lilla original art
Original art by Lilla Rogers of Lilla Rogers Studio.

“Make trends, don’t follow them. It’s great to be aware of what’s out there, but people buy your joy, so make sure that first and foremost, you’re making art that you love. Make art for things that you yourself would love to own.”

-Lilla Rogers, founder of renowned art agency Lilla Rogers Studio

Have you always dreamed of seeing your artwork on wallpaper, fabric, and giftwrap? For many artists, creating imagery that adorns products found in major retailers is truly a dream come true. If that’s the case for you, it makes sense to learn more about surface pattern design.

How do you go from drawing in your sketchbook, to becoming a professional surface pattern designer? There are many possible answers to this question and finding the right niche for your work is a good starting point. If you’re considering getting into surface pattern design, here are expert tips and resources to help you get started.

What is Surface Pattern Design

Surface pattern designers create artwork for the surfaces of a variety of products that are used in daily life. Sometimes these are repeat patterns and other times they are individual motifs or text. If you look around your house, office, or studio you’ll notice that there is artwork on so many things including fabric, wallpaper, notebooks, and phone cases. Even tissue boxes and sponges have surface designs!

The purpose of the artwork that adorns all of these objects is to enhance their appeal. If this is the sort of commercial work, you’re interested in producing, surface design may indeed be the right path for you. Read Elizabeth Silver’s blog What is Surface Pattern Design for a more in-depth exploration of all of the facets of this field.

Technology & Materials

Although many artists work by hand drawing and painting motifs, today it’s important to learn to turn those images into computer-generated designs. Most surface designers create patterns in Adobe Suite software including Photoshop, Procreate, or Illustrator. Free design software including Gimp and Inkscape are also options. Some designers draw directly in their chosen program using a tablet and drawing pencil. This article by Tessa from Profits Unraveled explores tablets, some alternatives, and whether you truly need one for surface design.

Basic art supplies such as a sketchbook, pencil, pens and paints can also play a vital role helping you to develop your own style, find a playful way of working, and embrace the process. Lilla Rogers, who is an agent for illustrators and course instructor notes that studio art processes are well received in surface design industries. “Traditional-style media such as watercolor, gouache, and so on does well these days (whether done with traditional materials or digitally).” You can scan your artwork and bring it into a design program to begin cleaning it up and manipulating it. If you’re planning to photograph original artwork and work on it within Photoshop, you may find that you need a more advanced camera than what your phone offers. This blog from the print-on-demand site Society6 offers advice on photographing and editing original artwork. If you don’t have a scanner, there are several apps for your phone or tablet that work well.

The Basics

Choosing a software program and knowing how to navigate it is key to getting started. This article from surface designer and teacher Shannon McNab gets into the weeds of the strengths and weaknesses of Procreate, Photoshop, and Illustrator. Adobe offers free tutorials that are a good starting point if you’re brand new to the programs, or search for a class on Skillshare. Once you have a basic handle on programs, creating motifs is the next skill. Motifs are the individual elements that create a design and can be manipulated by adding color, layering, texturizing and so on. You might already have artwork that you can pull from or may need to create new work. Remember there are a lot of options for creating the foundational artwork for your designs. You can choose to draw on a tablet, draw or paint on paper and scan, photograph and scan etc.

After the motifs have been created and scanned, you’ll need to import them into your design software and then it will be time to manipulate the motif into a pattern. The steps for creating patterns and making them into seamless repeats are different for each program.

At the beginning, making a pattern repeat can seem like the hardest part of surface pattern design, but it is actually a technical skill with clear steps. Whether you learn this skill from YouTube or in an official course, once you have it in your toolbox, you can focus on the artwork. Just from looking around you, you’ll find that there are many types of patterns, and some are more suitable to specific products. This blog post from Rachelle, an Australian surface designer and coach, has great visuals for creating seven different pattern repeats you’ll likely need in surface design. Design decisions you’ll be making while creating patterns include composition, color, scale and orientation.

When you reach this basic understanding, time will be what you need the most of. With all the skills in hand, you’ll finally get to practice, play and create. There is a lot to learn about surface design. It can get overwhelming very fast.

