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My Surface Pattern Design Story

When I shared a bit about the story behind my path to becoming a surface designer in an Instagram Reel a few weeks ago, I never would have guessed that it would become one of my most viral Reels ever!  I’ve never had more comments on a Reel, or had anyone tell me they cried while they watched one of my Reels before this, so it was clear that this topic was speaking to other artists.

So I thought it was time to expand on my story a bit and share some of the things over the years that helped me get to the next level in each part of my surface design journey.

The Fire Went Out

I started out my creative journey as a hopeful art student searching desperately for a path that would let me make art for a living.  I tried making functional ceramics, but I found that making a profit was harder than I thought, and lugging my fragile yet incredibly heavy work around to craft fairs was simply not the life I wanted.  After more than one craft fair tent blew over and sent a bunch of pots crashing to the ground, I considered that maybe I wasn’t cut out for selling ceramics outdoors.

I tried making sculptural work too, but in the end I realized that  being tied to a studio with a kiln and materials meant I would never get to fulfill my dreams of traveling the world.

In the meantime, I started experimenting with selling screenprinted napkins and small ceramic sculptures on Etsy, but with only a few sales and a huge closet full of leftover supplies, I was beginning to see the writing on the wall — I just wasn’t cut out to be an artist.

In a frustrated fury I got rid of all my art supplies, got a desk job, moved out into an off-grid cabin in the woods built by my husband, and decided to “give art up for good”.

In the end, putting so much pressure on my creativity to support me financially right out of college burned up every bit of creative fire I had in my body.

The little cabin in the woods where I went to start a new life.

A Little Spark

One of my first patterns, a little watercolor tile that I mirrored in Photoshop.

I don’t regret the giving up stage at all, because I think it was exactly what I needed to start fresh with new materials and a better mindset.  After all my art supplies were gone I really had to ask myself, “Do I NEED art in my life, or was it just a passing phase?  Do I love ceramics or do I just love making stuff?  And why did I keep drawing on my pots even when my professors told me not to?”

After few years of a “creative dry spell” I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and started to feel a little spark again.  I bought some ink pens, watercolors, and paper and just started playing.  

I had no intention of making money from the things I was creating, and that left me free to experiment.

After a few months, that little spark turned into a little fire that made me feel excited to get up in the morning.  At the time I was working 50+ hours a week and commuting an hour each way to work, so actually wanting to get out of bed in the morning was a somewhat unusual feeling for me.

I started making my first repeat patterns in that period and as soon as that process clicked, it changed the way I thought about drawing, painting, and digital art.  I started seeing patterns everywhere and constantly wanted to stop what I was doing to sketch out an idea for a pattern.

A Bright Flame

One of our early patterns where we realized that SEO heavy patterns (i.e. golf in this case) sold much more than the abstract ones!

One day at my soul-crushingly boring job in a museum where the temperature was kept below 60 degrees and there were no windows in my flourescently lit office, I was searching online for new jobs and discovered that Spoonflower was not only a 30 minute drive from my house but that they were hiring. 

At the time I really only knew that they put patterns on fabric, but that was enough to convince me.  I needed to be around patterns and people who liked to draw, so I basically ran out the door of my museum job to get there.

Over the course of the next 3 years I learned so much about patterns, SEO, and marketing that I never would have guessed would become the foundation for my next career.

At the same time, my husband was going through a change in his work too and started asking me about Spoonflower.  What do they even do?  How do these patterns get on that site?  

So I did a little demo, explaining how you just take some simple shapes (using a motorcycle as an example) and repeat it, then people buy it and you get a commission.

I showed him a few ways we could change the colors and layout of our motorcycles and how to make it for sale.  It was the cutest little tutorial ever that turned into the beginning of a new life for both of us.

While we slept, someone went to Spoonflower and searched for motorcycles and we woke up with not 1 but 2 dollars in our account!  Holy moly!  Someone just gave us $2 for some motorcycles on fabric!

I think you could say “the rest is history” at this point because that first sale inspired us to go down a rabbit hole of creating patterns and selling them on Spoonflower, Society6 and Redbubble.  Even though it was only a few dollars a month in the beginning, it lit a fire under both of us that had us dreaming of quitting our day jobs and traveling the world.  With each new sale we were even more inspired to keep creating patterns, and over time we got a sense for what our “audience” was looking for.

