How to Use Variable Data in Adobe Illustrator: A Step-by-Step Tutorial

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How to Use Variable Data in Adobe Illustrator: A Step-by-Step Tutorial


Are you tired of manually updating text and images on your Adobe Illustrator designs? Well, guess what? I've got the solution for you! I personally love using variable data to automate the process of updating text and images on my designs. I use this technique to create all sorts of things like Etsy listing images, Pinterest pins, custom personalized name wall art, and YouTube thumbnails. It's perfect for anything you're creating with a template!

And the best part is, if you want to automate repetitive design tasks like creating personalized invitations or customized printables, variable data merge in Adobe Illustrator is a powerful tool that can help you accomplish this with ease. In my personal experience, using variable data merge has been a game-changer and has saved me so much time. In this tutorial, I'll be showing you how to use variable data merge in Illustrator step-by-step. Let's get started!

What is Variable Data Merge?

Variable data merge allows you to create multiple versions of a design using a single template, with data from a spreadsheet or CSV file. Basically, variable data merge lets you take information or images from a spreadsheet or CSV file and use them to create personalized designs. This means you can quickly and easily create custom designs for your content creator or digital product business

Step 1: Setting up the Document

The first step is to set up your document. Create a new document by going to File > New > and set the dimensions. Then, add a placeholder background image by going to File > Place.

Step 2: Adding Single Point Variable Text

To add variable text, select the Type tool (T), click once on the artboard, and type in your variable text. Use the Selection tool to adjust the size, change the color and select a font. 

Step 3: Adding Area Text

For a longer text amount, use the Area Type tool. Choose a font and paste or type in the placeholder text in. Adjust size, color and alignment to suit your needs.

The biggest tip I can give you is to make sure that when you use area text is to deselect the hyphenate check box. This was one of my biggest pain points when I first started using area text variables. I was finding that I had to manually adjust a number of designs which defeats the batch actions export. So to fix this go to Paragraph and de-hyphenate, so you don't have hyphenations in the text.

Step 4: Adding Other Images

To add another image, go to File > Place and choose the image you want to add. Put it where you want it to be on the artboard. Adjust the size and cropping as needed.

Step 5: Preparing a Data Source CSV File

Let’s set up your Google spreadsheet using the variable data information and create the variable identifiers. This spreadsheet will be a template for any future uses with the same illustrator template you create in the future.

Add variable identifiers across the top row of columns. For images, add the @ symbol in front of the ones that are images. Variable identifiers should not contain spaces so make sure that you eliminate them. Below this first row is where you will add the variable data see my example below.

Preparing a Data Source CSV File for Variable Data Merge in Adobe Illustrator

Step 6: Adding Image Variables

To add image variables, go to your folder and copy the path file for the image and paste it below the image variable identifier column.

Step 7: Download Data File as CSV File

When you have filled out your data sheet with everything you need for this batch of designs you will need to save or download as a Comma Separated Values file or CSV.

Download Data File as CSV File For Variable Data Merge in Adobe illustrator

Step 8: Setting up in Illustrator

Locating the Variable Data Merge Window

  1. Open Adobe Illustrator - create a new document or open your premade template.
  2. Go to the "Window" menu and select "Variables" to access the Variables panel.

Import CSV file to Illustrator Variables Panel

Next you will want to import your csv file from your google sheets (Or Excel or Numbers) data set. Select the import button on the variables panel and locate your csv file from your folder system.

Binding Variables to Objects

Now we need to bind the variable elements with the data sets, click on the placeholder text box, click on the variable identifier that correlates with this variable and click the 'make text dynamic' button. Do the same for all other pieces you want to bind with the spreadsheet data. Then, click on the image and repeat the same steps.

Previewing the Document with Each Data Set

In the Variables Panel use the drop down menu for Data Set: Select the first data set (dataset 1) and then use the left and right arrows to cycle through the variable data sets to check that everything looks good to go.

Binding Placeholders to Variable Data in Adobe Illustrator

Step 9: Use Actions to Batch Export

The Variables window in combination with the actions window are absolute productivity powerhouses that you need to get familiar with to increase your output and results.

Create an Export Action for the file type that you need (png,pdf etc). Using the Actions window/ panel and select the drop down menu in the top right corner, select batch and use the export action.

Creating an Action in Adobe Illustrator for Batch Export

  1. Once you've created your merged document, go to the "Window" menu and select "Actions" to open the Actions panel.
  2. Click the "Create New Action" button and name your action for this example I would go with Save as PDF.
  3. Next click the record button, and go through the actions to Save As your document as a  PDF when finished saving the first one click stop recording. This has now created an action for “Save As PDF” that you can use in any new or existing Adobe Illustrator file you want to use it with.
  4. To Batch save all your data sets, select the hamburger menu icon in the top right corner, Select Batch, choose your saved action “Save As PDF” from the drop down menus, the “Source” is Data Sets, Choose your destination to save your new files to and choose an option for the data file name of the exported files. Select okay and wait for your files to be exported into your folder.

Ready to take your Variable Data Merge skills to the next level? Check out our article on The Top 7 Ways to Use Data Merge in Adobe Illustrator for 2023, complete with tips and tricks for maximizing this powerful tool. Click here to learn more and up your design game today!