A Guide to help you select the best type of surface design for your product.

You’ve worked hard to develop your new product and you’d like to adorn it with a design that will reflect its quality and style.

Perhaps your looking to refresh a tried and true product with a new look. 

Maybe you’d like to expand your offering of a popular product by giving your customers wider choice – more reason to come back and shop with you again.

The time has arrived to engage the services of a surface pattern designer.

But do you really need a pattern? Surface pattern designers design patterns, right?

Yes, and so much more. Patterns are not the only design type created by surface designers. 

Choosing the right type of design can ensure that your new design is suited to your product to show it in its best light, plus save you time and money.

Let’s arm you with the knowledge of the main design types offered by surface pattern designers.

A pattern that repeats and repeats

Technical repeats are what most people think of when they think ‘pattern’. Rightly so. Just as in primary school maths, a collection of objects (in our case motifs) repeated in a predictable way makes a pattern. 

Have you ever looked at floral fabric and spotted the same flower repeating at the same interval across its length? You were looking at a technical repeat, a seamless pattern. Repeated pattern designs are the most technically advanced. These seamless designs repeat continuously both vertically and horizontally.

(Technical repeat patterns do have a number of variations but this is a topic for another article. Stay tuned.)

Designs can range from very simple polka dot to extremely complex layered florals. The very nature of a technical repeat pattern, with its perfectly aligned motifs takes time. The more layers within the design, the more technical it becomes as each must align perfectly. Creating a balanced design while working within the constraints of the repeat ‘tile’ is time consuming. And time is money! 

‘On the roll’ products need technical repeat patterns. Think wallpaper, textiles and wrapping paper. Larger homewares items such a table cloths or curtains with all-over patterns would also benefit from a technical repeat.

Not producing any of these products? Read on friend…

Textiles on the roll require a technical repeat pattern.  

Careful placement may be all you need

A placement print is the arrangement of motifs within a specific area. Elements of the design overlapping the edges of the area do not need to align with opposite edges to repeat. In most cases a placement print is all that is required and changes in printing technology have increased its use.

Placement prints can include typography and illustrations too. These may be ‘placed’ centrally within a design and may but not always be surrounded by additional motifs. Examples are found in everyday life; sweet greeting cards and notebooks, tote bags with sassy quotes, aprons and tea towels or that pretty platter you bought your mum last year. In these cases a technical repeat is not necessary. 


A placement print can pose as a repeat pattern (sneaky, right!). If an all-over design is needed, a placement print can be designed to give the illusion of being a technical repeat. Careful repetition of the motifs within the design area appear to make a repeating pattern, yet are less time consuming to design.

A placement print has elements arranged within a specific area, like on this throw pillow.

Also, the advent of digital printing has given the placement print opportunity to shine. A lovely, balanced design for a tea towel can be printed in panels ready for sewing, rather than a repeat pattern over the same fabric. This can potential reduce waste and ensure the design is the same and balance on all of the towels. 

Placement prints can be less technical than repeating patterns saving on time. They offer everything from a carefully placed designs on the front of a t-shirt to the perceived repeating pattern all over an oven mitt. A very handy design type indeed

Borders on products can give them an edge

Another useful surface design is the border print or pattern. This design type can often be overlooked by surface designers and product developers alike. Border prints are certainly not limited to the paper you had in the 90’s to write letters to your pen pal (go ask your mum if you don’t know what that is).

A border print, as you may have guessed runs along the border or edge of a product. Think of a splash of geometric shapes across a letter head or the floral design for the rim of a tea-cup.

Border patterns are more technical. These patterns repeat horizontally for the length of a product on the roll, including patterned satin ribbon and cute decorative stick tapes and intricately designed washi tape.

Border prints and patterns have an important place in surface design and can add something special to products and designs. They can also be combined with placement prints and repeating patterns – though be warned – a border pattern on an on-the-roll textile can restrict its uses and create waste.

So now that you have a grasp of the main of the options available to you, how do you go about selecting the right design for your product?

It can be simplified by thinking about your product and how it is produced.

Let’s look at a few examples.

  • On the roll products such as fabric need a continuous design so would need a repeating pattern.
  • Decorative tape for needs a narrow, continuous design so a border pattern would be appropriate.
  • Mugs which are printed individually would benefit from a balanced placement print that fits with the template for the printed area.

Repeating border patterns are suitable for ribbons.

A border print adds interest to this tote bag.

Technical repeats, placement prints and border prints each bring valuable traits to surface design and each can shine when selected for the right product type. Carefully consider the area of the product you are wishing to decorate to find the design type best suited to the job. 

Ok. Ready for your test?

Just kidding. Instead you can download a handy infographic summarising the main types of surface design and the products they suit.

Have a question? Contact me and I’ll be happy to help.

Are you ready to talk to a designer about your next product?

Get your idea out of you head and into a 'Designer Ready Vision' to share with your Surface Pattern Designer and your team!

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