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5 Paths to Surface Design

I am a firm believer that there is no “one way” to get into surface design, because I’ve interviewed so many artists over the last few years inside The Studio and they all have taken completely different paths to achieve their surface design dreams.  I myself stumbled into surface design by accident through sharing my work online and you could say “the rest is history” because it literally changed the trajectory of my life (in a quit your desk job and become a full-time artist kind of way).

In this post I want to share five of the most common paths I see artists take to get to surface design success so you can decide if you’re on the path you want to be on, and if you need to focus in (or branch out) to get to your final goal.  I put the paths in order from easiest to most difficult, so you can figure out where you currently are on your journey.

The Basics

Before we dive into the paths, let’s talk about what “surface design” means so we’re all on the same page.  Surface design can be any form of artwork on a product.  Yes it’s really that simple!  Products have surfaces, and art covers surfaces.  So surface designers might make art for:

  • Fabric
  • Greeting cards
  • Calendars
  • Stickers
  • Home decor
  • I bet you can think of more!

So whether you make patterns, hand lettering, or illustrations, you are likely on the path to becoming a “surface designer”.  Now let’s dive into the paths!

The POD Way

First is the print-on-demand way.  This was the path that I took to (accidentally) becoming a surface designer: I started posting some cute little repeat patterns on Spoonflower and when they actually sold, I was so excited that I kept posting more.  The cycle continued and started resulting in licensing requests as businesses discovered my patterns.

At the time I had no idea what a licensing contract was, how much to charge, and how to work with clients, but over time I worked out the kinks and developed a process that worked for me.  In the end I still have a full-time income from those years-old patterns and have gotten work into Target, (RED), and countless other licensing opportunities through my shops.

Why this works: Print-on-demand requires that you make A LOT of patterns and share them online, thus giving you a chance to get lots of feedback from customers.  This helps develop your style, gives you a sense for what is popular, and gets your designs out on the internet with good SEO (if you’re tagging and describing well like I talk about in this post).

The Self Starter Way

If you have more confidence in your style than I did when I started making designs (I had literally none), then you may be ready for “The Self Starter Way”, which involves actively running your own shop (like Etsy or your own website) and sharing a curated selection of art that is focused on a particular style and niche.

This method requires that you know a bit about your style and what kind of art you want to share and sell.  For example, now that I know my style better I felt confident setting up an Etsy shop to sell my greeting cards (you can learn about how this works here).  All the cards are centered around my style and a vintage-botanical niche, which is something I wouldn’t have been capable of doing before spending a few years working on my style.

Why this works: Getting your high-quality art on big sites like Etsy or your own website can help get you noticed by art licensors.  For example, one of my biggest greeting card partnerships came from a company that discovered me through one of my Etsy listings, and now I work with them regularly to deliver new cards and sell them in shops around the world.  If I hadn’t put my own work out there in this way, they never would have found me!

The Process Sharer Way

This method is great for someone who has a heart for teaching.  You can share your process with other artists in blog, vlog, or tutorial form, and grow a following of creative people who love your work and style.  These people are both buyers, and “social proof” to companies that you are a creative influencer and have work that speaks to others.

I personally love this path because I love teaching and sharing resources with other artists.  I’ve been able to meet so many creatives over the years who have challenged and inspired me to become a better artist, and I couldn’t imagine my life without my creative community around me!

Why this works: Whether we like it or not, we live in a time in history where social proof is very important, so having a big social media following can help you get opportunities that you wouldn’t be considered for otherwise.  You can even pitch to companies and mention your following as a bonus that their products will be shared with your audience.  It’s a win win situation for both you and the company!

The Pitching Way

This method is great for someone who has developed a cohesive style and feels confident talking about their style and themes.  If you haven’t developed a style yet, it might not be worth your time to move to this step because most companies are looking for established artists who have a clear style that they can deliver regularly.

Imagine that you are a restaurant and you want clients or companies to be able to come in and order food and know that they will get the same quality and style of food each time.  If they get something different each time, it’s going to feel like a risk to eat there!

Why this works: When you are ready to pitch a cohesive portfolio, you can target companies that fit your style exactly.  In the end this is a lot less work than print-on-demand because you have to create a lot less art to make a profit.  You can also secure recurring clients that accept work from you regularly so you aren’t stuck in a cycle of constant pitching.

The Combo

Of course, no one method is going to be right for everyone, and most people will chose to try a few methods at a time.  One thing I would caution against though is trying to do everything at once.  If you are pursuing all the methods above at one time, you are likely not doing any of them very well.  Whereas if you put your whole heart and soul into one or two, you are much more likely to find success quickly and actually enjoy your life.

I have talked to so many overwhelmed creatives who ask me how they could possibly choose amidst this sea of options, and I have one piece of advice for them: imagine what you would like to wake up and do every day, and just do that.  If making art and running your own shop excites you, then focus on that for a year or so and see what happens.  If teaching lights your soul on fire, then spend some time making classes and developing a strategy around that.  Anything you put on hold can be picked back up again later, so don’t feel like you’re losing out just because you focus on one thing for a while.

Get More 1:1 Help

Inside my membership, The Studio I offer live critiques, advice, and 1:1 coaching sessions for artists of all levels.  Come inside to dive deeper into your surface design journey!

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