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The Hidden Power of the Average Command: Creating Swirly Type

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In this tutorial we will explore the "Average" command in Adobe Illustrator, and learn how to use it in rather unusual way. In this case, we'll create abstract swirls using relatively simple methods and apply it to type. Let's get started!

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1. Introduction

Most of you are probably familiar with the Average command in Adobe Illustrator. This is not a very popular tool though, as it is mostly used only for specific needs. However, today we will explore the math behind it and use it for creating some surrealistic swirly shapes. The technique is rather simple, but we'll spend some time for theory - as I am a teacher and I like explaining and making everything clear.


2. The "Average" Theory

Let's spend some time on the theoretical part first. This way you will better understand the mechanism of the "Average" tool and the three integral laws of the "Average Smooth Abstract Swirls" (ASAS) technique I recently invented. However, if you just don't like much theory, you can move right to Step 6.

Step 1

When do we usually use the Average command and what does it do? I am sure most of you know the answer. The "Average" command is hidden under the Command + Alt + J shortcut, or in the Object > Path menu, and its job is to bring the selected anchor points... right, to the average point between them. Sounds rather simple, doesn't it? In practice, this command sometimes becomes an irreplaceable helper.

For example, I have few open paths that I want to unite in one single shape, but they don't exactly touch each other (for those who want to repeat the shape: create a rounded rectangle and delete the two bottom points. Now Press R and Alt-click below it, then enter 72 degrees. Copy and enter Command + D three times to rotate, as shown below.

In this case I cannot just move 5 shapes towards each other and join (Command + J), as the symmetry will be lost - but the petals of this flower has to be perfectly equal, composing the exact angle. If I join the paths now, the program will draw straight lines between open anchor points, which is not what we need.


Step 2

To get the perfect composite shape, first we need to place all five paths correctly so that open points touch each other. That is when the Average command comes in handy! We just grab the Direct Selection Tool (A), select the endpoints of two neighboring paths and choose Object > Path > Average. In the window select both, press OK, and voila - the points are at the same place now!

All we need to do is join them (Object > Path > Join). Now we can repeat this step four times for every pair of endpoints: selecting with Direct Selection Tool, then apply Average and Join. But in order to save a couple of seconds, I would recommend you to combine these two commands into one single shortcut: Command + Alt + Shift + J.


Step 3

Now we know that the Average command brings anchor points to the center between them (what a surprise!). Well, you may think it is rather obvious, but let's go further. Let's try this command on various objects.

I created a rectangle and tried the Average command on it (the shape has to be selected). What do we get? Trying all three options of the command, we get different outcomes: Horizontal axis brings vertical points to the center, creating a horizontal line; Vertical axis does the same with horizontal points; both axes options result in one center point, bringing all points to the center.

The same outcome you will get with a hexagon or star. It does not actually look interesting, but it helps to understand how this tool works. Let's break these down into rules.

Rule 1: The shapes with corner points only will always result in either line or point! Even if you draw an irregular asymmetric shapes with the Pen Tool, as long as it has corner points only - the effect is the same.


Step 4

Let's draw an ellipse and do some experiments. Make two copies of it and try the Average command on them, again, all three options. As you see, now the outcome looks more interesting, creating some curvy lines. This happens due to the smooth anchor points on Bezier curves, where the final curve direction is controlled by handles.

Rule 2: For smooth curves we need smooth points, and handles are very important in achieving that smoothness!


Step 5

Rule 3 for the Average Command: The anchor points of shapes should not be situated symmetrically, composing horizontal or vertical lines.

To illustrate this principle, let's take an ellipse from the previous step and rotate it by 30 degrees with the Rotate Tool (R). Select your ellipse, press R and enter the value of 30. Now, let's make the same manipulations - copy twice and run the Average tool.

See the difference? Both axes options did not change much, but the horizontal and vertical options created some nice curvy shapes. This result is caused by the positioning of anchor points. In the previous step the points in the ellipse formed vertical and horizontal lines, and now they created asymmetric crossing.


3. Abstract Swirly Shapes

Well, enough theory for today! I'm sure you understood the three Rules of ASAS (Average Smooth Abstract Shapes). Let's put what we've learned into practice now.

