Come, Take a Tour of the Intricate World of Surface Designs

by Mike Jansen
Come and explore the intricate world of Surface Designs

With patterned goods like floor rugs, throw pillows, apparels, tote bags and even product packaging being back in vogue, creative designers are more keen on sharpening their surface designing skills. If you’re a newbie and want to try your hands at product designing, it’s important to know about surface designs.

What is Surface Design and How Do You Start with it?

There are two main approaches to surface design (1) Create a design and find out how to make it look attractive on a product’s surface, and (2) Brainstorm designs for a specific product or range of products. Most pattern designers swear by this technique. No matter your approach, this blog is relevant to you.

Surface design is defined as any type of artwork (such as pattern, painting, sketches, illustration, and hand lettering) that’s crafted by a designer and intended to be used on a surface to improve its visual appeal and/or functionality. The most common products that use surface designs or surface pattern designs are wallpapers, cushions, lampshades, wrapping papers, upholstery, quilting fabrics, fashion fabrics, and floor coverings, just to name a few. 

Still not sure what surface design means?

Here’s a simple example. The job of a furniture designer is to create unique, functional furniture designs, just like it’s the job of an apparel designer to create various clothing styles and accessories to match current trends. A surface designer can design both – an interesting patterned fabric for a sofa, as well as a Batman or Superman graphic t-​shirt for kids and adults.  

Aspiring to be a surface pattern designer? Here’s what you need (or don’t need) to know


  • Is it mandatory to have an art degree to become a surface designer?

Not really. Having one would help, but it’s not mandatory. In fact, there are many successful surface designers who do not have any art or graphic design backgrounds. All you need is a lot of creativity, exposure, and knowledge about some important tools and technology.  

  • Do you need to have special skills to become a professional surface pattern designer?

Yes, it’s good to have some basic artistic skills to become a successful surface pattern designer. For instance, you need to have a sound understanding of layout, balance, and composition —the key skills to create a visually appealing design. There are a few ways to master these skills – experience, online/offline designing tutorials, and traditional university education.

  • Is it necessary to be able to draw recognizable motifs? 

No. If you think of apparel, accessories and home décor, much of what you see is abstract. For instance, concentric circles, chains of diamond – shaped links, brush strokes, block prints, paisleys, and more. However, here’s our take: If you’re a beginner, learning representative drawing can give you a wider skill set and better flexibility to work on a wide range of projects. This way, you can also boost your career and take it to the next professional level.   

As far as recognizable motifs are concerned, you can always practice and learn from what you didn’t get right. If you have a knack for abstract designs, we recommend you to research, look at what’s trending, and hone your skills.

Note: There are always exceptions to every rule. Some designers have built successful careers on specific styles or genres.  

Surface designers who have made their niche in the Industry


1. Ellie Cartlidge

Come, Take a Tour of the Intricate World of Surface Designs

Ellie’s designs are known for their vibrant colors and alluring patterns. Available as both stunning hand-paintings and digitally rendered creations, her designs are immensely detailed and appeal to the contemporary audience. Ellie learnt how to develop her paintings into prints using design software like Photoshop and Ned Graphics. Her work often includes photographic elements that cater to the current market as well as future trends. Her key skill lies in interpreting designs that’ll make their impact on the world. Original and inspiring, Her designs are just perfect, thanks to her choice of motif, colors, and patterns.

2. Gabriela Fuente Studio

Come, Take a Tour of the Intricate World of Surface Designs

Starting her career as a product developer in the fashion industry, Gabriela went on to work as a fashion and interiors print designer. It was only several years later that she realized her passion and worked as a full time surface pattern designer. Gabriela uses a range of tools to create her unique and vibrant designs, for example paper, pen, pencil, water color, Photoshop, ink, oil pastel, Illustrator, and so on. 

Her creations are modern, impactful, fun, relatable, and typically appeal to the fashion forward, independent woman. They’re in line with the latest trend, but at the same time, distinctive enough to stand out from the crowd. From bold fashion fabric patterns to captivating bedding and homeware prints, Gabriela draws her inspiration from her surroundings – wildlife, birds, flowers, people, travel, fashion, books, museums, and many other things. 

3. Inma Garcia

Come, Take a Tour of the Intricate World of Surface Designs

Inma is known for her unique surface prints for textiles, homeware, furnishings and wall coverings, both for the fashion and interior décor industries. She holds an experience of over 15 years in textile designs, and her trendy pattern prints have been used worldwide by different brands, such as John Lewis and West Elm. Her specialty lies in her simple yet statement surface designs. Her creations are inspired by the organic patterns found in nature, tribal cultures from around the world, and different geometric shapes. These together, give her a unique creative style that’s rare and precious. Inma’s creations typically start with pen or pencil sketches or photographs, before giving them a digital facelift on her computer.

