The process of creating a good Illustrator pattern design can sometimes prove to be a real challenge, especially if it's your first time doing so.
Since I know a lot of people struggle when it comes to creating patterns, I decided to put together this in-depth article, which should help you figure out how to make a pattern in Illustrator.
Whether you're building an Illustrator halftone pattern, an Illustrator dot pattern, an Illustrator vintage pattern, or maybe even an Illustrator watercolor pattern, there are a couple of key aspects that you need to be aware of, as we will see in the following moments.
From how to use Adobe Illustrator pattern swatches to how to make a repeating pattern in Illustrator, or even how to scale an Illustrator pattern or how to rotate a pattern in Illustrator, we will gradually learn how to design patterns in Illustrator and adjust them if we need to.
1. What Are Patterns?
Before we start diving any deeper into the actual article, let’s take a couple of moments and see exactly what a pattern is.
According to Google, the noun is believed to originate from the Middle English patron used within the period of 1325-1375, which described “a person who gives financial or other support to another person, organization, or cause”. That “patron” was thought of as being a distinguished figure giving an example to be copied.
The change in the second syllable occurred in the 16th century, when pattern became its own word, carrying the meaning of a “repeated decorative design”, thus separating itself from the earlier meaning.
Today, we think of a pattern as being:
"any regularly repeated arrangement, especially a design made from repeated lines, shapes, or colors on a surface"
From a design standpoint, a pattern is composed of multiple repeating artwork tiles, which overlap in order to create a seamless composition.
That being said, patterns have taken over multiple industries, becoming an intricate part of our daily lives, which has raised the amount of interest around the process of creating them.
2. What Makes a Good Pattern?
For a pattern to “work”, there are a couple of key requirements that one needs to take into consideration when developing the actual design.
Make It Seamless
The key trick to a good pattern design is making it look seamless, which translates into a smooth overall transition within its entire surface, without any visible interruptions between its repeating tiles.
This is usually achieved through the correct positioning of your repeating elements, which need to be evenly distributed onto the different edges of the tile. If you’re using a background color, you’ll need to make sure that the tiles themselves are “glued” to one another, so that you won’t have any white gaps between them.
If you’re designing a simple pattern, this usually won’t pose a serious problem, but if you’re creating something a bit more complex, you might find yourself in need of rethinking the position of some of your composing shapes or elements.
Another aspect that you need to keep track of is the overlapping between the artwork’s composing shapes or elements, so that there won’t be any design anomalies caused by improper shape overlapping, which will become even clearer when the tiles are positioned next to one another.
If you’re using the Pattern Options panel to do all the heavy work, this shouldn’t pose a problem, but if you’re going the manual way, make sure that when you position a certain element on one edge, you add an identical copy onto the opposite one, making sure to maintain the same distance and trajectory from your reference surface’s edges and the original shape itself.
Color is another thing that you need to consider when striving for a seamless composition, since you don’t want to end up with a shape that uses a specific color on one end and a completely different value on the opposite half.
This probably won’t happen if you’re using the Pattern Options panel to do the tile offsetting, but if you take the more manual road, where you have to position each repeating element on the edges of a clipping mask, you might want to double-check your pattern design before moving forward.
That being said, there will be situations when the Pattern Options tool won’t be able to produce that exact pattern design that you’ve envisioned, so when that happens, make sure you keep a close eye on any anomalies that may occur.
Strive for Balance
Once you’ve made sure your pattern meets the first requirement, you need to take a step back and take a deep look at your composition’s balance to figure out whether your design needs adjusting.
To achieve balance, you need to consider three different aspects:
Each composing shape or element should be created in relation to its neighbors, so that in the end they will coexist harmoniously, without giving the feeling that they’re competing for attention with one another. In other words, don’t make one element tiny and then stack it next to a huge one, since the viewer’s eyes might jump straight to the latter, ignoring the smaller one.
Also, make sure that if you have different-sized elements, they're spaced out in a way that looks natural, so that when the tile is repeated, you'll develop a clear, readable pattern.
When working on your main repeating tile, always make sure that your colors work well with one another. Also, make sure that you space your colors out evenly, since you don’t want to end up having two or multiple repeating colors in close proximity to one another.
When positioning your different decorative shapes/elements, go through a couple of different variations to make sure that you’ve figured out the right spot for each one. This is really important since, as with colors, you don’t want to have the same shapes/elements stacked very close to one another, which might develop a weird-looking pattern.
