Shape builder vs pathfinder

In Adobe Illustrator, the shape builder tool and the pathfinder panel can both add and and subtract segments of overlapping shapes. They’re predominantly used to create complex shapes from simple ones.

The pathfinder panel was added to Illustrator in 2001, and the shape builder tool was added in 2010. Given shape builder is newer, many people assume it’s better. They’re both useful, but work in different ways.

Let’s take a look at some common uses for shape builder and pathfinder, to see how they compare.

Round 1: Interaction #

The most striking difference between the two is the way they’re used. Shape builder is a tool that interacts directly with objects on the canvas. To unite two circles, select them, then switch to the shape builder tool and drag across all the shape segments.

Holding shift lets you drag a marquee selection to choose which shape segments to unite. This can be a lot faster in some scenarios.

A single click on a shape segment separates it from the other shapes.

To remove shape segments, hold option or shift-option while dragging or clicking. That’s pretty much it for the shape builder tool. The stacking order of the objects doesn’t matter. In scenarios where there’s a lot of shape segments, the shape builder tool can be a bit of a hassle, but it’s a fast and easy to use way of performing destructive boolean operations once you’ve learnt how it works.

The pathfinder panel contains a set of 10 actions that operate on the current selection. To unite two circles, select them, then click the unite button in the pathfinder panel. The stacking order does matter for some of the actions, like minus front and minus back. Pathfinder also often groups the result of the action, which is typically not what I want, meaning pathfinder is immediately followed by ungrouping.

Pathfinder can work destructively, where the resulting paths are placed on the canvas, or non-destructively, where the original paths are kept. Option-clicking the actions in the pathfinder panel changes them to be non-destructive. Shape builder always acts destructively.

Shape builder and pathfinder both have a few options to control their behaviour. To open the shape builder options, double-click the shape builder icon in the tool panel, or press enter with the shape builder tool selected. To open the pathfinder options, choose Pathfinder Options from the overflow menu in the pathfinder panel.

Which is the better interaction method? I prefer working directly with the objects on the canvas. It’s a hassle to move the cursor to the pathfinder panel and back again, and the panel takes valuable screen space that would be better used for the canvas. If pathfinder could be trigged by keyboard shortcuts, that would help keep the cursor on the canvas while working. Some of pathfinder’s actions have vague names, too.

Shape builder wins this round.

Round 2: Unite everything #

Uniting a few simple shapes works well with shape builder and pathfinder. But, shape builder is far less efficient when shapes have holes, like the example below. Uniting all the parts requires careful mousing with the freeform method, or lots of marquees using the marquee method. This isn’t even a complex example.

Holding shift to use the marquee method doesn’t help — if the marquee is dragged over everything, holes are included in the result.

The marquee method is about as slow as using the freeform shape builder method.

In contrast, pathfinder can unite any number of shapes with a single click.

Pathfinder wins this round.

Round 3: Keep one piece #

It’s common to use several shapes to construct a single piece you’d like to keep. This technique can be seen in my camera iris icon speedrun. To separate out a single piece with the shape builder tool, simply click the piece you’d like to keep.

Pathfinder doesn’t have an action to keep a specific piece. The divide action can be used to split up all the pieces. From there, you’ll need to ungroup everything, select the pieces you don’t want, and delete them.

Shape builder wins this round.

Round 4: Keep all pieces #

If you’d like to keep every piece, the only way to do that with shape builder is to click every single segment. I’m not aware of a way around this.

As mentioned previously, pathfinder’s divide does exactly what we’re after in this scenario.

Pathfinder wins this round.

Round 5: Divide at intersections #

Sometimes several shapes are used to accurately capture a path segment needed. Other times, it can be handy to use a shape to cut lots of paths at once. This is a little different to the previous examples — this time we’re focused on the paths, not shape segments.

With shape builder, it’s possible to option-click a path segment to remove it. The path segment will be cut at the nearest path intersections. This is an incredibly cool feature, and other methods for doing the same thing in Illustrator often require many steps. Pathfinder can not do this.

With pathfinder, the outline action creates outlines of every shape segment. This means every path segment is cut at the nearest intersections.

This technique is used in my fingerprint icon speedrun. The fingerprint icon is a good example of something that would be challenging with the shape builder tool — it’d require eight fairly careful option-clicks on the path segments that need to be removed. This is way slower than using pathfinder’s outline action.

This round is a tie.

Round 6: Anchor point cleanup #

Did you know you can use shape builder and pathfinder to clean up anchor points? They both typically only remove redundant points on straight lines, and work best on 90º lines. They can both also be used to remove coincidental points (anchor points that are on top of each other).

They both do a similar job, but the results can be different, and pathfinder is often slightly better, as can be seen with this hexagon example.

There’s also scenarios where shape builder adds unneeded anchor points, like when combining these shapes to create a final puzzle piece. The shape builder result has 36 anchor points, while the pathfinder result only has 32 anchor points.

Pathfinder wins this round.

Round 7: Working with open paths #

When working with open paths, pathfinder just considers them to be closed, allowing all actions to be performed anyway. Well, all but three actions (divide, trim, and marge). This means pathfinder does something, and it likely does what you’d expect it to do.

In contrast, shape builder doesn’t let you act on shape segments for open paths. This limitation feels unnecessarily restrictive.

Pathfinder wins this round.

Round 8: Precision #

For this test, I united a circle and a rectangle, exported the resulting shape as an SVG, then checked the coordinates. Bézier path intersections are notoriously tricky to do accurately, and it’s common to see rounding errors. Pathfinder seems to have done a better job, and is closer to the ideal result.

// Ideal
// 2.6862915 is the correct value
<path d="m0,6C0,2.6862915,2.6862915,0,6,0s6,2.6862915,6,6v6H0v-6Z"/>

// Shape builder
// 2.6900024 is not as close as pathfinder
<path d="m12,6v6H0v-6C0,2.6900024,2.6900024,0,6,0s6,2.6900024,6,6Z"/>

// Pathfinder
// 2.6862793 is pretty good
<path d="m6,0C2.6862793,0,0,2.6862793,0,6v6h12v-6c0-3.3137207-2.6862793-6-6-6Z"/>

Shape builder also encourages multiple actions, which is likely to lead to cumulative rounding errors and paths with more anchor points.

Pathfinder wins this round.

Final score #

For those keeping tally, the winner will be obvious. While there are some cases where shape builder is preferable, pathfinder is superior overall. Having said that, I’m going to do my best to use the most appropriate method for each situation.

This article is also available as a video: Shape builder vs pathfinder.

Published 24 May 2023.