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How to Design a Retro Poster in Adobe Illustrator

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Can’t live without your coffee fix? This cheerful, retro-style art would make the perfect addition to any kitchen—a visual companion to your morning brew. 

In this tutorial, we’ll be using a variety of tools in Illustrator (including the Pen, Pencil, and Pathfinder tools, among others) to create easy vector illustrations. We’ll also modify some stylish typefaces to complete our design.

If you’re in the mood for a quicker project, you can get a head start with this vector bundle. You can place the coffee pot and cup shapes as they are, or add your own embellishments to them.

For further inspiration, check out other retro and coffee vectors over on Envato Market

Ready? Let’s get to it!

1. Set Up Your Document

Step 1

We’ll start by opening a new document in Illustrator. I’ve set my document size at A3, a common poster size that’s roughly equivalent to 11 x 17 inches in U.S. measurements. You can see the setup below:

Open new Illustrator document

Step 2

Next, we’ll choose our colors. If you’d like to use the same color palette as I am, you can plug in the hex codes listed below. Just double-click on the Fill box in your toolbar (where your color selections appear) and enter a code in the box at the bottom of the window, the one that’s preceded by a number sign (#).

Choose color palette

Step 3

Add a background by using the Rectangle Tool to fill the whole art board with our yellow color / #F9CF1C.

Lock the layer it’s on in the Layers panel by clicking the empty box to the left.

2. Place the Typography

One of the keys to creating a design that reflects a certain time period is choosing authentic-looking typefaces. For this project, we want a style reminiscent of the 1950s and 60s (commonly referred to as “mid-century” or “mid-century modern”). I’ve chosen two free typefaces designed to echo this era, which you can download at the links below:

Step 1

Create a new layer and type out ‘Fresh’ at 170 pt. Change the font to Carosello and the color to orange / #F77823. Then make the ‘F’ slightly bigger, about 180 pt.

Step 2

Type out ‘COFFEE’ at 145 pt. Change the font to Maiden Orange and the color to teal / #3BAD9D.

The letters look a little too thin next to the thick strokes of the script font, so give ‘COFFEE’ a 5 pt stroke and change the Tracking to 50. Both of these settings are accessible in the Type toolbar that extends across the top of your screen when you select a text box. 

Add text stroke

Drag both words into the upper right corner of the artboard, where we’ll be arranging them. This is what we have so far:    

Place text

3. Modify & Embellish the Type

Now we’ll make some changes to the text to give it a little extra retro flair.

Step 1

First, select ‘Fresh’ and go to Effect > Warp > Rise and set the Bend to 18%.

Warp text

Next, using one of Illustrator’s default brushes, we’ll add some underlining under ‘Fresh’ for emphasis and to fill the space between it and ‘COFFEE’.

Step 2

Select the Paintbrush Tool. From your Brush Libraries Menu, select Artistic > Artistic_Ink and find the Tapered - Round brush.

Draw a couple of orange swashes under 'Fresh', following the tilting angle of the letters. If your lines turn out a little lumpy, drag the Smooth Tool across them (located under the Pencil Tool; access it with a click-hold). I changed the stroke of the top line to 1.5 pt and kept the bottom line at 1 pt so there would a little variation between them, as if they were really painted with a brush.

Create swashes with paintbrush tool

Some Illustrator brushes can vary slightly from the stroke color you assign to them. Here, you might notice that the lines appear to be a lighter orange than the ‘Fresh’ text. If you ever notice this issue in your work, just select the brush strokes that don't look right, go to Object > Expand Appearance, and re-select your desired color swatch.

Step 3

Our last embellishment is to add a subtle shadow to ‘COFFEE’. First, we want to make the letters all one shape, so we don’t have to mess with changing the fill and stroke colors separately. To do this, go to Type > Create Outlines, then Object > Expand (leave the default settings) > OK. To finish the process, select Window > Pathfinder > Unite.

