19 Repeating Pattern Design Tips

Leading illustrators and textile designers discuss their techniques for creating beautiful patterns using your choice of Photoshop, Illustrator, pens, paints or pencils.


To create a striking repeating pattern, first draw a variety of motifs and shapes by hand. I don’t have a light box, instead I use two pens of different thicknesses and a letter-sized pad of transparent sketch paper to trace shapes and motifs directly from my photographs.

I just trace the contours: the contours around the actual object and the contours around the highlights. One important thing about this particular technique is that there must not be any interruptions to the line; every motif must be completely contained. If not, the colour will run when I fill in the object on the computer. It is easy to miss a gap but you can fill this in later in Photoshop.

Lotta Kühlhorn (SE)

Right: a spread from Lotta’s book Designing Patterns for Decoration, Fashion and Graphics.

Normally when I scan in my drawings, I make the lines black and remove the patches on the paper by adjusting the levels in Photoshop. I apply different controls, so that the black becomes even more black and the white even more white.

I split the pictures if it turns out to be necessary to be able to Photoshop, so that every part of the motif that has the same colour becomes a separate image on a layer.

Lotta Kühlhorn (SE)


Create three different originals (eg for the sardine can-can, I chose one for the stuff that is going to be pink, one for the black, and one for the yellow).  Colour in black in the area that is solid using the colour pot in Photoshop.

It is at this stage that the line has to be solid so that the black does not fill the entire page. Continue to disassemble pictures and save them again from shades of grey to black and white.  Wait until you have assembled the pattern before you begin colouring.

Lotta Kühlhorn (SE)

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Creating patterns for me is like playing a mental puzzle – like building Lego or playing Tetris. The rhythm of every pattern depends of how it is going to be used and the purpose of it.

When I design something for wallpaper I need to make sure that the repeat will look even and smooth on a 8ft wall.

When it's for a fabric, the scale isn't much of a deal, but the colours might be – so I stay away from combining similar tones. If you put pink next to orange, or sky blue and baby blue next to each other, they will probably appear as the same shade once printed on a fabric.

Dinara Mirtlipova (UZ)


In my spare time I like ‘free patterning’. It's not a technical term - I just came up with it. That means that with no plan in my head: I just create a 6x6-inch square and I start creating a pattern.

Dinara Mirtlipova (UZ)

Right: a repeating pattern created from a square.


I like to use existing illustrations and experimenting with them to making patterns – it’s a fun exercise. It's like a kaleidoscope – every time I change or add an element, the overall look of a pattern changes dramatically.

Dinara Mirtlipova (UZ)

Right: this illustration forms the basis of the previous pattern.

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Don't be afraid to experiment with colour. Forget any rules about what colours should and should not be seen together. If you think it works then go for it.

Play around with your design, and unless you're on a client deadline, don't rush it.

Repeats can be tricky, I often find it helpful to come back to designs days or weeks after starting them and look at them again with fresh eyes to work out where they are going.

Abigail Borg (UK)


Take time to experiment with elements that in your head you think just wouldn't flow together. Don't limit yourself or try and preplan what elements you want your repeat to be made up of.

Perhaps you might start a pattern and say 'I want this to include roses and peonies and that's it'. It's hard to envisage what the final pattern is going to look like, and in my case often the most striking repeats are completely accidental.

Abigail Borg (UK)


All my artworks start off in Illustrator as I prefer to dive straight in and start creating shapes using the Pen tool. Sometimes I may do a few quick layout sketches, but generally I play around with shapes and pattern ideas on the computer.

Using the Pen tool I start off designing the basic shapes of the pattern, which are generally either floral or geometric designs. I also use the texture toolbar which has some great effects, like charcoal, pencil and paint brush. My style has a very simple flat graphic look, but it's good to play about with these textures.

Rachel Cave (UK)

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Once each element is drawn and coloured, depending on how I want the pattern to look I will simply repeat it until I have created a result I am happy with.

A really useful tip is using the 'Guides' in Illustrator. These help you accurately measure out a repeatable swatch, which makes for a perfectly repeating pattern.

Rachel Cave (UK)


I have a library or workings. It's always really handy to keep everything you design, as you ever know when you may want to return and reuse it. A lot of designs can be re- worked and re-coloured - plus it's always handy to keep your design ideas as reference material.

Rachel Cave (UK)


I remember one of my illustration teachers told me in college, "Don't ice the cake before it's baked:. I still adhere to this philosophy when designing my patterns.

I really spend a lot of time on the layout, or ‘the bones’ of each pattern. I start out designing in black and white as I find adding colour right away is too confusing.

Mary Tanana (USA)

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Once the layout is ready, I add colour. Colour has to be distributed evenly, so I use the zoom tool to check my pattern in a thumbnail view to check the balance. I spend a lot of time adjusting my colourways to get them just right.

Mary Tanana (USA)


Once I finalise my colours, I'll do a ‘dot test’ to see how each colour reacts to one another. This helps me when designing companion prints and helps me save time.

Mary Tanana (USA)


Create the illusion of variety in your pattern by flipping a repeated motif, rotating it or giving it a different colour.

Lesley Todd (UK)

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I love to add texture and pattern to my motifs but it's important to remember that Adobe Illustrator will only let you take a shape with a pattern fill into the pattern-making tool if you expand the pattern first. It took me a while to figure that out!

Lesley Todd (UK)


The pattern tool in Adobe Illustrator is brilliant fun to play with. When I'm creating a pattern, I think the most dynamic and interesting results are produced when I've used a number of motifs.

Lesley Todd (UK)


Draw somewhat basic shapes and then build the design by individually placing the shapes layer by layer in Photoshop. Whilst time consuming the effect is more interesting than a standard repeat pattern. I create a layer for each shape, and then copy and paste each one to see how they might fit together.

It helps to have at least five shapes so that there can be a nice variety within the composition – the same shape will never appear side by side. Leaving space between shapes also provides flexibility to go back in and draw smaller details to help bring balance to the overall image.

Leslie A Wood (USA)

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I always do several sketches when I am working on a new illustration, but I find it especially useful when I’m developing a new pattern, as it helps me determine which layout will be the most successful. 

Leslie A Wood (USA)