Designing repeats for surface patterns:

Hi there! And welcome to part 3 in this series on getting started in surface design (find part 1 here – it’s all the basics of editing your images ready for uploading, and part 2 here – it’s all about how to deal with colour when you’re printing. There’s lots to know!)


claudia owen

claudia owen – (l) ‘stars’; (r) ‘iron bars’

(read more about Claudia Owen here)


So, there are a few more technical and practical issues to cover for the basics of using digital files. There’s no real theme overall, but each of them is important.   Let’s start.


How big do I need to make my repeat?

There are two aspects to this question : the first is the size of the motif you’re using, and second is the end user of your design.

When your talking about the size of the motif, it’s an obvious question of size. For instance, the one used by Claudia Owen (above) is small and quite regular, so the repeat would be relatively small. However, the motifs used by CJLdesigns (below) are quite complex, and the repeat would need to be a fairly large to bring out its full beauty.


cjldesigns - garden at twilight

cjldesigns – garden at twilight

(you can read more about CJLdesigns here)


The second aspect comes down to whether you’re designing it just for your own use, or whether you’re designing to sell. Obviously if your motif is small, a prospective client doesn’t want to see just one motif, they’d like to see a reasonable amount of repeat. If your repeat is super-large, showing them an entire repeat may also be unwieldy. Michelle Fifis of Pattern Observer recommends this: “If you have been hired by a client to develop an original print, then I recommend working within an 11” x 17” (27.94 x 43.18cm) artboard. There is no point in wasting your time or your client’s money developing an excessive amount of artwork if they are not going to approve the concept. That size is plenty of artwork to convey the motifs, layout and color usage of a pattern.

“Alternatively, if you are developing prints to sell through an agent, print studio or directly to manufacturers, then I recommend developing at least 13” x 19” (33.02 x 48.26cm) of artwork. As with any industry, you’ll find variation within the market -some studios require more artwork and some require less.

“And if you are just starting out and want to create artwork to sell, then try working within a larger artboard, such as 13″ x 19″. If your business is up and running, ask your customers which size they prefer!”


How do I create variety within my repeat without drawing a million different elements?

The solution is simple as! When you are drawing individual motifs to put together at a later stage to create your repeat, don’t feel like you have to make oodles for it to work. Any image-making program, from PicMonkey to Photoshop and Illustrator will allow you to flip, rotate and resize your elements. I used it in my process to create this Bloomsbury-style repeat, using only a few different styles of borders and 4 different paintings of poppies. FLIP, ROTATE AND RESIZE. (If you’d like to read about my whole process, join Pattern Observer and check out the tutorial here).


Bloomsbury inspired - Julie Gibbons

Bloomsbury inspired – Julie Gibbons



What image-editing program should I use?

If you just want to do just basic things and experiment with your own designs, then you can probably manage with something like PicMonkey – it allows you to upload your own elements that you can layer on top of your base image, and it will allow you to resize, flip and rotate to your heart’s content. And of course you can adjust brightness, colour and contrast. It is relatively flexible and easy to use, but there are limits to what it can do, although you can purchase more sophisticated elements and tools which can give you more usability options.

If you would like to get a bit more serious, then Photoshop and/or Illustrator are the industry standard. I have a stand-alone version of Photoshop on my computer that I got several years ago, but these days it’s only available by subscription through their Creative Cloud (which can be a bit pricey, depending on what you want). However, it also means that you always have the advantage of being able to work with the latest version of a high-end product. You can find out more about your options on Adobe (the manufacturers of Photoshop and Illustrator) here, and you can test out whatever you want for 30 days for free.

Photoshop is highly sophisticated and incredibly flexible for its ability to work in editable layers, and for its blending options and filters. Although its focus is working with images based in pixels, it also has the ability to work with vector graphics. Conversely, Illustrator’s focus is working with vector graphics, but it also has the capacity to work at a pixel level. You can easily switch images between the two, if you want even more editing flexibility.

The basics of Photoshop and Illustrator are easy to grasp, so don’t feel like you have to be a technical whiz before you start. Whether you choose these, or a simpler, less expensive alternative, depends entirely on how serious you wish to get about a career in surface design.


I’m serious. What’s next?

There are several online courses out there offering learning at basic level right through to advanced skills, on many different aspects of surface design. You can check out places like MakeItInDesign or Skillshare, but of course my favourite is Pattern Observer (because I write for them!). I’ve worked my way through a few of their courses, and have found them excellent.

There’s lots more to know about the study aspect too, so I might leave that until the next post. As I noted at the beginning, if you missed the first two posts in this series, and want to know the ins and outs of what file formats to use and ways to deal with colour, you can check Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.


See you next time with some more juicy surface design goodness!

Julie x