Step 6

Let's create a new document in Illustrator, 800px by 500px, in RGB mode. Create the background using the Rectangle Tool (M). Fill it with a radial gradient that goes from white to light gray (#e6e6e6). Name this layer "BG," lock it and create a new one named "Swirls."


Step 7

OK, let's start making the ASAS! We know that Both axes options of the Average command bring all the points in the center creating small shapes. So, let's focus on the horizontal or vertical direction for curvy swirls. However, we still need the basic shapes to work with. What we want is an asymmetric shape with smooth anchor points. There are numerous ways of creating them.

Let's start with a simple 5-ended star with no fill and a black stroke. To quickly convert its corner points to smooth ones lets apply Filter > Stylize > Round Corners, 10 pt will be enough. It's still not the right time to apply the Average command, as the points of our star all lie at the same distance from the center (although the outcome may look interesting already).


Step 8

With your star selected, grab the Wrap Tool (Shift + R) and deform it slightly to make it asymmetric. Try to make it a little wider at the same time. Now you can press Command + Alt + J to bring up the Average window, then choose horizontal axis. Voila! Our first swirl is ready!

Note: You may want to try the vertical axis as well and choose which looks best. But we do not need "both axes" options now!


Step 9

Now let's create an ellipse (L). This time to make the shape asymmetric we'll use the Twirl Tool. Leave all options intact, and just touch your ellipse a few times to turn it into an amorphous shape. And now, run the Average command and pick horizontal axis.


Step 10

For the last shape we'll use a simple method. Take the Pencil Tool (N). Again, the tool options don't matter, we'll just draw an asymmetric shape with it. To close the path when drawing, hold down the Alt key and click. And again: Object > Path > Average > Horizontal. Now you have three nice swirly shapes.


Step 11

Now we'll make a few adjustments and save our shapes. For all three shapes apply a medium gray stroke with no fill. To make a shape longer, duplicate the first swirl and rotate the copy 180 degrees with the selection arrow (hold down the Shift key while rotating), then align both parts to form a single longer swirl and group them. Do the same with the second swirl.


Step 12a

With the last swirl, again make the same manipulation as with the first two, duplicate, rotate, and align. We will also add some dots. Grab the Ellipse Tool (L) and create a small circle while holding down Shift key. Make it a medium gray with no stroke and position it near the swirl as shown.


Step 12b

Duplicate the circle several times and position it around the swirl to end up with about 10 circles surrounding your shape. Now select all circles, while holding down the Shift key, and go to Object > Transform > Transform each (Alt + Shift + Command + D) and enter these values:

  • Scale: 40% horizontal, 40% vertical
  • Move: 15 pt horizontal, 5 pt vertical
  • Random: checked
  • Preview: checked

If you like the result, press OK. If not, then try to change some settings, like scale or move. Your result should be something like the image below.


Step 13

Now when our swirls are ready, we'll make three brushes out of them. Select the first swirl, go to the brushes palette (F5) and drag-n-drop the shape on the palette. Select Art brush in the window you see next. As your swirl is horizontal, in the art brush options choose horizontal for the direction (however, if you made a vertical one, choose vertical direction of course). Select the Hue Shift colorization method. Name this brush "Swirl 1" and save it.

Now your newly created brush will appear in the brushes palette. Do the same with two other shapes, naming them "Swirl 2" (for this one enter 80% for width) and "Swirl 3" (enter 150% for width and check Proportional).


4. Building the Composition

Now we come to the most exciting part of this tutorial, building our final composition.

Step 14

Let's now make our type. Lock the "Swirls" layer and create a new one named "Type." Grab the Type Tool (T) and type your text. It's better to use a round sans-serif font (I used Century Gothic Regular) and the font size should be really large (mine was 130 pt). I chose the phrase "I LOVE VECTOR," so I typed "I VECTOR," as I'll later add a heart symbol.


Step 15

Let's convert the text to a path (Command + Shift + O) and ungroup it. Now, rather than working on the entire text, we 'll adjust only one letter first. Choose letter "I," make it no fill and 1 pt black stroke. Click on the first swirl in the brushes palette. Oh, at last we start having some effect!


