Illustrator Typography: Using the Appearance Palette

Adobe Illustrator is a fantastic app for creating complex vector typographical arrangements. The application is so big and complicated though that it can take years to figure out how to recreate some of the cool effects that you’ve seen elsewhere without coming up with complicated workarounds.

Today we’ll remove some of the mystery of working with strokes and fills by diving into the appearance palette to see not only how it works, but how to manipulate the items within to create some really cool effects.

2 Million+ Digital Assets, With Unlimited Downloads

Get unlimited downloads of 2 million+ design resources, themes, templates, photos, graphics and more. Envato Elements starts at $16 per month, and is the best creative subscription we've ever seen.

See More

Appearance Palette 101

To get started, open up Illustrator and select Window>Appearance in the menu bar. This should activate your Appearance Palette. This little palette often gets ignored but is in fact one of the key features that makes Illustrator such a powerful tool for creating and editing vector artwork.

We’ll be focusing on typography today but it’s important to note that the Appearance palette works on just about everything you create in Illustrator, not just type. The principals outlined in this article can readily be applied to shapes as well (though there are a few differences). In fact, let’s start with a basic shape just to see how the palette works. Grab your Ellipse tool, draw a circle, and with the circle selected, take a look at your appearance palette.

screenshot

As you can see, without any effort whatsoever, the palette is already filled with content. The item type is listed at the top (path) and the item contains three attributes by default: Stroke, Fill and Opacity. Note that we haven’t actually applied a stroke yet, but one appears anyway. Since the stroke is already present, we can easily manipulate its settings right here in the appearance palette. Below I gave the stroke a color and set its width to 7 points.

screenshot

Every item you see in the appearance palette is a separate piece of the puzzle that makes up your shape or type object. These pieces operate much like layers in the layers palette and can be independently arranged and manipulated. For instance, a stroke can either be placed below or on top of a fill. Also notice the buttons along the bottom of the palette and how similar they are to those on the layers palette.

Text Appearance

Now that you’ve got the gist for how the appearance palette works, grab your type tool and create some text. You’ll notice that the behavior of the appearance palette is a bit different here. It shows that we have a “type” object selected, but the fill and stroke are nowhere to be seen despite the fact that the text obviously has a fill.

screenshot

This is because your selection is more complicated than it seems. Instead of one text object, you currently have multiple letters selected, each of which can have their own attributes. You can see how this changes when you select specific letters rather than the entire object. Now the stroke and fill become apparent.

screenshot

This allows you to easily perform a variety of techniques such as giving specific letters different strokes, fills and effects even though they’re part of a cohesive unit.

Adding Multiple Strokes

Now deselect the specific characters in your text string and go back to simply clicking on the text object as a whole with the Selection Tool. Despite the fact that there aren’t currently any fills or strokes applied to the object as a whole, this is in fact how we will proceed to work with the object. Since we’ll make all our letters the same, it will be much more efficient this way than adding to each letter.

With the entire object still selected, click the first button in the strip along the bottom of the Appearance Palette to add a new stroke. You’re probably used to adding strokes using a different method but this is the best way to ensure that you have complete control over the appearance of the stroke.

Notice that this placed the stroke at the very top of the list, above the fill and characters. This is just fine for some uses but can make things messy when you increase the width of the stroke. See how the stroke covers the letters in a rather ugly fashion?

screenshot

To fix this, drop the stoke the the very bottom of the stack. Now no matter how thick you make the stroke, it won’t infringe upon the space occupied by the text.

screenshot

One of the best benefits of applying strokes with the appearance palette is that you can create more than one on a single object. Click the same create stroke button or even copy the current stroke, then make the bottom stroke thicker than the top stroke. Now make the Bottom stroke black and the top stroke white. Check out the cool double outline that results.

screenshot

If you were so inclined, you could really go nuts with this technique and create some complex outline treatments with as many strokes as you want.

screenshot

A more attractive, real-world application can be seen in the image below. Look closely at the word “Viking” and notice how many separate strokes have been applied, each with different widths and colors.

screenshot

Working with Fills and Effects

Adding multiple strokes has obvious benefits, but working with multiple fills might seem a little confusing. Why would you stack fills and wow would you even see them if they’re just overlapping? The answer lies in offsetting the fills in different directions so that they don’t completely cover each other up. The question then becomes how to offset a fill or a stroke. This is something I struggled with a lot when I was a beginner because even though I knew it could be done, the technique isn’t obvious and can be quite frustrating to figure out.

For some crazy reason, Illustrator doesn’t allow you to just select a specific fill or stroke and nudge it around. Instead you have to go through the effects palette to do this. To get started, hit the second button at the bottom of the appearance palette to create a new fill, then drag it to the bottom of the stack like we did before.

screenshot

Now, with the fill selected, click on the effects button and go to Distort & Transform>Transform. Be sure to have a look around at all the other effects as well. There’s a ton of great stuff in here like blur and roughen that can really add a lot of variety to your text treatments.

screenshot

Now, with the Preview box checked, start tweaking the Move controls near the bottom. As you can see, the result is a sort of custom-built shadow. You may have to change the color of the fill to see the effect.

screenshot

Stacking this effect gives you a nice bevel that mirrors a popular effect seen on many websites featuring a vintage, engraved look for the type.

screenshot

It’s important to note that if you want to go back and change the offset of the fill (and you will), you don’t do it by returning to the effects button. This will add another transform on top of the one you already have. Instead, expand the fill that you want to tweak and click on the Transform text. This will open the Transform window we saw above and will allow you to change the settings you already applied.

screenshot

Check out these techniques at work in another Letterhead example below. These guys continually churn out some really beautiful fonts and type treatments that blow me away.

screenshot

Fill vs. Stroke

You might be wondering why we performed that last effect with multiple fills instead of strokes. The truth is, you can actually pull it off with either. However, it’s much easier to work with fills when using offsets because you can end up with some weird, unwanted results with strokes. To illustrate, consider the following image:

screenshot

Notice how the fill has a nice, clean shadow effect while the stroke is actually empty inside. If this is what you’re going for, then by all means use a stroke, if not, you’ll have to really increase the thickness on that stroke to make it work. In the end, it’s much simpler to just use a fill.

Conclusion

I hope this tutorial has taught you a thing or two about using the Appearance Palette to achieve some interesting typographical effects. It can be a daunting tool to work with at first but I promise you’ll pick it up in mere minutes if you follow this article closely and play around a bit with your own experiments.

Now it’s time for you to teach me a thing or two. Leave a comment below and tell us about your favorite Appearance palette tricks and tips. Be sure to leave a link to a preview of the trick if you have an image to show us!