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Posted Aug. 11, 2010   53570 views

A Mini Tutorial on Custom Shape

I've always wanted to give a tutorial on using custom shapes, but never got the chance. Custom shape handling is an important feature of Tagxedo. It is easy to do, but not trivial. A Tagxedo user sought my help on using Martin Luther King's portrait, and I'll use it as an example here. Let's just start with the Wiki page about MLK: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King,_Jr. Choosing the right picture is by far the most important step. In general, I seek high-contrast images that are easily discernable even when looking at it blurred. For a great source of images you can use Google or Bing image search. Many of MLK's pictures are tricky, but I found a decent one: http://www.innovationsinnewspapers.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2008/01/2008-01-... (credit goes to the Virginian Pilot). Now open the Shape menu and click "Add Image". You'll see this:

Tagxedo automatically picks the best threshold and blur setting for the image, but some manual adjustment usually can make it more robust, like the following. You want to blur the picture as much as possible, but without losing the "essence" of the picture.

First let's remove a few black speckles with the White Brush.

Now you want to get rid of the words. You can paint the words black using the Black Brush, but you need to be careful not to overstep. Alternatively, you can use the Commit Brush to first "commit" the area above it like this:

and then use the Black Brush to remove the words. It is okay to paint over any committed (green) area -- they won' be overwritten. Use Undo/Redo if you make a mistake.

Click accept and voila! You can respin or pick your own font, orientation, and theme. For portraits, I prefer "Horizontal" and bright themes. Some fonts (Duality, Atrox, Euphorigenic, FairfaxStation) work better than others for portraits:

Hmm, decent, but not the best. In comparison to simple shapes such as heart, dove, USA, portraits are usually trickier. Even the "robust" version of this MLK picture contains quite a bit of facial details. One option to consider is to increase the maximum word count from 150 to, say, 300. Keep in mind that the word count should be treated as a tradeoff, not a silver bullet. In general, fewer words are more pleasing to the eyes, but more words fill better. This is what you get with 300 words:

Looks better, isn't it? For sure it fits the shape better. Want more improvement? Compared to the "Classic Cloud" shape, the biggest words are relatively smaller. This is because the default "Emphasis" is set to 60% (see FAQ for an explanation). Since there seems to be room to fit the biggest word, I'll increase the emphasis to 80%. You'll have to be careful not to increase it too much, or else the biggest words may not show up or may be placed out of bound. Those of you who nitpicks (e.g. yours truly) may notice that there is some whitespace that is not filled (click the "Shape" button and you'll see). For one reason or another, Tagxedo did not optimally size the words to completely fill the shape (and it's not an easy problem to solve). To compensate, increase the tightness by 5%. Don't over tighten either because words will be dropped.

Here's the final result (Interactive: http://www.tagxedo.com/artful/3c0fb6013cbb4bd6 ). What do you think?