I'm trying to orient different letter forms that I've drawn (not a font) and I'd like to have them align in a semi circle.
I've tried envelope distort and blends, but there's too much distortion going on. I'd like it to work the same as typing along a circular path. Is this easily achievable in Illustrator CS5?
Use the smart guides. The image shows a couple of snapshots from the process. Select each letter with the group selection tool (white pointer with the plus sign). Click and drag from the bottom left or right point of a letter, position over the path, hold Ctrl to make smart guides say "path" when intersecting it, and drop there. Pick the rotate tool, click with it once on the same point and then click and drag the point on the other side to rotate the letter until the other point snaps to the path. For round letters like the G on the image below you can create a helper bounding box. First i created the box snapping it to letter N then moved it horizontally over G and stretched it a bit to fit. Then I selected and and positioned on the path both the box and the letter G using the bottom left and right points of the box.
edit: another way that just occur to me is to find a real font containing glyphs that are boxes, put that font over your hand drawn letters and use the attributes of the type panel to format each box glyph to match the proportions of your letters. Then copy and paste the glyphs on the path using the type on path tool. This will allow you to format with the glyph boxes on the path with things like kerning and tracking. Then you can outline the glyph boxes and use them as snapping helpers for your real letters when using the smart guides.
Is this easily achievable in Illustrator CS5?
It's easily achieveable in any graphics program that has provided functionality for inline graphics—i.e.; all of Illustrator's mainstream competitors for decades—but not in Illustrator.
In a program that does properly support inline graphics, you can simply paste a graphic inline with live text, and the graphic then flows with the text as if it were a text character. Thus, in such a program, you could simply create a pathType object (type that is bound along a path), and paste your objects as if you were pasting text. But not in Illustrator.
You can do this in InDesign, if you happen to have it.
Here's one way:
1. Arrange your graphic letter forms in a straight line, spaced and colored as you please (no gradients, though).
2. Now, select all your letter forms, group them, and create a new art brush.
3. Now, select your semicircular arc that you want to align the letter forms to and stroke the line with the letter form brush you just created.
The letters will follow the shape of the arc, and will be vertically centered on the arc line. If you want the letter forms to set on top of the arc (like type-on-a-path wraps the type baseline around the arc), then in step 2, do this: group the letter forms and note the width and height of the group in the control panel; now, create a plain rectangle (no stroke, no fill) the same width as the group of letter forms and twice the height of the letter form group; now, send the invisible box to the back and align it with the letter form group by horizontal center and vertical top (now the box will be centered with the letter forms and flush with the top of the letter forms); now group the box and letter forms and then create your art brush. When you apply this brush, the letter forms will ride on top of the arc.
Obviously, if you want the letter forms to wrap around the underside of the arc, you'd align the invisible box with the bottom of the letter forms before grouping and creating the art brush.
Hope this idea helps ...
My very first thought when reading the OP headline and the first paragraph was an Art Brush, but that will also mean distortion, especially the thickness of ascenders/descenders, discernable from the Path Type Tool look that Jason asks for.
I've tried envelope distort and blends, but there's too much distortion going on. I'd like it to work the same as typing along a circular path.
There is another way it may not be the method you would choose bu I will post it sometime over the weekend.
However though it is thought that you cannot do inline graphics in Illustrator that is not 100% correct all one has to do is use a square such as is available in Wingdings and make your graphic or image a swatch and fill the square character with that swatch then use the ttilde key along with the selection, direct select and rotation tool to orient the swatch.
This method might even turn out to be the basis for a powerful inline graphics featurewhere you could resize the inline graphic control its color and opacity its size and rotation.
As it is it is a wayout kind of a worjk around.
True, with the "stroking" technique, there is distortion of the letter forms, but it is very slight and in my opinion it actually looks better because the letter forms themselves conform to the arc, meaning that spacing between letter forms remains constant. The horizontal strokes of the letter forms will slightly arc to follow the path and the vertical strokes taper slightly from the top of the letters down toward the "center point" of the arc. To create the "Faux Type on a Path" letter forms, I just converted the text to outlines, which creates a group of graphic objects similar to what Jason originally described as what he wanted to wrap around a semicircle ...
To minimize "bad" distortion and retain the "good" distortion, it is important that the arc segment which is stroked with the letter forms Art Brush be the same "length" as the arc segment covered by real type on a path. Look at these examples: (Note that since the text has descenders and we want the baseline of the "stroked type" to set on the arc segment, the green box [which will actually be changed to no stroke/no fill before making the Art Brush] is the exact width of the group of letter forms and twice the height of the tallest letter form from the top of the ascender to the baseline. In this case, the tallest letter form was the "h" in the word "Path" ...)
As you can see (click on the graphic above to enlarge it), in the example on the right, the distortion of the letter forms is very slight, the letter forms exactly follow the arc, and the spacing between the letters is much better compared to the actual "type-on-a-path" example on the left.
I hope this makes the explanation clearer ...
As a further example of what I was talking about in my earlier post, here is a similar thing using a group of separate graphic objects rather than just text converted to outlines. (Click on the graphic below to enlarge.)
This clearly shows the distortion using this method (note especially the black rectangle and the orange circle). This distortion is not objectionable in my opinion (it's about what your mind expects from wrapping around an arc), and letter forms wouldn't show this much apparent distortion; I chose these various sized and shaped graphics to emphasize the effect ...