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Creating Imaginative Typography with Adobe Illustrator

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Read Time: 17 min

In this tutorial, I will guide you through the creation of unique typography and supporting elements, rich in the use of shape, color and pattern. The process can be applied to similar illustrative typography projects using equivalent development stages, from initial drawing to vector outcome.

The design is taken from an ongoing series of personal works entitled "Typoquotes," further examples of which can be seen on my website:


Illustrative typography has become an increasingly popular direction for creating dynamic and personal designs, using words and letterforms instead of more common pictorial elements. Over the past 18 months, I have explored this approach in my own work, often using popular quotes as a starting point for the design. The letterforms, shapes, patterns and choice of colors have developed over this time to reflect my own style, but this tutorial can be used with a variety of hand-drawn typefaces of your own.

Step 1: Preparatory Drawings

Drawing forms the foundation of all of my work. Hand-drawn ideas and compositional sketches are both immediate and quick to generate, and allow for creative freedom and occasional unexpected discoveries caused by happy accidents. With the ability to work entirely digitally, preparatory drawings can now be achieved via the use of Wacom tablets, though personally I still prefer the simple pleasures of taking a line for a walk, putting pencil or pen to paper.

Almost all of my initial drawings are created working directly with pen on paper. I like the commitment of creating permanent linework, and if mistakes happen, then so be it. However, the example used here shows a more common approach, that of an under-drawing that is then inked. If you need to work out the composition of the design as a whole prior to vectoring, this is perhaps the best and only method to use.

Step 2: Open Adobe Illustrator and Make a Start

I will be using Adobe Illustrator CS4 for this tutorial, though I am sure that the majority of tools and methods I will be using can be applied to earlier versions of the software.

First off, create a new document. I usually start with an A4 artboard as my initial design drawings will have been scanned at this size.

Secondly, choose Edit > Preferences > General... (Command + K) and make sure that Scale Strokes & Effects is deselected.

Step 3: Insert the Drawing and Prepare to Start Tracing

Choose File > Place... and open your preparatory drawing. The scan of the drawing used here is called "design_sketch.jpg" and can be found along with the other tutorial "source" files.

In the Layers panel, double-click on "Layer 1" where the drawing has been placed to bring up the Layer Options. Make sure that Lock is selected along with Dim Images, which should be set at 30-50% > OK.

In the Layers panel, click on the Create New Layer button. "Layer 2" will now be above "Layer 1" in the stacking order, ready to contain the design.

Select the Pen Tool (P) from the toolbox. Make sure that the Fill color is set at None and the Stroke color is black. If desired, double-click on the stroke color to make sure that your black's RGB values are all set to 0.

In the Stroke panel, set the Weight to 1pt and the Miter Limit to 100. Also, I use the default appearance settings of Butt Cap and Miter Join.

Step 4: Initial Vector Tracing

Choose View > Smart Guides (Command + U) to assist the accuracy of the vector tracing, and then make a start. At this stage, only trace the outlines of the letters and shapes.

Always take time when tracing to use as few anchor points as possible, as this will create smoother lines. Also, ensure that the appearance of corner miter joins are not too long/extended. This can occur at sharp corners and can be rectified by adjusting nearby anchor point handles.

Step 5: Outlining Complete

Once the letter and shape outlining is complete, the design will look like this.

Step 6: Additional Line Work

The next stage is to trace some additional lines inside the letters and shapes. These should include any major or distinctive lines or shapes, the choices of which are left to your own discretion.

Tip: Make use of Smart Guides to be accurate when positioning anchor points on existing lines.

Step 7: Tidy Up Unsightly Corners

Since the stroke settings have miter joins at the corner, be aware of any that appear messy or overhang, most commonly from those that are placed on a stroke. Pointed corners can easily be removed by using the Scissors Tool (C). Simply select the offending anchor point beforehand using the Direct Selection Tool (A), and then click on it using the Scissors Tool. This will split the join and remove the miter.

Step 8: Line Work Complete

With the additional line work completed, the design will look like this.

