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As the title say, is there any way in Illustrator to "link" an object to its copies? In other words, is it possible to change an object - for example some text inside it - and automatically change all copies of that object across artboards in Illustrator?

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Linked Files

I use Linked files for this. To do so, save the artwork you'd like to duplicate into a separate file, then use File > Place and make sure "Link" is checked in the Place dialog. The list of Linked files in any Illustrator document can be found in the "Links" pane.

AndrewH already pointed out you can use Symbols, but I try as much as possible to avoid using Symbols. Two main advantages to using Linked files are file size and file organization.

Advantage: File Size

Illustrator does a poor job of keeping files small when using Symbols. To show this, I duplicated a the same artwork 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16 times using both (static) Symbols and Links:

Illustrator file sizes: links vs. symbols

Links behave as you might expect: a few bytes increase in file size for each Linked file. Symbols on the other hand do not, they added almost 10MB per duplicated symbol despite it being "static".

Advantage: File Organization

Unfortunately, Illustrator does not allow you to create symbols if the artwork contains a linked image:

Adobe Illustrator: A symbol definition cannot contain a linked image.

I prefer to not embed linked files into the Master AI file as much as possible, particularly with raster PSD files. If a PSD file is embedded in a document and you need to edit it, you need to first un-embed it, then make your changes, then re-embed it. This gets messy very quickly.

Disadvantage: Updates/Refresh Time

Illustrator's detection for changes in Linked files can be sluggish. If I update a linked PSD, Illustrator might take some time to notice before it asks to update the Links. Sometimes it may not notice at all.

You can always manually do so by clicking the "Update Link" button on the Links panel, but ultimately Symbols have the advantage here. They should update right away since everything is contained within the same Illustrator document.

Precaution: Links should be well contained

As joojaa pointed out in the comments, you should be careful you're not linking to common resources. If two AI files both use the same external file as a Link, then making changes to the Linked file will affect the design of both AI files. Sometimes that is what you want, other times that it not what you want.

My personal workflow is to have a separate folder for each project and keep all Linked files within that folder. The File > Package... command can come in handy here to clean up your project folder if needed.

  • Are you on OSX? on windows its quite timely in my experience. But on OSX it is indeed slow in my experience. But it might alo be because PSD files can be big and on a rotating disk takes time to load. You can also make it just update links not ask and just update. – joojaa Jan 21 at 18:17
  • Also there is one more disadvantage changing one file may by mistake ruin many files. – joojaa Jan 21 at 18:19
  • @joojaa 1) No, my work machine is Windows, but admittedly not the most powerful machine. Sometimes it does not prompt me to update until I Alt+Tab out and back in to Illustrator a couple times which seems to trigger the check. 2) You're right, that could be another disadvantage, but I am pretty rigorous with my file organization for projects. I personally don't link files outside of the project folder, unless I need to do something very quickly. – JohnB Jan 21 at 18:38
  • wierd indeed probably a rotating disk thing then. 2) is not a clear disadvantage in the right hands ot can be marvellous. But it has big drawbacks for not so careful users as its really universal change. Even if files are closed. – joojaa Jan 21 at 19:30
  • @joojaa agreed, added a precaution – JohnB Jan 21 at 19:57
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You want to create whatever you want to be linked as a Symbol. Open the Symbols Panel, then select your object and drag it over to the Symbols Panel. Choose a "Graphic" unless you're doing this for Adobe Flash, either Dynamic or Static.

Static would make every instance of that symbol exactly the same

Dynamic would be like if you had a hat, but you have a blue hat, red hat, and a green hat. The hat shape is the same but you have something that changes.

You can read a lot more about this on the Adobe Illustrator Symbols help page: About symbols

  • Thank you for your answer! I decided to mark John's answer as correct as, although both do the job, John's answer is more complete and offers a solution closer to what I was looking for :) – Ricardo Couto Jan 22 at 13:18

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