Bedding Designer. Freelancer. Teacher. Emma’s Career.
Today I’m excited to share with you the work of UK textile designer and illustrator, Emma Allsup. Emma went to college for textile design and since then has had the opportunity to wear a variety of hats within the field.
I think you will enjoy Emma’s story and hearing how the pattern design industry has changed over time. Enjoy!
Hi Emma! Please tell us a little bit about your background as an artist and how you got into surface pattern design.
I come from a very creative family, so it follows that I would be creative as well. As a child, I was always drawing and won many art competitions at school. Every week I would fill a sketchbook with portraits and figure drawings.
Whilst at college, my tutors suggested that I would be well suited to textile design. They had seen, from looking through my sketchbooks and course work, that I loved to paint flowers and create patterns. Taking their advice, I went to university to study surface pattern, and then landed my first creative job designing duvet covers for a leading UK bedding company. There I designed bedding for Dorma, John Lewis, Coca Cola, Morgan, NEXT, Littlewoods, Laura Ashley and Marks & Spencer. After that I freelanced, designing mugs, apparel, home décor and gift wrap.
Eventually my personal circumstances changed and I decided to venture into teaching. I taught art and mathematics at a college for a time but longed to get back into the industry. At first I left teaching for graphic design but quickly realized that my real passion was illustration and surface pattern design.
What was it like working for the UK bedding company?
I thoroughly enjoyed my time working at the UK bedding company. The studio was divided internally by brand and I was fortunate enough to work for each one. In the studio there was a busy and buzzing atmosphere and I created designs for different categories. These included florals, geometric and ethnic designs; such great variety!
In the studio, I learned how the design process works and what trends were predicted for the year ahead. These were implemented into design ideas for the different design categories. Each brand would refer to the predicted trends. Whilst on the job, I learned how the whole design process works, from initial drawings through coloration and sampling, to mass production.
Another skill I learned was how to make colors. What I mean by this is that I learned to mix a range of colors. An example being, which gouache paints to use to make a particular shade of blue and yellow. I would often pick up a design that another designer was working on, therefore having to match the colors that they used within the design. This was a precision operation; the colors had to be spot on.
What was it like transitioning from the bedding company to freelancing?
It’s a big step going from working for a company to setting up and working for yourself, both mentally and financially. I had to wear many hats and learn to balance business, creativity, networking, marketing, and speaking to clients. I had to do all of that while staying motivated and maintaining a life away from work.
If you want to become a freelancer I’d advise working part-time until you have enough regular work to commit to freelancing full-time. This will help financially. I had savings, which enabled me to freelance on a full-time basis from the start. I loved being my own boss, so I didn’t feel overwhelmed by all the responsibility that comes with freelancing. It does get lonely at times without the buzz and energy of working in a studio. You do get used to it over time though.
You’ve had formal, university-level training in pattern design. In light of this, what do you think of the new crop of self-taught designers entering the industry?
Personally, I can’t imagine going into the industry with no formal training. I was so naïve about the industry and relished any advice my tutors at college gave me. Because of this I admire people who are self-taught. I believe that in some countries it’s hard to focus on pattern design at school – there aren’t many formal training programs available. I do, therefore, count myself lucky to have studied this subject at university. I would imagine that it’s hard pursuing an art career with no formal training. That said, there are quite a few online courses available for people who need professional guidance and tips. These classes can help people develop their portfolios and provide general knowledge about the industry.
I was out of the industry for a number of years while teaching, so when I re-entered the world of design it felt as though I was starting all over again. There are a lot of super talented designers, and when starting out, I felt so inexperienced and inferior compared to them. Over time I gained confidence and my work progressed to a much higher level.
You definitely need to be committed, and have passion and dedication, to pursue a career as a designer. So many people stop when it gets hard. But I’d say that if it’s what you really want to do, then you’ll find a way to pursue it as a career. It may not happen instantly but stay with it.
I would advise self-taught designers to draw often, follow trends, network with other designers, enroll in one or two courses and find what medium and techniques come most natural to them. Plus, make each piece of design your best. You must aim to stand out against the competition.
What has it been like returning to the industry after leaving to teach and work in graphic design?
When returning to the industry, as mentioned previously, it felt like I was a new designer. My first pieces of work and my style were all over the place! My portfolio looked like it was a collaboration of different designers. Over the past six months or so I’ve been trying to produce work with a more consistent look. It’s been hard work and has gone in waves. While I have not been happy with all of my work, I have been extremely pleased and proud of a number of pieces. It has certainly been a learning curve.
When I first left teaching, I would design on paper and only use the computer to create repeats. Now I use Photoshop and Illustrator as a bigger part of my design process. I’m in the process of purchasing an iPad and plan on designing on it using Procreate. Should be interesting! I’ve not yet decided whether I’ll working solely on the iPad, or mix iPad design with hand drawing. I’ll probably mix both.
Do you work in a different way now? What changes have you seen in the industry?
I work differently now, for sure. At university, I used to produce my designs on one sheet of paper, layering colors of gouache on top of one another. Now, I create separate icons, so I can have the flexibility to move them around in Photoshop. I use the Adobe suite much more, which enables me to work faster and experiment with compositions.
In the industry I’ve noticed:
- Changes in technology. People work at a faster pace and depend on their computers more. Now there are a wide variety digitally printed products. Designs were screen printed when I first started working for the bedding company. Later, color separation was done using Photoshop.
- Changes in production. These days most printing is done through digital printing, which enables more people to afford nicely designed pieces.
- Changes in sharing. People share their work far more on social media now than they did when I first started out. Because of this copying is far more widespread. The good news is that it is now easier to track down copied work. Social networkers are quite good at self-policing and calling up copied work to the original artist when it is spotted.
What are some challenges you’ve faced so far as a designer?
I struggled at first to find a style that represents me as a brand. As I mentioned, I love to experiment, so my style was changing frequently. This presented a challenge because I would sometimes get frustrated with my perceived lack of progress.
Also, building confidence as a designer was a challenge. Some days I would be in my element while other days I would compare myself to other designers. What I have found is that when I feel intimidated by the sheer number of talented people out there, it is important to not look at their work but just focus on my own. I imagine that I am probably not the only person who does this.
Another challenge, and one which I am facing at present, is time management. I work long hours, from ten in the morning until sometimes eleven at night, only taking breaks for lunch and dinner. I am not really a morning person and I work more efficiently in the evenings. I know this is not ideal, especially when I don’t get time during the week to relax and spend time with my husband and teenage daughter. I am aware that I need to become more disciplined with how I manage my time!
What advice can you give others who are interested in surface pattern design?
My advice is to work hard, be true to yourself and be different!
There is a lot of competition out there, so you need to be able to put in the hard work and effort to stand out from the crowd. Do not to copy other people’s work, and design what comes from within. It is important to follow trends but also to create what you love.
If you liked this interview, please check out other featured designers.
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