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The Top 3 Mindset Hurdles to Overcome in Surface Pattern Design

Updated: Aug 26, 2023

annoyed woman looking at computer screen

Surface pattern design is a creative field that involves creating visually appealing designs that can be applied to various products and surfaces, such as textiles, wallpapers, packaging, and more. It’s a terrific field because it offers time and location freedom if you decide to be your own boss. You can also land a salaried job as a surface designer with a number of companies, such as stationery and clothing manufacturers. But as we all know, a lot of doubts can crop up when we decide to walk down a new career path. Here are the 3 biggest mindset hurdles that I hear about the most:

1. I don’t know the tech. This hurdle often has other “side hurdles” attached to it, like….I’m too old for this, I’m not good at tech, the tech will cost too much money, I don’t have an iPad or know how to use one, and so on. Let’s get real here: no one springs from their mother’s womb knowing tech. They also don’t know how to be a fighter pilot, heart surgeon or school teacher at birth. These are skills that have to be learned.

While it may seem that “kids” (anyone under the age of 25) all instinctively know tech, they had to learn it. And I can tell you that most “kids” are only familiar with texting, email, Google Classroom and how to make Tiktok videos. If I opened up Adobe Illustrator for a teenager’s use, I can guarantee that they would have no clue how to use it.

If you learned how to speak a foreign language while in high school, you can learn the tech for surface pattern design the same way. Your teacher knew how to break things down into bite sized chunks, and then gave you drills to repeat out loud and homework to do at night. The same applies for learning Adobe Illustrator: it’s liking learning a foreign language, but it CAN be done!

The secret is to spend a little time on it very day so that you don’t forget the skills you just learned. Ten minutes a day, seven days a week, is a lot better than 70 minutes all done on a Saturday.

I’ll be teaching a free workshop about how to learn Illustrator so that you can get designs out of your head and onto products. It's free, it's fun, and by the end of it you'll be able to order your own gift wrap or fabric. Here's the link to get on the wait list:

2. I’m not trained as an artist. If you’ve never read Drawing From the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, I highly recommend that you do. (Get the physical book rather than a digital version.) Edwards was an art educator back in the late 1960s, and she felt that drawing was a skill that anyone could learn. Think about what happens when you give a group of five year-olds some paper and crayons: do they sit around and complain that they can’t draw? No, they do not! It’s so natural for them. They dive right in and they certainly don't critique their artwork when it's done.

Edwards recognized that schools (in the US, at least) did a good job of teaching art until kids reached the age of 12 or 13. And then….it stopped. More “serious” classes were demanded, and art became a side show. Is it any wonder, then, that adults feel that they can’t draw? Because when was the last time that they drew regularly, with abandon, without worrying what the end result would look like, just for the fun of it?

I took three years of German in high school. I loved studying languages. But how much German can I speak now? Uh….very little. That’s because I had no opportunity to speak German with anyone in the course of my day, month or year once I left high school. It’s a skill that I picked up quickly, and lost just as quickly. Art is the same way. It’s a skill that most of us lose because schools don’t require that we study it daily throughout high school and college.

Edwards knew that the left side of the brain loves to make lists, watch the clock, calculate numbers, be logical and analyze things. The right side of the brain is not aware of time and loves to get lost in creative projects. Her book became a best-selling ground breaker because she teaches you how to shut off the left side of your brain and let the right side take over.

I was a biology major who thought she couldn’t draw. Edwards’ book completely altered the trajectory of my life, because once I learned her techniques, I started to create designs that I realized were good enough to put on surfaces. I started my own linens company and to this day I sell products with my original artwork on them.

And here’s the best part: her techniques work quickly. You won’t have to spend years to get results. (You can thank me later.)

3. Artists don’t make any money. That may have been partially true back in the day. Before digital programs existed, the only way you could make art was by hand; oil paintings, sculpture, ceramics, photography and so on. In each field there were the superstars: O’Keeffe, Rodin, Ansel Adams, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Picasso, Kahlo, Calder and so on.

There were the superstars on one level (who may have made big money, or maybe not) and then everyone else.

But computer programs have changed all of that. So has social media. Every business on the planet today is being told that they need to be a brand. They need a fabulous logo, specific brand colors and awesome photos and reels for Instagram. As a result, the demand for excellent photography and graphics has skyrocketed. Programs like Canva, Illustrator and Photoshop are enabling everyday people to create gorgeous work, no art school background required.

Likewise, digital printing methods have changed the surface pattern industry completely. It used to be that only the big fabric, stationery and other manufacturers could produce products with art on them. Now anyone can do it, thanks to print on demand sites. (Want to learn more about print on demand? Read my blog post here: )

The reality is that many surface pattern artists consistently earn 6 figures a year with their art. Others have catapulted into the 7-figure range by branching out into multiple income streams, such as producing their own product lines, writing books and licensing their art with companies like Target and Anthropologie.

So if anyone tells you that artists don’t make any money, just make like Mona Lisa and put on that slight, mysterious smile!


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