3. How to Access Illustrator’s Default Patterns
Now that we’ve covered some of the more general aspects when it comes to patterns, let’s dive in a little deeper by looking at the available pattern designs found in Illustrator, and see how we can actually go about using them.
The software itself comes with some interesting patterns, which can be found by opening up the Swatches panel and then clicking on its Swatch Libraries menu.
A new dropdown menu will appear, towards the bottom of which you’ll find a category called Patterns, which itself is divided into three subcategories.
As soon as you pick a subcategory, a new swatch library window will appear, giving you a preview of all the available pattern designs.
4. How to Use Illustrator’s Default Patterns
To use any of the included patterns, first select the desired pattern design by clicking on it, which will immediately add it to your Fill, and then simply grab the Rectangle Tool (M) and create a new shape using either the click-and-drag method or the more precise window prompt one.
As you can see, every time you use a pattern, Illustrator will add it to the current document’s Swatches panel, where it will remain so that you can quickly use it later on if you need to.
Quick tip: depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you can use any of the available geometric shapes, or you can create a completely new one from scratch using the Pen Tool (P), and then apply the pattern design to those.
5. How to Apply Patterns to an Existing Shape
At this point, we’ve seen how easy it is to use the shape tools in order to create a patterned shape, but how about using it on an existing shape that you’ve previously created?
Well, the process itself is actually identical, since the pattern acts like any other swatch, which means that you can apply it to any existing shape, by simply selecting it and then setting the desired pattern as its Fill.
6. How to Apply Patterns to Text
Want to use a pattern on a piece of text? Well, guess what, you actually can, and it’s really easy to do so.
First, create the text segment using the Type Tool (T), and then simply set the desired pattern as its Fill.
7. How to Use the Pattern Options Panel
Up to this point, we’ve talked about the different patterns available in Illustrator and seen how to use them, but what if we wanted to begin creating new ones of our own?
Well, before we start doing that, we need to take a couple of moments and get familiar with the tool and functions that make it all possible.
Compared to other pieces of software, Illustrator comes with a dedicated pattern-building tool in the form of the Pattern Options panel, which can be accessed by heading over to Window > Pattern Options.
By default, the panel is inactive, which means that in order to use its different functions, we first have to select the artwork that we want to turn into a pattern.
With the artwork selected, all we have to do is open the panel’s advanced menu and click on Make Pattern.
As soon as we click on the option, the software will immediately bring us into Editing Mode, enabling the panel’s different options.
Once we’ve entered this mode, the original artwork tile will retain its full Opacity, while the surrounding copies will be dimmed to the default value of 40%.
Quick tip: if you don’t want to keep the Pattern Options panel visible all the time, you can achieve the same result by simply selecting the shape and then heading over to Object > Pattern and hitting Make, which will bring you into the pattern Editing Mode.
7.1. Tile Type
The first option that you’ll see when creating a new pattern is Tile Type, which controls the way your pattern’s composing tiles are laid out, and this is directly influenced by the tile’s shape. You can think of a tile as being the main surface on which you’re going to position your artwork.
Depending on your pattern design, you can choose between five different tile layouts:
The grid layout ensures that the center of each tile is both horizontally and vertically aligned to the center of the adjacent tiles, taking on a rectangular shape for the artwork tile.
Brick by Row
The tiles are treated as being rectangular in shape and are arranged in rows, the center of those that are in rows being horizontally aligned, while those that are in alternate columns are vertically aligned.
Brick by Column
The tiles are treated as being rectangular in shape and are arranged in columns, the center of those that are in columns being vertically aligned, while those that are in alternate columns are horizontally aligned.
Hex by Column
The tiles are treated as being hexagonal in shape and are arranged in columns, the center of those that are in columns being vertically aligned, while those that are in alternate columns are horizontally aligned.
Hex by Row
The tiles are treated as being hexagonal in shape and are arranged in rows, the center of those that are in rows being horizontally aligned, while those that are in alternate rows are vertically aligned.
The Pattern Tile Tool
If you need to adjust the shape of the default Tile Types, you can do so by clicking on the Pattern Tile Tool, found within the upper-left corner of the panel, which will bring up a bounding box surrounding the actual tile’s shape.
You can then make modifications to its form and size by simply clicking and dragging its composing bounding points in any given direction.
Quick tip: if you strive to keep your shapes as pixel-perfect as possible, you might want to stay away from this option, since as you can see it will always result in decimal numeric values.
