The Mistaken And Recommended Way To Outline Text

Aesthetics purposes and to make text standout from its background are two of many logical reasons a designer may decide to add an outline to text. I strongly advise that applying an outline to text should only go as far as headings and nowhere near body copy, as it would be a mission to read – but it will highly depend on the overall size of the body copy.

The most common way that a lot of graphic designers do this is to simply add a stroke to the text, so I’m certain that most of you are probably thinking: “that’s a no-brainer, you simply select the text and add a stroke to the selection”, right? wrong! That’s a malpractice.

Serif fonts are a good example to use as their appearance is affected the most as compared to sans serif fonts. So, I will use Times New Roman for the purpose of this post in the examples below.

Normal serif text before adding an outline:

Nothing strange above, I just highlighted the three areas, with red circles, to draw your attention to those parts of the text as I’ll refer to them to demonstrate how to apply an outline properly.

The wrong way of adding an outline to text:

Typically a designer would just add a stroke to selected text and you’d have text that looks like below:

Look closely to our areas of focus (within the red circles), the serif and the other parts of the text diminishes and distorts from their original form. This is because the added outline extends inside the letters. The bigger the outline, thicker in this case, the more distorted the text will appear.

The correct ways to add an outline:

There are two ways of doing this correctly that I’m aware of, the traditional way or allowing your design application to come to your rescue. I’m including the former so that you are not limited to any particular design software, Illustrator in this case, to do this properly.

Traditional way that does NOT rely on an application:

  1. Select the text (no need to be converted to a path)
  2. Copy the text [cmd+c or cntrl+c]
  3. Add a stroke to the text and apply your preferred colour. Multiply whatever value you want for the size of the stroke by two, i.e if you want a 4px stroke then give it 8px value.
  4. Go to Edit > Paste in front [cmn+f or cntrl+f] – this will paste the unmodified (no stroke) copied original in the center of the text that you’ve added a stroke to.
  5. That’s it. The final text will have a stroke with a 4px stroke (as per the above example).

Adding an outline correctly using Adobe Illustrator:

The advancement of design softwares like Adobe Illustrator has made adding outline to text more easier and accurate, while keeping the original shape of the letterforms. Below are the steps on how to add an outline properly using Adobe Illustrator:

  1. Select the text and convert to path.
  2. Go to Object > Path > Offset Path

3. An Offset Path window will pop out, the value of the offset will depend on the size of the outline and how you want the outline to be positioned.

What basically happens after applying the Offset to the path is that, illustrator will make duplicates of the objects that you have selected –  set apart from the original, either inside or outside, according to the dimension you input.

If you look closely you’ll see that there’s duplicates of the letters (‘H’ in this case), so we have the original ‘H’ inside a slightly bigger ‘H’. Use the direct select tool to select the outer letters/paths and apply whatever colour you want your outline to appear in. Then you’re sorted.

The correct application of an outline:

When done properly the text should still keep its original shape, like the example above.

The conclusion:

The aim is to have an outline as a ‘line’ on the outside of the path/text as opposed to the line extending inside – and then you’ll get the ‘effect’ of an outlined text without compromising the visibility of the typeface especially the serifs.