Our #1 tip for newcomers is to set clear actionable goals that will keep you focused and motivated on your own unique path to success. Consistency is key! Create a habit of doing one thing a day to learn and grow your skills. Small steps lead to giant leaps toward achieving your dreams,” says Bonnie Christine who is a licensed surface pattern designer and popular course instructor.

Bonnie has a great podcast about planning your own journey to success in surface design which is a great resource.

flower pattern in aligned squares
flower pattern in diamond shapes
flower pattern in ogee form

Skill Building

While learning surface design completely on your own is a great option for some, taking a course can be a time saver, helping you to hone in on the most important skills with expert instruction. Make the most of your investment by choosing a course that suits your style, needs and aspirations. Skillshare offers over 1300 courses in surface pattern design from a variety of instructors. You’ll find a range of options using different software programs. This is a practical place to start learning because you can get a taste of what is available and what skills you want to focus on.

Once you know more about what area of surface design you want to deep dive into, what program is best for you, and how you want to sell your designs, consider a more in-depth course. If you want to learn Illustrator for surface design and prepare for creative entrepreneurship, Bonnie Christine’s Surface Design Immersion Course covers everything from software basics to selling your work. Bonnie says, “This program is meticulously crafted for both beginners and seasoned artists, covering the necessary tools to achieve a fulfilling career in the industry while establishing time, location, and financial freedom.” This course opens again in 2024. (Bonnie was the keynote speaker at Craft Industry Alliance’s first Surface Design Symposium.)

decorative plates
Anne Cote designs for kitchenware
Creating Collections for Home Decor course from Lilla Rogers Studio, left/top: Class assignment by Rocio Mariposa, right/bottom: Class assignment by Anne Cote.

For advanced students who have created patterns but are struggling with collections, Elizabeth Silver’s course Successful Licensing Collections focuses on curating your designs, collections, and portfolio to make your work more appealing for licensing. “Students come away with a method for creating marketable art and assessing their work they can use over and over as they build their portfolios,” says Elizabeth. This course is open continually. Elizabeth has been a guest on the Craft Industry Alliance podcast, and presented at the Surface Design Symposium.

Creating Collections for Home Décor from Lilla Rogers Studio is perfect for anyone looking to license their work specifically for home décor. You’ll learn to curate and pitch a portfolio that is relevant and exciting to art directors in the industry. Lilla notes, “Crucially, Creating Collections for Home Decor teaches artists how to present their art as collections, meaning that clients are not only more likely to buy an artist’s work, but also more likely to buy more of it.” This course runs again in 2024. Lilla has been a presenter at the Craft Industry Alliance Surface Design Symposiums and a guest on the podcast.

sketch draft collection and product of a design
A visual description of the creative process from Elizabeth Silver’s course Successful Licensing Collections course.

Promote your Work

After you’ve created designs and collections you are ready to share, you’ll need to promote them in order to sell your work. While this may not be the strong suit of all creatives, Elizabeth Silver wisely advises,

“If and when you want to become a profitable designer, it does require confidence, patience, persistence, and a willingness to self-promote.”

Strategies for getting noticed include sharing via email and social, pitching to companies, working with agents and Print on Demand websites such as Spoonflower. Watch the replay of, Stand Out: How to Market Yourself and Your Work for advice on marketing and promotion.

Entering Spoonflower’s Design Challenges can get you started with promoting your work. Jessie Greenberg, Spoonflower’s Artist Community Manager says, “Spoonflower’s Weekly Design Challenges are a great way to get discovered in the Spoonflower Marketplace. While the Marketplace has over one million designs, Design Challenges allow your entry to be previewed amongst just the 600-2,000 challenge entries during voting. This smaller platform gives your design a chance to shine as the Spoonflower community casts their votes.”Jessie also suggests paying close attention to your POD listings. She recommends using “search-friendly title and description” that reflects the aesthetic of your work. You can learn more about this on the Spoonflower Blog.

Additional Resources

For the past two years, Craft Industry Alliance has held a Surface Design Symposium each fall. The symposiums feature surface designers who are actively working in the industry and cover entrepreneurial topics as well as technical skills. Watch the replays from our surface pattern symposiums below and stay tuned for the 3rd annual Symposium coming this fall.

2022 Replay
2021 Replay

Carrie Miller

Carrie Miller