Now copy and paste ‘COFFEE’ to duplicate it. Change the color to gold / #F9B31C and position the copy slightly below and to the left of the original word. Now click back to the teal “COFFEE” and select Object > Arrange > Bring to Front.

Add shadow to text

And now we’ve completed the typographic portion of our project. You may want to adjust the placement until you like the way the words sit together.

4. Create the Illustrations

Now we get to add our main artwork: the coffee pot and cup. You can approach this part however you like, but some techniques you might consider are:

  • using preexisting vector shapes, like the ones linked in the introduction 
  • drawing them freehand, either on paper first or straight in Illustrator 
  • using a reference photo and the Pen Tool   

I chose the third option for a couple of reasons. One, I like the control the Pen Tool offers for creating both curved and geometric shapes. Two, I had a particular style of coffee pot in mind, and wanted to get the shapes right with the help of a reference photo.

If you’d also like to use this method, some basic steps will follow. For reference photo suggestions, see the links below (Creative Commons-licensed images via Flickr, courtesy of user Jay Kaye). The ones I’ll be using are the first options, but you can use these techniques no matter which photos you choose.

  • Coffee Pots: 1, 2, 3
  • Cups: 1, 2, 3

Step 1

Place your reference photo off to the side of your artboard and reduce its opacity to about 50%. Using the Pen Tool, outline the basic shapes of your coffee pot. If you want any parts to be a different color than the main body, make them separate shapes for easy coloring later. Don’t worry about creating perfectly straight lines; shapes that are a little off-kilter will suit this style fine.

Here’s how my outlining turned out. Even though the spout will be the same color as the rest of the pot, I gave it its own shape to create clean angles where it attaches.

Outline coffee pot with pen tool

Step 2

Change the outlines into filled shapes by clicking the Swap Fill and Stroke arrow or hitting Shift-X. Apply whatever colors you like. You may need to send some of your shapes backward (such as the handles here).

Fill outlined shapes

Place your finished coffee pot in the lower left-hand corner and size it to fill about two-thirds of the space below the text. Make sure the spout is pointing to the right. If the reference photo you’re using has it facing in the other direction, it’s an easy fix. Just drag your cursor to select the whole pot, then click Object > Transform > Reflect > Vertical.

Step 3

Repeat the previous two steps for the cup. If you need to cut out a shape, such as the inside of the handle, an easy way is to make sure that shape or outline is in front, select it and the background shape (holding down Shift), and go to Window > Pathfinder > Minus Front (that’s the second button in the top row).

Outline cup with pen tool
Fill shapes with color

Place the cup across from the pot in the right corner (handle facing outwards). For the inside of the cup, I chose a lighter version of our teal color.

5. Add the Finishing Touches

Step 1

Can’t forget to fill your cup! Use the Ellipse Tool to add a dark brown oval for the coffee. You can use the Direct Selection Tool to drag out the oval’s anchor points until it fits the inside of your cup. Finish it off by drawing a lighter brown curved shape with the Pen Tool for a highlight.

Fill coffee cup with ellipse tool

Step 2

Create a new layer and move it to be second from the bottom in the Layers Panel. Use the same technique as the previous step (Ellipse Tool and moving anchor points) to add shadows beneath the pot and cup in our gold color.

Create shadows with ellipse tool

Step 3

Our last step is to draw some steam coming out of the coffee pot. Use the Pencil Tool at 3 pt and with a stroke color of white. Draw some squiggly, overlapping lines that fill the space above the pot and to the left of the text. I found that the best way to create fluid, crisscrossing lines was to draw them in two loops that both begin and end at the spout of the coffee pot.

Draw lines with pencil tool

That's All, Folks!

Great work—I think you've earned yourself a coffee break. I hope you’ve had fun using some of Illustrator’s most basic shape and drawing tools, along with some handy shortcuts, to create easy vector illustrations. If you’re interested in learning more about creating authentic-looking mid-century-style designs, make sure to check out our 10 Top Tips for Creating Retro-Inspired Designs.

Feel free to share how your project turned out or ask questions in the comments section. As always, happy designing!

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