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How to Create Awesome Retro Text Effects in Illustrator

Sam Jones March 31, 2021 · 5 min read
Today I’m going to show you how you can use Illustrator’s Appearance panel to create editable vector text effects made up of Fills, Strokes, and various Illustrator Effects. The great thing about using the Appearance panel for this is that the effects you create will be completely customizable and won’t affect your ability to edit your text. The effects can also be saved as Graphic Styles, enabling you to reuse the effects and apply them to any object with a single click. Here’s a preview of the effect that we’re going to be creating today: finished-effect

Getting Started

Let’s get started by creating a new document 210 mm X 210 mm in size with the Color Mode CMYK. new-document Use the Rectangle Tool to draw a square that covers the entire Artboard and fill it with a nice off-white color (#F8F0E2). Follow this by using the Type Tool to add your text. As we’re going to be adding 3D and Drop Shadow effects later on, you’ll need to increase the letter-spacing. You can do this by setting the tracking in the Character panel (Window > Type > Character). type-tool

Set the Text Color

Once you’ve done that, go to the Tools panel (Window > Tools) and set your text’s Fill color to None. This will essentially make your text invisible, but don’t worry, we’re going to add a new fill using the Appearance panel (Window > Appearance). At the bottom of the Appearance panel you should see a row of icons illustrating various options. From left to right we have: Add New Stroke, Add New Fill, Add New Effect, Clear Appearance, Duplicate Selected Item, and Delete Selected Item. Click Add New Fill. This will once again apply a Fill color to your text, which will also appear as a new item in the Appearance panel. add-new-fill With the Fill item selected, use the Tools panel to change the color to a nice orange-red (#F05125). fill-color

Add An Offset Path

Follow this by clicking Add New Effect and selecting Path > Offset Path. offset-path-1 Change the Offset to 1 mm. offset-path-2 Effects that have been applied to items can be viewed by clicking the arrow to the left of the item name. This is important to know if you want to edit the effect later on. effects

Add a Second Stroke

Next, add a Stroke to your effect by selecting the Stroke item and entering 1.5 into the Stroke Weight field. add-new-stroke-1 Change the color of the Stroke to a slightly lighter orange-red than you used for the Fill (#F68C59). stroke-color

Make it 3D

Next up, we want to add a 3D effect. Start by making sure no existing items in the Appearance panel are selected (as this will apply the effect directly to that item rather than the type as a whole), then click Add New Effect and select 3D > Extrude & Bevel. 3D-effect-1 Edit the settings to match the following: 3D-effect-2 As you can see, applying a 3D effect initially makes the text look a little dark. This is because our text is now essentially a 3D object, which means we need to redirect the light towards the front. To do this move the light as close to the center of the sphere as you can. 3D-effect-3

Adjust the Lighting

Click New Light to essentially duplicate the light and give yourself an even stronger light source. 3D-effect-4 Now that we’ve corrected the position of the light, we can edit the Shadow Color. Select Custom from the drop-down menu and change the color to a dark red (#791616). 3D-effect-5

Add a Drop Shadow

To complete the effect, add a Drop Shadow by clicking Add New Effect and selecting Stylize > Drop Shadow. drop-shadow-1 Set the Color to black (#231F20) and edit the settings to match the following: drop-shadow-2 And there was have it! The finished effect. finished-effect

Create a Graphic Style

This can now be turned into a Graphic Style so that the effect can be applied to any other object with just a single click. To do this, go the Graphic Style panel (Window > Graphic Styles), click the panel menu icon, and select New Graphic Style. new-graphic-style Give your style a name and click OK. name-graphic-style Your Graphic Style will then appear, ready to use, in the Graphic Styles panel. graphic-styles-panel As Graphic Styles remain completely customizable, you can effectively use existing styles as templates for creating new ones. This is particularly handy if you’re working on a project in which you need several custom styles.

The Easy Way

If you lack the time to create a set of styles for yourself, check out Retro Textpress, a ready-made Graphic Style library containing 20 unique and customizable text effects.

Sam Jones is the owner of Sivioco, home of some of the bestselling design resources on the web. He also runs a blog where he shares free resources, training, and advice to help designers work better, faster, and smarter.
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22 Comments
  • Thanks Sam! I always wanted to learn how to create retro style text effects with illustrator. Maybe one day I will convert my photoshop retro style text effects to illustrator with the help of this tut. 7 years ago
  • This is great, @Sam Jones ! Awesome tutorial and very cool effect. The appearance panel is seriously the other layers panel. 7 years ago
  • Thanks for sharing a great tutorial! 7 years ago
  • You the man, Sam! (apologies for that haha). I've actually been playing around with different variations of this, so it's always cool to see alternative ways of achieving a similar effect. 7 years ago
  • @Sam Jones - I've used Photoshop for years, but am just starting with Illustrator & there's quite a learning curve. I just followed this and was able to do it all (very exciting). Here's my result - nothing fancy, but I was able to learn a lot about the appearance panel. Still some issues for me to learn about kerning and tracking! lol Thanks again for sharing! http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v730/dreamtreestudio/retro-text-effect.png 7 years ago
  • Thanks for a great tutorial, it looks cool :) 7 years ago
  • @Donna Casey Very nicely done! Thanks for sharing this with me, Donna. @Ana Segota You're welcome! 7 years ago
  • Great tutorial! Thanky you :) 7 years ago
  • This is fantastic. Not an avid user of Illustrator myself, but this looks like a lot of fun. Will try it some time :) 7 years ago
  • Anonymous
    Thanks so much for this! 7 years ago
  • Anonymous
    You'd get a better effect using Old Stock https://creativemarket.com/Borgeslettering/56658-Old-Stock-Adobe-Illustrator-Actions 7 years ago
  • Sam Jones
    @Shae Sweets No problem! 7 years ago
  • Thank you Sam for taking the time to write this. It's very informative! Plus I do love your Retro Text press 7 years ago
  • @Charles Borges de Oliveira You're welcome, Charles! Thanks for the kind words about Retro Textpress. I'm also a big fan of Old Stock. 7 years ago
  • Nice @Sam Jones – Really clear and helpful tutorial. And I can attest your Illustrator pack is a great shortcut for anyone who doesn't have time to learn the tutorial. 7 years ago
  • @Dustin Lee Thanks, Dustin! 7 years ago
  • Thanks Sam. I always forget to save styles in the "graphic styles" section for whatever reason. After going through this tutorial step by step, I think I can finally add this action to my memory bank for good. 7 years ago
  • [@Magdalena T.](user:743893) That's great to hear. It'll certainly make life a lot easier. 7 years ago
  • Thank you. Very informative. 7 years ago
  • Great tut, Sam. Always avoided the Appearance Panel, till now. Look out, world! 6 years ago