7.2. Brick Offset
If you’ve quickly played around with the different Tile Type options, you might have noticed that for some of them, more exactly the "Brick by" ones, you get another subsetting called Brick Offset, which as the name suggests, lets you offset your tiles.
According to Adobe, if you’re using the Brick by Row tile type, you can control how much tile width the centers of tiles in adjacent rows are out of vertical alignment.
The default value is 1/2, but you can choose between eight different alternative values, which will produce different results.
The Brick by Column option determines by how much tile height the centers of tiles in adjacent columns are out of horizontal alignment.
7.3. Width and Height
Next, we have Width and/or Height, which lets us control the overall dimensions of our tile. If we increase the size of our tile beyond that of our artwork, the software will end up adding an empty space between the two, thus increasing the distance found between the tiles, while if we go the opposite way and decrease the values, the adjacent tiles will end up overlapping.
In the case of seamless repeating patterns, especially those that use a background, this would actually end up breaking the pattern, since neither the background nor the cropped decorative elements will connect correctly afterwards.
If we were to use the options on the current feather example, we could increase the spacing between the artwork by increasing the size of the actual tiles, but there’s a better method of doing so, as we will see in the following moments.
7.4. Size Tile to Art
Every time you embark on the process of creating a new pattern design, you’ll quickly notice that if you resize one of your tile’s composing artwork, the software will start overlapping the adjacent tiles, which happens due to the fact that the tile itself has retained the same Width and Height values.
To fix this, all you have to do is enable the Size Tile to Art option, which will immediately remove any unwanted overlapping.
Quick tip: I’ve noticed that the option doesn’t always work for some unknown reason, so you might have to move your artwork around and then try again to get it working properly.
With the option enabled, you can resize any of your artwork’s composing shapes, or the entire design itself, and the pattern will update itself accordingly each time.
7.5. Move Tile with Art
The Move Tile with Art option does exactly what it says, since if you adjust the position of the artwork during the pattern creation process, the tile will follow along, without you having to use the Size Tile to Art function afterwards to get it back into place.
7.6. H Spacing and V Spacing
A few moments ago, we talked about adding space between our pattern’s artwork, which I said should be done using a different method than that of increasing the Width and/or Height of the tile itself.
This is where H Spacing and V Spacing come into play, since they allow you to increase or decrease the spacing found between adjacent tiles.
You can think of it as adding a padding zone, which lets you space out your artwork in order to achieve a more balanced pattern design.
By default, the options are grayed out, so you’ll have to enable the Size Tile to Art function in order for them to become active.
In the case of the feather example used to illustrate the available Tile Type options, adjusting the H and/or V Spacing of the tile could create a more balanced design, as you can see below.
The reason why this method is better than that of adjusting the Width and/or Height of the tile is due to the non-clipping nature of the process, since you can use any value over 0 without having to worry that you’ve accidentally made it overlap your artwork.
The Width and/or Height method requires you to add the padding value to the current value(s) of the tile, and if you get it wrong, it might end up overlapping your artwork.
The next option has to do with tile overlapping, and it lets us determine which tiles appear in front when adjacent tiles overlap, thus allowing us to change the orientation of any given pattern.
Personally, I’ve never found myself needing to make any changes to the default values since I don’t do a lot of overlapping tile designs, but if you do, the Pattern Options panel provides an easy way of doing so.
You can control horizontal overlapping by first entering a negative H Spacing value to make your tiles overlap, and then simply changing the Overlap from Left in Front to Right in Front.
You can do the same thing with the vertical overlapping of your tiles by entering a negative value within the V Spacing input field and then changing the Overlap from Top in Front to Bottom in Front.
Moving on down, we have Copies, which acts as a sort of pattern preview mode and lets you control the number of horizontal and vertical tiles visible during the pattern creation / pattern refinement process.
Increasing or decreasing the values will have no effect on the actual pattern, so depending on the complexity of your design, you might end up using a higher or lower tile count.
As you can see, the values used are all odd numbers, so that your original tile design will always remain front and center to your copies.
7.9. Dim Copies To
You can adjust the Opacity level of the copies using the Dim Copies to input field, where you can either choose from one of the predefined values or enter a custom one of your own, which depending on the intensity, will allow you to have a better view of your original artwork tile during the pattern creation / pattern refinement process.
Of course, if you need to, you can always completely turn it off by unchecking it.
Again, this will only affect the pattern preview, so go ahead and use any value that fits your needs since it won’t end up altering the final design.
