The work of surface designers is everywhere—even if most people don’t realize it.

Surface design is one of those creative careers that you might know you want to do without actually knowing that there’s a name for it. It’s also a great way to make use of a graphic design degree, with near endless opportunities to put your artistic touch onto prints and patterns that adorn everyday items and home décor.

So, what is surface design, and how do you become a surface designer? We’re laying out everything that you need to know, including types of surface designer jobs and how much money you can expect to make. If you’re ready to put those graphic design skills to work, keep reading for helpful insight on how you can get started in surface design. 

What is a Surface Designer?

bird pattern
Surface designers create patterns that appear on packaging, fabric, clothing, and more. (Sketch by Skillshare student Carol Freire.)

A surface designer, also known as a surface pattern designer, is a graphic illustrator who creates original patterns for consumer products like fabrics, home goods, packaging, and clothing. These patterns may be standalone designs, or they may be repeating patterns like the kind found on gift wrap and wallpaper.

It’s worth noting that not all surface designers are also graphic designers. The art of surface pattern designing applies to pretty much any instance where someone is manipulating fabric or another surface material to create a new pattern. As such, painters, tie-dyers, quilters, crocheters, stencil artists, knitters, and felt workers would all fall under the general category of surface designers. 

For our purposes here, though, we’re going to focus on graphic illustrators who create and mix patterns using digital platforms like Adobe Illustrator, Procreate, and Inkscape.

What is Surface Design Used For?

Look around most rooms, and you’re bound to see the work of surface designers.

Surface design is used to create patterns for a huge variety of consumer products, including (but not limited to):

  • Throw pillows
  • Notebook covers
  • Prints
  • Gift wrap
  • Wallpaper
  • Dishware
  • Window and shower curtains
  • Greeting cards
  • Clothing
  • Shoes
  • Fabrics
  • Furniture
  • Product packaging
  • Rugs
  • Bedding

The list goes on and on, which is good news for aspiring surface designers since it means that there are always plenty of companies looking for designs that they can use on their products.  

Surface Designer Job Description

drawing flowers
Surface designers may sketch a design by hand and then re-draw or live trace it into a digital format. (Sketch by Skillshare instructor Starlene Designs.)

Understanding the elements of graphic design and being able to create pleasing, trendy patterns is obviously a big part of being a surface designer, but there’s more to it than that. The exact tasks involved in surface designer jobs vary based on the products that you’re designing for and whether you work for a company or as a freelancer; however, there are some pretty standard things that you’ll likely be doing in the role, such as:

  • Research and planning: Because they’re designing for products that will ultimately be sold by brands and retailers, surface designers must do plenty of research and planning ahead of time to make sure the designs they create are in line with any current trends, themes, or collections that are shaping their work.
  • Sketching: Surface designers often sketch their illustrations by hand as a first step. This helps with the development of the pattern and can be a way to fine-tune designs before creating them digitally. The designs are then either re-drawn or live traced onto the computer, where they’re worked on further to create a seamless print.
  • Refining: Digital illustrations are refined and perfected before being sent for approval. Depending on the feedback, the design may go straight to print, or some back and forth may be required to get the pattern just right.

There are a number of creative skills involved in surface design, and there is also a lot of collaboration. Surface designers may work alongside product designers, brand and retail associates, manufacturers, and others in the product pipeline throughout the design process, and they may be somewhat restricted in creative licensing based on the desired end result.

How to Start a Career in Surface Design

Does all of this have you asking how do I become a surface designer? A design degree is a good place to start, but it’s not necessarily a must-have. Here’s what to know about pursuing surface design as a career and the various paths that you can take.

Degree & Education Requirements

For many, the roadmap to a career in surface design starts with formal schooling, typically in pursuit of a graphic design degree or a more general design degree. Some schools also offer surface and print design certifications for those who want to learn all of the basics but don’t want to go all-in on a four-year degree program.

While completing a degree or certification program isn’t a steadfast requirement for surface designing, it does have some benefits. You’ll get hands-on guidance for learning all of the skills needed to be successful in surface pattern design. You’ll also make connections that could lead to further opportunities such as internships or mentorships. Lastly, a relevant degree or certification may be useful when it comes to job hunting, especially if you’re interested in a competitive position with a large company.

