Flat, two-dimensional text can blend in with other design elements and make your design look lackluster. Discover how to make 3D text in Illustrator using realistic drop shadows.

Computer mockup image via mirtmirt.

Drop shadows might get a bad rap in the design world, but there is truly no easier way to elevate type by adding three-dimensional elements to two-dimensional text. These shadows range from subtle hints of color to more prominent or textured shadows. Designers and typographers have continually evolved the appearance of this style by adding grunge textures, drastic shadows, and gradients or halftones.

There are several techniques for adding realistic and solid color drop shadows to your typography; let’s dive into how to make 3D text in Illustrator using a two simple drop shadow methods.


How to Make 3D Text with Extrude & Bevel Effects

Illustrator’s handy Extrude & Bevel effects will quickly simulate a three-dimensional appearance on your text. You can then add gradients to the drop shadows, which will create the points of light typically seen in 3D shapes.

Before and after of drop shadow applied to text

Begin by typing out the phrase of your choice with the Type Tool (T). I recommend setting your type to all caps; lowercase styles, depending on the font, may make your design hard to read.

Check out this primer on the Adobe Illustrator Type Tool to learn how to write text on an angle, on a curve, and more.

When you add drop shadows to typography, stick to mono-weight sans-serif styles, such as Montserrat, or a bold slab serif, like Zilla Slab. Usually more sophisticated serif and script styles are difficult to read with drop shadows applied.

Make 3D Text Tutorial - Sample Text

Using the Selection Tool (V), activate your text object and navigate to Effect > 3D > Extrude & Bevel. This handy menu allows you to quickly manipulate the look of vectors with unique three-dimensional effects, like drop shadows or isometric projection.

The Extrude & Bevel Options menu will typically default to an Off-Axis Front setting. Set your measurements to around 6 degrees8 degrees, and 0 degrees. These numbers will closely mimic a subtle drop shadow look; any numbers larger than these might tilt and obscure your text. Adjust the Extrude Depth to alter the depth of your drop shadow. I stick to a depth of 100 points or less; depths larger than 100 can be hard to read.

Change the Surface to Diffuse Shading to resemble a three-dimensional look. Then see how your text looks by checking Preview and then click OK to return to your design.

Make 3D text tutorial - Use bevel and extrude effects on text

Your text is still visible within the text box and is not yet editable. In order to make the text editable, convert each letter to individual vector shapes by heading over to Object > Expand Appearance. Then, ungroup each letter with Shift + Command + G.

Open the Pathfinder menu (Window > Pathfinder) and select the Unite command – it looks like two squares meshed together – to even out the color within the rounded portions of each letterform. Rinse and repeat for the remaining letters.

See all the things you can do with the Pathfinder tool in Illustrator.

Make 3D text tutorial - Use pathfinder panel to connect drop shadow to text

To simulate shading and highlights within the drop shadows, let’s apply gradients to the rounded portions with the Gradient palette (Window > Gradient). It’s important to stick to two or three swatches within the gradient slider for a smooth, even transition. Think of where the shadows may appear, and take note of the highlights that may be accentuated in the drop shadow.

Everything you need to know about creating Gradients in Illustrator.

Make 3D text tutorial - Add gradient to drop shadow


How to Make 3D Text with Solid Drop Shadows

You can have more control over the depth and appearance of your shadows by utilizing the Duplicate command and the Pen Tool. This technique is ideal when working with solid shapes and helps to emphasize title treatments and headlines.

Make 3D text tutorial - Before and after of sample text with solid drop shadow applied

Begin with a legible font style, such as Josefin Sans Bold. When you create your own drop shadows, stick to geometric fonts with sharp terminals, instead of rounded or serif styles.

Make 3D text tutorial - Write sample text

Convert your text to individual paths by heading to Object > Expand. Each letter now behaves as a vector shape so they’re easily editable.

With the Selection Tool (V) click on your text and duplicate it by holding down the Option key, then dragging across. Position your duplicated text against the original text to replicate a drop shadow; I prefer to create a subtle shadow by placing the text just a few pixels down and to the right.

Send your drop shadowed text behind by hitting Command + [. Next, alter its color with the Color sliders. Use contrasting or darker hues for an eye-catching drop shadow. To complement the purple text below, I brought in blue-toned hues to my drop shadow.

Make 3D text tutorial - Duplicate text and change color to create a drop shadow

Activate the Direct Selection Tool (A) and click on a letterform to display the anchor points. Add an anchor point to your shape with the Add Anchor Point Tool (+) located within the Pen Tool (P) dropdown.

Click and drag the anchor point to connect the drop shadow to the original type, as seen below. For rounded portions, add an anchor point in-between the established points along the curve. Dragging an existing point will distort the curves seen in your letters. After that, rinse and repeat on the remaining letterforms to achieve something like this:

Make 3D text tutorial - Connect shadow to original text by adding anchor points

Now we’re going to bring even more depth to the type with a subtle cast shadow. Simply hold down the Option key and then click and drag the drop shadow over a bit. Be sure to align the duplicated shadow to the original shadow for an even, smooth appearance.

Send the duplicated shapes behind again with Command + [ and then bring the Opacity down to around 10% with the Transparency panel.

Make 3D text tutorial - Create a cast shadow by duplicating the drop shadow

Notice how this extra step adds even more dimension to a standard drop shadow and soften the geometric letterforms.

Make 3D text tutorial - Final drop shadow with cast shadow applied


Searching for more techniques to spruce up your designs? Look into these articles: