How to Make Abstract Typography Art with Illustrator


Click on the image preview to see the finished product in its full scale.


Recently, I’ve been getting more and more addicted to the world of typography. I am beginning to see why some designers become so particular about type to the point of indecision. Your choice in typeface could make or break your overall design. Typography is really a designer’s bread and butter, if you ask me. After all, typography is the most effective and versatile design tool a designer can use since, not only do the words themselves carry a message, but the typeface also has its own language.

Because of this fact, I’ve put it upon myself to keep learning and refining my eye for typography. Truthfully, there was a time in my life when Helvetica might as well have been Arial. Yes, I know, silly right?

The design is based on a single shape from which all the letterforms in the design can be derived. I wrote this tutorial as an exercise that will serve two purposes. The first is to get some practice with the almighty Pen Tool in Illustrator. The second is to reinforce the notion that typefaces work through some kind of uniformity in their shapes – a kind of language within the letterforms that we can achieve by creating all the letters based on a single shape. So let’s get the show on the road.

Step 1: Preliminary Sketches

First, I started making sketches in a notebook to get ideas. I sketched out shapes that I felt I could use as a basis for my design. Then I tried sketching out some letterforms using the different curves and angles to get a better idea of the overall feel of the type design.

Step 1: Preliminary Sketches

When I figured out the idea behind my rough sketches, I made a somewhat cleaner sketch, which I scanned into my computer. I didn’t spend too much time on this "clean" sketch since I knew I was going to be tracing it in Illustrator anyway. This clean sketch will serve merely as a rough guide.

A tip for designers and artists that don’t have access to a scanner: before I was able to buy my own scanner, I used to take photos of my sketches and drawings to place in my digital work. It might not be fancy, but it gets the job done.

If you want to skip this step for now and still follow along the tutorial, you can download my original scanned in sketch called sauce_sketch (which is also included in the source file package download at the bottom of this tutorial).

Click here to download the original sketch

Step 2: Setting up your artboard

Open up Adobe Illustrator. Create a new file.

Personally, I just use a typical A4 size for doing vector work. It gives me a nice workable size on my monitor. Since I’ll be working with vectors, I can scale the illustration up or down later if needed.

Step 2: Setting up your artboard

Place your scanned image into illustrator using File > Place.

Step 2: Setting up your artboard

Make the necessary adjustments to your image (rotate, resize, etc.), then click the Embed button in the Options bar.

Step 2: Setting up your artboard

Now we have our tracing image. Go to the Layers Panel and double-click on the layer in which you placed the tracing image. The Layer Options will pop up prompting you to change the Layer name, the layer’s selection color, etc. I named this layer creatively: tracing image.

We also need to lock this layer so that it doesn’t move around accidentally. This window is also where we can dim the tracing image by lowering its opacity, making tracing with the Pen Tool (P) easier.

Tracing the design

Step 3: Tracing the design

Now we are ready to start tracing with the Pen Tool (P). First, create a new layer on top of our tracing image and name it inked since we’re going to be sort of applying ink (digital, though it may be) to the sketch.

Use your Pen Tool (P) to start tracing the image. But first, go to the Appearance Panel and change the stroke to 1pt and change the Fill to None. This will help you see where you’re drawing your curves.

Tracing the design

Start the trace at the top of the "S". The letter "S" is the shape from which we will derive all of the letterforms in this design.

The Pen Tool (P) is perhaps one of the most intimidating tools in Illustrator, especially when you’re just starting out. It’s because the way it makes curves and lines is completely different from how you would draw on a piece of paper. However, with just a little time and some practice, it does get easier and just as instinctive as putting pen to paper.

Tracing the design

This image has a lot of pointy bits, so you will inevitably need to convert a Bezier curve anchor point into a "corner". You can do this by holding down Option/Alt on your keyboard and clicking the anchor point with your mouse. You’ll notice that your anchor point, which had 2 handles, now only has one.

Tracing the design

Oops! I’ve just made a mistake. What do I do now? The beauty about the Pen Tool is that there is really no need to panic when you mess up. All you have to do is either delete the anchor point where you messed up, undo your last action by pressing Cmd/Ctrl + Z, or adjust the anchor point using your Direct Selection Tool (A).Β  Personally, I like to adjust wayward anchor points whenever I can. Illustrator makes adjusting anchor points easy by remembering which of the selection tools you used last and you can easily access that selection tool by pressing and holding the Cmd/Ctrl key on your keyboard. For this adjustment, we will be using the Direct Selection Tool (A).

Tracing the design

Continue around the letter "S" with the Pen Tool (P) until you can close the shape. Once the shape is closed, I like adding a fill to the shape to get a better overall feel and to see if I need to make any more adjustments. You can do this by going to the Appearance Panel and choosing a fill color under the Fill property.

Tracing the design

Step 4: Setting up guides

If you look at my sketch, you’ll notice that the heights of the letters in my design aren’t the same. I want to make these heights uniform for the final product so before I continue with the illustration, I make guides using the height and the baseline of the "S" I just drew as the basis for the height of all my letterforms. You do this by showing your rulers (View > Show Rulers) or by pressing Cmd/Ctrl + R on your keyboard.

