This tutorial shows you how to create a gradient that, when applied to a circle, provides the illusion of 3D. Beyond that, you can make copies and manipulate the circles to create custom looking typography such as metallic text. It's fairly simple but can create some stunning results. This tutorial was created in Illustrator CS6.
1. Setting up
Create a new document using pixels or points as the unit of measurement. Set the Fill box to a gradient fill by clicking the Gradient box at the bottom of the toolbar. Set the Stroke box to no color.
2. Create a circle
Select the Ellipse tool and click once in your document. When the settings appear, enter the values shown and click OK.
3. Adjust the gradient
Since you're working with a fairly small shape, I recommend zooming in on it. Open the Gradient panel and select Radial from the Type menu.
4. Add colors and set positions
Hold down the Option key on your keyboard (Alt key for Windows) and click and hold down the mouse button on the white color box below the gradient bar. Drag a copy of this box to the right of the original.
Repeat this three more times so you have a total of 6 color boxes that make up the gradient.
Edit the locations (the percentage value) and colors of the boxes to match those shown below.
If you double-click a color box and see only one color bar to edit, click the menu icon in the upper-right of the panel and select RGB. You can then enter the RGB values from the previous image. Repeat this for all the color boxes.
5. Adjust the gradient on the circle
With the circle selected, click on the Gradient tool in the toolbar. What appears over the circle is, what's called by Adobe, the Gradient Annotator. It can be used to adjust the angle and spread of the gradient as well as allowing you to reposition color boxes in the gradient.
Using the image below as a guide, click near the top of the circle, keeping the mouse button held down, and then drag the cursor towards the bottom before releasing the mouse button. Look closely at the image to observe that the top click wasn't at the very top of the circle and that the bottom click wasn't at the very bottom of the circle. I've added guidelines to help clarify.
If you need to make adjustments to the the length of the line you created, hover over the bottom part of the gradient until you see the follow appear near the cursor.
Once you see that, you can click and drag the gradient line down (or up) to adjust the length.
To adjust the position of the gradient on the circle, hover over the larger circle at the top of the gradient line. When the circle turns black, click and drag to reposition the line.
Finally, if you need to rotate the gradient line, hover the cursor over the dashed circle that makes up the general spread of the gradient and then click and drag to rotate.
6. Add a shadow
Now that the gradient tweaking, editing, manipulating, repositioning, et cetera, et cetera is complete, you'll add a drop-shadow to the circle for further dimension. Select the circle and choose Effect > Stylize > Drop Shadow. Adjust the settings to match those shown below and click OK.
7. Create copies and resize
Zoom out to observe the magic that you've created. Ok, now zoom back in. We can't fool around all day! As a "safety" measure, double-click the Scale tool in the toolbar. In the options that appear, make sure "Scale Strokes & Effects" is enabled.
If this is not enabled and you scale down your circle, the shadow maintains its same offset values as if it were still a larger circle.
Select the circle and make a copy of it (Edit > Copy). Paste three copies into your document (Edit > Paste).
Select one of the copies and, in the Control panel just below the menu bar, set the width and height to the following values:
Select another circle and set the width and height to the following:
One more circle with the following values:
This all results in four different sized metallic balls.
8. Type something
For this step, choose a bold weighted font and type out something in a very large point size. For my example, I used the font Kavaler Kursive from dafont.com set at size of 200 pt.
Convert your letters or numbers to outlines via Type > Create Outlines. Keep them selected and go to View > Guides > Make Guides. Lock your guides (View > Guides > Lock Guides) if they aren't already.
9. Fill in the guides
The final step is to simply fill in the guides with a number of copies of the circles. Here, I'm partially done. Notice the variety of sizes of circles used as well as the spacing. This will take some time but the end result is worth it.
Since this process can be a bit time-consuming, use a quicker method than copy and paste. Select a circle, hold down the Option key (Alt key on Windows) and click/drag out a copy. And by click/drag, I mean click and hold down your mouse button, then drag out a copy and then release the mouse button first then the Option/Alt key.
Once you're done, hide your guides View > Guides > Hide Guides.
Try different colored gradients. Here's something that looks like plastic beads.
And, if you have more patience than you know what to do with (like I apparently have), you could enhance the metal balls by putting reflections of other balls in them. Just a bit more realism. These are simply black circles or ovals with an opacity value of 60%. Blending mode, set via the Transparency panel, is set to Hard Light.
Here's a close-up of those circles and ovals.