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Is there a way to Convert an Illustrator CC file (.ai) to a layered PDF?

  • Are you asking this question because you don't have Illustrator? Try changing the file extension from .ai to .pdf. – Joonas Aug 17 '16 at 9:11
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Illustrator files actually already contain PDF data. If you rename an illustrator file from .ai to .pdf, it opens as a PDF in PDF viewers, and the top level of layers of an Illustrator file opened as a PDF will ordinarily be treated as PDF layers.

So actually, Illustrator files are already layered PDFs! You don't even need Illustrator to make a basic conversion.

Note that PDF viewers only understand top level layers, not sub-layers; see below for more info. Also be aware that non-Adobe PDF previewers like web browsers and Mac Preview love to ignore your preferences and show hidden layers... never send a client a PDF for review that contains a hidden layer!


You can also export as a layered PDF without the Illustrator-specific stuff.

When you File > Save As > PDF from Illustrator, any layers you've created will become PDF layers visibile and toggleable in PDF viewers, but only if the option Create Acrobat Layers From Top Level Layers is ticked and the compatibility is set to 6+.

More info from Adobe:

Create Acrobat Layers From Top-level Layers. Saves Illustrator’s top-level layers as Acrobat layers within the PDF file. This allows Adobe Acrobat 6, 7, and 8 users to generate multiple versions of the document from a single file.

note: This option is only available when Compatibility is set to Acrobat 6 (1.5), Acrobat 7 (1.6), and Acrobat 8 (1.7).

You don't need "Preserve Illustrator Editing Capabilities" ticked to do this.


Note that PDFs can only have one level of layers unless you do some hacky trickery. So if your Illustrator file's Layers window looks like this:

enter image description here

... Layer 4 will get merged into Layer 2 in the PDF. If you want it to be a seperate layer in the PDF, make it a regular layer not a sub-layer.

  • Do most PDF viewers actually respect those layers? I've always used Acrobat so I don't know, it's just that Adobe specifically calls them "Acrobat Layers". – Cai Aug 19 '16 at 9:54
  • Depends on whether they support layers! I believe in general, browsers don't, Preview type programs don't (and love to show hidden layers... grrr...) but sophisticated PDF readers and printers do; but there's heaps of annoying variation and that's more of a software support superuser.com thing... in general if someone needs a layered PDF, presumably they have a specific purpose in mind and know what PDF processing software they're targetting and will be doing their own testing anyway – user568458 Aug 19 '16 at 9:55
  • Makes sense. Just seems strange that Adobe would specifically call them "Acrobat Layers" and only mention Acrobat in the help docs, rather than a more generic "PDF Layers" – Cai Aug 19 '16 at 10:03

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