Vectorizing: 4 Steps To Achieve the Perfect Design

Let’s face it — vectorizing your work can be extremely frustrating.
It doesn’t matter how much you enjoy the process of digitizing. Every single piece always presents its own unique set problems that must be overcome.

Unfortunately, there’s no getting around this.

But there are ways to combat the frustration. Give these techniques a shot and try switching up your approach the next time you start vectorizing something. I promise that you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

1. Study Your Previous Projects

Before you jump into your next project, let’s take a step back.
Practice does make perfect, but unless you’re deliberately trying to get better, the rate of improvement is much slower. Studying your previous projects and identifying holes in your creative process can be eye opening. If you can uncover your bad habits and mistakes, how they happened, and how to correct them going forward, you’ll be much better off.

Pick a recent project and compare the refined sketch that you took into Illustrator with the finished vector of that project. It might help to print them out.

Now study the two carefully and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What changed between the sketch and the vector execution?
  • Why did it change?
  • How did you solve the problem?
  • How could I have avoided the need to make that change?

Studying and old project will probably bring back a lot of memories of the troubles you went through. This is good. Write them down if it helps.

It’s very likely you’ll encounter the same problems in the future, so it’s better to learn from your mistakes now than to relive them down the line. Don’t let history repeat itself!

2. Do ALL Of Your Designing On Paper

When you’re creating, it can be very tempting to take a loosely drawn design straight into illustrator and begin tracing with the pen tool. I’ve made this mistake many times and it’s always come back to bite me.
What might seem like a shortcut initially often leads to a more drawn out project execution.

You need to think of the vectorization process as a finishing touch — not a crutch to improve your design. When you get into Illustrator, it should solely be an execution of your already perfected work.

Even when you think your sketch is perfect, you’re still going to find unforeseen issues throughout the vectorization process. That’s why it’s important to hammer out the tiniest of flaws in your sketch prior to digitizing.

Keep improving your sketch and challenge yourself to find flaws. Get out of the habit of saying “I’ll fix this part when I bring it into Illustrator”. An example of a situation that I’ve been in is when I drew the flourish of a letter very loosely in the sketch and figured it was good enough for Illustrator. Lo and behold, I spent way too much time getting that flourish right by eyeballing it. Spending more time up front will save you much more time later.

Here is a pre-vectorization checklist you can follow to avoid some common pitfalls:

Did I Stick To My Grid?

Grids are very important, particularly if you’re working with angles. You want to make sure that all of your letters lean to the exact same angle. Trying to fix this in Illustrator might force you to repeatedly pull all letter’s surrounding bezier curves over and over again.

Are My Letters Consistent?

Make sure the thicks and thins all match. Take a ruler to your letters and get precise. Not doing so can cause potential for another slip up that requires you to readjust bezier curves.

Is My Kerning Consistent?

Make sure your letters are spaced as perfectly as possible in your sketch. There’s nothing wrong with nudging letters here and there once you’re in Illustrator, but if your kerning is really inconsistent in your initial sketch, it can lead to much bigger problems.

Are My Lines Crisp?

If you’ve sketched a lot of rough lines while developing your design, do yourself a favor and trace the drawing. Make sure the lines that there’s no confusion as to which lines you’ll be tracing.

Bottom line: refine your drawings exhaustively. I can’t stress this enough.

3. Speed Through Your First Vectorization Pass, THEN Refine

Perfection is key. So when vectorizing, you might be inclined to pull every curve perfectly as you go. However, you might find that your piece comes together much quicker if you plot your points more loosely — at least in the beginning.

Everyone has different methods, but I’ve found the most success in plotting all my points prior to pulling a single curve. Then, once I have my points, I go back through and pull the curves out.

Now print your piece out and start marking it up with notes. It can also be very helpful to mirror it and flip it upside down. Doing so takes the letters and words out of its intended context, which can make it easier to uncover spacing issues.

Letters with impact design process shot

Perfecting a design obviously requires a lot of meticulous refinement, but the sooner you can get to a “rough draft”, the quicker you’ll uncover the jarring problems. And those are better addressed sooner than later. It’s best to make big structural changes at this point before proceeding further.
In the following design, I quickly discovered a visual imbalance:

Letters with impact design process shot
Letters with impact design process shot
Letters with impact design process shot

The E’s in “Letters” just didn’t fit right. To illustrate the issue, I replaced the 2 E letterforms with the A from “Impact”. Even thought “Lattars” wasn’t the word I was trying to write, you could see that they balanced the word out better than the E letterforms. The E’s clearly needed reworking and after balancing them, the piece really came together. You can read the whole case study here. In retrospect, it’s so obvious when I look at the sketch I took into Illustrator, but nevertheless, I missed it.

Get into the habit of printing out your work and critiquing the design on paper. It’s very easy to miss little (or even big) details on the screen.

4. Iterate Between Long Breaks

Now that you’ve worked out the major kinks, you can go back and refine the small details. You’ll be eager to finish the work, but it’s extremely important to walk away from the design.

This phase of the execution can become extremely draining. After you’ve been working for a couple hours, call it a day and come back tomorrow.
Arriving fresh with a recharged design eye will relieve you of meticulous pixel pushing. You’ll also be more likely to spot tiny flaws that you might have missed. It’s easy to stare at something for so long that you lose focus of the bigger picture.

When working on client projects, plan on a solid week for vector execution. You’re almost at the finish line. It would be a shame to rush the design at this point. You know what they say… patience is a virtue!

Always Strive For Perfection

You’ve put a lot of hard work into learning hand lettering. You’ve spent countless hours practicing different letter styles to get to where you are. As a result, you are constantly improving.

And if you have the right mentality, it will never be good enough because you can always do better, right?

Vectorization is no different. You’ll need to dedicate a lot of time to the craft to become proficient At it. Sometimes, it’s an overlooked aspect of the creative process, but it’s no less important than what happens on paper.

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