Flat design continues to dominate the digital world, but new creative styles are gaining a foothold. Add more character to your vectors with these six simple techniques in Adobe Illustrator.

Image via Mascha Tace. Grain effect applied.

Flat style designs are still popular across the creative world, seen in minimal logos, simplified icons, and user experience layouts. The style helps to communicate a clear and businesslike message to users with its straightforward shapes and friendly curves, but flat design can lack depth and dimension.

Learn how to incorporate subtle textures, add dimension, or mimic that hand-drawn feel on flat designs with these six handy Illustrator techniques.


1. Brushes

The first of essential techniques uses the Brushes tool; with it, you can easily incorporate hand-drawn elements and mimic brush strokes in a digital vector design.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Brush Tool

Pattern via Inna Moreva. Tropic Popsicles color palette applied. 

Begin with a vector pattern or illustration that features outlines. Select an individual vector shape and bring up the Brushes panel (Window > Brushes). You’ll see a limited library of brushes.

Bring up more artistic brushes by selecting the hamburger dropdown in the Brushes panel and hover over Open Brush Library > Artistic > Artistic_ChalkCharcoalPencil. This library features more natural and painterly brushes.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Brush Tool Library

Pattern via Inna Moreva.

Scroll through the brushes to see which style suits your design. I enjoy the subtle textural features in the Charcoal-Pencil brush that tapers slightly on the ends. Click on a vector shape with the Selection Tool (V) and choose the brush of your choice.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Brush Tool Library

Pattern via Inna Moreva.

Brushes vary in intensity from the usual stroke fill. You can increase or decrease the appearance of your brush with the Stroke panel as needed. To alter the profile of your brush style, head to the Profile section and experiment with different brush profiles. You can also flip a profile’s orientation to vary the appearance of the brush.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Brush Tool Hand-Drawn Look

Pattern via Inna Moreva.

Duplicate the steps above on more vector shapes until you’ve achieved that hand-drawn look.


2. Gradients

Gradients are a simple and surefire way to add dimension to solid vector shapes. While the flat style is still popular, it’s always great to bring in some depth to make the illustration feel more dynamic. Gradients are one of the most popular and versatile tools in design. Learn all about them in our guide to gradients.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Gradients

Image via vectorplus.

Open up your vector file and bring up the Gradient panel (Window > Gradient) to begin. I’m going to use this mountainous landscape and add gradients that introduce highlights and shadows.

I normally stick to just the gradient tool when adding depth and variety to vector shapes, but you can always bring in a more complex gradient with the Mesh Tool in Illustrator.  The key to successful gradients is subtlety; use only 2 or 3 hues on your gradient sliders to ensure a smooth transition of color.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Gradient Tool

Select a vector shape with the Selection Tool (V) and drag your fill color onto the gradient slider. You’ll see a green plus sign pop up to symbolize a successful transfer. Click on the gradient stop to edit the hue; the color sliders will reflect the color profile you are working in. Stick to the RGB profile for online designs, or CMYK for print designs.

Keep your gradient type Linear and the angles of your gradient at -90 or 90 degrees for a vertical transition, or at 180 degrees for a horizontal transition.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Gradient Tool

When incorporating elements of light and dark into your vector shapes, think about how those objects might show shadows or highlights. For the sky and sun, I brought in a yellow hue to simulate the sun’s rays and added a darker pink to the sun to incorporate that shadow.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Gradient Adds Depth


3. Grain Effect

The grainy look has been used and incorporated in many designs, and for good reason, too. This effect successfully integrates a noise-y texture reminiscent of classic Art Deco posters. Those little specks were originally created utilizing aquatint, a renowned printmaking technique.

Now you can mimic the look and feel of that grain with a simple effect in Adobe Illustrator. When combined with gradients or applied alone, grain textures can revamp a design’s overall appearance.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Grain Effect

Image via Mascha Tace

Begin by selecting a vector shape with the Selection Tool (V) and bringing up the Gradient panel (Window > Gradient). Duplicate the shape with the Option key and then dragging across, place it back on top of the original vector.

Drag the fill color of your shape onto the gradient slider to see a white into green transition, for example. Keep the gradient Linear and stick to a -90 or 90 degree angle.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Grain Effect

If you’re not using a gradient with the grain, simply duplicate the vector by holding down the Option key and dragging, then place on top of the original shape.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Grain Effect

Navigate to Effect > Texture > Grain to bring up the Grain dialog box. Set the Intensity of the grain around 25 and the Contrast around 45. Denote the Grain Type as Regular, then select OK.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Grain Effect

Bring up the Transparency panel (Window > Transparency) and change the shape’s blend mode to Multiply. You’ll notice the white portions of the grain and gradient blend into the original vector shape.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Grain Effect

Repeat the steps above to the remaining vector shapes, making sure analyze how highlights or shadows might appear within the design.


4. Halftones

The little dots of the halftone effect help spruce up a flat geometric design by bringing in that subtle pop art feel with some textural elements.

Halftone Swatches

Halftone swatches can be found within the Swatches panel; you can quickly bring up these files by bringing up the Swatches palette (Window > Swatches) and selecting the hamburger dropdown to bring up commands and menus. Navigate to Open Swatch Library and select Patterns > Basic Graphics > Basic Graphics_Dots.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Halftone Swatches

Image via Radoman Durkovic.

