Using Illustrator to Easily Create Complex Designs

There is perhaps no other program where you get as much control over every aspect of your design as you get with Adobe Illustrator. This is best demonstrated in the piece here in which we’ll construct a seemingly complex dimensional design using some very basic shapes, some live effects, and even a little bit of masking. The beauty of all this is that you never really reach a point of no return. By utilizing live effects, you have the freedom to adjust the settings of your effects even after they’ve been applied.

[If you’d like to download the assets used in this tutorial to practice this technique, visit]

STEP 1 Start with a Basic Shape
We’ll begin by selecting the Rectangle tool (M) and drawing a horizontal rectangle in our work area. Here we’ve created a shape that’s 9″ wide by 5″ high. Tip: Click once with the Rectangle tool to open a dialog where you can enter your exact dimensions. Once the object is drawn, fill it with black by selecting the black swatch in the Swatches palette (Window>Swatches). This will create the base background shape of our graphic.

STEP 2 Warp the Basic Shape
With the shape selected, go under the Effect menu, under Warp, and select Arc Upper. In the Warp Options dialog, turn on the Preview checkbox. By default, the arc bends upward, but if we enter a negative number, the effect is reversed and it applies the arc inward. So in the Bend field, enter –20% and click OK. This is applied as a live effect as indicated in the Appearance palette (Window>Appearance) where you’ll see the name of the effect. Double-click the name and you can edit your current effect settings.

STEP 3 Create One of the Inner Shapes
Now we’ll create the inside rectangular shapes. Select the Rounded Rectangle tool in the Toolbox, and just click once in the work area. A dialog will open that allows you manually input the Width, Height, and Corner Radius. You can see the settings we’ve applied here work for this file; however, with larger dimensions, the corner radius would have to be increased accordingly. Once created, fill the shape with a teal swatch from the Swatches palette and set the Stroke to none.

STEP 4 Create Three Duplicates of Inner Shape
With the object still selected, go under the Effect menu, under Distort & Transform, and select Transform. Here we want to duplicate the object horizontally where the space between the objects is equal to the width of each object. Since the object is 1″ wide, enter 2″ in the Horizontal setting in the Move section, and then enter 3 for the number of copies. Click OK. If necessary, use the Selection tool (V) to move the shapes into place.

STEP 5 Duplicate the Group of Shapes
With your four objects created, select them and hold down Command-Option (PC: Ctrl-Alt), then click-and-drag the objects down until they’re positioned just beneath the original objects with just a little bit of space between them. This will be the reflection of the objects we’ll edit in the next step. Tip: After you start dragging the objects to copy them, press the Shift key to keep the duplicates aligned vertically with the original shapes.

STEP 6 Create Gradient for Opacity Mask
Now we’ll fade the bottom objects by creating an opacity mask. Begin by selecting the Rectangle tool and drawing a box over the objects on the bottom. Fill the box with the default White, Black gradient in the Swatches palette. Using the Gradient tool (G), change the direction of the gradient by clicking-and-dragging so that it fades from black at the bottom to gray at the top. Once adjusted, bring up the Gradient palette (Window>Gradient), and drag the black color stop under the right-hand side of the Gradient Slider in just a bit to add more black to the gradient.

STEP 7 Apply the Opacity Mask
Select just the gradient object and the bottom teal shapes by clicking-and-dragging the Selection tool over both objects. Bring up the Transparency palette (Window>Transparency), and from the palette’s flyout menu, select Make Opacity Mask. Drop the Opacity to 50%. Once the opacity mask is created, you can edit either the mask or the graphic object separately by clicking on one of the corresponding thumbnails in the Transparency palette (choose Show Thumbnails from the flyout menu). So if the reflection extends below the background shape, click the opacity mask thumbnail and drag the bottom of the box upward.

STEP 8 Add Bulge to the Teal Shapes
Next, we’ll warp the teal shapes and their reflections as a single object. With the Selection tool, hold the Shift key, click on both sets of rectangular shapes to select them, and then group them (Object>Group.) Then, go under the Effect menu, under Warp, and select Bulge. In the Warp Options dialog, enter –20% for the Bend and leave the other fields set to 0. Click OK.

STEP 9 Add Vector Shapes of Objects or People
Next, we’ll place vector shapes inside the teal shapes (you can download the image used here from the Layers website). To change their color, in the Gradient palette create a teal to light blue gradient using the same color teal as before. You can add colors to the gradient by dragging swatches from the Color or Swatches palette to the Gradient Slider’s color stops. To apply the gradient, select all the figures then click on the gradient swatch in the Gradient palette. Change the Angle to –90°, and drag the teal color stop toward the middle to add more teal.


STEP 10 Position Vector Shapes; Add Gradient to Background
Position each band member graphic over one of the rectangle shapes, and size each member so they extend over the tops of the rectangles. Also, to give the image more depth, apply a linear gradient to the black background shape going from the teal color at the bottom to black at the top. Note: Once you apply the gradient, drag the black color stop close to the teal color stop so that the majority of the gradient has black in it.

STEP 11 Place Foreground Image
Next, we’ll place a foreground graphic. Go to File>Place and then navigate to an image you’d like to use. Scale the object if necessary and position it in the center of the layout. The image doesn’t have to be a square image like the one we used here; it can be any size or dimension that fits well in the layout you create.


STEP 12 Create Reflection of Placed Image
Repeat Steps 5–7 to create a reflection for the image that you just placed, except after you drag a copy of the image beneath the original, flip the copy vertically. Do this by going under the Object menu, under Transform, and selecting Reflect. Check the Angle setting, enter –0˚, and click OK. Select both the original object and the reflection and reposition if necessary. Finally, add text with the Type tool (T). In the final image below, we chose the font Trajan Bold, set the fill color to yellow, increased the tracking, and added a drop shadow.