Design Time #4 Stroking your Fonts

HOW TO GET THE LOOK YOU WANT WITHOUT RUINING YOUR FONTS

For this Design Time, I wanted to talk about when and why you would want to stroke your fonts, or why you don't need them stroked in most cases. For this post, I'll be using Adobe Illustrator CC, but many other design programs do the same things I'll be discussing. Keep in mind design is not a science, so there may be exceptions I do not discuss. Take this with a grain of salt, but this is what I have found in all my years of design.


For this post, I'll be focusing on black stroked fonts since they are the most egregious, but any color can hinder your design.


First and foremost, let's get some definitions out of the way. Stroking your font is the act of applying a weighted line to the boundary of your font through some sort of stroking mechanic from the software you are using. Without fiddling with the menus, the classic workspace in Illustrator has something that looks like this.

Let's take a look at what a stroked font looks like...

What is someone trying to achieve with stroking the font? There are good intentions behind the stroked choice, and because I used to do this when I first started graphic design, I have a little insight on this. Most incorrect uses (in my opinion) of the stroked font come from these 5 categories.

*Importance

*Contrast

*"Design"

*Poor font choice

*One size fits all


IMPORTANCE

When I see new designers stroking fonts it is oftentimes because they are trying to draw your attention to something important. Stroking the font doesn't create visual importance as much as creating a font hierarchy, which you can read about here.


This is not the stroked font's fault. We have been trained to notice big fonts first followed by small fonts. Think of advertisements from pharma companies with the big bold letters how the drug will better your life, with the horrid side effects in the small print at the bottom of the page.


If you look at the stop sign below what do you notice?

The most important font is the biggest font on the sign, followed by the directions of the sign (all way), then finally the town in which the sign belongs, which is the least important information. The stop sign has a typographic hierarchy. What it doesn't have is a stroked font. Why don't our traffic signs that relay such important information have strokes on their fonts to grab our attention? We aren't trained to look at strokes as signaling important information when compared to visual hierarchies. For graphic design, it is often better to go with people's assumptions to how information is relayed as opposed to going against the current.


CONTRAST

I often see stroked fonts appear when a new designer is not confident in their ability to create contrast in a work. Below we see how the stroked font can create a sense of contrast when the font and background do not naturally have contrast with one another.

That's good right? We made contrast when there wasn't contrast to begin with. Yes contrast was created, but it could have just as easily have been created by ensuring the work had natural contrast. Below our artificial contrast, we see a shift in font color to create contrast from a similar hue. "FUTURA" is now easily recognizable where that wasn't the case with the examples above it.


Now we're getting to the juicy part as to why stroked fonts are an easy crutch that doesn't help our designs. If you never create true contrast in your images, relying on stroked fonts to carry the design doesn't help you as a designer understand that contrast is something that can be obtained and how to obtain it.


If we look at the stroked fonts above where the contrast has been increased, we'll notice that the black lines start to interfere with the visual information. We go from a background color to a hard break with black stroke to start again with the color inside the font, which is actually part of the design. It doesn't matter the color of the stroke. Adding an additional piece of visual information requires the viewer to process it, delaying the response to the message we are giving.


The problem with this additional visual information is it adds nothing of value to the work, it only creates more visual work for the viewer with little if any reward.


Now, if you're feeling bold, you can create contrast with color outside of the hue you are working in like the example below. You'll have to brush up on your color theory skills, but once again we see that the two colors in the image create contrast just fine, and the stroke causes a hard visual break. The stroke is just not necessary.

If you want more information, you can read a great article about designing with contrast here.


"DESIGN"

Graphic design is about design So, when you're working on some graphic design there needs to be "design" to it right? This is the response I tend to get when I talk to new designers as to why they add the stroked font to begin with. There is a misconception that graphic design means to add bells and whistles to everything and anything you can, including the font. This means textures, drop shadows, 3D bevels, Photoshop effect filters (I'm looking at you texture filters), and strokes to the fonts.

Don't do this to your fonts, they didn't do anything to you. All the effects in these powerful design programs have purpose. It is learning when and where to use them that will have the greatest positive effect on your designs. True power is knowing restraint.


POOR FONT CHOICE

Font choice is difficult. When a bad font it chosen (there are some bad ones out there), young designers will try and tweak it and add to it to hide that fact. The stroke is usually the go-to for attempting to cover up a bad font. Type design is an art form and a profession that is more difficult than choosing one. Take some time, find a good font, and pay for it. The quality of a paid font is worth not having to try and "fix it" with design elements like strokes.


ONE SIZE FITS ALL

I see this happen all the time in logo design when a designer is trying to make something fit for all applications and mediums the logo will appear.

Above we see this unstroked color font is just not working in the teal and pink backgrounds. By stroking the font it doesn't matter what color the background is! We did it ya'll we solved graphic design, let's pack up and go home. Unfortunately, this leads to the visual information overload mentioned earlier. Also, in the black background image, it is clear the stroke is digging into font, making it thinner than the unstroked version. We can fix this, and we'll talk about this shortly.


Logos aren't meant to be used across all mediums without any sort of guidelines. In comes style guides and brand assets. Kickstarter has their brand assets, and they must be used in a particular way by partners. Style guides give guidelines as to how the logo and branding must be used. There are some great examples here.


To avoid getting into the weeds of this too much, if you glance at those links, you'll see these brands aren't stroking their fonts to fit certain backgrounds or mediums. It is quite the reverse. The medium must fit the logo. Sometimes this is just impossible, but stroking the font is the least ideal method to solving this.


Logo only looks good on a black background? Give the logo its black background and don't substitute the background with a black stroke.


ALIGNING YOUR STROKE

There are 3 major ways you can align your font stroke. The tools will be in the Stroke Panel and it looks like this.

You can also change the shape of the cap and corner of the stroke. These options are pretty useful when working with strokes.


Here's what the 3 stroke alignments look like. If the font is aligned to the center, then the stroke thickness will be split across the outside and inside edge of the path. If the stroke is aligned to the inside, the stroke will move to the inside of the font. If the stroke is aligned to the outside, then the entirety of the stroke will move outside of the font.

With both align to center and align to inside, we are changing the shape of the font, making it slimmer. This can have damaging consequences to the look of the font depending on your font choice. With both align to center and align to outside, you are widening the font. This directly affects the kerning of the font, which was not intended by the font designer. The kerning will need to be readjusted with these options.


All these alignments affect the shape and look of your original font even with the smallest of strokes. If you must use a stroke effect, ensure steps are taken that will keep the integrity of the font intact.


WHEN TO USE STROKED FONTS

Stroked fonts aren't all that bad, and they have their purpose. Here's some examples of when a stroked font works well.


HEAVILY THEMED LOGOS

This logo does not technically have a stroked font, but it uses the effect. That's the key point here. The stroke effect serves a purpose. It creates depth and allows the font to pop up from the background. The stroke is also stylized and digitally painted. It has cracks and texture, it is very much part of the design. If the stroke/stroke effect is part of the design or adds to the design, add the stroke.


STROKED FONTS NO FILL

A stroked font with no fill can be pretty slick. Using them can be tricky as not all fonts look as great as the Elephant example, but it is definitely something you can play with.


STROKE LAYERED EFFECT

You can find the tutorial for this here. The stroke layer effect still has some life in it and is good alternative to merely adding a stroke to the font.


HAPPY STROKING ;)

That's it for this Design Time. I hope it was helpful. I'll leave you with one more link with 100 logos from big brands here. What do 99 out of 100 have in common? They don't stroke their fonts.

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