How to create barcodes in Adobe Illustrator 2021 - Tutorial

Many people use Illustrator for designing book covers, blisters or packaging. In most cases barcodes have to be added to the artwork. There are two ways to create barcodes in Illustrator: You can use an integrated solution, like a barcode extension or plug-in or you can use an external barcode generator to create the code and then import it into Illustrator. In this tutorial we look at the different options for adding a barcode to your artwork.

Create Barcode in Illustrator

Adobe Illustrator - Create Barcode with a Plug-in

The easiest way to create a barcode in Illustrator is via a barcode extension or plug-in. A fully integrated solution saves time and reduces errors. In this and the following sections, we'll show you how to create a barcode and add it to your artwork. The screenshots show the Softmatic Barcode Extension for Adobe Illustrator 2021.

Barcode creation works in four simple steps:

1. Select barcode type, e.g. Code EAN 13

2. Enter your data, e.g. "401234567890"

3. Set properties of the code like EAN SC size, bar width reduction or toggle the display of human readable text

4. Add the barcode to your artwork; the code will be inserted into the top layer

Let's look into the individual steps in more detail:

Step 1: Select barcode type

We begin by selecting the required barcode symbology. In this example we will be creating a Code EAN 13 barcode. EAN 13 is used for retail and is one of the most used barcode symbologies. It is easily recognizable by the characteristic bar pattern and the single digit on the left side of the symbol.

Click the Code type drop-down and select "EAN 13":

Illustrator select barcode type

Step 2: Enter your data

EAN 13 encodes 12 digits plus a mandatory check digit, hence the name. Enter our data ("501234567890") and hit <Enter> to update the preview:

Illustrator enter data for barcode

Note how the extension automatically calculated and appended the check digit ("0") to the data so that the text line under the code now reads "5012345678900". As a rule, the extension will always recalculate the check digit to make sure a valid barcode can be created.

EAN 13 will only encode numeric data. Note what happens when you try to encode letters ("abcdef"):

Illustrator invalid data for barcode EAN

The manual lists the data requirements for all supported barcodes.

Step 3: Set barcode size and style

EAN 13 is standardized; the extension will by default create an EAN 13 in size SC 0, resulting in a barcode that is c. 26mm high and 37mm wide (more about EAN / UPC SC sizes and dimensions). We want a larger code (SC 6) but with half height (50%). Note how the preview is updated in realtime as you set styles and size:

Illustrator set barcode size

As an aside, with EAN and UPC the size of the human readable text line is calculated automatically by the extension to fit the text properly under the code. Hence, the option to set the font size is grayed out.

Step 4: Adding the barcode to your artwork

Once we are happy with the barcode, we can add it to our artwork. Click "Insert" to add the code to the top most layer of the document (make sure the layer is visible and not locked):

Illustrator add barcode to artwork

Tip: The inserted barcode is an ordinary graphic element. As such it can be freely moved around, rotated or scaled to fit your designs. We recommend setting up a dedicated layer for your barcodes and then lock the layer to prevent accidental changes to the code. See best practices further down.

All the above steps are also in this video that gives an introduction to the Softmatic Barcode Extension for Adobe Illustrator:

Adobe Illustrator - The Softmatic Barcode Extension

In addition to the standard retail barcodes, the Softmatic Barcode Extension also supports a wide range of linear and 2D matrix codes and will also let you create QR codes directly in Illustrator - ideal if you want to add codes with URLs or email addresses to your document.

In total the plug-in supports over twenty different symbologies:

  • EAN 8
  • EAN 13 (with optional add-on)
  • ISBN 10 (with optional add-on)
  • ISBN 13 (with optional add-on)
  • ISSN (with optional add-on)
  • UPC-A (with optional add-on)
  • UPC-E
  • Code 128 A, B, C
  • Code 128 GS1
  • Code 2/5 Interleaved
  • Code 2/5 Industrial
  • Code ITF-14
  • Code 39 / 39 Extended
  • PZN 7 / PZN 8
  • Laetus
  • Codabar
  • Datamatrix (2D)
  • Datamatrix GS1 (2D)
  • PDF 417 (2D)
  • QR (2D)
  • Aztec (2D)

Barcodes can be widely customized with options for size, readable text and bar width reduction to compensate for dot gain during printing. The extension performs all required data formatting and check digit calculation in the background - no macros or programming required.

The barcode extension works stand alone, no online access, external components or barcode fonts required. Illustrator documents with barcodes are free of dependencies and can be shared without restrictions.

Softmatic Barcode Extension - Sample Barcodes

We've provided two extensive documents that show all supported codes:

Sample with all code types: File format: AI 2021 or higher

Sample with all code types: File format: PDF

Softmatic Barcode Extension - Download

The Softmatic barcode extensions for InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop are available on the Adobe Exchange and from the Softmatic online store.

Adobe Illustrator - Using a barcode generator

A stand-alone barcode generator is preferable if you use an older Creative Suite version of AI (CS3, CS4, CS5, CS6 etc.) that doesn't support the plug-in.

Our recommendation here is Softmatic BarcodePlus V5, download here (macOS 10.15 or higher, pre 10.15: here, Windows 10 here). The app creates all common retail barcodes, like EAN, UPC or ISBN and will save codes as EPS/PDF and in various raster formats. In addition BarcodePlus V5 supports a wide variety barcodes for warehousing, pharmaceuticals and 2D symbologies like QR, Aztec or PDF417.

Barcodes in Adobe Illustrator - Best Practices

When working with barcodes in Illustrator, please consider the following best practices:
  • Before creating the barcode, talk to your print shop about the requirements with regard to bar width reduction.

    Reasonable values are:
    • Offset printing: 1-2%
    • Laser printing: 1-2%
    • Thermo-, thermotransfer printing: 0%
    • Inkjet printing: Plain paper - 5%, Inkjet paper - 1-2%
    • Pad printing: up to 10%

  • The Softmatic generators and extensions create barcodes in pure black (CMYK: 0 0 0 100). Per default, Illustrator will convert pure blacks into so called "Rich Blacks" (typically CMYK: 50 50 50 100) for export. This can cause issues with misaglined printing plates, resulting in bars that look fuzzy or have a color halo. For best results, set Preferences > Appearance of Black to "Output all blacks accurately".
  • Place the barcode artwork on a separate layer. Lock the layer against accidental changes. A separate layer can also be useful to create a barcode template, for example when you have QR codes with URLs or email addresses that don't change often.
  • Leave space of at least 5mm around the barcode. This space is off limits for other artwork.
  • Never modify the actual barcode within Illustrator. Don't scale it, don't stretch it, don't change the fill or stroke, don't change the text. If the size is not right, discard the code and create a new one.
  • If at all possible, make a test scan of the barcode before going into production. A simple CCD hand held barcode scanner will not cost more than about $50. That's a good investment if you have to create barcodes regularly. Alternatively, use a barcode app with your smartphone, see next section.
  • For detailed information about the placement rules for Bookland / ISBN codes on book covers, see here.

Verifying and scanning barcodes

We recommend test scanning or verifying barcodes before going into production. Current smartphones will be able to detect and scan barcodes with the built-in camera.

Screenshot shows the CoScan app, a PDF and barcode scanner for iPhone. The barcode is detected and decoded in the life image; the encoded data can then be copied to the clipboard for further use in Excel, Word, Notes etc.:

CoScan iPhone Scanner App Code EAN

This app can also be used to identify an unknown barcode type; the respective symbology ("EAN 8" in this case) is written next to the data.

AppStore (free download)