Using CSS Text-Shadow to Create Embossed Text

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The text-shadow property creates a shadow underneath text, which is obvious from the name! It’s similar in syntax and functionality to box-shadow, but it follows the shapes of individual letters, rather than rendering around an element’s bounding box.Here’s an example of the general syntax that defines an x-offset, y-offset, blur-radius, and color:

text-shadow:3px 3px 1px #999;

… And its corresponding image:This text has a shadow!Now I don’t know about you, but there’s no situation where I’d ever want my text to look like that! I’ve never worked on a design where this type of effect was called for, and I don’t think it looks very nice. It’s cheesy — like what you’d find in a spam email, or on a Geocities site.

A Touch of Class

However text-shadow is very useful for a certain task, and this seems to be almost exclusively what it’s used for in the wild — creating embossed text like this:

This text has a shadow too!

It has this shadow property:

text-shadow:0 -1px 1px rgba(0,0,0,0.5);

Done carefully and not too brazenly, the effect can be attractive; it gives functional text like buttons and captions an extra touch of class.You can see a few examples of it on this page:

  • orange buttons, such as the “Search” button in the search form at the top, or the “Subscribe” button for newsletter signups in the right-hand column
  • the navy-headed boxes, like the newsletter signups box we just mentioned saying “Get Expert Tips In Your Inbox”, or the categories tabs near the top

So how does it work?

Light and Shade

Shadow and depth effects are created by simulating light and shade, so it follows that we have two basic ways of applying text-shadow to create an embossed effect:

  • a positive white shadow that creates the impression of light at the bottom of the letters, essentially:
    text-shadow:1px 1px 0 white;
  • a negative black shadow that creates the impression of shade at the top of the letters:
    text-shadow:-1px -1px 0 black;

But the issue that arises is that it can be quite difficult to find the right balance of shades, in terms of how much of which to apply in order to achieve a realistic result. Too subtle and it’s almost invisible to the naked eye; too obvious and it starts to look like a drop-shadow. And unfortunately one of the hardest effects to get right is dark text on a light background, especially since the text-shadow is rendered outside the font, rather than on top of it.

Tips and Tricks

So what can we do to make the effect more realistic — so that it looks more like embossing or engraving — and less like a big, ugly drop-shadow? Here are my tips:First and foremost, use RGBA color values, so that the effect has partial opacity. This makes it blend better with the background, and gives you more control over the intensity of the effect. (Although RGBA colors lack support in IE, it’s academic since it doesn’t support this property anyway.)Don’t offset the shadow in both x and y directions as it’s visually too much. It looks better if you only offset in the y direction, as though the light were directly above.Then use different shadows according to the color combinations you’re working with:

  • For light text on a colored (but not very dark) background, use a dark negative shadow with opacity from 0.25 upwards (the higher the value, the more pronounced the effect). Here I’ve also softened the effect slightly with a 1px blur-radius:
    #light-on-color{    background:#f60;    color:#fff;    text-shadow:0 -1px 1px rgba(0,0,0,0.5);}
  • For colored text on a light (but not white) background, use a light positive shadow with fairly high opacity:
    #color-on-light{    background:#eea;    color:#229;    text-shadow:0 1px 0 rgba(255,255,255,0.75);}
  • Other combinations are more tricky: a dark shadow will be ineffective against a very dark background or with very dark text, and the same for a light shadow with a light background or text. But after a whole bunch of experiments, I reckon the best effect is achieved with a subtle combination of both light and dark shadows. Add a low opacity on the dark shadow, high opacity on the light shadow, and a slight bias toward the background shade (so for dark text on a light background, use a bit more light shadow and a bit less dark; and vice versa). Similar to this:
    #dark-on-light{    background:#eee;    color:#223;    text-shadow:0 -1px 0 rgba(0,0,0,0.15),                0 1px 0 rgba(255,255,255,0.8)}#light-on-dark{    background:#223;    color:#eee;    text-shadow:0 -1px 0 rgba(0,0,0,0.3),                0 1px 0 rgba(255,255,255,0.4)}

    The further away from either extreme you can go (that is, towards a darker shade of a light color, or a lighter shade of a dark color), the better the final effect should be.

Those last examples are far from perfect, and the effect is only marginally pronounced (which is how we stop it from looking too much like a drop-shadow). But I think they make the best of awkward color combinations, and so all factors considered, they look okay.I put together a demo page with all four of these examples, and in my opinion they’re in order of how good they look.

Your Ideas?

I’d love to hear your thoughts for better ways to achieve this effect, particularly with those difficult color combinations. Or perhaps you have an entirely different task that the text-shadow property is good for?Thumbnail credit: daveknapik

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  • http://www.tyssendesign.com.au Tyssen

    Or perhaps you have something else entirely that the text-shadow property is good for?

    I think it’s fine for the first example that you said you’d never use it for, drop shadows. I wouldn’t use it exactly like your example, the offset is too great and it doesn’t look good, but I’ve seen plenty of good examples of text-shadow used more subtly to create drop shadows that not only look good, but help aid readability too.

  • http://www.brothercake.com/ brothercake

    Cool :) I’d love to see some links if you have any to hand..

  • JJohn MacAdam

    Really glad you posted this. I have been struggling to master this effect for my personal site (currently in development at http://macfam.me/x). I like where it is now, but I was forced to use a gray background. I’ll try using rgb colors on a lighter background. Thanks for the tip.

  • Daniel

    I had a quick go at breaking your rules: http://www.calamity.org.uk/x/dads.html

    It’s a bit plagiarous since I have no design talent and can only copy. Also doesn’t quite work in Opera, because it seems to draw the shadows in the opposite order to other browsers.

  • http://gabriensymons.com Gabrien

    Chris Spooner describes how to create the letterpress effect using text shadow here: http://line25.com/tutorials/create-a-letterpress-effect-with-css-text-shadow

  • http://www.siskiyouwebdesign.com CA Web Designer

    Is it supported universally in the Browsers?

  • http://www.tyssendesign.com.au Tyssen

    @James http://www.atebits.com/ has a subtle drop shadow on the quotes as well as the embossed effect you’re talking about on the slogan at the bottom.

    http://www.tapmates.com/ has a very slight shadow on the text for and under Cookmates to help lift it off the background as does http://280north.com/ on their headers and http://rossisbrown.com/ on the body copy.

    I’ve done similar to the last example for small amounts of white copy on a dark background in the past too.

  • http://www.brothercake.com/ brothercake

    Fair enough man, that stuff all looks great.

  • http://cfajohnson.com cfaj

    I use em measurements, e.g.:
    text-shadow: 0 0 .1em #200;
    text-shadow: .125em .125em 0 black;