4. Joyce Allen

Come, Take a Tour of the Intricate World of Surface Designs

Joyce is a textile designer and has been working in the design industry for many years now. With a keen eye for unique designs or anything visual, Joyce’s creations are neat, bold, and impactful, at times with a geometric touch. A few other distinct features in her patterns are color, texture, and eclectic themes. Aside from being relevant, her surface pattern designs have a certain amount of humor to them, which makes them quite interesting to look at.

Coming to techniques, Joyce specializes in digital integrated textile designs. She uses digital software, techniques and procedures to further improve her designs. Some of these tools are Photoshop, digital printing, jacquard, laser cutting and digital embroidery. Her designs always start with research, sketches, and painting, and they get a digital makeover only when she’s satisfied with her handcrafted creations.

5 Useful Tips to Start with Surface Designs

1. Determine the theme of your design

The theme refers to the overall design subject. For instance, it could be a wildlife or underwater theme, a holiday design, a geometrical or design.

2. Find out which motifs complement each other

Research and determine what elements you can include in your theme. In order to ensure uniformity in your motifs, choose the ones that are typically paired together,  for example knife and fork, salt and pepper, rainbows and clouds, wine and cheese, lock and key, and so on .

3. What feeling do you want to convey? Do you have a story to narrate?

What do you want your pattern to look like? Bold or serene? Quirky or sophisticated? Modern or nostalgic? Or do you want your designs to be narrative in order to engage your audience visually and evoke their emotion. For example, you can create designs that show birds flying in formation above mountains or use a treasure map to create a sense of adventure. Remember, audiences are typically impatient and you don’t have a lot of time to impress them with intricate design narratives. You have around 5 seconds to draw your audience’s attention, so keep your designs neat and meaningful. 

4. Determine the motive of your design

What are you designing for? Is it apparel, upholstery, shoes, bags, homeware, wallpaper, mobile cases, belts or gift wrap? Or is it all of the above? If you’re designing wallpaper, is it for a nursery, living room, office space or retail store? Imagine the purpose of the space and what it’ll look like once it’s completed? When you do visual legwork, it becomes easier for you to choose the colors, motifs and patterns, and then scale them accordingly. 

5. Consider your target audience

Who are your target audience? Do you envision your designs on kids’ apparel, teenagers’ magazine covers, seniors’ medicine boxes, or youngsters’ energy drinks packaging? Once you identify your target audience, it’ll become easier for you to choose colors, motifs and patterns for your surface design.

Mood Boards & Motifs

Come, Take a Tour of the Intricate World of Surface Designs

Create mood boards to gain clarity on the theme, tone and style of your design. Research and gather imagery on your selected theme. Organize them on a board to have a better understanding of what your final design will look like. Pinterest is an excellent place to create a digital mood board. Once you’re done with your mood board, start working on your design motifs! Brainstorm a list of relevant motifs for your theme and start sketching or painting the ones that best appeal to your target audience. For example, you can use planet, star, and animal motifs for kids’ apparels, and floral or geometrical motifs for curtains, cushions and bed linens. 

Pro Tip: Adding different angles like top views, side views, and front views of a particular motif adds depth and meaning to your design.

Design Layout

Tossed Patterns
Come, Take a Tour of the Intricate World of Surface Designs

A tossed pattern, as the name suggests, looks as if the motifs are randomly tossed up in the air. You can make different variations to the basic toss to enhance its richness. Most importantly, take note of the spacing between your motifs. The smaller the space, the busier the pattern. To ensure clarity, use motifs of the same size or use muted colors to refine it.

Linear Patterns
Come, Take a Tour of the Intricate World of Surface Designs

Want to create a vertical or horizontal surface design? Arrange your motifs in a striped layout. You can either create a monochromatic striped pattern with black and white strokes or take multiple floral motifs and align them next to one another vertically or horizontally.

Tessellated Patterns
Come, Take a Tour of the Intricate World of Surface Designs

Have an eye for intricate patterns? Try creating a tessellation, where a single pattern repeats (interlocked) without any gaps or overlaps. Typically seen in geometric and tile patterns, these designs work well in a simplified color palette due to their complexity. Different cultures, ranging from Arabic and Irish to Chinese and Indian have all used tessellation on various surfaces.

Color Palette

Come, Take a Tour of the Intricate World of Surface Designs

The colors used in your patterns convey the theme, tone and the overall vibe of your design. Do you want your pattern to feel luxurious and mellowed, or are you aiming for a bright, vibrant feel? Use soft, neutral colors for the former one and solid, bold colors for the latter. For a trendy, youthful feel, choose four to six colors that best match the theme of your design. Now, assign a single color to the background and use the remaining colors on your motifs. It’s perfectly ok if you’re not happy with the final look. Play with different background colors and try a few alternate shades on the motifs to see what works best.

Final words,

While these were some handy tips to help you start with surface design, these aren’t the only ones. In fact, when it comes to designing, there’s no tried and tested rule. Whether you’re creating a fabric pattern or designing invitation cards for an upcoming event, the world of surface designs is vast and versatile. Think, innovate, plan, recreate and see what clicks for your target audience. Most importantly, don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Those are your stepping stones to success. 

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