Why do people use masks in Illustrator?

Hello. I am aware of clipping masks as an Illustrator tool for hiding part of a shape or image to choose what you want to reveal, but I don’t use them that often personally in Illustrator. I use them if I want to use an image, texture, or gradient as a ‘fill’ I suppose. But I find that when I am working with a graphic made by someone else, often there seem to be lots of masks, which I find annoying and I usually delete them all so I can work with the shapes easier.

Sometimes the masks I find don’t even seem to be doing anything - it’s just for example a square mask over the whole graphic. Maybe this has to do with the file being a pdf and it wasn’t something a person did deliberately?

Sometimes it looks like people use masks as an alternate to the pathfinder tool for creating shapes. I also find that annoying personally because usually in this situation I am trying to do something like recolor a logo.

Maybe I am just uneducated about the benefits of using masks? What is your relationship with masks?

I feel the same way you do, and I’ve used Illustrator since the '80s. Masks have their place, and I use them when they’re the most efficient way to do things. However, I try to avoid them since, for me anyway, I don’t like the clutter the create.

I’m sort of a neat freak when using Illustrator, so if I don’t want something to print, I remove it instead of masking it out. I HATE to work on other peoples files when they’re full of masks.

As for opening PDFs, in Illustrator file to PDF, if the save with Illustrator options preserved wasn’t checked when saved to PDF, the PDF will contain all kinds of seeming senseless masks and invisible boxes.


I agree with you. Masking in Illustrator makes sense in specific cases, but it is much easier to use pathfinder. I think most people are creatures of habit, so if they’re using masks in parts of their work, they may use that method for all their work.

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I don’t care how many masks you use, as long as it prints.

The only place I draw the line is Logos. There should be absolutely NO MASKS IN LOGOS (or any other art submitted for dimensional work, for that matter.) I shouldn’t even have to mention “white boxes” to cover crap in logos, but that’s a bad idea too. Both are why we have a “set up fee” in our quotes for dimensional signage or even cut vinyl signage. Print doesn’t matter, but once I have to separate a logo into elements, any masking makes me smile with gritted teeth. Even better is when I have to remove flattened drop shadows and effects used to make the “mock-up” to show the client what the art will look like. Then you see the fangs in that smile.

As for masks in PDFs, that’s a thing you just deal with if you are taking apart a PDF for a good reason. Depending on how the file was created and how the PDF was created, there can be many dozens of masks. The trick is to stop releasing them before you start releasing object masks. There may be a number of nested masks having to do with layers before you get to the object masks.

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I have a client that gets PDFs from their clients that I have to prepare for printing. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent rebuilding PDFs as AI files in order to add bleed, adjust margins, etc. so the files can be printed.


I hope it’s all billable.


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Generating an Illustrator file from a client provided pdf often leaves thing riddled with empty clipping masks inside other masks all inception style. My guess is that it is how acrobat deals with layered artwork, kinda like divs in html.

I use masks to keep artwork editable early on, but my production files were produced in a way to prevent things being changed. I’m also fond of the transparency masks in illustrator for softer edges.


I do communications at a University, and there are a lot of amateur-made logos, flyers, etc. I’m no logo designer myself, but I have taken a handful of basic design classes and know enough to be frustrated a lot of the time haha. This question spawned from a university logo that I was recoloring from a pdf file that seemed to have been made using masks to create the shape of the bear mascot in addition to the nonsense pdf masks. Oftentimes people don’t seem to have eps or ai files (nor know what those are).

There is another possible source to your masks.
Sometimes files brought into InDesign as vector art export as PDFs with the shape fills created as a mask over a rectangle of color. Especially if there are transparency effects or gradients involved. Those types of PDFs are a true PITA.

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On the left: Logo placed/dragged/copy-pasted/solid fill in Indesign
On the right: what happens if exported from Indesign to PDF and opened in Illustrator, with mask removal.

It’s a thing. I hate it.


Say it with me, louder for those in the back:
PDF is only to be used for final output. Adobe Illustrator/etc are not PDF editors - don’t try to use them as such.

If you can’t get the original ‘working’ or source files, the art reconstruction job should be billed so ridiculously high as to make the job non-feasible to most clients. Pain in the bank account is the only way some people learn.

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We deal with it so often, it’s routine, but definitely a cost added to the project.
It doesn’t go away. Next week it’s a new client with the same type of file.
And quite often the first client doesn’t care they paid more, cuz we got it right, when maybe some other vendor didn’t. That has happened.
We don’t say no.

But the price for “yes” should be prohibitive.

Good, fast, cheap. You know the drill.

You’re talking to a guy that used to make mechanicals. I’ve been around a while and know the optimal uses for software.

Sometimes you can’t … or it’s easier not to … especially when dealing with third parties that are international. Welcome to the real world.

The experience and knowledge I bring to a job are valuable. I bill accordingly. I bill $X an hour for production time no matter if I am working on a nice, tidy AI file or have to reconstruct a PDF. The latter takes longer, so the bill is higher, but I’m not going to double or triple my rate for working on a PDF vs. working on an AI. Bottom line, I’m not going to punish a loyal client for the sins of their client.

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Recently, I doubled the original price for an event poster/flyer for a client. Well into the job, they decided they needed to add logos for all the event sponsors — 18 of them.

When the client asked me about it, I had to explain that 90% of the logos she sent to me were unusable and that it took me longer to mess around with the logos, tracking down higher-res or vector versions, and redrawing some from scratch than I spent on the entire rest of the poster.

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We work along the same line as Steve-O. Time and materials, man. With an automatic set up fee on all the stuff I have to take apart for dimensional stuff, whether it is easy or not so easy.

I can complain all day long, or I can grit my teeth and remind myself this is my job. Most of that stuff is never going to go away. Ever. I’d rather have paying clients than have all that masking stuff vanish.

I work for a label printing company and I only use masks for limiting the bleed of certain elements within the artwork (fades, gradients) things of that nature.

Alas, on the employee using the logos side of things sometimes you end up having to work with what you’ve got and can’t just refuse to work on things. :\ Who made this random logo? Who has the original design files? Who knows! Make it work… People who aren’t designers seem to often not hang on to vector files since they don’t know what they’re for.

Perhaps another thread on this - how to advocate for design work needs as a non-designer in a non-designer world. Like people not understanding how much time design really takes and expecting things to be conjured and done immediately on someone’s whim while not really even caring that much what the final result is anyway… ugh.


Not aimed at those of us who already know. Aimed at the lurkers who might not know.

In my experience with very large clients, they’re always willing to do the leg-work if you put your foot down. If they want/need the product badly enough, they’ll take the route of least resistance to their bottom line. But you’re right, sometimes there is no other choice than to…

We used to operate under a ‘whatever the client asks, make it work’ mentality. A few years back, we as a prepress department began to put our foot down and require better from our clients. The vast majority of them complied with our requests, no questions asked, including much higher art-prep charges for this kind of thing.