The Adventure Continues (the Surface Pattern Design quest, that is!)

Today I’m back on the jag of my love of pattern design. I discovered this very special niche inside the art and design world while teaching in my high school classes and knew it was something I’d like to try, if ever I “had the time”. Well, once I retired from teaching, I began exploring online art classes and I fell in love with the process. The official industry name is surface pattern design and over time I learned all the ins-and-outs of designing and then executing in either Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, or even both together, at times. My first real exposure to patterns was fabric, as I was an avid seamstress. I was exposed to famous pattern designers including Marimekko, best known for bold, large scale print, when I worked in a wallpaper store and during my trade school education.  I also did a stint in a fabric store, and I studied composition of patterns as it interested me. I have scads of sketchbooks and art journals full of ideas from which to pluck my latest explorations. That is always where you should start! Studying and experimenting is best done on paper with a pencil or marker. Just play, play play!

So, surface pattern design… what is it, you ask? Well, we are surrounded by patterns on everything we wear, use and own. Pattern designers are the creators behind the patterns on clothing, furniture, home décor items, tableware, and much, much more. I had no idea how many industries exist to support surface pattern designers, but they range through the full spectrum, from fabric to stationary to furnishings, just to name the big ones.

Once I learned how to make my first pattern, I was completed enamoured! I now sell a range of products with my own patterns on them, from clothing to home furnishings. It’s a great way to gain passive income and I can’t describe the feeling of seeing and holding real products with your own designs beautifying them. Pattern designers are the creative artists behind all those patterns and surface pattern design is an official occupation and career choice for creatives.

What Equipment is Required?

While some patterns start with hand-drawn or painted artwork, the creation of the “repeat”, which is the pattern design itself that repeats endlessly, is done on the computer.

The equipment and items I use include:

  • A trusty sketchbook and many different markers, and tracing paper, at times
  • A scanner, but I  can use my phone as well, if I am thinking of redrawing completely in Illustrator
  • A computer – I’m a resolute fan of Apple products and use a 27-inch iMac and a MacBook pro for when I am travelling, which I do a lot of now
  • Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop – a couple of the applications in which you create your patterns (there are many more)
  • A color printer for testing and knowledge of the use of mockups. Info can be found everywhere on how to do this.

How to Make Your First Pattern

You can make a pattern from existing artwork you’ve created including pencil drawings, ink sketches, watercolor or other paintings.

The basic process involves these key steps:

  • Creating your original artwork sketches or finished art
  • Scanning it into the computer (or photographing if planning to re-draw)
  • Digitizing it (this can be done with the auto-trace function in Illustrator, or used as-is in Photoshop)
  • Choosing a color palette and applying color (done easily with the Colorways function in Photoshop’s new Textile Designer)
  • Creating the “pattern repeat” itself (choosing what type of repeat suits your pattern the best)
  • Scaling and recoloring as necessary

I teach several classes on Skillshare that cover both of these programs, including custom brush-making in Illustrator, and texturizing in Photoshop. A couple of my classes feature the new extension Adobe Textile Designer too, which streamlines the process of creating the repeats. If you use this link, you can get two months of Skillshare free, and if you don’t want to pay past that point, you will have learned enough to get you started! There are hundreds of classes and you will find a few of my favourite artists like Bonnie Christine, Sandra Bowers, Shannon McNab, Jennifer Coyle and Mel Armstrong. Also, one of my favourites is fellow Canadian, Elizabeth Olwen. And there are plenty of free classes as well! The link is:

What I Love Most About Pattern Design

Once I got the hang of pattern design, I was totally captivated. Playing with motifs, exploring color schemes, and changing the scale of my patterns for specific products is incredibly gratifying and fun. I especially love the new Photoshop Colorways for experimenting.

I don’t want to minimize what’s involved in getting started in pattern design and it can be very intimidating initially. But as a lifelong learner myself, I know that if you are interested, you can accept the challenge and take it step-by-step. Have patience and you can learn anything! And you could be designing fabulous pieces like this before you know it! 

And read, read, read. Some great resources include:

  • Stationery Trends Magazine -
  • Uppercase Magazine (so awesome!)

Additional experts (to name a few), if you want to continue your research of the industry:

  • Kate Harper’s Greeting Card Designer blog -
  • Anne Bollman -
  • Victoria Johnson -
  • Jennifer Nelson -
  • Ronnie Walter -
  • Ginger McCleskey -

Artists to check out:

  • Helen Dardik
  • Mel Armstrong
  • Elizabeth Olwen
  • Loveprint Studio
  • Wendy Kendal

Again, just a few of my favourites!

Check out my Pinterest boards too. There are plenty of delicious tidbits to be found there!

I also sell my work for art licensing and it is a thrill to receive those quarterly cheques!

One of my key goals this year is to create several collections of patterns, and publish my portfolio here on my
website, and send it out to companies to explore more licensing opportunities. This is a super daunting goal but if I approach it in my usual way, step-by-step, I hope to succeed! I will keep you posted!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published