Truly Personalized Return Address Labels in Adobe® Illustrator

By Pariah S. Burke -
A comprehensive tutorial on designing labels with Adobe® Illustrator. This tutorial is based on address labels, however the techniques can be applied to CD Labels, Mailing labels, even business cards, name bagdes and other paper medium were duplication of the design is required.
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Like me, you probably get ads for custom printed address labels in the mail and in your Sunday newspaper. You've probably pored through these offers looking for just the right design, the right font, to express you and your work. Do you ever find it? I don't mean something kind of close to what you want to express; I mean do you find exactly the right return address label for you? No, neither do I. Most people end up settling for "close enough"imagery that's sort of reminiscent of what they wanted and the least ugly of the 3-6 available font choices.

With those limited choices, the labels you receive are ultimately identical to thousands of other customers' return address labels. They're impersonal and unexciting return address labels. So, why buy 250-1,000 identical copies of a personalized return address labels for use year-round when you can create season- and event-specific labels as you need them right on your own computer? It's easy and fun, and I'll show you how.

1) What You Need
2) Getting Started
3) That's it for the setup. Now we're ready to get to the fun part
  Designing the First Label
  For All Labels
4) Making Your Label Unique
5) Type-Based Designs
6) Adding Photos and Clipart
7) Drawing Directly in Illustrator
8) Filling Up the Label Sheet
Preparing the First Label
  Filling the Page
9) Making Changes
  Fixing Typos, Oops, and Other Minor Edits
  If You're Using Illustrator CS3
  If You're Not Using Illustrator CS3
10) Designing Whole New Labels
What You Need

The tools and materials for this project are easy to come by and, for the most part, inexpensive. Specifically you need:

  • Your own computer (Windows or Macintosh)
  • An inkjet or laser printer, preferably color but black and white will work, too.
  • A recent version of Adobe Illustrator. Below I'll use the latest version of Adobe Illustrator, CS3 (version 13), but you can use Illustrator versions 9, 10, CS, or CS2 with the same instructions. The Adobe Illustrator software is the biggest expense of this project, but isn't too big. You can buy a brand new copy of Illustrator CS3 from Adobe Products alone or as part of Adobe's Creative Suite 3. If you're a teacher or student, Adobe offers deep educational discounts on Illustrator and Creative Suite. If you don't qualify for educational discounts, check eBay; copies of Adobe Illustrator 9, 10, CS, and CS2 are frequently auctioned for just a few dollars after someone upgrades to a later version.
  • Blank, self-adhesive labels from sells dozens of self-adhesive label sheets in numerous sizes, styles, and colors. Below I'll use 2.625 x 1-inch transparent, rounded rectangle labels that come 30 to a sheet, but you may like a different size or type of label for your personalized return address labels. You can find a wide selection of rectangle, rounded-rectangle, and even circular and oval labels at
  • The label template. After choosing and ordering the perfect size, color, and material of labels for you, download the free matching template. On each label's product information page is a "Download Templates" button. Download the free PDF template of the label, which we'll open below directly into Adobe Illustrator
Getting Started
Even though offers rush delivery service, you'll still have to wait a few days to print your labels-which is still less time than the average 1-6 week turnaround time for mail-order personalized return address labels. You won't have to wait a single minute to begin designing your labels, however. As soon as you download the PDF template for your selected label, you can open it in Illustrator and begin creating your perfect return address label.

1) Open Adobe Illustrator. If a "Welcome" screen appears, close it. Select Open from the File menu and, in the Open dialog, navigate to the location of the PDF label template you downloaded from The file name should begin with OL and end with a 3-4 digit number. Select the file and click the Open button. You should see something like I do (see Figure 1), although your individual labels may be larger or smaller and there may be more or fewer on the page.

For this project I'm using's WL-875, same size as Avery® 5160, 8160 (template WL-875.PDF). Each label measures 2.625-inches wide and 1-inch tall and they come 30 labels to a sheet. These labels are little larger than the typical 1.75 x 0.5 inch return address labels, but they offer space for more than just a printed return address without being ostentatious.

WL-875 (same size as Avery 5160, 8160)

Figure 1: A blank label template; in this case WL-875 (same size as Avery 5160, 8160)

2) On the Layers panel (palette in versions of Illustrator prior to CS3), which you can open by choosing Window > Layers, you should see that all the template pieces reside on Layer 1. These objects are guides to help you line up artwork to the pre-cut, self-adhesive labels that will soon arrive in the mail. You need to be able to see the guides, but you don't want the boxes themselves to print. So, on the Layers panel, double-click the icon beside Layer 1-not on the "Layer 1" text itself. Up should pop the Layer Options dialog (see Figure 2). In the Layer

Options check the box beside Lock and uncheck the box beside Print. The former prevents accidental changes to the template guides while the latter prevents them from printing while keeping them visible onscreen. Click OK to close the Layer Options and effect the changes. On the Layers panel a little padlock will appear to the right of the eyeball, which incidentally denotes that the layer is visible, and the Layer 1 title will become italicized to indicate that the layer will not print.

Figure 2 : Caption: The Layer Options dialog.

Figure 2 : Caption: The Layer Options dialog.


