One of my dear friends, Bert Monroy, has a wonderful podcast on Revision3 called Pixel Perfect. Some of you may remember that I've appeared as a guest on Bert's show in the past, where I've spoken about using Illustrator and symbols, 3D, animation, and the awesome Live Paint feature.
Recently, Bert did an episode on how to create a license plate in Photoshop. As always, the techniques that Bert teaches on his show are great. But I couldn't help myself in thinking that creating a license plate in Illustrator would not only be possible, it would end up looking better, and it would be scalable to boot.
The challenge though is quite apparent -- license plates feature text that is embossed into the metal -- and Illustrator, with all of the wonderful effects it offers, doesn't have an emboss effect. I know, kinda silly, right? Is that an oversight? Not exactly. An emboss effect a la Photoshop's Layer Style and now InDesign CS3's emboss effect, has been a pretty popular feature request over the years. There were some Illustrator plugins that created a simulated emboss effect that have come and gone over the years, but they were vector and never looked realistic enough.
In reality, Illustrator DOES have an emboss "effect" via the 3D effect. One could, in theory, apply a 3D Extrude, specify a Rounded bevel, and set the position of the rotation to Front. However, even with complex lighting settings, the emboss never looked good enough for me. Especially when you consider that depending on the typeface, you'll always get really odd self-intersecting errors, which don't help either.
So I spent a few minutes with Illustrator with this challenge, and came up with the following:
Not bad, eh? I think the emboss effect on the text looks realistic enough. In fact, if you zoom in close, you'll find that I've also applied a texture effect to the plate itself, in trying to simulate that metallic look. In the end, I was able to achieve the emboss effect using a single text object that is editable, meaning you can change the text to read whatever you like. I also created a Graphic Style of the effect, making it possible to apply that exact same appearance to anything else with a single click.
What was that? Oh, you want me to tell you how I did it? Ha -- you know me -- I wouldn't make mention of something here if I wasn't intent on sharing the knowledge. Well then, let's begin...
DISCLAIMER: I don't specify exact values for the techniques here, just the steps you need to take. The values will vary depending of size, font, and desired effect, so the point here is to encourage you to play and experiment.
1. The obvious point of this tutorial is the emboss effect, so I won't spend much time on the license plate itself. But it's pretty simple to create one anyway. A license plate is 12" wide by 6" tall. I used a CMYK document and set my Document Raster Effects Resolution to 150 (which would be enough for what we'll need in this technique). I rounded the corners (a license plate has a radius of .5"), drew out the holes for the screws and created a compound path so that the holes were punched out of the overall shape.
2. I filled the shape with a gradient and then applied a slight drop shadow for that realistic touch. To add the texture, I choose Effect > Effect Gallery and applied the Grain Texture effect. I then added the remainder of the graphics -- the background at the top and the New York State text. Finally, I added the text of the license plate itself. I hope you like my custom plate (no, it's not my real license plate -- I'm not the type to get "vanity" plates -- besides I'm sure they would look AWESOME on my "hey I'm a dad!" minivan). I should also point out that I chose Helvetica Rounded Bold Condensed for the typeface -- besides for the fact that license plates have a pretty "soft" emboss, I wanted to get that rounded look. You can experiment with different fonts on your own, but I would suggest that you avoid using a serif typeface.
3. As a reminder, the key here for me was to have everything included as a single appearance, which would allow us to keep the text editable and to apply it with a single click as a style to other objects, as needed. In the end, I accomplished the emboss effect using 3 fills, and built it in such a way that would work over any color background. So to begin, we need to wipe the type object clean. Select the type object with your Selection tool and set your fill and stroke to None.
4. In the Appearance panel, choose Add New Fill, and specify 50K for it. With the Fill still highlighted in the Appearance panel, use the Effect > Distort and Transform > Transform effect to offset the fill up and to the left. Then, duplicate that fill and change its Transform effect so that it is offset down and to the right. Your text should look something like this:
5. In the Appearance panel, select the fill that is offset to the bottom right and apply the Multiply blend mode. This will ensure that the color on this side of the text will always appear darker.Select the fill that is offset to the top left and apply the Screen blend mode. This will ensure that the color on this side of the text will always appear lighter.
6. In the Appearance panel, select one of the fills and choose Effect > Blur > Gaussian Blur. I chose 10 pixels but as I said earlier, you should experiment to see what works best. Don't worry -- as it's a live effect, you can always go back and tweak this to perfection later. Once you've applied the effect, select the other fill and apply the exact same Blur effect.
7. At this point, you can already see the embossed effect within the metal. Now all we need to do is add the inked letters themselves, which we'll do by adding yet another fill. In the Appearance panel, choose Add New Fill and make sure the fill is at the top of the object hierarchy. Apply a solid color. In my case, I chose a blue color.
8. There are two problems with the new blue fill we just added. First of all, the sharp edges "kill" the nice soft embossed look, making it look like the letters are sitting above the emboss instead of being part of it. Second, the text has no highlights or shading, making it look rather fake. We can solve both of these problems with one setting. In the Appearance panel, select the top-most blue fill and set its blend mode to Multiply. This will allow the inside of the blurred offset fills to act as shading for the blue fill.
At the end of the day, your Appearance panel should look like this:
Naturally, you can now simply drag the text object into the Graphic Styles panel to define a style. That way, you can apply this emboss effect to other text objects. As an added bonus, you can download my emboss graphic style right here. I'm sure you can tweak it to perfection for your own needs.
As long as you stay within Illustrator, or place native AI files or PDF files in InDesign, the license plate is infinitely scalable. Just make sure you have the Scale Strokes & Effects setting checked. I hope you have as much fun with this technique as I did putting it together -- and I want to give a special thanks to Bert Monroy who provided the inspiration for this technique. And now that I have the license plate, I'll have to find a Lamborghini to go with it... :)