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How to Make a Living as a Surface Pattern Designer

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

Is it possible to earn a healthy income as a surface pattern designer? Yes, it is….but you should think about the path ahead before you start walking down it!

Surface pattern design is a thriving field. You can see patterns and art on products all around you, which means that someone created it….and got paid in the process.

In this post I’m going to explain how to get your artwork on to products, and the various ways you can make money. It’s smart to educate yourself about all of these methods, because the best way to earn a good living is to have multiple streams of income, not just one. So let’s dive in.

girl drawing on ipad

1. Licensing agreements Manufacturers are always looking for artwork to put on their products, and they don’t always have in-house designers to produce it. As a result, they will enter into licensing agreements with artists. Essentially the manufacturer “rents” the artwork for a specific period of time and for specific products.

For example, let’s say that Anthropologie loves your sketches and wants to license them. In the contract, they may say that they want to license your art for a two-year period and place it on table linens only. You will receive royalties (a certain percentage is agreed upon) for the products that they sell.

The beauty of licensing agreements is that (a) you still own the artwork, which means that (b) you can license it to other people and continue to earn money from it. A stationery company may want to license the same artwork for gift wrap or calendars.

Snagging a licensing agreement does not happen overnight, however. You have to put together a portfolio of your work (which nowadays can be done digitally) and present it to quite a few companies. They may take awhile to get back to you, but the upside is that if they sign you on, your work could receive national or even international attention. If you want the personal satisfaction of walking into Target, your local fabric or gift shop and seeing YOUR designs on products, licensing is a fabulous way to go!

There are surface patterns designers earning 6 figure incomes, but most start off earning less than that. According to ZipRecruiter, the national average in the United States is around $62,000 a year ( Note that this figure includes surface pattern designers who earn a salary as a paid employee, creating art for a company.

So, you can work for yourself if you learn surface pattern design, or you can work for a manufacturer or art agency. This is why it’s important to think about the path you want to take…do you want the security and benefits of a job? Or do you want to be self-employed?

2. Print-on-demand sites POD sites are places where you can upload your art in digital files, and people can order products with the art on it. Society6, RedBubble and Spoonflower are examples of POD sites. If I upload a pattern of a tropical print to Spoonflower, someone could order a bedspread or wallpaper with my design on them, and I will receive a royalty (or commission) from Spoonflower.

The great thing about these sites is that there is no gatekeeper. You can upload your designs right away, rather than waiting for a licensing agreement to come your way. The downside? Your artwork will be competing against that of many other people. However, not all of the work on these sites is stellar!

If you create a strong line with a unique signature style, your work will stand out. Information about how much money is made on POD sites is not easily available, but there are top sellers earning around $100,000 a year.

Print on demand sites are a good way to get started if you are new to surface pattern design. It will put you on the playing field and boost your confidence. Some designers work both ways: they sell on a POD site, and also create collections that are only pitched to licensing companies.

And here’s a pro tip: if you want to earn a really good income in this field, then don’t get locked into just one way of selling your art. Multiple income streams are the way to go.

Grab a free copy of my eBook, Surface Pattern Design Basics, to learn more!

3. Sell your own products I can hear you groaning already: “But I don’t want to have a basement/guest bedroom/garage full of coffee mugs/gift wrap/ T-shirts and then spend hours packaging stuff up and shipping it!” Got it. You may also not want to have a brick and mortar shop, or a store on Etsy.

However, there are some huge advantages to selling products with your designs on them without obtaining a licensing agreement or selling on a POD site. The biggest advantage is the income you can earn. There is no upper limit here, so making 6 to even 7 figures is quite possible.

That said, there are practical concerns. Who will manufacture your products? How much will you have to pay them, and what kind of profit margin will you make? Where will you store or warehouse the products? Are you going to wholesale your products (sell them to stores), sell via retail (direct to customers, perhaps through an online shop) or both?

This is a big topic that I’ll dive into in another blog post. For now, let me provide some real life examples of how you can do this without a lot of the hassle.

There is a very well-known greeting card company in the US that’s a family business. Annual revenues top $1 million. The owners are artists who create the designs, but they don’t print the cards themselves. They farm the work out to a letterpress printer in the same state. Here’s the best part: the printer does not ship the cards back to the greeting card company; they do all of the shipping for them. They also handle all of the orders.

What this means is that if a gift shop wants to buy the cards, the order is received by the printer and shipped by them as well. The greeting card company therefore does not have to warehouse any inventory, pack up orders, or ship them out. It’s all done by someone else.

I own a company that sells tea towels and table linens. I can send an electronic file of my artwork to a manufacturer, and they will print them for me. They can also take orders for me and package and ship the orders. The wonderful thing about this arrangement is that I don’t have to hire and manage people to ship orders. It also frees me up so that I can spend more time designing, rather than taking care of more mundane tasks.

So this is something to consider! You can sell your own products without the hassle of warehousing and shipping them.

4. Sell just one or two products on your own while you license the rest of your work. There are surface pattern artists who primarily license their artwork, but also have a few products for sale on their website. Perfect example: they’ll create a few Christmas ornament designs each year, have them manufactured and sell them on their website. Every year customers want to see what the new ornaments look like and want to add to their collection.

This is a terrific way to go because it’s seasonal; you’re not stuck shipping packages all year round. There are fine artists who do this as well. They create oil paintings that they sell in galleries or to clients, but then they’ll take some of their artwork and put it on Christmas ornaments and pick up extra cash that way (which could be tens of thousands of dollars every year, or more).

There is a graphic artist who creates an annual astrology calendar with the phases of the moon, eclipses and so on. This is not her main source of income; design is. But she has a dedicated group of followers who want to buy the calendar and she was selling $15,000 of them every year in November and December as of a few years ago. This is a good example of what you can do to make money once you learn how to use Adobe Illustrator. She's not creating repeating patterns, but rather stand-alone art that gets printed on a calendar.

The moral of the story is that many successful surface designers have their fingers in a number of pies. They sell their products at high end craft and art markets. Some of them get offered gigs for designing a book cover, or doing the illustrations within. They teach online courses, or in-person workshops. Some create downloadables (like stencils and quilt patterns).

Multiple streams of income not only boost your annual earnings, they also create less of a rollercoaster effect. If you’re waiting for a licensing deal to come through, for example, you can be earning money on Spoonflower, or through your own product sales.

Want to learn more about Adobe Illustrator and the way to make a living in surface pattern design? Then click here for my free eBook, Surface Pattern Design Basics.


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