Step 9: Final Tracing

In the toolbox, choose a stroke color other than black. I often use crimson or red as something quite distinctive from the existing color.

Use this color to trace all the remaining lines in the design. As before, be accurate with the positioning of anchor points on existing lines.

Feel free to ignore any unsightly overhanging miter joins on corners as these will not affect the integrity or aesthetic of the final design.

Step 10: Tracing Complete

Once all of the vector tracing and line work is finished, delete the Layer containing the preparatory drawing, as this is no longer required.

At this stage, the design will look like this.

Step 11: Grouping Design Elements

With the line work complete, it is now important to gather separate design elements, such as individual letters or shapes, into groups. This will save time during later steps when moving things around.

Use the Lasso Tool (Q) to select a letter or shape, and then choose Object > Group (Command + G). Continue with all other letters and shapes until each resides in their own group (as seen in the Layers panel below).

Step 12: Composition Time

Choose Select > All (Command + A) and move the entire contents of the design away from the artboard.

All of the elements are now ready to be moved, one group at a time, back into the artboard to create the design's composition/layout. Use the Selection Tool (V) to drag things into place. Start off with the rough placement of words, and if necessary individual letters or words can be transformed to adjust their scale. The earlier preference settings will ensure that the stroke weight of the lines will remain unaffected.

Step 13: Letter Spacing and Alignment

With the words roughly in place, now is the time to look at things such as the positioning of letters within them

Letter spacing of hand-drawn type is best done by eye, so just select individual letters and use the cursor keys to nudge them into place.

To align all letters in a word, select the word and make use of the alignment buttons on the toolbar. Before doing so, make sure that the alignment option is set to Align To Selection.

Step 14: Further Alignments and Edits

With the letters in place, it is worth creating word groups in the Layers panel. As before, select all letters of a word and choose Object > Group (Command + G). To keep track of these groups, in the Layers panel you can double-click on each group to label it with the name of the word.

With each word gathered in a separate group, further alignments and adjustments can be made. If you want to make each word the same width or height, make use of the Transform panel to do so (making sure that both of these attributes are linked so as to avoid distortion).

If you want the placement of the words to be centralized on the artboard, set the alignment option to Align To Artboard and use the toolbar buttons as before.

Step 15: Final Alignments

I chose to centralize the words in their existing placement (aligned to the left). To do so, I gathered all the words into a single group before choosing Vertical Align Center and Horizontal Align Center.

Step 16: Fill in the Gaps

With the words in place, the final stage of creating the composition is to fill in the gaps using all the left-over shapes.

As it turned out, I did not use all of them, and the placement of the shapes (particularly those on the edges) were carefully aligned as before.

Step 17: Stroke Selection

Before coloring the line work, use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to click on one of the red lines and bring the stroke color to the toolbox.

Choose Select > Same > Stroke Color. All of the red line work will then be selected.

Step 18: Prepare to Live Paint

With the red line work selected, in the toolbox set the stroke color to None (effectively hiding the red lines from view). Choose Select > All (Command + A) and then Object > Live Paint > Make (Alt + Command + X).

Step 19: The Color Guide

Before making a start on coloring the design, it is worth having the Color Guide panel open. When working with color, this panel is invaluable in offering palette choices. I usually leave the panel's default display to show Tints and Shades, though there are options to choose alternatives such as Warm and Cool or Vivid and Muted. However, the default variation steps are quite limited, so I will set these at 10 or more to create more color choices.

Step 20: Live Painting

For color reference, I like to be inspired by photographs with hues/palettes that can get me started. I also have a Pantone swatch panel open for quick access to colors.

Use the Live Paint Bucket (K) to fill in the design. My objective at this stage is to get the whole design filled without worrying too much that the chosen colors will be final (as these can be edited later on).

I make use of the photograph, swatch panel and Color Guide to select a large variety of colors. I tend to only use a single color a handful of times across the design before changing its tone or saturation. In terms of tone, I am aware of the distribution of lights and darks in the design, and I pay particular attention to neighboring colors, be they analogous, complementary or discordant.

