I want to talk about capturing gesture and human expression when bringing your lettering to life in digital form.

When the time comes to bring your design to life by translating a sketch into a digital vector, you most likely import a copy of your final drawing and use it as a guide to trace with the pen tool.

The pen tool isn’t the most approachable feature of Adobe Illustrator. It takes a lot of practice and getting used to. And when it comes to letterforms, tracing can be very difficult. But there’s a golden rule you should stick to:

If you find yourself pulling bezier handles in a direction that isn’t 0º or 90º, there’s probably a better way to do what you’re trying to do.

Image demonstrating straight guides on a letterform

In regards to curves, this rule isn’t difficult to adhere to. But when it comes to corners, it’s a whole different story.

Handling Corners

Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of tracing a design with the pen tool is getting those corners just right.

You’ll likely find yourself finagling the bezier handles of the corner point and the points adjacent to get that edge just right. And you’ll likely be breaking the 0º/90º rule. For example, see the image below.

Image demonstrating vector corners on a letterform

So what’s the solution? Well, it doesn’t have a fancy name, and I certainly didn’t invent the technique, but I like to call it the “gesture technique” and I’ll explain why shortly. But first, let’s take a a look at what the “gesture technique” is.

If you look at the image below, you’ll notice that there is no corner anchor at all. Instead, the two intersecting lines that would meet at that corner overshoot each other. They extend beyond the corner, and then reconnect outside of the letterform.

Image demonstrating anchor gesture plotting technique on a letterform

This technique benefits you twofold:

First, plotting your anchors is much easier. Yes, there’s an extra anchor point when using this technique versus the traditional way. But the tradeoff is that you’re not going to be spending the additional time and effort pulling the bezier handles to get the angle right. And you won’t need to break the 0º/90º rule.

The second benefit is that you’ll actually be capturing the hand-lettered gesture from your drawing in a much more expressive way. When you pull bezier handles on a corner using the traditional method, you’re subtly compromising the integrity of the curve. As a result, the line appears less human.

It’s a little bit hard to explain the gesture technique in writing, so I’ve created a video to demonstrate.