You will see a library of swatches indicated by a DPI and a percentage. The DPI represents the “dots per inch” within a given area, and the percentage represents the dot size. At 10%, the dots are smaller in size and at 90%, are quite large. I tend to stick to a smaller percentage when bringing in graphic swatches to introduce a subtle pattern in the design.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Halftone Swatches

Begin by opening your own vector file. I’m using this fun geometric pattern. Ungroup all elements to prep your design for a pattern makeover by holding down Shift + Command + G. You can then individually select each vector shape with the Selection Tool (V).

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Halftone Swatches

Select a shape of your choice and duplicate it by holding the Option key and dragging across, or by clicking Command + D. Click on the newly duplicated shape and choose from the library of graphic dots. I typically pick 10 dpi 30% for a subtle halftone pattern. Make sure your shape is selected, then head over to Object > Expand to bring up a dialog box. Check the Fill expand and hit OK. This command allows you to adjust the colors of each dot, instead of just an array of black dots.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Halftone Swatches

With the Direct Selection Tool (A), click on an individual dot. Once a dot is selected, head over to the toolbar and navigate to Select > Same > Fill Color to activate all shapes. Now, you can quickly alter the color of your shapes. I prefer to sample colors from the design with the Eyedropper Tool (I) to tie all elements together.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Halftone Swatches

Rinse and repeat the steps above for multiple vector shapes. I wouldn’t advise applying halftone dots to all vector shapes, but rather a select few to add character and emphasis to your designs.

Color Halftone Effect

The Color Halftone Effect in Adobe Illustrator is a more complex way of tackling halftone patterns. This effect lets you create your own gradated halftone textures for unique pattern on solid vector shapes.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Halftone Color Effect

Image via Viktoria Kurpas.

Bring up a design in Adobe Illustrator and select an individual shape with the Selection Tool (V). Duplicate the vector shape by holding down the Option key and dragging across the artboard. I like to utilize the whole shape on more complicated vectors, like in the gears above. For more simplified shapes, I prefer to treat the halftone as a shadow or highlight element, seen in the leaves above.

If you want to only apply the halftone to a portion of the shape, duplicate, then activate the Scissors Tool (C) and cut two anchor points to splice your vector shape. Join the anchor points by activating the Pen Tool (P) and closing up the vector shape.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Halftone Color Effect

Bring up the Gradient panel (Window > Gradient) and create a white to gray gradient. I stick to a or 90 degree gradient angle.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Halftone Color Effect

Navigate to Effect > Pixelate > Color Halftone. Set the Max Radius to and the Channels to 10. You can increase the Max Radius to make the dots bigger.

Expand the appearance of the color halftones by selecting Object > Expand Appearance.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Halftone Color Effect

Now we’re ready for the actual tracing part. Bring up the Image Trace panel by going to Window > Image Trace. This brings up a fairly daunting panel; don’t fret, we’ll only alter a few of these sliders and modes. Make sure the Mode is set to Black and White, and increase the Paths to around 75%. Reduce the Corners to 15% and set the Noise to 1 pixel. In the Options section, check off Ignore White. Activate the Preview to get a glimpse of what the image trace may look like.

When you’re satisfied with the result, uncheck Preview and click Trace. Expand the vectors by hitting Object > Expand. Each halftone will now be an editable vector shape, ready for a color transformation.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Halftone Color Effect

Image via Viktoria Kurpas.

I recommend sampling a hue from your design with the Eyedropper Tool (I).

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Halftone Color Effect

Rinse and repeat for the remaining shapes. Like with the halftone swatches, I advise against applying these textures to all vector objects.


5. Roughen Effect

The Roughen Effect in Illustrator is a simple way of introducing that gritty, jagged edge to smooth vectors.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Roughen Effect

Image via Mike McDonald.

This magical command lives in the wondrous Effect dropdown. Navigate to Effect > Distort & Transform > Roughen to bring up the dialog box.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Roughen Effect

Roughening your shapes can go terribly wrong or beautifully right. The key to this effect is to be subtle and use it sparingly. Keep the Size as Relative at 1% or 2% and the Detail under 40/in. I frequently set the Points to Corner; if applying to a more rounded shape, set your Points as Smooth. Any values greater than specified might make your shapes look haphazard and well, spiky.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Roughen Effect

To apply your previous Roughen Effect values, go to Effect > Apply Roughen or hold down Shift + Command + E. Repeat until you’ve achieved that grunge look. Take your designs even further by combining this effect with these free handmade textures for a truly distressed feel.


6. Textures

Textures are another way to mimic that vintage grunge look seen on faded shirts, and help to add character to geometric vectors. Download these 50 free handmade distressed textures to begin.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Free Textures

Image via Paper Wings

Select an individual vector shape and bring up the Transparency panel to begin. Hit Make Mask and then click over to the black square to activate the opacity mask.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Free Textures

Image via Paper Wings

Bring up your distressed textures by holding down Shift + Command + P. Select from one of the 50 Flat JPEGs to use in the opacity mask. Hit Place and click on the artboard to bring up the masked texture. Move it around and resize with the Selection Tool (V) as needed.

6 Techniques to Instantly Transform Your Flat Vector Designs – Free Textures

Experiment with different textures on your vector shapes for a washed-and-worn look. If placing textures to multiple vector shapes, create one compound shape by selecting Command + 8.

Click here for a detailed, step-by-step video tutorial on using these distressed textures in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop


Interested in more tips and tricks to improve your design workflow? Look into these essential articles: