Add depth and texture to a flat illustration with just a few clicks using these five quick vector effects in Illustrator.

Vector art isn’t just flat and colorful, you can create depth and grungy texture too. Illustrator has a pretty big range of these effects. Some make the vectors wiggle and zig-zag, keeping them flat, while others utterly destroy them in the coolest and controllable of ways.

I’ll show you 5 effects for creating trendy depth and texture. Use them on your next design project to take them to the next level of style, or use them as ideas to get out of a vector design rut.


1. Blur Effect

Blur is a great effect when you want to add accents that aren’t just flat shapes. Think of a little character with rosy cheeks in winter clothes. You could just make a pink dot on the face, or you could use blur to to make the accent softer, less flat. A lot more like blushing cheeks in the cold air.

Start a new document by opening Illustrator and hitting Command + N. Enter the size and details for the document. For this graphic I’m using a 5″ x 5″ artboard.

Flat vector illustration

Go to Illustrator’s main menu at the top of the window, click Effects, hover over Blur and click Gaussian Blur. The window will pop up for controlling the amount of blur. The radius is noted in pixels, no matter what your Preferences are set for.

Illustrator Gaussian blur effect window

A blur of 5 pixels radius looks good for the size and resolution we’re working at. You can change the resolution of your effects by clicking Effects and selecting Document Raster Effects Settings and picking from the list in the Resolution menu. The lower the resolution, the less range for refinement you’ll have. In other words, a radius of 5 pixels will be very fluffy at Screen resolution, compared to High resolution.

Gaussian blur shown at different PPI

I’m going to use the Medium setting, which means taking the radius up to 10px to match the effect from the Screen setting. Now we have a cute rosy-cheeked character.

Blur effect applied to flat illustration


2. Grain Effect

The Grain effect in Illustrator can add a cool texture to your vector illustration, especially used with the Gradient tool.

Select the shape, hit Command + C to copy, then hit Command + F to paste in front. Then go to Effect > Texture > Grain. After cycling through the options in the Grain type menu, I settled on Contrasty, with the Intensity on 85 and the Contrast on 9. It gives a nice texture, like a wool coat.

Grain type menu in Illustrator

Hit OK, then set that shape to Multiply in the Transparency window (Window > Transparency.) This will remove those extra colored pixels and make it more of a texture than a noise filter.

Difference between normal grain and multiply grain

You can also use Grain for a grainy shading effect. This requires a few more steps, but we go more in-depth here.


3. Inner Glow Effect

A great way to add depth, subtle shading, or like the name says, glow, is to use the Inner Glow effect. Don’t let the name fool you, though – it’s not limited to “glowing.” You have different blend mode options, along with options to set the effect to the center or the edge, which makes it versatile for shading too.

Illustrator inner glow effect window

When I add this to the band of the orange hat, in this illustration, I set the Mode to Multiply and the color to a darker shade of red, then select Edge. The Opacity and Blur can be eyeballed by turning on Preview. This will give some gradual depth and shading to the outer edge of the shape.

Inner glow effect applied to flat illustration

I’ll add the same effect to the top of the hat by clicking it and hitting Command + Shift + E, which applies the last effect used to whatever shape is selected. You can do this to all the shapes you want to affect with an Inner Glow, then modify the effect by opening the Appearance window (in the Window menu), and clicking Inner Glow in the list.


4. Drop Shadow

You may already be familiar with Drop Shadow in Photoshop. When it comes to illustrations, this effect works similarly, but can have different results. Since this example features mostly flat shapes in layers, a drop shadow can do neat stuff like add depth without looking fake.

Select a shape and go to Effect > Stylize > Drop Shadow.

Illustrator drop shadow effect window

If you’ve used this effect before, you’ll notice the addition of a Darkness setting. The way Adobe describes it can be a little brain-melting, but essentially it’s a blended-colored cast, instead of a solid color. At 0% it will use the color of the object with the blend mode above to create the shadow. At 100% it creates a mixed-black shadow. It’s hard to describe, but it looks cool and I prefer it over a solid color.

Here I’ll use it to add some shadow to the scarf over the coat.

Drop shadow applied to flat vector illustration

5. Roughen Effect

We’ve covered some textures, now let’s do some actual path destruction with the Roughen effect, found in Effect > Distort and Transform. This is a handy little effect that can make your paths and vector shapes less crisp by scuffing up the edges.

You can go from fine-tuned, subtle scratchiness to blown-out crazy distortion with this effect. I like to keep it low-key for added edge.

With the hat selected I open the Roughen controls from the menu and turn on Preview. This is essential because settings are in decimal points and the difference 1/10 of an inch makes can be huge.

Roughen effect window in Illustrator

To keep the roughness in fine increments I set the Size at .03 inches. This is a setting for the peaks and valleys of the deviations from the original path. Any more and it gets too craggy. I set the Detail section at 26/inch – this is a frequency control, controlling how many zags per inch you want.

In the Points section, Smooth makes for more rounded corners, and Corner makes them sharper angles. At such a fine setting, I chose Corner to help with getting a jagged look on a vectorized fuzzy hat. Hit OK and use the Shift + Command + E trick to apply it to the top part of the hat as well. You can also select multiple shapes if you know beforehand you’ll want the same effect. (I also added some Grain effect to the hat between steps.)

Roughen effect applied to flat vector illustration

To finish up, I’m going to apply the same Roughen effect to the coat, the arm line, and the scarf. Then I’ll add Grain to some elements like the snow, the sky, and some on the face. The usage of similar settings will tie elements together so the style of the piece is cohesive.

Vector illustration with multiple effects applied

For more design how-to’s and inspiration, check out these articles: