When I first started vectorising my lettering with the Pen Tool, I had issues with drawing good letters. I knew how to use the Pen Tool, I knew where to place my points, but my letters would still look a little off. Because vectors are so clean, that little “off” part really stood out. You would think that what you need to do is measure and make everything exactly the same, but in case of drawing better letters it’s the exact opposite.
Our brain likes to trick us, and two exactly the same shapes can look uneven to our eyes. Take a look at the shape below and tell me which one is thicker, vertical or horizontal?
“Our brain likes to trick us, and two exactly the same shapes can look uneven to our eyes”
They are mathematically exactly the same, but the horizontal looks slightly thicker doesn’t it? These are the kind of issues we need to correct while drawing letters, but thankfully there is an easy way to do that by using optical corrections.
What are optical corrections?
Optical corrections are slight modifications or corrections you need to make to your letters to correct for what our brain perceives as unequal even though it is equal.
There are some corrections that you always have to make, and the others depend on the situation. I’ve tried to collect as many situations as possible to cover most scenarios. If you keep these in mind while drawing letters, you should start seeing a difference in your work. However, it may take you a while to get a hang of it, because there is no exact recipe for the amount of these corrections. Each letter is different by design and so is the correction, you have to let your eyes decide how much it should be corrected.
Problem areas and how to correct them by using optical corrections
The first problem area is the height of the letters. If you choose a height and make all the letters equal height, some of them will seem smaller. We can see this best in letters that are circular or triangular like in the example below. See how the “O” and the “A” in the top row seem smaller than the “H” and the “L”?
To correct this optical illusion, we use something called an overshoot. Each letter that is triangular (like an uppercase A), or is circular (like O), needs to be extend slightly in order to appear the same height. Usually about 2% of the height is where you would start but let your eyes decide how much is enough. In case of an “A” the overshoot is even bigger.
2. Straight to curve joins
Letters like B, P, U and D join a straight line with a curved line. That join can sometimes be very apparent like in the left D below. We can compensate for that by adjusting the point placement and handles so that the join feels more natural.
3. Straight to round intersection
Lowercase letter h for example can look too heavy at the intersection of the straight and round stroke if we do not compensate for that by thinning the round stroke at the join.
4. Stroke thickness
This is the correction that you will probably use the most. The horizontal strokes in letters like H and T need to be slightly thinner in order to appear the same thickness as the vertical strokes. Somewhere around 10% would be good to start.
Diagonal strokes like in letters A or V seem thinner than the vertical strokes and have to be slightly thickened. The round strokes also need to be adjusted in the same way.
In capital letters, which are usually bigger in size than the lowercase, there is more negative space. That results in making it look like the uppercase letters are thinner than lowercase. To correct that you should add some thickness to your caps until they are balanced with the lowercase.
The 4 optical corrections above are the ones you will be using the most and can be applied to almost any style of lettering. Some corrections are needed only in some letters depending on what style of letters you are drawing so just keep these in mind when you draw and check if any of them could be applied to your design.
1. Letter S
The letter S can be drawn in many different ways but in most cases the upper bowl is slightly smaller than the lower bowl.
2. Letter H
The crossbar is placed higher than the mathematical middle, usually by 2-3% to appear as if it’s in the middle. If you want the crossbar to be in the middle that is.
3. Letter V
In letter styles with small or no contrast, letter V needs to have a slightly thicker left stroke in order to appear as though the strokes are the same.
Angle corrections in italics and scripts are sometimes needed to make it appear that all the letters have the same angle.
Trust your eyes
If you see there is something off about your letters try checking if some of these corrections can be applied, especially if you are drawing your letters with the Pen Tool because these issues will be much more apparent in vectors than when drawing by hand.
Le Punkt Noir (meaning ‘black dot’ in a mix of French and German) is the studio of Ivana Marić, a freelance lettering artist and designer with a passion for crisp vector lettering. Fuelled by a big cup of coffee and a desire to create the perfect lettering for every unique design, Ivana is an Affinity Designer convert.