Then you drag out a couple of guide from the top ruler into your illustration. Set up as many guides as you think you need. You can turn off the guides on the artboard by pressing Cmd/Ctrl + ;.

Setting up guides

Step 5: Continue with tracing

Continue with the tracing. To create the "U", I just used my Pen Tool to mimic the curves of the "S" shape. I did this manually.

We will be using a copy of a part of the "U" to create our next letter. When done tracing the "U", select the anchor points you want to copy and then press Cmd/Ctrl + C then paste the copied shape by pressing Cmd/Ctrl + V.

Step 6: Creating the "C"

Not only will copying and pasting save you time, you’ll also get a more uniform and more finished look to your image when you’re done.

To create the letter "C", I used the Direct Selection Tool (A) to select the anchor points of the letter "U" that I wanted to copy and then I pasted it to a different part of the illustration.

Creating the "C"

Then I simply rotated the copied shape and used the guidelines to align what would now become the bottom part of the letter "C".

Creating the "C"

To create the top part of the "C" drag out another copy of bottom part of the "C". I do this by using the Selection Tool (V) and holding down Alt, and then dragging out another copy.

Creating the "C"

Then I transformed the new shape by reflecting, Object > Transform > Reflect, to fit the direction of the "C".

Creating the "C"

Reflect the shape horizontally.

Creating the "C"

Place the new reflected shape on top of the bottom part of the "C" and make any necessary adjustments by using the Direct Selection Tool (A) to grab the anchor points you want to adjust.

Creating the "C"

We now have the two shapes comprising the letter "C".

Now we have to make the "C" just one shape. Do this by using Pathfinder Panel which can be found in Window > Pathfinder or by pressing Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + F9. I usually keep the Pathfinder Panel docked in the user interface since it’s a tool that I use frequently.

Select both the top and bottom parts of the "C" and click on the Unite command on your Pathfinder Panel. You’ll notice that all the overlapping anchor points of the two shapes are gone and you will have just one shape for the letter "C".

Creating the "C"

Step 7: Creating the "A"

Next, we have to make the "A" and the "E" of the design. The more time I spend with this design, the more I see repeating shapes that I can use. If you look closely, the "A" and "E" can be made from the same shape with a few modifications.

Creating the "C"

Start by making the base of the "A". Just like with everything else we’ve done up to this point, the shape I’ll be using can be derived from the letter "S" in the design. Therefore, to create the "A" I will copy the bottom part of the "S" and modify it to fit the letterform. I do this by using the Direct Selection Tool (A) to select the anchor points I want to copy.

Then press Cmd/Ctrl + C to copy the anchor points and then Cmd/Ctrl + V to paste the shape.

Now, adjust the copied part of the "S" to fit the "A" letterform by selecting the shape and reflecting it with Object > Transform > Reflect. You must reflect the shape vertically.

Creating the "C"

Make the necessary adjustments using your Direct Selection Tool (A) until you are satisfied with the result.

Creating the "C"

Step 8: Creating the "E"

Now we can copy the shape we just made for the "A" and rotate it to fit the letter "E".

Creating the "C"

To make the tail of the "E", use a copy of the letter "C" that we created earlier and paste it over the "E".

Use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to drag around any anchors that you think might need adjusting.

When you’re satisfied with the outcome, select both shapes that comprise the "E" with your Selection Tool (V) and use the Unite command in the Pathfinder Panel.

Creating the "C"

Step 9: Refining the "A"

Looking at the bottom part of the "A", I feel like there’s something missing. I decided to copy the "S" entirely and I reflect it using Object > Transform > Reflect to form a sort of tail.

Then, resize the now backwards "S" shape to a desirable size by selecting the shape with the Selection Tool (V) and dragging one corner of the selection box while pressing the Shift key to retain the shape’s proportions.

Creating the "C"

At this point in the tutorial, we’ve copied and modified so many shapes and the design has taken on a rather uniform and decent look already. You can turn off the tracing layer to get a better idea of where you stand.

Creating the "C"

Step 10: Refining the composition

We’re almost there. Now we have to create the top parts of the letters "A" and "U".

Refining the composition

Now we go back to using the Pen Tool (P). I quite enjoy the curve of the top part of the "A" in the tracing image so I’ll just manually ink that shape using the Pen Tool.

Refining the composition

For the top part of the letter "U", apply the same shape as the top part of the "A" by selecting the shape to copy, and then paste the copied shape to the "U". Make any necessary adjustments using the Direct Selection Tool (A).

Refining the composition

Now let’s see where we stand.

Refining the composition

Now we get to fun the stuff, which is creating the ribbon that will wrap around the letters.

Using the Pen Tool (P), I start inking parts of the ribbon. Remember to turn off the fill of your shapes to get a better idea of what your shapes will look like. With the many changes that we’ve made from the original sketch, obviously some parts of the tracing image will not match perfectly with your inked version.

Refining the composition

This is where the fun begins. You can get really creative with the ribbon and make all kinds of twists and turns. This is where the Pen tool truly shines. After you make the finishing touches for the ribbon.

