Textperiments
This page documents my #textperiments project throughout January 2019. I've had this silly obsession with the After Effects text animator for the past 4-5 years, specifically using it to make things that don't *look* like text. They're actually extremely powerful, they're just not very intuitive.

I encouraged people to follow along on Instagram or Twitter - if you feel inspired, reading this now, I'd love for you to join in! If you'd like to learn how to do this yourself, I created an in-depth tutorial on some of these techniques for School of Motion. (As of May 2019, this tutorial is up to over 100k views!)

A link to the project files is at the bottom. Yeah, you have to look at them first!

The whole point here is to see what I can make with a single text layer.
Some of these will be super useful, some will be completely impractical.
I'm allowing myself a background layer (and lights/camera for 3d), and will be adding effects to complement/stylize, but trying to keep the text layer the star. 

I also did a (somewhat ill-fated, from a technical perspective) livestream at at the end of the project, doing some Q&A.
Day 1: Tapered/Gradient Stroke
Tapered strokes are super handy, and are a fairly common request. Turns out, they've actually been right under your nose all along! No expressions, no 3rd-party plug-ins; just stock After Effects. Adding a gradient and making them follow a path (an animated one, in this case) is also pretty easy!

Another animator named Jay Brown posted his own version of this soon after, excited about how useful this would be for character limbs. (Yep!) This inspired Limber creator Steve Kirby to create a preset based on this technique (plus a quick tutorial). 
Look ma, I'm famous. 
Day 2: Flame
These tapered strokes are useful on their own, but once you start really digging into them, it enables some pretty amazing stuff. A Wiggly Selector, a couple of effects, and voila!

Important Update!
I think I can officially consider this project a success.
Day 3: Chain
This one goes out to the ever-brilliant Brian Maffitt, from whom I learned many AE skills, this specific idea & the whole concept of using text animators for crazy stuff like this. Enabling per-character 3d opens up a whole world of possibilities, including using all the capabilities of the C4D (and yes, the old Raytrace) renderer.
Day 4: Paint Swirl
And now for something completely different - painting with AE text animators! Seeing what you can pack into a single text layer is a really fun challenge. The effects recipe is fairly similar to the flame, but with one crucial difference... Echo.
Day 5: Arrows
Arrows on a path are one of the most useful everyday things you can do with AE text animators. Using ascii/unicode characters opens up a TON of possibilities, not to mention wingdings and even custom fonts. I'll be exploring that more in upcoming days. 

Make your own w/ Mikey Borup's free* path arrow preset! https://bit.ly/2trPok3
Bonus: Baseball
I consider this one to be cheating - it relies on CC Sphere, requires precomposing, and isn't actually using any text animators - but it does use text as a design element, which I think is an important lesson.

The baseball laces are just >>>>> in *Comic Sans* around a path. After trying a few other routes, I realized this was by far the easiest way to accomplish the look I needed. 

(This was part of something used in an MLB stadium for several months, so I've totally used Comic Sans on an important client project!)
Day 6: Calligraphy
Using several Range Selectors, you can taper in/out repeatedly along a path. This maybe isn't the most practical way to approach a script write-on like this (Particular or Bao Boa would probably be my go-to), but it's totally possible to build it on a text layer!
Day 7: Mandala
This dancing mandala is a fun example of where the constraints of using only a single text layer in AE have led me. I like seeing how much complexity I can stack up. Yay for Expression Selectors (and ASCII/Unicode characters)!

I originally posted a simpler version of this as a snarky Twitter response to the Senior Product Manager for AE.  :D

I noticed sometime more recently that Eran Stern (from whom I've been learning AE skills since like 2003) has a LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda.com) course on how to build something very similar. Did I inspire this tutorial, or coincidence? Who knows!

Day 8: Hose
Ooh... a... hose? Sure, this one may not be as flashy as some of the other entries, but I originally built a version of this for a client video which needed - you guessed it - a bunch of hoses. For getting the ribbing right without having to repeatedly fine-tune a path, it sure was handy!