An understanding of color theory is beneficial when choosing the right colors for a design

Step 21: Initial Color Palette

With the design fully colored, you can see how the hidden stroke lines have allowed colors to sit next to each other

Step 22: Editing the Colors

As mentioned earlier when starting the Live Paint process, my first objective was to fill the design with a rough idea of color choices. Once filled, the colors can now be edited at will.

A good place to start is use the Recolor Artwork function. Choose Edit > Edit Colors > Recolor Artwork... or else click the Recolor Artwork button on the toolbar. The wealth of adjustments that can be made using this function can be read elsewhere, but as a starting point set the adjustment mode to Global Adjust and experiment with the four sliders.

Another valuable range of functions that I use for color adjustments have been created by Astute Graphics - the Phantasm CS Studio. This is a selection of effect plug-ins that mimic color adjustment functions available in Photoshop, such as Levels and Hue/Saturation. Visit their website to find out more.

Step 23: Expand the Live Paint Contents

Once the color editing is complete and there is no need to continue with Live Paint, choose Select > All (Command +A) and then Object > Live Paint > Expand. Alternatively, click on the Expand button on the toolbar.

If you look in the Layers panel, hidden within the various object groupings, you will see that the design is now separated into two distinct groups - one containing the strokes/line work, the other containing the color fills.

Step 24: Inverting the Stroke Color

For the purpose of this design I have chosen to invert the stroke color. To do so, simply select all of the contents of the group containing the line work and replace its black color with white.

Step 25: Further Color Additions

Use the Rectangle Tool (M) to create a rectangle above the design to cover the entire artboard. Use the Gradient panel and Gradient Tool (G) to fill the shape with a gradient of two or more colors. To start with I simply chose a linear gradient of red/orange and green.

Step 26: Working with Opacity Masks

In the Layers panel, select the design's fill contents and choose Edit > Copy (Command + C).

Next, select the rectangle shape. In the Transparency panel you will see a thumbnail of the shape and a blank space beside it. Double-click on this blank space and an Opacity Mask will appear. Since it is colored black by default, the mask appears to hide the shape from view. Choose Edit > Paste in Front (Command + F) to paste the design's fill contents into the mask.

In the toolbox, fill the entire contents of what you have pasted with white. If done correctly, you will see what appears to be a silhouette of the design filled with the gradient fill.

Step 27: Editing the Gradient Colors

Working in the Transparency panel, the two thumbnails are of the rectangle shape on the left and its Opacity Mask on the right. To edit the rectangle's gradient colors, make sure that you first click on the shape's thumbnail. This will ensure that you are working on the shape and not the mask.

Still in the Transparency panel and before editing the colors, experiment with alternative Blend Modes other than Normal to begin blending the appearance of the gradient fill with the design underneath. The settings I used: Blend Mode > Soft Light and Opacity > 50%.

With the shape still selected, choose Edit > Edit Colors > Recolor Artwork... Select HSB as the adjustment mode (Hue, Saturation, and Brightness). Each of the two colors can be separately edited by adjusting the three sliders.

Step 28: Adding Texture

Using previously prepared hand-made textures can be utilized in vector form to add organic shapes and texture to a design. Choose File > Place... and open a scanned texture file. The scan of the one used here is called "texture.jpg" and can be found along with the other tutorial files.

Choose Object > Live Trace > Tracing Options... (or else access the same from the Live Trace dropdown menu found on the toolbar).

Step 29: Setting the Tracing Options

I have circled the important settings for the tracing of this texture image. The Threshold value indicates the amount of tracing based upon tone (only available when the Mode is set to Black and White).

The image resolution of the texture scan is 300PPI, so I have set the Resample value to 150px so that the resulting vector trace is not too overly detailed and cumbersome. Finally, select the Ignore White option so that the white of the texture scan is not included in the tracing process.

Step 30: Position the Texture

Once the texture has been traced, rescale and position it over the design. Click the Expand button on the toolbar to expand the fill contents of the texture shape. Alternatively, choose Object > Expand...

