July 10, 2008

TECHNIQUE: Emboss Text Effect

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... :)


Unknown said...

This is an awesome use of the Appearance pallet! I've been experimenting with that pallet since I saw you at ADIMX. gautch.wordpress.com is the on going results.

I never thought to use the blur to create an embossed affect. Great Job!

Gary Spedding, Ph.D. said...


I was thinking of posting a note to ask where you have been hiding - missing you and great stuff you write - then here you are with another brilliant piece. I actually did the Photoshop version to Illustrate that KY allows some very rude abbreviations for licence plates - now I'll try the Illustrator version. Thanks and good to see you back.

Unknown said...

Thanks guys. I'm not hiding -- just really really busy working on books, videos, books, videos, conferences, seminars, videos -- oh, and videos.

But this was too much fun to pass up. Glad you like it!

:) Mordy

Anonymous said...

Beautiful and I know how you feel, when you see some interesting PS work and thinking “hmm let me try that in illy!”

I like the result, on a more critical level, perhaps a stroke around the font, would add more depth and give it that punched out look, but again it depends on tast, colouring and so forth!

Parka said...

This is really cool.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mordy,
I saw the tutorial recently on pixel perfect as well and I thought that would be a really neat trick for illustrator.

Thanks for the idea. You're right... in Illustrator all you need is the appearance palette

Anonymous said...

I find it funny but this seems to be something like the way one would go about creating such an image in Pshop 3.0. Funny how time flies and the next thing you know you're doing it in Illustrator.


Unknown said...

Excellent tips. I love the fact that it stays a fully editable object and the Appearance can be easily applied to other items.

Any idea how to use similar techniques to get a deboss effect? I've been poking at it, but haven't been able to get the blurred offsets to clip within the main body of the type...

Imandesign said...

Thanks for this great tutorial, i also would not except that it would be easy to create this effect in illustrator.


Parka said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

A great tutorial!

However can you give a more detailed guide how it was done? Also as for the style you attached for download, how to edit it so that it can achieve the best result for my project? Thanks!


nadia said...


It is a nice tutorial - thanks. I am struggling with one final touch though - I use light colour on a dark background, which doesn't seem to work all that well.

Any suggestions?


J4e8a16n said...

To every body

How comes when I open the emboss.ai file I see the thumbnail of the palte but there is nothing visible than the crop area?


Eric Levy said...


Thanks for the great tut on embossing in Illustrator. It's really realistic looking.

I'm trying to apply it to a project I'm working on, but I keep getting an error: "Could not filter the image because the plug-in does not support images in this color space." This happens when I try to apply the Gaussian Blur.

I know only enough in Illustrator to be dangerous, so this error has me at a loss. (I've already attempted to change the color profile for the document.) Does anyone know how I can fix it?

Thanks in advance. (With apologies if this post is in the wrong place.)

Eric Levy said...


I found the fix to my own problem. It seems that under Effect>Document Raster Effects Settings if you have the Color Model set to Bitmap, it will cause this problem. I set it to RGB and everything worked perfectly.

I was able to finish the tut and move on with my project and it looks great.

Thanks Again!!

Eric Levy

Anonymous said...

Ingenious! Thanks so much for your help.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mordy, you're a timer saver.

Mary said...

I love you - you saved me on this one!

Dimitri P said...

Excellent tutorial! Clear and concise! Cheers!!

MyFakeName said...

This is a great tutorial. I am following it, but having a hard time making it work for a white on white emboss effect. The edges of my letters alway seem to sit above the emboss shadows. Any suggestions?

goingforthegold said...

This is an awesome tutorial! I have a couple of concerns though. I realize that this tutorial is to create the effect through TEXT but will it awesome work for OBJECTS? I followed the tutorial along with my object and it looks good, but not nearly as good as the finished outcome in the tutorial.

Am I doing something wrong, am I missing something? Or will it simply not work out all that great with objects opposed to text? Any help I'd truly appreciate, I've been trying to do this type of effect in illustrator for weeks!

Unknown said...

@amanda I imagine the technique should work fine on objects as well, although keep in mind that sharp corners or other odd-shapes may cause weirdness. As with anything, it probably needs tweaking or adjusting. Still wish we had a quick and easy emboss effect in Illustrator though :)

goingforthegold said...


Maybe you can help me out?


I'm pretty sure you'll be able to see that. This is what I'm looking for. I created this in illustrator and made that absolutely beautiful effect on it in photoshop. Obviously we all know that switching back and forth between these programs lowers the quality. I've tried playing around with the resolution and the dpi and the quality still isn't what it could be. So yeah, My edges are for the most part pretty round, I've been trying to figure out how to do this for week, we really want to send this to print but I refuse to until the quality is perfect! I've tried the 3D effect in illustrator, the gradient mesh, gradients in general, nothing gets it to how I want it to look and I know it's possible!

Anything you can do to help me out I'd really truly appreciate it, this is seriously driving me nuts!

Thanks again,

goingforthegold said...

Never mind I figured it out! :D

Anonymous said...

super cool!

Taimoor said...

Wao.!! its useful for me.. thank you

WynterSui said...

wow! such a realistic embossed effect on illustrator! thanks for sharing this!

FlashGirl said...

This is a very nice tutorial, however, since you set the colored layer to multiply, there won't be any place where the color, you chose will look like the original color, so one little tweak I would make would be to put a colored fill more on top of the others with the edge feathered (Effect/Stylize/Feather...) just right and the Transparency mode set to normal ... et voilĂ  ... some of the original color will show.

Dave Rapp said...

I can't figure out how to apply the multiply effect in the apearance panel.
When writing a tutorial please include all the steps.

travis rex said...

What is the 50K here? is it the hex code of the color of the text?

Unknown said...

50K is Greyscale 50%. I know, it's not that helpful here, but I worked it out looking at the colour setting in illustrator.

Grafikadam said...

Hi Mr. Mordy... Thank u very much for tutorial. I have been download your linked emboss.ai document. But i cant see nothing on the page when I open with illustrator cc.

h103 said...

All of your screenshots are 404. :-/

h103 said...

ALL of the screenshots are 404. Does this technique not work with CS6?

Bill Murphy said...

50K is 50% black in the CMYK colour space.