Beautiful 3D Text in Illustrator

Illustrator has built-in 3D effects to make 3D text but this process creates better, more manageable results. Using the 3D effects creates way too many border shapes to work effectively with. My process yields fewer shapes that are easier to recolor. Let's get started!

1. Select and set your type

This tutorial is fairly easy to do with a sans-serif typeface. I'm using the over-used Gotham typeface from Hoefler & Frere-Jones at typography.com. When choosing a typeface, look for a bold weight that will show off the 3D detail. Work in large font sizes to make things easier. I set this word at 150 px. You can always scale down later.

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2. Outline and offset

Select your text and, from the menu bar, go to Type > Create Outlines. This will convert your editable text into non-editable text shapes.

Keep the text selected and go to Object > Path > Offset Path. For my large type, I'm using an offset value of 6 pixels.

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Just make sure your offset isn't too thick to blow out small spaces. For example, if I used too big of an offset, the little space within the A would be non-existent.

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3. Recolor the offset shapes

This step merely recolors the offset shapes. The contrast between the two colors will make editing in later steps easier.

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4. Adjust spacing (if necessary)

If some of the letters are touching as a result of the offset, such as the C and T in the below example, ungroup the type and make spacing adjustments.

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5. Shear the type

For added visual interest, I used the Shear tool to slant the text a bit.

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6. Create the facets

This process may be a bit tedious but it's necessary to create the tops, bottoms and sides of the letters. Enable Smart Guides (View > Smart Guides) to make this easier. Use either the Line Segment tool or the Pen tool to create paths that connect anchor points from the original letter shapes to the offset shapes.

Using Smart Guides, you'll see "anchor" labels appear to help you make connections. It also helps to use a stroke color that contrasts with the two existing colors. Below is the result of connections I made on the first two letters. And it's perfectly fine if the connector lines are longer. It's critical the lines be exact or longer when it comes to creating the facets.

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7. Handling curved letters

When it comes to making connections on curved letters, you'll use your best judgement. Make connections where it's obvious, such as these parts of the letter "P".

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Given that this is dimensional text, you'll want to consider your light source. For my end result, the light is coming from the top left. As such, I'll make connection lines where I feel the light will change. Below are the connectors on the letters "P" and "C".

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8. Divide the letters and offsets

This is where the exact or longer connector paths are crucial. Select all of the shapes (letters, offsets, connectors) and click the Divide command on the Pathfinder panel. This will create the individual facets on the letters.

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9. Apply fills

Ungroup the results of the Divide command via Object > Ungroup to make selecting individual shapes easier. Select at least 4 colors to use on your letters. One is really bright, two are medium colored and the remaining is dark. I'm using a range of yellow/orange colors.

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Here's the first few letters with color applied to the facets.

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10. Those curves again!

I use gradients when it comes to the curves on the letters. Gradients blend into one another and look more natural. By not using gradients, you get this.

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Here, the same letter with gradients applied.

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You can stop coloring the offset paths at this stage or you could also apply gradients to the other letters as I've done here.

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11. Coloring the main letters

For the fills of the letters, I'm sticking with my yellow/orange color palette. The fill color I'm using is R:255 G:145 B:0. It also features a 2 pixel wide stroke of a light yellow color (R:255 G:246 B:154).

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Now, at this stage, you may see some random paths on your letters. This is a result of using long connector lines. I've kept the black fill on to show you an example of this. You should be able to simply delete them with the Delete Anchor Point tool.

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12. Inner glow

Select all of the letter shapes (exclude those offsets!) and apply an Inner Glow effect (Effect > Stylize > Inner Glow) using the following settings.

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13. Adjust the stroke

The previous step has the unfortunate effect of muddying up the strokes from the glow. To counter this, make sure all your letters are still selected, open the Appearance panel (View > Appearance) and set the blending mode of the strokes to Screen.

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Ain't that perty?

14. Almost there!

Make a copy of the layer. Lock this top layer and turn off its visibility.

If you have letters with holes in them, such as the P and A here, you'll need to do a little bit of editing. Those holes are actually shapes unto themselves. These were created as a result of the Divide command and we need to delete them. I've colored one so you can see it.

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They're virtually impossible to select on their own so select a shape near them and cut it (Edit > Cut). Locate the hole shape with the Selection tool and delete it.

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Once deleted, paste the cut shape back into the document using either Paste in Front (Edit > Paste in Front) or Paste in Back (Edit > Paste in Back).

15. Merge the shapes

With the holes removed, select all of the shapes and apply the Unite command from the Pathfinder panel.

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16. Last step! A drop-shadow.

Select the merged shapes and set the fill color to a light yellow or white. Too dark of a color and you'll see dark fringes on your dimensional letters. Apply a drop shadow (Effect > Stylize > Drop Shadow) to the letters using the settings below.

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Turn visibility of the other layer on and wipe that tear of pride from your face. You're done!

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About the author

My name is Mike Hamm. I like robots. I'm a designer, author, teacher and illustrator. I currently work as a Senior Designer at Expedia. I'm co-author of Introduction to Web Design Using Dreamweaver and have contributed articles and artwork to Layers Magazine as well as several Illustrator WOW! books. I've also been teaching and developing Adobe Illustrator courses for Sessions College for Professional Design since 2003. You can view my never complete portfolio website: hammbience.com.

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