Step 31: Create a Compound Shape

In the Layers panel, the expanded texture shape will now be located within a group. To merge the group's contents, first select the group and then choose Object > Ungroup (Shift + Command + G).

In the Pathfinder panel, hold down Alt and click on the Unite button. Following that, click on the Expand button to create a compound shape.

Step 32: Add a Gradient and Opacity Mask

Similar to Steps 25-26, fill the texture shape with a gradient fill and add an Opacity Mask using the design's fill contents as the mask.

Step 33: The Texture's Transparency Settings

Working in the Transparency panel, experiment with lowered Opacity values and an alternative Blend Mode other than Normal. I used Hard Light set at 54% Opacity.

Note: If you want to reposition or transform the texture shape, beforehand you must make sure that you unlink the shape from its mask. The Opacity Mask must stay in position at all times.

Step 34: Softening the Texture

Looking close-up at the design, the newly added texture's edges appear quite jagged. To disguise this vector appearance, with the texture shape selected choose Effect > Blur > Gaussian Blur, then adjust the Radius value as necessary (I chose 10 pixels) > OK.

Step 35: Adding an Off-white Filter

The design at present appears quite stark on a white background. To mimic a slightly retro feel that will warm the background and design colors, create a Rectangle shape on top of the design (see Step 25) and fill it with a Radial gradient of an off-white/sepia color that's slightly brighter in the middle.

In the Transparency panel, change the Blend Mode of this shape to Multiply and lower the Opacity (I set this value to 30%).

Step 36: Softening the Edges

In keeping with the softened texture shape, one of the final touches for the design is to soften the edges of the design's color fill.

Firstly, make a copy of the color fill. This is easily done in the Layers panel by dragging the fill group down to the Create New Layer button.

Make sure that this copy is positioned above the original fill group in the Layers stacking order.

With the fill copy selected, in the Transparency panel lower the Opacity to a value of about 30% and then choose Effect > Blur > Gaussian Blur... I chose a Radius value of 5 pixels > OK.

Step 37: Tidying Up the Newly Blurred Color Fill

If you look at the design close-up, you will see that the new blurred color fill has created halos around the letters and shapes. These can be hidden by creating a simple cut-out mask...

In the Layers panel, select the design's original fill contents (not the blurred one) and choose Edit > Copy (Command + C). Next, use the Rectangle Tool (M) to create a rectangle shape above the design covering the whole artboard. Make sure that the fill color of this shape is white. Above this white rectangle, choose Edit > Paste in Front (Command + F) to paste the fill contents from the clipboard.

As in Step 31, merge the newly pasted contents to create a compound shape by choosing Object > Ungroup (Shift + Command + G).
In the Pathfinder panel, hold down Alt and click on the Unite and then Expand button.

Step 38: Create the 'Cut-out' Shape

With the silhouette compound shape positioned above the white rectangle covering the whole design, select both of these. In the Pathfinder panel, hold down Alt and click on the Minus Front and then the Expand button. This will effectively cut the compound shape out of the white rectangle, allowing the design to show through from beneath.

Step 39: Move the 'Cut-out' Shape into Position

In the Layers panel, drag the new white cut-out shape from the top of the layers' stacking order to a position above the blurred fill group (from Step 36). In doing so, the blurred halos seen around all the letters and shapes will be hidden by the white shape acting as a mask.

Step 40: All finished

The design is now complete. However, for further subtle color and texture additions, I have created two extra texture and gradient overlays by repeating Steps 25-33, both using different gradient colors and transparency settings.

The stacking order of the design's layers can be seen in the Layers panel (below). I have named the layers/groups to better identify their contents.

Final Image

The simple process of vector tracing a hand-drawn design and following a combination of color methods can prove effective in creating unique designs. Aside from spending time on getting the design right before working in Illustrator, I cannot emphasize enough the power of attention to detail. For me, a focus on the subtleties of color and pattern are essential, so I hope that this tutorial has given you some ideas that can be applied to your own creations.

The final image is below. You can view the large version here.

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