Getting Started With Surface Design

Getting Started With Surface Design main article image
Posted on May 22, 2021 by Vasiliki Tsongas


What is surface design?

If you’ve ever run your fingers over the pretty embossing pattern on a paper towel, marveled at the lovely floral print on a dress, or fawned over the intricate design woven into a rug, you’ve experienced surface design. Humans enjoy looking at and owning attractive things and it is the job of the surface designer to embellish everyday items, practical or indulgent, with our designs.

Surface designs are often seamless repeating patterns like what you might see on wallpaper or a clothing item but they can also be a non-repeating placement print, such as an individual design that you might see on the front of a t-shirt or the cover of your notebook. Surface designers use any number of techniques to create their designs including painting, illustration, lettering, digital design, and much more. In most cases, regardless of the technique used to create the designs, the artwork will eventually need to be converted into a digital format so that it can be sent to manufacturers and applied to products. There are several options for programs that can be used to convert your artwork into a surface design so we’ll go over that next.

What tools are needed?

Whatever your method of creating art, you’ll need the basics of that medium in order to create your designs. Painters will need paint, brushes, and canvas. Illustrators will need paper and pencils. Digital creators will need a computer. Beyond that, if you are working non-digitally, you will need to be able to scan your artwork to convert the art into digital images. There are lots of high-end scanners that will do that job but if you’re just starting out, any home printer that has scanning capabilities will do. This is a learning process and will depend on the specific printer you use and the form of art you’re scanning. But all things, once scanned, can be manipulated within your chosen application after scanning to correct color, brighten or darken images, and refine lines.

Most surface designers will tell you that you need Photoshop and/or Illustrator to create surface designs, and specifically, seamless pattern repeats. Although that would eventually be the ultimate goal and a wise business decision, there are other, less costly alternatives that you can use to begin your learning and allow you the chance to see if surface design is right for you before investing too heavily in this venture.

The internet has a wealth of resources, many of which are free to use, that can help you to get a feel for surface design with only the investment of your time. Regardless of what program you decide to use, it is going to be a learning process, but luckily there are thousands of free learning resources online for all the programs mentioned, from YouTube videos to step-by-step written tutorials.

As an alternative to Photoshop, there are Krita and Photopea. Both are free painting and image editing applications that can be used with Mac or Windows devices. Both provide numerous tutorials on their websites to help guide you through all the functionality of the products and both have active online communities, linked from their websites, if you need to ask specific questions.

As an alternative to Illustrator, you can use the free applications Inkscape or Gimp. Like the other mentioned applications, both are available for use with Mac or Windows devices and provide links to tutorials and rich online communities to assist in your learning of the various functions.

There is, unfortunately, no easy route to learning how to use any of these applications. It will take time, patience, and lots of reading, But once you learn these free applications you will be able to transfer those skills easily to Photoshop and/or Illustrator, because of their similarities to those applications, if you decide to make the financial commitment in the future.

Where can I find inspiration?

As with any artistic endeavor, inspiration can come from anywhere, if you just keep an open mind. It’s good to start with elements that you already are drawn to get a feel for what your design style will be. Do you like floral patterns? Geometric? Abstract? Think about what sorts of designs speak to you personally and go from there. For an added leg up, you can always start creating patterns using purchased graphic elements like the ones found here. Or, if you intend to sell your patterns on POD sites (more on that later), you can find pattern starts here. Using these starter elements to play with pattern ideas will make the process a little less intimidating initially, and hopefully, give you the confidence to create from your own design elements as you learn the process.

Patterns repeats

When creating a seamless pattern repeat, there are several options for how the repeat occurs. Start by practicing the most common methods which include:

Full Drop-the design is repeated exactly along both the horizontal and vertical lines.

Half Drop-the design is repeated exactly vertically in each row, however the horizontal repeat of every second row moves a half step up or down.

Half Brick-named as such because it takes on the same aspects of a brick wall pattern. The design is repeated exactly horizontally, but the vertical repeat of every second row moves a half step left or right. It’s essentially the half drop repeat turned on its side.

How/where can I sell my surface designs?

Two potential areas of income as a surface designer are licensing and POD (Print on Demand) websites. With licensing, you are essentially allowing another company to use your designs on their products and they handle the creation of the product, the sales, shipping, and customer service. In return, you receive either a royalty of the sales or a flat fee, depending on the agreed-upon contract. Once you have a portfolio of your designs, you can reach out to companies that share your aesthetic and attempt to secure a licensing agreement. Similarly, you can upload your designs directly to POD websites, where you choose which products your designs will look best on. Depending on the POD, you will have a variety of products to choose from including, but not limited to, mugs, clothing, art prints, fabrics, and home decor. POD companies also handle the manufacturing, sales, shipping, and customer service but you have more control over which products will carry your designs and the specific placement of those designs. For many POD websites, you also create your own online shop that you can promote to drive additional sales. POD websites usually pay you a percentage of the sale of each item bearing your designs.

There are pros and cons to each POD website. Each one functions slightly differently than the next and carries different product offerings. You’ll need to research and perhaps test each to see which is the best fit for you and your designs. There are no costs to using POD websites so your time is the only investment you’ll need in this area. A few good POD websites to start with are Vida, Society6, Art of Where, Redbubble, Zazzle, and Spoonflower.

Once you’ve developed a portfolio of surface designs, you can upload each design to multiple POD websites and also license those designs (excluding contracts that include exclusivity). So while one design may take you several days or weeks to complete, profits from that one design can be garnered from multiple venues indefinitely to create a potentially lucrative business model.

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