Making Money in Online Surface Pattern Design: Lessons Learned and Downsides

Making Money in Online Surface Pattern Design: Lessons Learned and Downsides

I am Susanna Nousiainen, an artist and surface pattern designer working in the field since 2010. I hold an MA degree from Aalto University in textile art. My artistic style is influenced by my Nordic roots, but through my travels, I've blended Scandinavian aesthetics with brighter colors and shapes.

Passive Income through Print-on-Demand (POD):

Print-on-Demand platforms emerged over a decade ago, revolutionizing how artists could sell their designs/art. In the early days, I had accounts on Society6, Redbubble, Zazzle, Shop Vida, etc. Although not initially successful, collectively, with multiple platforms, I managed to generate some income. Unfortunately, I deleted several accounts due to the lack of immediate success. Now, in hindsight, I regret this decision as some products were selling. Ten years ago, even less successful artists on platforms like Society6 were making around 4000 euros a month.

I must note that a decision leading to the closure of my Society6 account was prompted by discovering my design being sold in an Asian shop, (in Hong Kong). Upon inquiry, Society6 explained it was part of an affiliate program but I never made any sales with that design..., It is better to carefully read the terms of use on each platform and ensure platforms offering royalty payments also pay for third-party sales.

Licensing Artwork:

Licensing your artwork allows you to earn a percentage of sales when your designs are used in various industries. This approach can be challenging to control, so it's essential to partner with trustworthy companies with significant sales volumes. I have a challenging case as an example. I made an agreement with an Indian phone case company that no longer exists (at least under the same name). I expected to receive royalties around 5%.

I assumed they had substantial sales volumes. They took around 15 of my designs, but they consistently ran -50% sales, and the 5% royalty was after the sale price. Despite selling hundreds of cases per month, my earnings were only around 100 euros per month. I didn't bother making invoices for these amounts, a mistake I now acknowledge; I should have.

I also had doubts regarding their sales volumes, and slowly but firmly, they cut connections and kept selling my designs on their website until this company suddenly disappeared. This was one of the big risks I took. In the beginning, I knew there could be a catch with them, but I had hopes that things could also work. So, lesson learned."

Digital Courses:

Creating and selling digital courses became lucrative during the pandemic, but I have a doubt that this industry might be on the decline. While you can always keep creating new classes, I suspect these classes might need to be more advanced than before. As of Juner 2023, I've been watching many Skillshare courses during this summer, but I feel most of them are for beginners and cover very basic details of the industry. Therefore, I would say that there is still potential to earn with online courses, but they would need to be more specialized. I think business-related courses could have more demand in this industry.

Direct Selling via Your Own Website:

Having your own website gives you complete control over your sales process. I have always favored this option because it allows you to control sales volumes, and direct selling enables you to retain all profits (minus minimal transaction fees). However, this approach requires effort to attract customers, necessitating the use of marketing strategies such as social media promotion, content creation, and search engine optimization to drive traffic to your website.

If you aspire to be a digital nomad, this option may not be the best, as I discovered. Having a substantial stock of items and the need to move them frequently can be impractical.

While I'm aware that you can run Print-on-Demand (POD) services through your website, this also demands effort. You must pay for the products you order for the customer in advance, and if there is a return, you end up covering the product and delivery costs. Personally, I have not yet decided if I prefer selling my own products through my website or going full POD, but I still use my website to drive traffic.

Pattern Design Studio:

Collaborating with a pattern design studio can offer opportunities to showcase your designs to clients or agents. While the earnings from studio sales may be lower compared to direct customer sales, the volume of sales can make up for it.

I worked with a US-based studio back in 2006-07, and they sold a lot of my designs—around 10-20 per month. However, I've noticed a decline in sales in recent years. In a recent attempt to collaborate with another US-based studio, they only sold one design in four months. One downside of working with US studios, especially if you are not based in the US, is the difficulty in controlling their sales. I speak from experience, but that's another story...

Pattern Design Agent:

Working with a pattern design agent has, in my experience, been the most controllable and honest option, especially if you are not inclined to handle marketing and client acquisition on your own. This approach can also lead to higher earnings for your designs compared to a studio partnership. Agents specialize in marketing and selling your patterns, providing you with better rights and increased exposure. Partner with an agent who has a strong track record in the industry.


Earning money in surface pattern design is a realistic goal if you leverage online platforms, explore different revenue streams, and establish your brand. From print-on-demand platforms to digital courses, licensing opportunities, and direct selling, there are numerous paths to success. Consider your personal preferences, artistic goals, and the level of involvement you desire when choosing your income-generating strategies. Remember to stay persistent, continue learning, and adapt to industry trends to thrive as a surface pattern designer.

Thank you for reading, and have a wonderful day!

Date: 14th June 2023

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