Step 16

Now, with the "I" still selected go to the Appearance palette (Shift + F6) and in the flyout menu choose new stroke. With new stroke selected, go to the brushes panel and select "Swirl 2." Now the letter looks even better!


Step 17

Go ahead and add the third stroke of the last swirly brush, the one with dots. Now you can tweak the settings of either stroke if you want. When you reach the effect you are happy with, go to the Graphic Styles panel. With your letter selected, create a new style named "Black swirly type." Now you can select the rest of the text and apply the same graphic style on other letters.


Step 18

Our type looks OK now, but you may notice some choppy areas created by corner points. You must remember that corner points are not good for swirls, so we'll fix it. Select the entire text and go to Filter > Stylize > Round Corners, with a radius of 10 px will be enough. Now your type should look much prettier!

You may want to adjust the kerning now by moving letters a bit to look more harmonious. Also move the "I" letter to the left so that you have enough room for the heart (don't forget to press Shift while moving to keep the letter properly aligned to the baseline).


Step 19

To make the heart, turn on the rulers (Command + R) and drag a vertical guide between the "I" and "V" letters. Take the Pen Tool and let's draw the right part of our heart first, choose no fill and a pink 1pt stroke.

Click on the guide to make the top point and drag the handle to the left while holding Shift to create a loop, then click on the right side to create the right anchor point. Finally, click on the guide to create the bottom point and drag a handle to the right while holding Shift for perfectly horizontal handles. See the image below for reference, now you have the right half of your heart created.


Step 20

With a shape selected, grab the Reflect Tool (O) and Alt-click on the guide, choose Vertical and click Copy. Now the heart is ready. Delete the guide now. I have decided to join two halves in the bottom point only: select two neighboring bottom points with Direct Selection Tool (A) and press Alt + Shift + Command + J.


Step 21

Now we'll repeat Steps 16-17: add strokes to one part of our shape in the Appearance palette and apply swirly brushes to it. For the heart I've chosen three 1 pt strokes of pink, yellow, and blue with all three brushes applied.


Step 22

To add a nice detail to the composition, I've decided to put three smaller copies above our heart of each color (pink, blue, and yellow). Although it's possible to simply copy the object three times, transform it and delete unneeded strokes, I wanted to keep all the heart copies as one object. To do it, select a heart and choose the first stroke in the Appearance panel. Now go to Effect > Distort & Transform > Transform and enter these values for the first stroke:

  • Scale: 20% horizontal, 20% vertical
  • Move: -30 pt horizontal, 35 pt vertical
  • Rotate: 20 degrees
  • Copies: 1

For the second stroke do the same with the following values:

  • Scale: 15% horizontal, 15% vertical
  • Move: 30 pt horizontal, 40 pt vertical
  • Rotate: 340 degrees
  • Copies: 1

And for the third one enter following:

  • Scale: 10% horizontal, 10% vertical
  • Move: 0 pt horizontal, 60 pt vertical
  • Rotate: 5 degrees
  • Copies: 1

Now you have a nice detail, and the small hearts are actually effects applied to the major one!

Moreover, you can save the effects applied to the heart shape as a graphic style just like we did with the type, and name it "Colored swirly heart." This way the same style can be easily applied to any shape with just one click!


Step 23

Finally I made some minor adjustments like tweaking brush settings for both the type and heart and adjusting strokes to my liking. This is what the final result looks like.

And this is the one for those of you who'd like to add more swirls - you might like the frame I created. Create a rounded rectangle almost covering the whole canvas, cut it into four corners with the Scissors Tool (C) and apply the graphic style you created for the type.

You can adjust the brush settings a bit (I removed the third brush stroke). And guess what I put into the corners? These asymmetric flowers are very simple to make. Take any shape we used to make a swirl from Steps 8-10, and run the Average command with Both Axes option chosen - and copy the shape to put it in every corner!


5. Conclusion

In this tutorial we've learned the power of the Average command in Adobe Illustrator and used it to make a nice swirly type effect. I hope it gave you some inspiration, as this effect can produce interesting and unexpected results. Just be creative and have fun experimenting!

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