Use Type to Create Letter-Based Art in Adobe Illustrator

Designer and letterer Lauren Hom is known for bright, whimsical letterforms and quirky writing—which she employs for clients like Starbucks, Google, and Time magazine. In this tutorial, Hom demonstrates how she uses OpenType functions to manipulate typefaces in Adobe Illustrator CC, in order to create printable letter-based posters like the one seen here. (Follow the written steps, or watch the video tutorial at the bottom of this page.)


Before you begin designing your poster, write out your phrase so you can visualize the words and pick out the parts you want to highlight in your layout. I chose to highlight perfect and breakfast because they’re the most descriptive, and most meaningful, words in this phrase.


Open up an 8.5-by-11-inch vertically oriented document in Illustrator, pick your favorite swirly, slanted script typeface (I’m using Seventies by Lian Types), and type out your phrase with each word in its own text block. (This will make it easier for you to move things around in your layout.) Organize your words so that each line of text is around the same length. They don’t have to be exactly the same, but having similar lengths will help to ensure a cohesive layout and pleasant variation in type size.


Select all of your type and rotate it slightly counter-clockwise (using the Rotate tool). This will place your type on a diagonal baseline, adding a nice dynamic touch. Don’t rotate too much though, or your type will look like it’s falling backwards.


Since I chose perfect and breakfast as the words I want to highlight, I’m going to select them and increase them in size to visually call them out. Once I’ve decided on a size that feels good (I like the alternating shorter and wider widths as the reader moves down the page here), I’ll select all of the text and use the Align tool to center everything. Now it’s starting to look like a poster!


Next, we’ll use Illustrator’s typographic tools to perfect this piece. Did you know that most script typefaces come with an entire panel of alternative characters to play with? When you select an individual letter with your Type tool, Illustrator will automatically pull up alternative characters in your typeface for you to try out. Simply double-click on one of them to see it in your layout.


If you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can see an even more extensive selection by opening up the Glyphs panel (Type > Glyphs). In this piece, I really want to utilize different swirls and swashes to fill up the negative space between each line of text.


If your phrase has a word with an apostrophe, you might run into some spacing issues—as I did with the word isn’t. Since there was too much space between the n and the apostrophe, I needed to kern the two characters. I simply used the Type tool: I placed my cursor between the two characters and then held down the option key while using the left-arrow key to tighten up the spacing. Alternatively, if there isn’t enough space between your letters, you can hold down the option key and use the right-arrow key to add more.



The next step is to go through your piece, making kerning adjustments and experimenting with alternative characters. My favorite places to add fancy alternatives are at the beginning and/or ending of a word. Here’s a before-and-after look at how much of a difference this can make!


Once you have an idea of the characters you want to use, you might need to move a few words around slightly to accommodate new additions. It’s okay if words in the same line of text aren’t on the same baseline—just as long as they still read in the same order. I ended up nudging your farther up and to the right of but and nudging be a little down and to the right. I also opened up the Glyphs panel and decided to change the f characters in perfect and breakfast to a style with a shorter descender, because this led to more-consistent line spacing. Keep adjusting until you’re satisfied.


Generally, it’s best to avoid overlapping characters. However, sometimes it’s unavoidable (especially if you’re adding lots of decorative alternatives), and that’s OK. If you have any letters that overlap (like my and f in life), simply select the text with the Selection tool and press command-shift-O to turn the live type into outlined vector art. Now we can make adjustments to individual letterforms.


Select the overlapping letter that you want to be in front (in my case, the L) by double-clicking on it with the Selection tool or using a single click with the Direct Selection tool. Once you have just that letter selected, press command-shift-] (close bracket) to move it in front of the other letters in the word.


Next, add a thin white stroke to outline it (mine ended up being 1.5px). (Important: so that you don’t affect the letter’s shape, make sure to use the Stroke panel settings shown in the image below.) You can adjust the stroke weight to your liking. Once you’re happy with it, you can stop and save here for a simple black-and-white piece, or you can experiment with colors and illustrative elements.


I finished by adding color. I used the Rectangle tool to create a shape the same size as the artboard, filled it with the color blue, and pressed command-shift-[ (open bracket) to place it behind the type.

Once I settle on a background color, I usually press command-2 to lock the shape in place (you can always press command-option-2 to unlock it). Then I select all of my type and change it from black to white, finishing off the piece with a few simple star shapes to fill in some negative space.

Oh, and remember that overlapping L? Don’t forget to change its stroke color to match the background color so it blends in seamlessly!

Now you can print out your design at home or at a local print shop, pick up a frame from the thrift store, and add custom art to your walls in no time.

Click on the image to watch a video of this process—and when you’re ready, try it for yourself!

Download Adobe Illustrator CC to get started.

November 9, 2018