text
  • You can also edit the existing text from ArcMap
  • Identify and make editable the appropriate layer(s)
  • Select text and modify as needed
  • To add splined text you will need to create a Path and then then add text to it:
  • Choose the Pencil Tool from the Tools panel
  • Freehand draw a line using the Pencil Tool
  • With the line still selected (from drawing it) choose the Text Tool
  • Click on the line you just drew and begin typing (the text should follow the line)
  • You can rotate text as desired, either by specifying a rotation angle in the Character panel or by using the Selection Tool (select the text then click just off one of the corners)
  • To add a Halo see Effects tutorial

There are many different 'effects' that can be added in Illustrator. A few of these have been detailed on the Adobe Illustrator for Cartography page

  • You can also peruse professional maps for cartographic effects that you find appealing and we’ll see if we can figure out how to recreate them…


Part VII: Exporting and Printing
When you are all done with your map (and/or along the way) you can print your maps directly from Illustrator as well as export them.

  • First Save your .ai file…
  • To print choose Print from the File menu
  • Specify the printer and set the Media Size to 11x17 (or whatever you need)
  • Optionally choose Fit to Page
  • Click Print
  • To export a .jpg file choose Export… from the File menu
  • For Save as Type choose .JPEG (*JPG)
  • Specify Maximum in the JPEG Options dialog box
  • Click OK
  • To export a .pdf file, choose Save As from the File menu
  •  For Save as Type choose Adobe PDF (*PDF)
  • Accept the default PDF settings and click Save PDF

Common Adobe Illustrator Shortcuts:

Ctrl + Z = Undo last task or tool                     
Shift + Ctrl + Z = Redo
Ctrl + 0 = Zoom to full extent of the page
Alt + Mouse Wheel scroll = Zoom in/ out
Ctrl + Mouse Wheel scroll = Pan left/right
Hold Spacebar = Pan tool
Ctrl + Spacebar = Zoom in tool (click once or drag a box)
Ctrl + Alt + spacebar = zoom out tool (click once or drag a box)
Alt + the eyeball icon in the Layer panel will toggle all other layers’ visibility on/off
Alt + the lock/unlock box in the layer panel will toggle all other layers editability on or off





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