7.10. Show Tile Edge
The Show Tile Edge option, used in combination with the unchecked Dim Copies to one, allows you to get a clear non-invasive preview of what your pattern will actually look like, by turning off the box surrounding your artwork tile.
Instead of constantly having to go in and out of the pattern Editing Mode, you could rely on this feature in order to save some precious time.
7.11. Show Swatch Bounds
Finally, we have the Show Swatch Bounds option which, as the name suggests will display a unit portion of the artwork that is repeated in order to create the actual pattern design.
If you’re new to creating patterns, this option might help you get a better understanding of how the repeating process works, allowing you to see exactly where your shapes need to be in order for the tile transition to appear seamless.
8. How to Create a New Illustrator Pattern
While the included patterns are not all that bad, sooner or later you’ll probably find yourself in the situation where you’ll need to create a new one, so if that’s you right now, let’s see what it takes to do so.
I’m going to assume that you already went ahead and created your repeating tile artwork, which means that we’ll be using that to create the actual pattern swatch.
For this example, I’ll be using a wave pattern that I created some time ago, which as you can see is perfectly aligned to the outer edges of my Artboard, so that the transition will be seamless in any direction.
Start by selecting your tile, and then head over to Object > Pattern and hit Make, which should bring up the Pattern Options panel.
As you can see, Illustrator will give us a preview of the repeating pattern tile copies, but since we haven’t specified their Width and Height, it spaces them out, which makes the entire design feel a little bit chaotic. To quickly fix this, first we’re going to align our original tile to the center of the Artboard using the Align panel, and then check the Size Tile to Art option, which should immediately make things better.
Now that we have a cleaner preview, we can start fine-tuning our pattern, and we will do so by first giving it a custom name.
Next, we’re going to need to select a Tile Type for our pattern.
In my case, since my wave pattern design is a perfect square and uses a background, I’m going to go with Grid, since I want the software to repeat it both horizontally and vertically in order to get that seamless transition.
Since I’m using a square design for my artwork’s tile, I’ll be leaving the H Spacing and V Spacing options alone, so that my tiles will align themselves perfectly to each other’s edges.
That being said, all I have to do now is click on Done, and my new pattern should now be added to the Swatches panel as its own pattern swatch.
9. How to Edit an Existing Illustrator Pattern
Whether it's a pattern included in Illustrator or one that's been custom created, the process of editing a pattern design is actually fairly simple.
Start by opening up the Swatches panel and then double-clicking on the desired pattern swatch, which will bring up the Pattern Options panel.
As you can see, this acts as a sort of Isolation / Pattern Editing mode, where you can carry out any change to your design, whether it’s setting different colors for some of your composing shapes, adjusting their size, or maybe even adding new shapes and elements, which will immediately show up within the repeating tile copies.
Once you’re ready, simply hit Done, and any changes you’ve made should now be applied to your pattern design.
10. How to Scale an Existing Pattern
So we've seen what it takes to design a good pattern, and we've quickly gone through the process of creating one, but what if we needed to resize a pattern that we've already applied to a shape?
Well, the process of scaling an applied pattern can prove to be a real challenge, since if you try to resize the shape using the click-and-drag method, you'll quickly notice that the pattern's composing elements will retain the same dimensions.
So, how do we go about scaling an existing pattern?
First, select the shape that you've applied the pattern to, and then simply right-click and then go to Transform > Scale, which will bring up the Scale panel.
Once the panel is visible, all you have to do is make sure that the Transform Patterns option is checked, and then you can go ahead and scale your shape using either the Uniform or Non-Uniform methods by giving it a custom percentage.
As soon as you hit OK, your pattern should resize itself proportionally with the actual shape to which it was applied.
11. How to Rotate an Existing Pattern
A few moments ago, we saw how to scale an existing pattern, but what about those situations where we need to rotate it?
Well, the process is actually pretty simple, since all you have to do is select the shape to which you've applied the pattern, and then right-click and go to Transform > Rotate. Here, you'll want to enter a custom value within the Angle input field, making sure to turn on the Transform Patterns option.
As soon as you hit OK, your pattern will be subjected to the rotation process along with the shape it was applied to.
As we've seen, the process of creating a good pattern design isn't all that difficult to master as long as you get familiar with the different aspects required to do so.
That being said, I hope you found this article useful, and most importantly managed to learn something along the way.
Further Develop Your Pattern-Building Skills
Just finished going through this in-depth article, and feel like learning more? Well, if that's the case, you're in luck, since I took the time to put together this little list that should keep you going for the following days!