A look under the hood

My process of pattern design came about through trial and error and various other guides and mentors along the way. The importance of having a process, as a self-employed creative professional, is something that I underestimated at the beginning of my career. Without having a process, it’s easy for any sense of progress or measurement of success to fall away too. From a fairly zoomed out perspective (so as not to be too boring!), this is a peek under the hood of my pattern design process.


I wrote about inspiration recently and where I go to curate ideas. It’s important to have this at the start of the process but it’s not a one-off period of time spent gathering inspiration. Gathering ideas happens repeatedly throughout the process to help me not get stuck in one mode of working. It’s easy to get fixed on one idea and stop exploring all opportunities but its a disservice to the quality of the project if you stop seeking new inspiration.

Mood boards

Mood boards look nice but are time consuming to put together and so the stage is easy for people to skip or rush. I’ve tried creating mood boards per project and also in bulk as part of trend research, to be referred to later. Both options work and have their roles to play. Either way, it’s good to create a mood board (or tailor edit and existing one) to assign to the collection you’re working on before you go too far down the project timeline.

When creating a mood board, offline or online options both work equally well, but it’s a good idea to spend time developing a few in different ways to get an idea about what works well for you. I personally find that getting the inspiration from offline is better for me, but afterwards I really feel the need to hop onto the computer in order to pull everything together. I like using pre made templates for consistency and so I have my own templates in Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign (which might seem like overkill).

If you’re looking for ideas about creating or laying out mood boards, take a look on Pinterest. There’s lots of different styles and approaches gathered in one place which is a helpful reminder that there’s no one right way to do this. Also, sign up here to receive notifications of Jenny Lemon mini mood boards on the blog.

Colour palettes

If you’ve done the first two stages thoroughly enough, the colour palette should be a lot of fun and entirely unchallenging. If I’m feeling lost at the colour palette stage, that’s usually a sign that I need to go back a step and spend more time on my research. While I have reoccurring colours and moods that fit my brand and my taste, the mood boards and inspiration gathering stage help generate new and exciting colour ideas to combine with my signature palettes.

Obviously keep your basic colour theory in mind when developing these but don’t be afraid to create multiple drafts and combinations until you get something that feels right for your project. I also try to tie together colour combinations that could work from the perspective of a collection, so take your final colour palette and then assemble examples of how the colours could work for co-ordinates using only 2-3 of the colours.

Illustrating the assets

I think that starting with very rough sketches in a notepad is always the best idea. I’m a very digitally orientated designer and I still feel that my hand can scribble rough ideas faster than anything on my computer. Additionally, I shared a post recently about how doing my first sketches in biro (instead of pencil) helps me to take the pressure off of this part of the creative process.

Once you’ve filled multiple pages of rapid-fire rough sketches, you should have some highlights to draw from and you can get started on illustrating the main assets. I design in two different ways, either in Adobe Illustrator by creating vector artwork or in Procreate on my iPad. My mood board tends to make the choice clear for me, in terms of whether I’m designing something very polished and geometric or something with more texture and detail. Either way, I spend a long time developing each element at this stage. Vector artwork isn’t code for ‘shortcut’ or ‘less time spent’ because vector design really does need concentrated focus to make the artwork pop. Attention to detail, at this stage, can really make or break the overall quality of the final design. I sometimes spend a long time designing the first element (a leaf, for example) before moving on, just to make sure I’ve got the overall style nailed. After that, it’s easy to reproduce when illustrating the other elements.

Developing the repeat

This is the part that everyone assumes is very easy. Learning to put artwork in a seamless repeat that is technically sound and visually balanced is a skill that needs daily practice (like any other). There’s common repeating styles there are technically sound and industry friendly because they’ve been used for so many years so you also need to spend time learning about these.


Part of this process is about building ‘a story’ from the combined elements. Different repeats creating different stories. Moving elements of a pattern around or creating more or less density in a repeating design can change the entire mood of the final piece.

It’s also a mentally tiring part of the process and so people often produce one draft and then consider this stage finished. I understand why that happens but I think my work is more elevated when I challenge a final draft by starting the repeat process all over again. I believe that the more drafts of repeats you do, the better the final repeat will be. It’s draining but so very valuable - don’t skip it!

Professional polish

Once I’ve completed all of these stages for my print (or prints if I’m developing a collection) there’s a whole remaining stage of miscellaneous work to be carried out from here on. My files will need to be organised in a professional manner in the event that I am sharing or distributing these to clients or manufacturers. My designs will also need to be prepared for marketing or sales. This could include mock-ups for social media, or previews for agents and trade shows. There’s a lot of fiddly bits to wrap up but it’s also quite a useful stage because it really makes the design process feel ‘resolved’.

Phew! Now, rinse and repeat?

A pattern isn’t finished until all of these areas are ticked off and it probably seems like an absurdly lengthy process. Part of the role of a specialist is applying the utmost attention to detail in developing your craft. This might sound pretentious but it’s simply realistic. You can’t expect anyone to pay you professional rates for a creative task unless you treat the task like a professional and apply concentration to each and every stage of your focused discipline.

Let me know if you have any other questions about my process or about the craft or surface pattern design and I’ll be sure to add them in to a future post or update.