Isometric illustrations are a major design trend across digital and print mediums. Learn about the specifics of isometric design and how to recreate it with Illustrator’s Extrude and Bevel effect.
Cover image via Irina Strelnikova.
Isometric design is an on-trend illustrative style in which three-dimensional vector objects are presented through isometric projection on a two-dimensional plane. Designers across the creative realm have incorporated isometric styles to offer a unique perspective to the common flat style, in which shapes are represented two-dimensionally.
Isometric illustration via Irina Strelnikova.
This style differs from the traditional perspective drawing, where objects in space recede towards one or two vanishing points. You might remember practicing perspective drawings in introductory art classes, or you may have seen them illustrated in architectural sketches.
Two-point perspective drawing via Keo.
Instead, isometric projection presents objects in space at 30 degree angles from its horizontal. Opposing sides of the vector shape are parallel to one another, meaning objects in the foreground are displayed at the same scale as objects displayed in the background. This method of illustration is not meant to be realistic, but rather to provide other means of interpreting perspective in design.
Isometric illustration via PROKOPEVA IRINA.
Recent graphic design trends show an increased use of isometric projection in web design, user interface illustrations, and vector icon elements. This style takes a spin on the typical flat design by providing an unexpected dimensional aspect. Designers have used this style to demonstrate a service in an informative video, provide engaging graphics to websites, or to illustrate a unique book cover.
Shutterstock features an endless library of isometric vectors to choose from. This unique style can easily elevate your design with a different take on perspectives or provide an alternative to flat style imagery.
Creating Simple Isometric Shapes
Most illustrators draw out their shapes beforehand, then use Illustrator’s Pen Tool to trace the illustration. This technique works well for complex and detailed illustrations. For simple shapes, you can quickly transform it from a flat vector to a 3D isometric shape with Illustrator’s Extrude & Bevel effect.
Begin by drawing out a vector shape with the Pen Tool (P) or with the Shapes Tool. If you’re creating a complex shape made up of other shapes, be sure to Unite the shape with the Pathfinder Tool. This will combine the shapes to form one cohesive unit.
Be sure your shape is activated with the Selection Tool, then head to the Effect window at the top of the program and select 3D > Extrude & Bevel. A menu will pop up, enabling you to adjust the Extrude & Bevel options.
Within the Position dropdown, choose from the Isometric options. I like to use Isometric Right, but you can experiment with other directions to see which style best fits your design.
Check the Preview to see how your vector shape looks. Increase or decrease the Extrude Depth to adjust the depth of your isometric vector. Keep the Surface restrained to Plastic Shading or Diffuse Shading to correctly mimic a three-dimensional shape. Click OK to revert back to the artboard.
The vector still registers as a single flat shape, so head to Object > Expand Appearance. There, you can ungroup the shapes with Shift + Command + G. You can now fully edit the colors of each side if needed by clicking each shape with the Selection Tool (V).
Designing Isometric Typography
Just like with basic geometric shapes, you can also create isometric typography to bring in three-dimensional aspects to your design.
Start out by typing out a phrase of your choice in a legible font style, like a classic sans-serif or a clean slab serif. Monoweight styles are ideal when applying isometric projection to your type. Script, display, and thin serifs may be more difficult to read with the effect.
Transform your text into editable vector shapes by heading over to Object > Expand. This will create paths for each letterform and prep the typography for an isometric effect.
Bring up the 3D Extrude & Bevel Options menu once again by navigating to Effect > 3D > Extrude & Bevel. Choose from the various isometric selections within the Position dropdown. I find that Isometric Top creates an interesting look for typography.
Increase or decrease the Extrude Depth to adjust the depth of the isometric shapes. Within the Surface dropdown, select Diffuse or Plastic Shading to best mimic the highlights and shades seen in 3D shapes. Check off the Preview to see what your isometric type looks like, then hit OK to return to the artboard.
The type still behaves like a flat editable text layer. Expand each shape by heading over to Object > Expand Appearance. Each letterform consists of individual vector shapes that are grouped together. Ungroup all letterforms with Shift + Command + G, then ungroup again to isolate the elements within each letter. Each side of the letter is now fully editable with the Selection Tool (V).
In rounded letterforms, the gradation of color will appear uneven. By bringing up the Pathfinder panel (Window > Pathfinder) and selecting Unite, you can smooth out the color transition.
To create the illusion of three-dimensional typography, bring in gradients with the handy Gradient Tool. Set the Type as Linear, then drag in two or more subtle hues to the gradient slider and adjust the angle accordingly. Utilize the Eyedroppper Tool (I) to replicate the gradient across other rounded shapes.
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