In Adobe Illustrator (2020) one can organize elements in the layer panel in 2 ways (AFAIK) : layers or groups.

The behaviour is slightly different for both.

  • To select elements : when arranged in layers, a single click is enough to select an element, when an element is inside a group, a double-click is needed and you can then select the element in Isolation mode.
  • To move elements : grouped elements move altogether whereas elements in same layer can move independently (this is logical).

My question is : how to distinguish in the Layers Panel if a container is a group or a layer ? Indeed, when elements are grouped a container is created with brackets in its name, however once renamed there is no way to my knowledge to distinguish it from a layer.

  • In the gui not really. You can double click the item and the options will clear that quickly. You can identify them easily in code though. To be honest there is no reason for one to model layers and groups separately except for legacy reasons (there is a better way but does not work well with concentions of human language)
    – joojaa
    Feb 20, 2020 at 18:27
  • Indeed in the Properties Panel the "container" type is indicated on top, plus the actions below are different for Layer and Group. I missed that this is really helpful.
    – cap10
    Feb 21, 2020 at 9:21
  • Same applies to effects panel.
    – joojaa
    Feb 21, 2020 at 9:22

4 Answers 4


If you look at the buttons on the bottom of the Layer panel, if you have a Layer highlighted in the panel you will have the button to add a sub-layer. If you have a group highlighted, that button will be grayed out. Best way I've found so far...


When a Layer is Selected

You will see the option to add a sublayer when you have a Layer highlighted in the Layer panel.


When a Group is Selected

This button will NOT be clickable (nor will the Clipping Mask button to its left) if you have a group highlighted in the Layer panel.


Technically 4 ways to organize....

  • layers,
  • sublayers (which are really just nested layers)
  • Groups (including clipping groups).
  • Symbols

If you rename <Group> removing the brackets, there is no default discernible way to visually identify any of these other than their hierarchy in the panel itself. If you wish to visually identify these in the panel, then you need to manually make that possible via naming, or layer highlight color assignments.

  • Layers will be the only top level items. Nothing can be placed above or in a greater hierarchy than a Layer. But layers can contain any of the 3 - additional layers, sublayers, or groups.

  • A Group will be the only bottom level nested item. Groups can not contain Layers or Sublayers.

  • Symbols are a special animal.. capable of containing layers, sublayers and groups.. but you can't see any of this by merely looking at the layers panel. You would need to enter symbol editing mode to see its internal hierarchy. In the Layers Panel, symbols merely look the same as any other object, layer, or sublayer only without an "expand" triangle.


I found that deleting the name of the layer and hitting return or enter will cause the layer name to default to what type of layer it is.

Side Note: (I think this is relevant) I can't get the layer to say Symbol so I am guessing there are a couple generic names like Layer and Group but perhaps it's possible it can still be something else like SubLayer or Symbol. I could be wrong.


Groups have the same color of the top layer, sublayers have different color

  • They can have a different color they don't need to. If you double click on the item layer has more options like the one to change color.
    – joojaa
    Feb 17 at 7:05

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