I get a lot of emails from people asking me how they can get into surface design. Hands down, far and away, it is the single most asked question appearing in my inbox. For quite a while I've been meaning to attempt a blog post explaining what I know about it. I'll preface by saying that all my advice is only based on my personal experience because that is really all I have to go on. Here goes! I hope this helps!
A surface designer is someone who illustrates repeat patterns. A lot of us are also textile designers or product designers or both. I went to SCAD in Savannah for Fibers. I absolutely loved it. I learned so much, wished I could've stayed longer and taken every elective, if it hadn't been so expensive. I graduated with two job offers in textile design. SCAD was just what I needed (except for the expensive part). When I was looking at colleges, they was the most affordable of all the art schools I was interested in. It was also my favorite. I went to work as a home textile designer in North Georgia. When I married my husband we moved, and I worked for a gift product company. Three years ago I decided to try to get into licensing designs. When licensing artwork, the artist receives a royalty from product sold or a flat rate for allowing a company to use your designs for a specified amount of time. You retain ownership, and can license that artwork to other companies as well. I quit my full-time job and worked on my own for a few months. My work was constantly rejected. Years of critiques prepared me well for this, but it was still difficult. After I had a small portfolio of work, I got an agent. My work was still being constantly rejected, but I didn't have to hear it myself anymore :) When I had a larger portfolio of work and some licensing partnerships I moved onto a new agent, and I really prefer working on the artwork and having my agent sell my designs rather than trying to do that myself. I also have a few really great steady freelance clients who need work from me on a fairly consistent basis.
I feel like I need to say here that my husband totally supported us financially for a lot of that time. I get the impression when people write to me that they want to quit their jobs tomorrow and rely on income from licensing immediately. It just doesn't work like that. It usually takes at least a year for product to become available for sale, and the artist doesn't receive anything until after that usually. So even if you were able to snag some great licensing partnerships right away, it would still take time to make anything at all.
So, here is my advice! I think you should go to a program like SCAD's Fibers if you can, and if you can't, take some online courses in surface design. Work in industry for a while. This is important! I learned as much working with other designers at my jobs as I did in college, maybe more. Get really good at Photoshop and Illustrator. Learn to make nice repeating patterns. Draw with the end-use in mind, meaning think about the product you want to see this on. Build up a good portfolio of work. Make a nice website. THEN email an agent, or email companies images of your work yourself. Keep the emails brief. Send them whole collection images. If they need your work, they will get back to you. Try to get some freelance work. Most of all, just draw! You can't sell artwork if you don't have artwork for people to choose from when they contact you.
I hope this helps any of you who are wanting to get into surface design. There is no secret to it, just put in the work and time!