For the right thing, AE text animators can sometimes be easier to work with than shape layers. Whether a shape layer or a text - if you keep it on a single layer, you can avoid precomping and can easily make it a preset!
Day 9: Chevron Ring
Another experiment using AE text animators with the C4D renderer.
Per-character 3d allows for extrusion, lighting, reflections, etc., which can be pretty cool. To be honest, though, these get VERY heavy, and are not especially practical, unless you're just using a handful of characters.
If you needed, say, a couple of 3d arrows to chase each other along a path, though? This is totally the way I'd approach it. 
Day 10: Waves
I've found AE text animators to be very useful for fun wipe transitions. They're easy to tweak once set up (only a couple keyframes vs tons of layers for something like this), and being on a single layer makes for easy mattes/compositing without having to precompose. As I've mentioned before, being a single layer means it can easily be a preset, too, which can be really handy if you build a few of these you can use regularly.
I also explored this one in 3d, but it felt like there were better ways to show off that capability. I didn't end up putting enough effort into the lighting and materials, but seems like some cool potential here. Still pretty cool for being only one layer, right?
Day 11: 11th Hour
Another transition look, semi-inspired by the graphics package for The 11th Hour w/ Brian Williams. As shown in these last few posts,  After Effects text animators are great for wipes, even ones with some depth, thanks to per-character 3d. (Notice the shadows?) As mentioned above, being a single layer means it's easy to layer/composite, and can be an animation preset!
Day 12: Through the Square
I guess this is what it would look like if some insane person tried to animate a Trapper Keeper on one text layer in AE? (Nobody said these would all be useful!)

I wanted to get some more background elements in here, but it ended up being more annoying than I would have liked, based on the way I'd transformed the layer, SO.... moving on.
Day 13: Swimmer
I originally made this thing green and called it a tadpole, but my friend told me to just lean into it. I love the swimmy little tail I was able to get here; a well-used Wiggly selector can do some pretty amazing stuff. As you may have guessed, the technique is pretty similar to the flame from Day 2. 