3) Now that we've locked Layer 1 to prevent accidental changes to the guides, we have nowhere to draw (all objects created in Illustrator must be on layers). Returning to the Layers panel, click the Create New Layer icon at the bottom of the panel; the Create New Layer icon looks like a sticky note and is to the right of the trash bucket (Delete Selection) button. Illustrator will insert Layer 2 above Layer 1. Layer 2 is where we'll create the personalized return address label, and it will print.

4) Before we go any further, let's save the design as a new document, without harming the original blank label template. Choose File > Save As. In the Save As dialog choose where you'd like to save your label design document and name the file appropriately-something like "My Labels" would be good.

Before you press the Save button, though, note the Save As Type dropdown menu beneath the File Name field (see Figure 3). Is it set to Adobe Illustrator (*.AI)? Probably not. Click the arrow beside the menu to pull it down, and choose Adobe Illustrator (*.AI) as the Save As Type. Now you can click Save, which spawns the Illustrator Options dialog (see Figure 4). Depending on the version of Illustrator you're using, the choices in the Illustrator Options dialog may be different; just leave them at their defaults and click OK unless you know you need special options.


Figure3 : Saving your My file.


Figure 4 : Illustrator Options for saving .AI files from Illustrator CS3.

That's it for the setup. Now we're ready to get to the fun part

Designing the First Label
The real trick to designing your own personalized return address labels-or any project wherein one design will appear multiple times on the page-is to concentrate entirely on one instance, one label. In the case of my labels, there are 30 copies per page; I need to think about one and pretend the other 29 don't exist-at least for now. No matter how many labels are in your template, focus on just one-the top-left one-until it's exactly the way you want it. After that, we'll use special features built into Illustrator to not only duplicate the design throughout the rest of the page, but also make it so that, if you need to change all the labels, you'll only have to manually change one label in order to change all the labels.

For All Labels
It's early October as I write this article. The trees are changing color, my breath is beginning to draw puffs before me, and the department stores have devoted aisle after aisle to giant bags of tiny candies and vinyl Superman, princess, and pirate costumes. Halloween, one of my favorite holidays, is only a few weeks off. Therefore, I'm going to make myself some Halloween-themed return address labels (see Figure 5).

Figure 5 : The seasonal return address label I'll create below.

Figure 5 : The seasonal return address label I'll create below.


Adobe Illustrator CS3 is, at the time of this writing (and has been for many years), the world's most advanced vector drawing application. You can draw quite literally anything you can imagine for inclusion on your return address labels. With infinite possibility but very finite space in this article I can't walk you through creating every possible design might want, but I can certainly teach you some of the skills you'll call upon when creating any return address label design. Armed with those skills, you can create anything you can imagine, artwork that precisely expresses you, your interests, or a season, holiday, or event from your unique perspective.

Let's begin by creating the basic elements necessary for all personalized return address labels.

1. Select the magnifying glass-like button on the Tools panel to access the Zoom Tool. Click once in the center of the first label in the top-left corner of the page to zoom in. Keep clicking and zooming until it fills or mostly fills the screen (the document window).

2. Begin by grabbing the Rectangle Tool from the Tools panel (press M on your keyboard for the fastest way to access the Rectangle Tool). Then, by clicking and dragging, create a rectangle that is roughly the size of the first label, and completely covers it. When you release the mouse button, the rectangle will be in place and selected. Don't worry if it isn't exactly the right size or if the colors are off. We'll fix both in just a moment.

3. Press V to change tools to the Selection Tool (the black arrow), which enables you to manipulate objects' dimensions and positions. The rectangle should still be selected, but if it isn't, click once on it with the Selection Tool to select it. Now, position the top-left corner of your rectangle to precisely align with the template guide beneath it. Note: If, like me, you're using rounded corner labels, align the non-rounded rectangle such that the top and left sides align with those in the label guide. Don't worry that the sharp corners of your rectangle extend beyond the rounded corners of the guide; the labels are precut, so when you print, excess ink beyond the corners will be discarded anyway.

4. With the rectangle still selected, open the Transform panel from the Window menu. The Transform panel offers precise control over an object's position, size, angle, and skew; with this project, we'll only make use of its positioning and sizing controls (see Figure 6). The odd nine-box grid on the left part of the panel is what we call the reference point or proxy-each object has four corners plus four sides plus a centerpoint (4+4+1=9) to which the reference point proxy corresponds. For instance, if you want to position the center of an object to specific coordinates on the page, choose the middle reference point and then set the X and Y coordinates.

Figure 6 : The Transform panel precisely aligning and sizing the background color rectangle. Note: I've changed the template guides' color to cyan for figure clarity; your template's guides will likely be black.

In this case, however, we want to precisely position the top-left corner of the rectangle, which is the label background color, so click on the top-left reference point in the Transform panel's proxy. When the reference point is selected, it will fill in black.

To continue you must first obtain the exact dimensions of the label you chose as well as the page margins. That information is conveniently provided for you on, on the label product page. I'm using labels with the product number WL-875, so I'll return to, browse the "Rectangles with Rounded Corners" category, and then locate WL-875 among the options there. Clicking on the red "Click to View" button beneath the WL-875 thumbnail, I'll be taken to the product page at the top of which I'll find all the information I need (see Figure 7).

Figure 7: The product information page on

Figure 7: The product information page on provides the information I need-label height and width and the size of all page margins.

Continued Page Two is a manufacture of blank Laser labels and Inkjet Printer Labels - Save 25% to 85% buying your Labels factory direct!
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