Steve Douglas on September 30th, 2010

type with outline

A short tutorial on the proper way to place an outline around type using Adobe Illustrator and the Pathfinder tool

As designers, we often take things for granted, at least in terms of what other designers do, and don’t know. Accordingly, we sometimes don’t write tutorials or help features on what we consider ‘basic’ stuff’ – little tricks and techniques that we assume others just know. And that includes how to place a simple outline around type, a favorite technique of many when it comes to logo design (above).

outlined font
Which brings me to one of my pet peeves -improperly formatted files. When working on Flash logo animations for clients, I sometimes have to work with logos that we didn’t design, with digital assets supplied to us.

improperly outlined fonts

I’m amazed sometimes what passes for file formats these days, especially when it comes to artwork that features letters with outlines (paths), usually created using the ‘Offset Path‘ function in Illustrator (below), a wonderful function that allows a designer to quickly, and accurately, place outlines around type. More often than not, the outlines are a mess, and while they may look fine in preview mode, when we look at the wireframe version, all the nastiness is revealed (above).

Offset Path in Illustrator

The whys for this are easy to understand. The designers simply types in the word, turns it into an vector-based outlined font (2) and then creates an outline using the Offset Path Tool (3). All pretty and all, but technically a nightmare, especially for any harried designer who tries to create a Flash animation later on. What’s the issue? Well, first of all, rather than 2 objects (the type and its outline) we have 8 objects (each individual letter and its outline). That’s not good. Secondly, the letters are on individual planes, so we have all sorts of messy ‘overlaps’ (blue circles below).

Outline overlaps

As I’ve seen this problem more and more with externally produced digital (see bad designer, no doughnut for more) figured a short tutorial on how to properly place outline paths around type is in order.

Creating outlines – the proper way

First, turn any font into a vector based object by using the ‘Create Outlines‘ function in Illustrator (Type > Create Outlines). Here’s the important part. You want that word to be one object (not a whole bunch of letters) so we’re going to use the Pathfinder tool to merge the letters into one vector shape (make sure your kerning is right before doing this). Simply select all the letters, open the Pathfinder menu and click on the ‘Add to shape area button’ (7 below). After that, click on the ‘Expand‘ button, and viola, your font is now considered by Illustrator to be one shape, as opposed to a series of individual letters.
Converting font to one shape
Now run the ‘Create Offset Path‘ function, this time on our newly merged font work. The result? In Preview mode, it looks just the same. In wireframe mode, it’s another story entirely (8 below)
Properly formatted outlines
Now, that’s a lot nicer than something that looks like this (files from a real job) doncha think?

Overuse of Pathfinder without any editing leads to this mess

I know I do.

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2 Comments to “The proper way to outline fonts”

  1. Steve, here’s an alternate way that I use, while allowing the type to remain editable. Use the Appearance palette to apply a stroke and fill to the text. It’s important to use the Appearance palette and not the Color palette to set the stroke & fill colors for the text. For some reason Illustrator has some kind of pseudo-hidden “Text colors” and “Object colors” kind of like In-Design, but not displayed that way by the software.

    Anyway, continuing with the Appearance palette, re-arrange the stacking order of the fill so that it is above the stroke. Double the desired stroke weight and use that value for weight. Half of the stroke is visible outside the path, while the rest is covered by the fill, visually achieving the desired weight. For some reason stroke is normally restricted to center alignment on the path of text. Why it’s like this in Illustrator, but not In-Design I’ll never know.

    The Appearance palette is a deceptively powerful tool that a lot of people overlook. Having the ability to add multiple strokes and fills to a single object each of which can have their own effects applied to is very powerful. In fact, you can put 2 fills on some text and use the Offset Path effect combined with the Pathfinder effect to do exactly what the article describes while still having the text be editable.