I technically cheated a little here, using a second text layer to create the particles in the background. They're my [arbitrary] rules; I can break 'em when I feel like it. I believe it's technically possible to have them all on one, but it's more annoying than I wanted to explore. 
Day 14: Volume
Initially built for a client project; a text layer seemed the easiest way. Not accurate, of course, but easy to work with & all on one (text) layer.
Line of periods + Wiggly selector (scale) + Grid, Mirror, Colorama & touch of Deep Glow.
Day 15: Bubble Flow
Particles along a path are one of my favorite uses of AE text animators. You get tons of control over the way they flow, but can introduce enough randomness to make it look natural. Animate the path, parent the points, etc. I've often found this kind of "follow a path" behavior for actual particle generators  to be more hassle than you'd expect.
Day 16: Dot Pattern
My tutorial has launched!
This is one of the examples featured in the tutorial, a fun blending of a Wiggly Selector and a few clever effects. I believe this was the example that actually led me to the "make everything on one layer" idea!
Day 17: Staircase
As mentioned before, the per-character 3d text animator + C4D renderer enables some pretty awesome stuff! (It does tend to slow things down tremendously, however.)
I show a very similar technique in the tutorial linked above. 
I've been worked on a DNA strand based on this build - it's definitely a challenge, but I'll keep at it.
Day 18: Grass
I've come to really love the AE text animator for persistent & controllable "particles" like these. While obviously not realistic, it's a pretty easy way to make some cartoony grass (and on a single layer, of course).
By having multiple lines of the same characters, it's pretty easy to tweak the depth (add an animator for Z position by line), so you could easily add some cool parallax with just a few keyframes. You could even add shadows by making these 3d, but again, it'll get slowwwww.  :D
Day 19: Loading Circle
These text animators are super-useful for creating FUI elements, especially little loaders and background/filler stuff. Using a few basic expressions, it's pretty easy to make a lot of these self-driving (no keyframes).
I know you're probably getting tired of me saying it, but since they're on one layer, you can easily save them as animation presets & build yourself a handy little library of frequently-used elements.
Day 20: Swirl Transform
These AE text animators provide a unique (and pretty easy) way to transition between two shapes. Sync up a position animator with some path keyframes, and voilà! I'm also using an Expression Selector here to throw them out in opposite directions. All on one layer, of course! I'm looking forward to trying this one on some more complex shape transitions.
Day 21: Warp
Are AE text animators the easiest way to create a multi-color warp tunnel? (Maybe!) It's definitely the most controllable way to do it on a single layer (with only a few keyframes). Engage!
Day 22: FUI+ 
Creating random and/or cascading movement on specific layouts of shapes is a great use for the AE text animator. While shape layer repeaters are awesome for creating these layouts, getting any kind of (controllable) offset motion with them really isn't possible. I love the text animator for making little FUI gizmos like this, and as I keep saying, since you can do it all on one layer, it's easy to save as a preset!
Day 23: Data Flow
Do you prefer your data flows clean & techy, or globby & organic? Either way, After Effects text animators are an easy way to pull it off on a single text layer This one was inspired by a question from my pal Dana Albert on how to achieve this flowy "data-along-a-line" look - you can see his great-looking result here.
Helping solve someone else's question can be a great way to discover something new; I highly recommend it!
Day 24: Glitch Square
Another FUI-ish doodle from the AE text animator. Multiple Wiggly Selectors, Inter-Character Blending & Character Offset allow you to create some pretty cool glitch randomness, on one layer with 10 total characters.
Day 25: POW!
Ok, so the boxing glove isn't very practical (I had to make a custom font), but I needed something to put on this fun spring rig (NOT a custom font). Obviously you know this by now, but yes, it's all built on a single AE text layer. 
Day 26: Prism ... Ball ... Sketch ... Thingie
A trippy nonsense doodle made using a curvy script font. Inter-Character Blending is a really cool (and totally under-appreciated) feature - it's actually kind hidden by the effects I'm using, but is what enables all the complexity in here.
(Fun fact: the characters used actually spell "lololol...")
Day 27: Octopus?
Maybe I was so preoccupied with whether or not I could make a bioluminescent octopus on a single AE text layer, I didn’t stop to think if I should.
Day 28: Trippy Triangles
You could get pretty close to this with a shape layer and Echo, but the text animator - while admittedly less intuitive and a bit fiddly -  definitely give you more options for offset movement and randomness. It's really fun to just play around with, even for just making silly abstract stuff like this.
Day 29: Hex Wipe
Do you know any motion designers who've ever needed to build a controllable hexagon grid in After Effects? Nah, me neither. Well, if you ever find one, let 'em know they could've been doing this pretty easily using one text layer & just a couple keyframes.
Day 30: Stars
As I've hopefully made clear, After Effects text animators are extremely useful for the right things (even if some of the above examples have been wildly impractical). Tons of the simple shapes and motions we work with all the time can be done fairly easily on a single text layer. Learn the tools - save yourself time & trouble (and unnecessary precomps)!
Bonus Obnoxious Instagram Mini-Tutorial!
Day 31: Falcon Turret HUD
This honestly might be the most impractical thing I've ever built, but dammit, I made the Millennium Falcon's turret HUD one a text layer in After Effects.
(I don't recommend attempting this, though it's probably still easier than the original graphics build was.) In case you're some kind of heathen who doesn't immediately recognize this, here's one of the 3 shots I referenced for this. (Also, we probably can't be friends.)
I did cheat just a little bit, linking (via expressions) to a few external layers to get motion paths for the ships. As you can see though, only the one text layer (+ bg & frame) is actually visible.
I really appreciate the response this project has gotten, so to return the love (and because it's February), I made you some "hearticles" - on a text layer, of course.
I'll intend to keep posting these when I can, but I'm done with everydays for now.

I'd love to keep seeing your own explorations with the AE text animator.
Use the hashtag #textperiments, and feel free to tag me if you create something cool!