Get on the Plane

At the same time that our print-on-demand shops started growing into a respectable portion of our monthly income, I started teaching English as a Second Language online and taking clients from around the world for 1-hour private lessons.

I cut back on hours at my desk job and it seemed like every day more and more of our income came from online sources.  One day my husband and I went for a walk in the woods and chatted about how we’d like to travel “one day”.  We stopped at a local coffee shop on the way home and probably drank way too much coffee because sitting in that cafe we decided once and for all that it was time to set a date for leaving the country.

We chose a date a few months ahead, and started making plans for moving to Thailand.  My husband (a spreadsheet fanatic) had already figured out that we could live on less monthly income in Thailand and finally spend the amount of time it would take to build new life where we worked for ourselves and worked when we wanted to.

Getting on that airplane was one of the scariest things we ever did, not for fear of flying but because it meant leaving everything we had known behind, quitting our jobs, and cutting all ties for a big crazy dream.

The Evidence

One of the first patterns I drew on my iPad.

I spent the next year and a half drinking lots of espresso, making patterns, and teaching English online.  As I started building up my pattern portfolio I realized that a lot of artists were using iPads to create motifs for patterns.  “What”, I wondered, “is this whole iPad drawing craze?”

At the time I was drawing on paper, scanning it, and importing the drawings into Photoshop to recolor and clean them up.  Needless to say, it was a hefty process for someone living out of a backpack!

I decided to find out if iPads really were the digital magic they seemed to be and after negotiating with a Thai teenager at a used technology desk in a possibly illegal market somewhere in ChiangMai I walked away with my first iPad.

Within a week I knew I needed to teach a class on it because it was simply too amazing to keep to myself!  I had no expectation for what would happen when I posted my classes, but when Skillshare sent me my first payment of almost $3 whole dollars, I knew what that meant.  That $3 was just as valuable as the $2 we made from our little motorcycle pattern not because of the monetary value but because of the meaning: this was evidence that it was working.

Finally Free

I didn’t have any plan for what was coming next, but I knew that if I just kept making patterns, illustrations, and hand lettering on my iPad and teaching people about what I was doing, it was going to change my life forever.

I started the cutest little blog that turned into one of my biggest traffic drivers to both my work and my classes (the same blog you’re reading now!) and started putting my art all over the internet in every way I could imagine.

Behind the scenes, I was so beyond excited that I had found a way to get paid for making art, that I kept thinking it was going to go away.  I kept my multiple part-time jobs wayyy too long before finally going full time with my creative work.  The moment I told my bosses I was quitting and went 100% full-time creative was one of the scariest yet most freeing moments of my life.

In the meantime, our little shop kept growing and seemed to pick up a new small business that relied on our fabrics each month.  We even had a few “big breaks” like patterns featured in Target on shower curtains and a Netflix original featuring Steve Carrell (that’s a moon pattern we spliced together into a repeat using photographs of the moon in the creative commons!).

Over time, my style started to emerge and it was clear that our old shop that got us started didn’t go well with the art career I wanted to build.  So I said goodbye to our ThinLineTextiles shops and started my own brand under my name, Liz Kohler Brown.  Thin Line Textiles continues to pay us a full-time income every single month, but we haven’t added new designs for years!

The Payoff

Two babies and three countries later and I am still building this crazy thing that all started with one little pattern and a lot of guesswork!  It’s been over 7 years since that first motorcycle repeat “took the internet by storm”, and I can’t believe the life I get to live is real.

I make patterns and illustrations for a living, and have the opportunity to choose which art licensors sell my work.  I get to work with creatives like me who are working to improve and grow their creative practice, and I get to help other people realize their own creative dreams.

If I could go back and talk to that hopeful art student, I don’t think I would.  She needed to go through every hard year, every terrible job, and every frustrating failure to appreciate where she is today.  Without all that suffering, the gifts wouldn’t mean much at all.

Want to Learn the Technical Side of This Story?

I share my whole print-on-demand process in my POD Makeover Series!

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