Using Adobe Illustrator for Wireframe Illustrations

Living on the Edge with Wireframes

Wireframe illustration is a hot technique for adding a technical style to your designs. It involves outlining the edges and details of an object to convey the actual 3D shape of that object. Because Illustrator excels at allowing us to not only draw those lines, but also to control them later on, it’s the perfect candidate for creating this type of illustration.

STEP 1 Choose an Image
Find an image or photo to work with. You can download the camera image we’re using here from Keep in mind that the more complex the object, the longer it will take you to trace. If you choose a building with 1,000 windows, then you’re going to have to trace all 1,000 of those windows. Objects can also be extremely complex so be careful. Try to visualize what areas you’d trace first and even try doing a quick pencil sketch to see if this technique will work for your chosen image.


STEP 2 Place the Image as a Template
Create a new file by choosing File>New and clicking OK. Now you’ll need to get your photo into the image. A good way to do this is by placing it as a template. That way, when Illustrator places the photo into the document, it will automatically reduce its opacity, making it easier to trace around. Just choose File>Place, navigate to your image in the Place dialog, check the Template option, and click Place. Double-click on the template layer and rename it “TEMPLATE” in the Layer Options dialog, then click on the Lock icon on the left to unlock the layer.

STEP 3 Trace the Outline of the Image
Double-click on Layer 1 above your TEMPLATE layer in the Layers palette and rename it “OUTLINES.” Choose the Pen tool (P) and trace the entire outline of the camera all in one fell swoop. When you’re done, name the sublayer containing your path “FULL OUTLINE” so you can find it easier. This will serve as your base outline for the entire illustration.

STEP 4 Use Shape Tools to Trace Detail
Within your outline, use the shape tools to trace large, simple shapes to get them out of the way. For example, why trace a circle with the Pen tool when you can just use the Ellipse tool (L) instead? Often, after tracing your simple shapes, you’ll realize that you’ve traced enough detail and you don’t need to go in and trace those extreme areas.

STEP 5 Add Open-Ended Detail
Next, trace any free-flowing, open-ended lines. Not every detail you trace needs to be a closed shape. Often, these lines that don’t actually form a closed shape provide some of the best details to work with and will really help make your wireframe object recognizable. When you’ve finished tracing an open-ended shape, press Command-Shift-A (PC: Control-Shift-A) to deselect and begin tracing your next shape.

STEP 6 Create Circles
Save yourself some time and let Illustrator do the work for you. For example, the area toward the bottom left contains a group of small circles. Instead of creating one circle and duplicating it 19 times, use the Blend command. First, create a circle using the Ellipse tool and place it at the top, where the circles begin. Set the Fill color to None and the Stroke to black. Now, press Command-C (PC: Control-C) then Command-V (PC: Control-V) to copy-and-paste the circle, then move the copied circle down where the small circles end.

STEP 7 Make a Blend to Add More Circles
Select both circles with the Selection tool (V) by clicking on one and Shift-clicking on the other. Go to the Object menu and choose Blend>Blend Options. Choose Specified Steps from the Spacing drop-down menu, enter 8, and click OK. To make the blend, just choose Object>Blend>Make or press Command-Option-B (PC: Control-Alt-B). Now, copy-and-paste this blend to make the second column of circles. See how Illustrator did the work for you? You can use techniques such as this to save a bunch of time when creating these types of illustrations.

STEP 8 Duplicate Sublayer; Add Gradient
The raw outlines are done—now what? One popular technique when working with wireframe illustrations is blending the wireframe into the original reference photo. Select the FULL OUTLINE sublayer and in the Layers palette, click on the flyout menu and choose Duplicate “FULL OUTLINE.” Target one of the FULL OUTLINE sublayers and fill it with the default White, Black gradient in the Swatches palette and set the Stroke to None. Note: To change the direction of the gradient, choose the Gradient tool (G) and click-and-drag from the front of the lens to the back of the lens.

STEP 9 Make Opacity Mask
Target the gradient layer then Shift-click to target the TEMPLATE as well. Open the Transparency palette (Window>Transparency), click the flyout menu, and choose Make Opacity Mask from the list. This will hide the photo where the gradient was black and show the photo wherever it was white. The photo will appear semi-transparent wherever there were shades of gray in the gradient. One more thing—go ahead and double-click on the TEMPLATE layer and uncheck the Template option in the Layer Options dialog so you see the layer at 100% opacity.

STEP 10 Add a Gradient to the Background
Next, let’s add a “blueprintish” background (yes, I know blueprintish really isn’t a word but it seemed to fit here). Create a new layer and move it below the TEMPLATE and OUTLINES layers in the Layers palette. Choose the Rectangle tool (M), drag out a rectangle, and fill it with a blue linear gradient going from R:42, G:154, and B:255 on the top left to R:20, G:27, and B:107 on the bottom right. That helps give some color to an otherwise flat illustration.

STEP 11 Change the Stroke Color
At this point, I’m not crazy about the black outline color, so let’s change it. If you’ve followed along then you should have all of your outline paths in one layer called OUTLINES. That means that you can target that layer and just change the Stroke color from black to white in the Control palette. Ah…much better!

STEP 12 Give the Object a Thicker Outline
Yet another popular illustration technique is to make the outer outline thicker than the rest. To do this, target the FULL OUTLINE sublayer and open the Stroke palette (Window>Stroke). Then change the stroke Weight setting to anywhere from 3–5 pt., depending on how thick you’d like the line.

STEP 13 Add an Outer Glow
Now we’ll add a subtle glow around the outline. Again, target the OUTLINES layer. Then choose Effect>Stylize>Outer Glow. In the dialog, enter a low Blur setting, change the color to white, and drop the Opacity down to about 75%. Click OK and you’ll have a nice little glow around the outline to help give it some life.

STEP 14 Add a Grid and Text
Finally, finish the illustration by adding any background and type elements. I’ve added a white grid in the background using the Rectangular Grid tool, reduced the Opacity to 30%, and rotated it with the Free Transform tool. Some text also helps.