Is Surface Pattern Design for you?

Lately whilst figuring out how my career as a designer is going so far I’ve come to consider what the pros and cons of choosing the freelance path in design. By the way, is it just me? But it really annoys me when I listen to podcasts for example and people label anyone remotely involved in design a designer and you have to listen 10 minutes before you realise what type of designer they are..web/graphic/interior/computer games etc…

One of the interesting things in my case is that I’ve come to this practice from a non-specialised field...I wasn’t a fine artist, a graphic designer or a fashion designer before I got started...I think that makes a huge difference as to what people find challenging about surface pattern design.  Leaving your paints and brushes aside for a while to transition to learning a computer program trips a lot of people and many don’t persevere the initial hurdles and give up...I can relate to this giving up guitar lessons! :)

As I wasn’t too rooted into any of these, I think I found it easier to take on surface pattern design as a career...all the rules were new to me so it wasn’t a question of re-learning things.  The key here is differentiating the practice of art with that of design and I’ve observed how some artists making the switch to design struggle with “restrictions” that come with working not just for yourself but as part of an industry which as the name suggests is a means of production for an end product.  Art can meet and serve commerce well but ultimately it is not a slave to on the other hand, is intrinsically linked to production so disregarding this can be a costly mistake. In other words, you have to have a different state of mind to make it as a designer if you’re coming from purely an art for art’s sake background.

It’s also important to develop an understanding of the industry as a whole as this helps you identify your niche which will ultimately be what makes you stand out.  You just can’t be a designer of all things to be really successful. This takes time and effort! However, one of the first things you can determine quite early on is whether your style suits a more illustrative or painterly handwriting….meaning, will you spend endless hours mastering Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop?  Ideally, you’ll get good at both but trust me, specialising in one over the other complementing your natural style is beneficial.

Making a commitment to the making it work for the right reasons is important too.  It’s no use being a struggling artist and thinking that going down this path purely to make money from your art will lead to success.  What I mean is that surface pattern design is an art of itself and your artistic talent alone won’t take you far. You can’t disregard all the other parts of becoming a designer in the post millennium era such as learning the tools of the trade, developing your design handwriting (how your natural style translates to design in your particular niche e.g. women’s swimwear).  Plus keeping an eye on what is likely to sell, knowing the studios you can work with if you want to freelance, knowing the jargon, being super adaptable, adopting new technology trends e.g. apps, trending colours, themes/motifs etc. Ultimately, who doesn’t want to make a buck from their artistic talents? Becoming a successful surface pattern designer however is not for everyone.  If you hesitate for a moment for more than a moment, you should really question whether you’re in it for the long run or are just wasting your time. Like the owner of a successful studio recently told me: “yes it’s a very competitive field but we can’t find really good designers”.

To Wacom or not to Wacom?

My Wacom drawing tablet and pen are part of my design arsenal and I can’t believe I waited so long to have them!!   I hadn’t really played with one before and knew that they can be a learning curve...I guess I wasn’t so keen on putting a break on everything I was tirelessly trying to accomplish to get to grips with a new gadget which didn’t feel too natural in my hands to begin with.  Well, perseverance with a pinch of patience and a few Youtube tutorials later, I was hooked and didn’t look back.

There are so many advantages to using a drawing tablet - even if you don’t do much digital drawing or painting.  For a start, with the Pro version I have (small size model), I find myself using the 6 “hot keys” all the time which have increased the speed in which I get work done.  You can virtually set them to do anything you want so I decided to experiment a bit and after some trial and error I’ve configured them like this

1. Deselect (CTRL/CMD + D)

2. Duplicate Layer (CTRL/CMD + J)

3. Fill layer (ALT + DEL)

4. Image Size (SHIFT + CTRL/CMD + I)

5. Save for Web (SHIFT + CTRL/CMD + ALT + S)

6. Show Desktop

Basically, any frequently used Photoshop shortcut that requires 2 or more simultaneous key clicks using your left + right hand (I’m right handed) I can now do with the press of one hot key in my Wacom tablet.  This means I hardly ever need to put the pen down to make full use of my right hand.


There is also a wheel in between the hotkeys which can be customised for other different functions but I haven’t bothered to investigate yet...maybe it’ll open me to a new world of possibilities but I must say, I’m pretty content with my current settings.

The pen the tablet comes with in the Pro version is fantastic and super sensitive (you can change its sensitivity of course) and the 10 additional spare pen tips it comes with a real great bonus too.  Within the pen itself you also have two buttons which again can be set to do whatever you want. I have mine set to “Undo” and to “Right Click” as these are probably the two most used functions for me.  I can also use the opposite end of the pen as an eraser though I don’t tend to use this as it’s faster pressing hotkey “E” on my keyboard.

Which brings me to my last keyboards shortcuts in combination with a well customised Wacom tablet go along way to improving your productivity as a designer.  There’s not many commands within Photoshop where I’m still opening drop down menus...if there’s a keyboard shortcut, I’m using it.

So overall, I’m super happy with my Wacom and would highly recommend the quality of the Pro version which doesn’t come with any special program software such as Corel Paint etc like the cheaper “amateurish” versions do.  After reading less than complimentary comments on the feel of the pen after prolonged use on these cheaper Wacom models I decided on the Pro and I must say it has elevated my game to a new level.

The only less positive points I’d add to this commentary are that I’ve managed to scratch a small section of the glass surface of the tablet by what I can only think was applying too much pressure to the pen’s tip.  I realised that the rounded tip appeared damaged and its roundness lost which meant a sharp pointed tip which inevitably caused scratches. After changing to a different type of tip I see the same happening and I wonder whether it’s just me as I don’t remember reading any negatives in this regard?

Anyhow, Wacom isn’t the cheapest out there and I’m sure there’s equally good tablets that can do the job just as well but if you want to go with an industry standard, Wacom won’t disappoint and if you intend to elevate your design practice to the next level, the Wacom Pro tablet is your friend!