You’re done!


We covered how to create an abstract vector typography illustration using Adobe Illustrator. We followed some time-saving techniques such as replicating parts of your illustration to make new letters, using the first letter, "S" as the jump off point. Now you can use your design for any number of real world applications such as screen prints, T-shirts, etc.

Please share your own experiences designing custom type treatments in the comment section. Don’t forget to show off your work in our Flickr group pool!

Refining the composition

Download Source Files

  • stella

    thanks this looks like just what I need. I don’t have illustrator but I’ll take whatever I can from this and hopefully learn something. Some day perhaps I will be able to afford illustrator!
    Typography seems to be the big news at the moment – perhaps it’s the film helvetica? Or just me?

  • Jacob Gube

    In my opinion, typography has ALWAYS been big. But that’s just me. πŸ™‚ The movie, Helvetica, may have helped though, you’re right.

    Illustrator’s a great tool to have if you are doing rescalable vector illustration. You can certainly follow the principles that Ike shared here (he geared it for beginners) in Photoshop, using its Pen tool, but something like this is easier (and better) in Illustrator.

  • Matthew Heidenreich

    great tutorial, really descriptive. I’ve always lacked a little in Illustrator, so i’ve been working on toning my skills πŸ™‚ thanks!

  • Om Ipit

    i love this, is like ambigram. good work.

  • Bharat

    Great use of the pen tool. I never use illustrator much. I prefer Photoshop as i concentrate on web design. Still, the pen tool is very similar in both the softwares. Thanks for the tutorial. Got me inspired to do some typography works myself.

  • Marco

    Except that this isn’t an ambigram ( but it does look like one πŸ˜‰ )

    Nice tut folks – always love to learn some extra Illustrator!

  • David

    Yuck. Awful. Arcs, curves and negative spacing looks amateurish. Didn’t need a Tutorial on this topic. Professional Designers shouldn’t need to know this. A 1st Year Graphic Designer should know how to do this. Tutorial is far too long. Could have shown it in 4 steps.

    Psst….That’s not Typography.

    That’s just a design shape. *rollseyes*

  • Callum Chapman

    Awesome tutorial. Promoted! πŸ™‚

  • 1971dsgn

    Nice tutorial. But why not use the “Smooth-Tool”…much faster ;).
    And remember a straight line doesn’t need more than two BΓ©ziers ( As a curve only needs three ).
    “less is more”

    Greetings from the Netherlands

  • Laneth Sffarlenn

    Dude, this is AWESOME πŸ™‚ Not only is this a wonderful lesson in typography for a n00b like me, but it’s a brilliant lesson in using the Pen and other tools and things in Illustrator (which gives me nothing but trouble cos I’m so used to Photoshop…)

    Thanks very much indeed! Came here via a tweet by SmashingMag – Like Callum above me, I’ll be promoting this πŸ™‚

  • CholyClick

    Great tutorial!!!
    good work πŸ™‚

  • Projektowanie

    it was hard but i did it πŸ˜‰ thx man!

  • Isaac Gube

    GREAT! please post the result in the Design Instruct Flickr Group so we can all see! THANKS!

  • Debashis

    True, ambigrams are very unique by their nature and I am sure those require a lot of attention while creating them.

  • Zena Santos

    Man he made a very good. You should cut him some slack.

  • NltsGrafX

    Good tutorial ..bad typography.Its to busy and unless you seen this tutorial you wouldn’t know that the word was “Sauce”.To much going on around the letters.I call this overkill on Typography creativety. Then again maybe it was just something you through together just for this tut.

  • Andy Bishop

    Nice tutorial! If you don’t have Illustrator, there is an open-source program that’s similar called Inkscape ( It’s free, and I’m able to create things like this with it easily, also vector based. The process is only slightly different, and there are many tutorials on the web to help you get started.

  • The Inside Design

    Great tutorial and typography has been growing so much and personally i think it has always been huge and this tutorial is a great example of how creative typography can be created in just a few steps in Illustrator. Great Article! πŸ™‚

  • Wykonczenia

    Absolutely stunning technique for me. I’ve learned a lot thanks to you πŸ™‚

  • Sindre

    Seconded! Those curve terminals are especially horrendous, and the whole design looks like it’s drawn by a twelve year old graffiti writer wannabe. Another psst … thick and thin lines are supposed to indicate stress direction. This is just a mess.

  • Colin Hall

    Thanks Isaac,

    I’ve been searching for a way to present tattoo artists with my abstract designs for ages and although I’m a bit of a technophobe I think that I could give your excellent instruction a go.

    Many thanks

    Col πŸ™‚

  • Santhosh

    Great tutorial! Extremely detailed for a beginner to get this.. πŸ˜‰ My drawing skills needs a lot of polishing though.. Many thanks!

  • veerendra

    I’m searching how to create logos. Now I think I can stop surfing for logos. By seeing a great tutorial like you presented here for us. “Thanks” to your great mind. “Thank you very much” to “you”.

    Your fan veera.

  • budie

    i really thank you for the tutorial