Despite the advantages of a degree or surface and print design certification, plenty of surface designers find success without them—even those who are starting out as beginners. The internet is full of useful resources that you can use to learn graphic and surface design, including courses, how-to guides, and training programs.

Getting Surface Design Experience

If you’re the type of creative who prefers to learn by doing, then you could opt for experience instead of a degree. Getting first-hand experience with surface design will provide you with actionable insights that you can incorporate into your own best practices, and, like schooling, could help you network and find more opportunities.

As a general rule, it helps to narrow down your niche first, putting the focus both on the type of pattern work you like to do and the type of clients you want to engage with. From there, start creating patterns and designing digital prototypes that you can add to a portfolio. The more work you create (whether paid or not), the more likely it becomes that your work will catch the attention of a brand that’s interested in licensing one or more of your designs or contracting with you on a project.

You may also want to consider joining a community such as the Surface Design Association (SDA). Member benefits include mentorships, exhibitions, and conferences, and you’ll also be able to collaborate—and learn from—like-minded creative professionals.

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How Much Do Surface Designers Make?

The average salary of a surface designer in the U.S. is $84,500, according to Comparably. Your location, experience, and skill level will all impact how much you make, as will the type of surface pattern design work that you specialize in.  

This is a good average salary, but you could make even more as a surface designer if you diversify your earnings. Selling prints and licensing your artwork are two great ways to bulk up your yearly take-home pay, and they can be mostly passive income streams once you do some work on the front-end to set up an online store or create an account on a print-on-demand platform.  

Types of Surface Design Jobs

bunny pattern
Surface designers work either independently or as part of design teams to create original prints and patterns that can then go on to be used on various consumer products. (Design by Skillshare instructor Sande Sign.)

One of the great things about working in a creative field is that you usually have the option of either working for an established company or working for yourself as a freelancer. And while neither route is inherently better than the other, it does help to know what the pros and cons of both are so that you can decide what makes the most sense for you as you start your career in surface design.

Working as an Employee for a Brand or Design Firm

There are lots of companies that hire full- or part-time surface designers to work on staff, from big-name brands and retailers in need of original prints for their products to design firms that get hired to produce prints and other materials for organizations and events.

These tend to be competitive, well-paying jobs, and provide you with access to the latest in surface design software tools. Other advantages of working with an established company include reliable ongoing work and enhanced opportunities for collaboration and knowledge sharing. That being said, you’ll almost certainly have to sacrifice some creative freedom in order to design prints and patterns that align with your employer’s broader corporate identity.   

Going Solo as a Freelancer

It is not at all uncommon to work as a freelance surface designer. And in fact, many designers actually prefer to work on a freelance basis and have complete say over their designs, their client roster, and their schedule. You’ll still be at least somewhat confined by deadlines and budgets, but you’ll get a lot of independence—and a lot of flexibility in the projects you contribute to.

Being a freelance surface pattern designer requires a strong work ethic and a willingness to take on new challenges. It’s also where having a niche or niches will really come in handy, since it will help you gain authority in one or more areas and show potential clients that you know your stuff. Be ready to do quite a bit of hustling (particularly in the beginning when you don’t have a portfolio full of completed work), and invest in inbound marketing tactics like a personal website and social media presence to help prospects find you.

Although you’re giving up the security of a salary and benefits when you go freelance, your profit potential is actually quite a bit higher. As you become more established, you’ll be able to prioritize the highest paying jobs with the highest paying clients, meaning more money for less work and time. It’s a great trade-off, and it’s worth putting in the time and effort during those early months or years when income is a bit less reliable.

Is Surface Design a Good Career?

Absolutely. There are a ton of fantastic things about surface pattern designing, including the pay, the creative opportunities, and the ability to diversify into passive income streams. It’s also a career that anyone can do with a bit of graphic design know-how, even those who don’t consider themselves to be overwhelmingly artistic.

Of course, the more interest you have in something, the more successful you’re likely to be. If you think that surface design might be a good career for you, do some digging into the various niches that are available and the trends that are shaping them. You might find that your talents are naturally suited to one direction over others and that your path forward looks a little clearer.

Constant learning is a must for success in surface design. Be sure to take a look through our many surface design courses and pick up helpful advice, tips, and techniques from some of the industry’s leading pattern designers. 

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