We see surface design every day without even realizing it. The pattern on your favorite shirt? That was made by a pattern designer. The tablecloth that your grandma brings out over the holidays? That was created by a surface artist.

In this tutorial, we’ll teach you what surface design is, how you can get started with your own patterns, and what you need to know about building a career as a surface designer.

What is Surface Design?

Surface design is the creation of artwork, prints, and designs that can be applied to a surface—anything from fabric and wallpaper to notebooks and home decor. You can probably see at least 10 different examples of a pattern designer’s work from where you’re sitting right now. 

Surface pattern designs can be both standalone or repeating patterns, depending on what the final goal is. Seamless repeating patterns, for example, are most commonly found in gift wrap or wallpaper. The pattern will be an exact match throughout with no beginning or end so that the customer can use as much or as little as they’d like without having to worry about the design looking off.

While it’s possible to use an existing artwork or print and fit it to a product, most pattern designers are instructed to craft something to fit a set product range to ensure that the pattern works effectively on those items. For those who take existing work and adapt it to a product, the final look should always imply the opposite–that it was created specifically for that item.

Examples of Surface Design

Patterns can be found on many consumer products, though there are a few categories where surface designers most often see their work featured. The design surfaces and techniques used to create the final product vary greatly, from mass market productions to one-off pieces designed specifically for an individual customer.

Home Furnishings

a couch
The home decor industry uses a wide range of surface pattern designers to create unique and memorable pieces.

Upholstery on throw pillows, armchairs, bed linens, and quilts are where you’ll likely find the best examples of surface patterns designs in your home. 

Wallpaper and Curtains

homemade wallpaper
Create your own wallpaper! Skillshare instructor Julia Rothman shows you how in her class, “Illustrating Patterns: Creating Hand-Drawn Wallpaper.”

Wallpaper and curtains in homes and workplaces are another great example of surface design out in the world.

Clothing

painted converse
The fashion industry is known for its elaborate designs and patterns. 

With designs printed, dyed, embroidered, and woven onto the fabric, our clothing is one of the best examples of surface designs that we see and use every day.

Paper Products

notebook with octopus
Cards and notebooks are as unique as the individual pattern designers who create them.

From notebooks to greeting cards or gift wrap to calendars, paper products are where many new pattern designers get started. Their small and simple nature makes it easy for amateur artists to test out different design styles and surfaces before committing to a bigger project.

Get Started on Your Own Surface Pattern Designs!

Surface Pattern Design Fundamentals

How to Learn Surface Pattern Design

Now that you have a better understanding of what surface design is, it’s time to get working on your own projects! When it comes to how to make a pattern, there are plenty of tools and courses to help you get started. But the first step before doing any actual design work is to think about what you want to achieve and the type of product you’re designing for.

Design surfaces, or the material you’ll be working with to showcase your final design, plays an important role in determining what the final design looks like. For example, beading or other three-dimensional elements may work well on certain fabrics for clothing or throw pillows, but wouldn’t be as effective for wallpaper or on a mug. 

Once you’ve made those decisions, you can start working on the pattern itself. Adobe Illustrator and Affinity Designer are good tools to use if you’re a new surface designer, whether you’re working on a computer or a tablet. 

sketches of flowers
Starting your design on paper gives you room to make mistakes before digitizing your pattern.

There are three main steps to building your pattern. First, sketch your pattern on paper and scan it into your tool. From here, you can trace it in your software to digitize it.

adobe illustrator
Creating a custom color palette to save in Adobe Illustrator is a great way to save time as you finalize your pattern.

Then, using your eye-dropper tool, build a custom color palette. This will be helpful for customizing your pattern once you’re ready to add colors and shades. You can then group these color swatches and save this to your deck to use in future projects as well.

flowers in adobe illustrator
Finish each individual element before pulling them together to form your pattern.

When all of your individual sketches are digitized, you can drag them into your work board and position them to make your final surface pattern designs. Once all of your individual elements have been colored to your liking, group different pieces together to make it easier to copy onto the final design board.

flower patterns
Once you’re happy with your pattern, you can replicate it as many times as you’d like and switch out colors to form a complete collection for your portfolio.

In your work board, you can build both standalone designs and repeating patterns using the elements you’ve completed. 

For repeating patterns, draw a square in the center of your work board and send it to the back, then start adding in your design elements. Remember that the left and right axis should match, as should the top and bottom axis. This will ensure that your design is endlessly repeating. Once all of your edges are the same, you can add anything you like to the middle of the square. You can then group everything together and add to your color swatch–you have your first pattern!

How Do You Become a Surface Designer?

You’ve made your first few patterns and have decided that you’d like to try working as a surface artist or pattern designer. But where do you start?

The good news is that anyone with artistic talent can become a surface designer! But like any other art form, being a great designer takes years of practice to establish a signature style that will help you stand out from the crowd. Keep taking classes and drawing as much as you can to stay on top of your skills.

You’ll also want to build your portfolio online and create a website where potential customers can find and contact you, either about buying work you’ve already created or commissioning you for custom pieces. 

Ready to make surface design your full-time job? If you’re looking to work in-house as a surface designer, you can start applying for positions as soon as you have a sizable portfolio (or even sooner if you’re applying for entry-level jobs). Typical salaries for corporate work are around $45,000 per year, depending on your experience level and qualifications. But if freelance life is more your style, there are plenty of great options for building different income streams from your work.

Licensing your designs—when a client will pay you an ongoing fee to use your designs on their products—is a good choice for recurring income, particularly if you can offer this to multiple clients at once. This is the best option if you just want to create designs and don’t want to handle any product manufacturing or shipping yourself.

flower pattern
Selling your work to clients through licensing is a great way to build recurring income as a surface pattern designer.

If creating a finished product is important to you, you can easily create an online shop on your website or through marketplaces like Etsy or Society6. Like other artists, you can upload your designs or prints to these sites and customers can buy on-demand. Remember though, if you’re using a third-party platform, they’ll take a cut of your profits. 

There really is no limit to what you can do if you’re interested in pursuing a career in surface pattern design, whether that’s in a traditional work setting or as a freelancer. No matter what option you choose, keep practicing, develop your skills, and have fun!

Turn Your Hobby Into Your Career!

Surface Pattern Design 2.0: Design a Collection | Start a Career