Ever wonder who designed the pattern on your favorite pair of pajama pants, the wrapping paper you pull out for every birthday, or your go-to coffee shop’s seasonal cups? The answer is a surface pattern designer, or surface designer for short. 

And if you love to create original patterns, you could become a surface designer as a hobby, side job or even a full-time career. 

What Is a Surface Designer? 

About two dozen fabric samples arranged on a white tabletop. Each fabric sample is decorated with a different botanical or nature-inspired pattern.
In the Skillshare class Surface Design In Adobe Illustrator: A Beginner’s Guide to Pattern Building, teacher Melissa Lee displays a handful of the original patterns she’s created.

In short, a surface designer is a graphic illustrator who creates designs for consumer products ranging from home goods and clothing to packaging and fabric. Those designs can be standalone, such as a single leaf on a plate, or they can be repeating patterns, such as a star and moon pattern on a sheet set. 

Not all surface designers create their designs using digital tools, either—painters, quilters, stencil artists, tie-dyers, engravers, woodworkers, knitters, crocheters and more can all be considered surface designers, so long as they’re creating original designs on a surface. 

But for our purposes, we’ll be focusing on surface designers who create patterns and designs using programs like Procreate, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, Affinity Designer and Inkscape.

What Is Surface Pattern Design Used For? 

On the left side of the image, a canvas print that reads ‘mistakes are proof you are trying’ rests on a wooden desk.
In the Skillshare class Hand Lettering for Surface Designers: Build a Skill that Will Wow Your Clients, teacher Shannon McNab shows students how hand-lettered designs can be used to create wall art.

Since surface designers can create such a wide array of patterns, their work can be applied to an even wider range of products. 

Those can include:

  • wallpaper; 
  • wall art; 
  • fabrics; 
  • gift wrap; 
  • dishware; 
  • window and shower curtains; 
  • clothing and accessories; 
  • furniture; 
  • rugs; 
  • bedding; and
  • much, much more. 

In other words, if a consumer product can have a pattern on it, a surface designer can create one. 

What Do Surface Designers Do?

A person's hand holding an Apple Pencil and zooming out on a pink and green floral pattern on a tablet. In the background, several potted plants are visible.
In the Skillshare class 10 Ways to Make Better Patterns, teacher Liz Kohler Brown zooms out on one of her original repeating patterns.

Having a knack for graphic design and a love of illustration is a huge component of being a surface designer, but it involves more than just that.

If you pursue a career as a surface designer, your daily work will vary depending on whether you work for a company or are self-employed. But in general, you can expect to spend your time focusing on the following areas: 

  • Research and ideation: Since being a surface designer means creating designs to be used on consumer products, it’s important that you stay on top of current trends and research what other designers are doing. Then, you can combine that knowledge to develop your signature style and create unique patterns consumers will love. 
  • Rough sketching: Whether on paper or a drawing tablet, your next step is to make a rough sketch of your ideas. You can clean up those sketches and use them as your print, or you can set them aside to serve as inspiration for a whole new illustration. 
  • Polishing: Once you’ve created a pattern you like, you can move on to refining and polishing it to perfection. This can involve picking a color palette, smoothing out lines, tweaking objects’ orientation and the like. 
  • Revisions: If you’re creating your pattern for a client, you’ll likely need to go through at least one round of revisions. This will ensure you’re both happy with the design you’ve created. 

If you’re an independent surface designer and sell your own patterns, you’ll have complete control over your creative process. But if you work with clients or an employer to create designs, you’ll need to keep their wants and needs in mind (and likely collaborate with other designers too). 

Get Started on Your Own Surface Pattern Designs!

Surface Pattern Design Fundamentals

How to Become a Surface Designer

A person's hand holding a DSLR camera. On the screen of the camera, we can see several fabric samples printed with various fruit-themed patterns.
In the Skillshare class How to Make a Living as a Surface Pattern Designer, teacher Maja Faber photographs fabric samples decorated with some of her patterns.

There is no one “right way” to become a surface designer. Case in point: A design degree can be helpful to have, but it’s not necessary in the same way a law degree is to become a lawyer. 

Rather, starting a career in surface pattern design involves choosing the path that works for you. 

Education Requirements

If you want and are able to go to school before pursuing a career as a surface designer, you could benefit from getting a graphic design degree. You could also get a more general design degree, which would focus less on digital design and more on the principles of design itself. 

