Design technique battle royale: Snap-to-Point vs. Smart Guides

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Often, during a creative project, two or more shapes must be aligned to each other—not just to the same side, but literally touching in such a way that their edges form a seamless perfection, interlocking like two gears working in synergistic unison. There are a number of techniques out there to achieve such alignment, but for all intents and purposes, dead-on alignment accuracy is a two-party system.

It’s time for a showdown, folks. Snap-to-Point versus Smart Guides.

Welcome to the Adobe® Illustrator® arena, where much of the action takes place. In one corner, we have Snap-to-Point, the long-favored method whereby each corner or center point of a shape can be aligned to the corner points of another shape. It’s simple, no-nonsense, tried-and-true accuracy.

Our challenger, Smart Guides, is a newer method involving orthogonal path and point alignment options. It uses text labels to indicate intersecting moments among shapes, and offers feature customization through the Preferences panel.

Inspired by the passionate Snap-to-Point evangelism of Siegel+Gale Los Angeles Creative Director Matthias Mencke, I asked the creative experts at the firm to duke it out in a no-hold-barred MDT (mixed design techniques) survey. Over the next two weeks the results poured in and a heated battle ensued—both sides highlighting the pros and cons of their favorite techniques. Rationales for choosing one technique over another were explained by providing web links to outside sources, personal anecdotes, philosophical explanations and even tongue-in-cheek opinions. The major rationales (and a few humorous jabs and hooks) appeared as follows:


  • Pros
    • Signifies exactitude through the ‘snap movement’
    • Provides more security
    • Creates better precision
    • Affords freer movement at the beginning of design exploration
    • Supports the creation of effective web templates
    • Has a catchy name
  • Cons
    • Does not facilitate path snapping
    • Has a limited scope of alignment options

Smart Guides

  • Pros
    • Matches elements to a curve effectively
    • Displays guides only after they’ve been aligned
    • Exemplifies the first law of simplicity—thoughtful reduction
    • Aligns with the Siegel+Gale credo and culture which calls for smart
    • Finalizes designs according to stricter grids
  • Cons
    • Appear sloppy and imprecise
    • Force undesired alignments among objects
    • Require too much zooming for accuracy checks

In the end, the survey results suggested that people would prefer a technique that combined the best attributes of both tools rather than one all by itself. If forced to choose only one, however, the Snap-to-Point contender prevailed. By using both and allowing these methods to dictate alignment, there would be more time to focus on the actual design. On the other hand, some preferred not to use either technique—citing the possibility of being forced to work within a particular set of alignment paramaters as reason to use another technique.

Overall it seemed like the creatives polled enjoyed the flexibility available to them by using both techniques, but sought simplicity when it came to choosing one technique over the other.

Miles Seiden is a designer for the Siegel+Gale Los Angeles office.

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