Adobe Illustrator tutorial: Create 3D type art in Illustrator

Use Illustrator to create 3D technical-style illustrated lettering.


For some reason, many graphic designers shy away from using 3D, perhaps thinking that it is more relevant to architects, animators and product designers.

In fact, Illustrator features some basic 3D effects, which, as Jing Zhang shows in this tutorial, can be combined to create surprisingly detailed, technical-looking images.

The 3D effect is particularly useful when it comes to typography. As Jing Zhang shows, you can play with the basic forms of the letters to produce really creative and intricate typographic solutions.

For this tutorial, you’ll need to work on many layers of the same document, turning layer visibility on and off as each stage demands.


Adobe Illustrator

Time to complete

1.5 hours

Step 1


Create a new A4 file in Illustrator, in Portrait orientation, and use Arial to type in a capital  ‘F’,  in black. Create an outline and set the Stroke colour to grey. To prevent the Brush tool from creating odd shapes later, use the Direct Selection tool (A) and Convert Anchor Point tool (Shift + C) from the Pen tool set to adjust the sharp corners into round ones. Delete the line on the left. Set the stroke to 15 pixels.

Step 2


Now you can convert the 2D outline into 3D. Click on the shape and then go to Effect > 3D > Extrude and Bevel Options. Tick the Preview box. Set the Position option to Isometric Left – remember to use the same angle of the position (or relevant) for the whole image.

Set the Extrude Depth to 2pt, but leave the rest at their default settings.  You now have the basic shape of the building. Next, double-click on the path – and name it ‘F_outline’.

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Step 3


Based on the main F shape, you can now create a conveyor belt.  Copy (Cmd/Ctrl + C) the ‘F_outline’ and Paste (Cmd/Ctrl + F) the new path on top of it, naming it ‘ConveyorBelt’. Change the stroke colour to yellow.

Open the Stroke panel on the right-hand side, bring down the Option menu, tick the Dashed Line box and set the stroke to 3pt. Then open the Appearance window, double-click on 3D Extrude & Bevel Options, change the Extrude Depth to 20pt to make the belt wider and more visible. Send the ‘ConveyorBelt’ path backward to behind the ‘F_outline’ path by hitting Cmd/Ctrl + [.

Again copy the F_outline path and paste the path behind it (Cmd/Ctrl + B), send it to the back (Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + [). Nudge the position gently until it resembles the screengrab.

Step 4


Make the ‘F’ layer invisible. On a new layer, use the Ellipse tool (L) to draw a circle on the stage. Hold down Alt/Opt as you draw, to create a perfect circle shape (or Alt/Opt + Shift to draw the circle from a central point). Change the colour as shown here.

Repeat step 2 to apply the same 3D effect on the circle path. Next create a smaller circle. Name it ‘WheelShade’, then click Effect > 3D > Rotate Options; set the position to Isometric Left again. Duplicate the ‘WheelShade’ path (Cmd/Ctrl + C, Cmd/Ctrl + B) and resize it as shown.

Now use the Gradient tool (G) to add some lighting. Repeat these steps to add a few bits and bobs to the wheel to make it more detailed. Group them together by hitting Cmd/Ctrl + G.

Step 5


Use the Rounded Rectangular tool, Rectangular tool (M), and Ellipse (L) to draw up some random shapes, as if you were creating technical patterns for a device’s accessories. Repeat Step 2 to convert these to 3D, play with Extrude Depth to achieve the best result.

You can also change them to any colour you want. However, if you’re using the Extrude & Bevel effect, don’t apply the Gradient effect before you expand them (Object > Expand Appearance) since the  the 3D effect in Illustrator won’t be able to generate a colour selection of its shadows and highlights. 

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Step 6


Once you’ve created all the elements, duplicate them and start to combine them as though you’re an engineer assembling a machine. Once you’re happy with a new part, group its separate elements into one symbol, so you can duplicate it over and over.

Remember that Illustrator isn’t a 3D program and it can’t visualise your 3D world automatically, so you need to think it through beforehand. Make sure you avoid impossible 3D shapes as shown above, and make it as realistic as possible.

Step 7


Now draw a straight line using the Pen tool (P) or Line Segment tool (\), holding Shift to make it horizontal. Then add an Anchor Point (+) in the middle. With the Direct Selection tool (A), drag the Anchor Point to a lower position while holding the Shift key. Then use the Convert Anchor Point Tool (Shift + C) to smooth the corners, naming it ‘Wire_Pattern’. Open the Brushes window and drag ‘Wire_Pattern’ onto it.

In the new window that pops up, select the New Pattern Brush Option, and click OK for everything. Now draw a new straight line, and apply the new brush pattern you’ve just created. Repeat Step 2 to convert it to 3D. As in Step 6, create some bits and bobs for the end of the wire.

Step 8


With the Rounded Rectangle Tool selected, draw a long shape (66x343 pixels) on the stage, repeat Step 2 to convert it to 3D, set the position as Isometric Right, change the Extrude Depth to 115pt. Click More Options to bring down the Lighting menu and add another lighting source to make it look more plastic and the colours more varied.

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Step 9


Create a rounded rectangle on the stage and duplicate it. Then apply Effect > 3D > Rotate Options effect on both of them and select Object > Expand Appearance. You can use the Gradient tool to make the shade stand out a bit more. Nudge one of the rectangles slightly and go to the Window menu to switch on Pathfinder. With both shapes selected, click from the Pathfinders to trim them both. Now delete the extra part from the group.

Step 10


Repeat Step 9 but make this new embossed shape thinner. Duplicate the new symbol 20 times. Turn on the Align window, and use the Distribute Objects and Align Objects to line up your objects on the stage. Arrange them carefully, as shown here.

Step 11


Make all the layers visible again and arrange the components as shown. Finally, draw a small character to make it look more lively. Use a photo and trace it with the Pen tool. It doesn’t need a lot of detail, just as long as it looks like a person.

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