Design insights & tutorials.

Distress type by hand in Photoshop

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There must be something about digital type that we don’t like.

We put a lot of energy into distressing, aging, texturizing, and simulating letterpress techniques with digital type. There are a lot of cool techniques out there. So here I am, sharing yet another one that’s really good for distressing specific parts of letters that are subject to more wear & tear.

We’ll be using Photoshop and digging into layer masks & scatter brushes.

But first, let me show you an example of what we’re trying to achieve.
distressed type

Okay, so a couple of things about the way this type looks that I can’t achieve using regular techniques:

  • The distressing is not even. This is not just noise or a texture overlay.
  • The outlines are not straight. Actual distortion of the letterform edge, from peeling, erosion, ink bleed, or whatever.
  • Certain parts of the letter seem more vulnerable to wear & tear. This makes sense I guess.

Step 1: Prep your type

Create a document, 1000×500 pixels. Fill the background with #22202c. Make a text box, type something clever in #eae7e0, and rasterize the type with applied FX.
If you’re curious, here are my type settings:

Unviers LT Std, 49 light ultra condensed
370 pt
Layer effects: 7px #eae7e0 stroke, from center

Now let’s do some standard pre-grunge type tricks that I learned from Jeff Finley’s Wacom Illustration Video Tutorial. Blur the rasterized text by 1px. Now use smart sharpen with a 0.8px radius and at 140%. Remember these blur and sharpen numbers will depend on the size / resolution of your document.

Now let’s distort the edges of the text a little bit. Go to filter>distort>ripple, and choose a small ripple with a 22% amount. The edges should ever so slightly ripple. Here’s what mine looks like now:

scatter brush type aging

Step 2: Make a grunge scatter brush

grunge type scatter brushThis is the brush we’ll be using to paint away distressing on the type.

Open up your brush panel and check “Shape Dynamics”, “Scattering”, “Noise”, and “Smoothing”. This is gonna be a nasty brush! Push the sliders for Size Jitter (in Shape Dynamics) and Scatter up & down until you get a brush preview similar to the one you see here.

I generally like to keep my main brush very small & soft, usually between 1-4 pixels and 0% hardness.

Hit “D” on your keyboard to reset your foreground & background colors to default black & white. This means your brush will be black, which is what we want.

If you just swipe the brush around a little bit, you’ll see you’re now “painting noise”. Perfect!

Step 3: Paint the type mask with the scatter brush

Make sure your layer mask is selected, and use your brush tool to paint inside this mask. Black pixels hide the rasterized type layer, and white pixels show it. The mask starts out all white.

As you paint in your wear & tear, think about the letters as physical objects. What parts look subject to distressing? Call to mind rusty old street signs and roadside ice cream shacks. Vary the size of your brush between 1 and 5 pixels. Use larger brushes for the edges of the letters. Use a little more distressing in areas that seem especially ‘rippled’.
type grunge
See how the mask I’m painting looks noisy, like the brush preview above?
distressed typed
Just keep painting until you get a degree of distressing that suits you. I tend to prefer very mild distressing. Just enough to get the looker’s subconscious to think “not digital”. Be sure to make each letter different. That’s kind of the whole idea of this approach: more custom than a distressed font.
scatter done

Cool, huh?! Once you do it a few times, this technique isn’t much harder than overlaying a texture – and it looks a lot better to me.

We’re basically done here, but I’ll add in a paper texture to make our image more closely match the “SHHH” image.

scatter final

That’s it! Thanks for reading this quick tip, and let me know if you have ideas to take the technique further.

About the Author, Adam Wagner

I'm a marketer, designer, armchair singer/songwriter, wannabe theoretical physicist/philosopher and recent college grad trying to pack as much living as possible into each day. Working at Go Media makes this pretty easy. Catch me on Twitter!!
Discover More by Adam Wagner


We want to hear what you have to say. Do you agree? Do you have a better way to approach the topic? Let the community know by joining the discussion.

  • Simon H.

    Woaw, that’s way more complex and detailed than everything I could think of.

  • Anonymous

    Very cool. Thanks

  • özel ders

    thank you for share

  • Anonymous

    Simple and vintage. Thanks

  • Rajasegar Chandiran

    one of the cool techniques i ever learnt, thanks for sharing…

  • Rajasegar Chandiran

    one of the cool techniques i ever learnt, thanks for sharing…

  • Nathan Marshall

    I like it, and totally agree that it looks better than just overlaying some grungy texture.

    There’s a spelling mistake in your first image in section 3 though, you’ve put “maks” instead of “mask” :)

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Nathan. Man, I’m a horrible speller! I think it comes from manic typing.

  • KKiernan

    Sweet technique! Thanks!

  • Jeff Finley

    That guy has some great work!

    • Simon H.

      The font we use on that poster comes from him

      • Adam Merkison

        That’s quite nifty.

  • Anonymous

    Looks great Filip! Fun to see this.

  • Anonymous

    Yea thanks Colin. That’s a great article.

  • Anonymous

    Yea thanks Colin. That’s a great article.

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    Very Nice! Thanks for sharing!

  • Simon H.

    Looks sweet!

  • Anonymous

    That looks great Jeremy :-)

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    This was simply an awesome tutorial as well as your design work simply rocking.

  • Anonymous

    Woww. This is a great tutorial. Thank you! Was wondering how you guys did that

  • Anonymous

    Woww. This is a great tutorial. Thank you! Was wondering how you guys did that

  • Anonymous

    I always end up brushing too much on my letters!

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    Thank you for that

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  • panax

    Very cool and interesting article

  • Patsy  Leonard

    Nice one, never thought about this way before. It helps me alot. Thanks!

  • Colin Moriarty

    Any advice you might have for doing this on a larger scale without losing too much detail? You mention that you like to keep the brush between 1 and 4pt. It seems that a lot of designers are using a similar technique to age their type and other objects. For example, typefaces like Thirsty Script Rough and Veneer. Thoughts?