Although getting a degree isn’t strictly required to become a surface designer, it can offer certain benefits you can’t get elsewhere. For example, formal education can provide you with:

  • hands-on experience; 
  • personalized guidance; 
  • potential business connections; and
  • exposure to new styles and techniques. 

And if you don’t want to spend the time and money required to get a four-year degree, you can take shorter surface design certification programs at several colleges and universities. 

Experience in Lieu of a Design Degree

Prefer to get your qualifications through experience rather than formal education? No problem. With a combination of learning by doing and a wealth of online resources, you can get the skills you need to become a surface designer without stepping foot in a classroom. 

To get started: 

  • Gather your supplies: Many surface designers use a drawing tablet and stylus to create and edit their designs. You can’t go wrong with an iPad and Apple Pencil, since that combination supports the graphics program Procreate as well as Adobe’s Illustrator and Photoshop. Alternatively, you could use a dedicated drawing tablet such as those made by Wacom, or create your illustrations on paper before scanning them into your program of choice. 
  • Get inspired: The internet is full of inspiring ideas, whether you turn to YouTube, Pinterest, an art blog or even a fabric store. Check out the surface designs those sites have to offer, and use them to inspire designs of your own. 
  • Start designing: Using your tools, inspiration and creativity, start making original patterns of your own. When you’re getting started, don’t be afraid to experiment with a variety of styles and motifs. 
  • Take classes to develop your skills: You don’t have to go to college to get tips and advice from design experts. Instead, you can use Skillshare’s surface design classes to learn how other artists work and hone your own skills. 

Once you’ve created a handful of patterns you’re proud of, you can assemble them in a surface design portfolio and begin to look for work as a professional surface designer. 

How Much Do Surface Designers Make? 

A surface designer in the United States makes an average salary of about $48,000, with most earning somewhere between approximately $40,000 and $55,000 per year. 

Keep in mind that the amount you’ll be able to earn as a surface designer will largely depend on several factors. For instance, when starting out as a freelance surface designer, you’ll likely make less initially than if you were to take a full-time job at a design studio. 

Similarly, the more experience, qualifications and client testimonials you have, the more money you’ll likely be able to make. 

You can also increase your earnings by diversifying your income streams. If you’re working as a freelance surface designer, for example, you can supplement your income by simultaneously selling your designs on print-on-demand sites. 

Surface Pattern Design Jobs 

A person's hand painting bright pink and green watercolor flowers on a white piece of paper.
In the Skillshare class Watercolor a Seamless Pattern: Surface Design in Adobe Photoshop for Print-On-Demand, teacher Cat Coquillette demonstrates how surface designers can create a pattern using a physical medium before uploading it to a print-on-demand site.

If you pursue a career in surface design, you’ll be able to choose from a variety of job types, or even combine them to better suit your work style. 

In-House Designer

As an in-house surface designer, you’ll work for one organization on an ongoing basis. You’ll likely be expected to collaborate with a team of other designers, as well as to follow the guidance of an art director, creative lead or other such supervisor. 

Freelance Designer

If you choose to be a freelance surface designer, you’ll work with clients on your own terms. You’ll still need to meet the needs of each client, but you won’t be obligated to work with any one client on more than one project. You’ll also need to act as your own marketer, promoter, and web designer, so get ready to wear multiple hats. 

Want to sell ready-made patterns to companies instead of working with them to create custom ones? You might also want to look into licensing your designs, either for a flat fee or for royalties. 

Print-On-Demand Designer

The rise of print-on-demand sites like Society6, Spoonflower, Redbubble and Zazzle have made it possible for surface designers to sell their artwork directly to consumers around the world. Simply upload your designs, choose the products you want them to be printed on, and you’re done. To get more customers, creating a strong online presence and promoting your work on social media can be invaluable. 

Prefer to do the printing yourself? Consider selling your designs on a handmade marketplace like Etsy instead. 

Decorate the World as a Surface Designer

If you choose to become a surface pattern designer, your art won’t be confined within a gallery. Instead, it will live out in the world, decorating the products people use every day. So whether you have a design degree, are planning to get one or want to go the self-taught route, don’t be afraid to dive into surface design and start creating eye-catching patterns of your own.

Turn Your Hobby Into Your Career!

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

Written by:

Carrie Buchholz-Powers