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March 2024 Issue
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Click here to watch my chat with designer, Elizabeth Silver where we discuss topics on surface pattern design.

TESTIMONIALS: "I'm totally excited! It's because of your publication that I won a contract with a design company." -Tracy Hall

"...I’ve also spent the last few months designing an exclusive collection for The Textile District (I have you to thank for that)..." - Kerryn B.

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March 2024 Issue #34

Editor: Stacie Dale

Surface Design News

The Monthly E-Newsletter for all things Surface Pattern Design


Cover Design by:

Teri Larson

What’s Inside This Edition?

Companies Accepting Artist Submissions

Company Product Resources

Who’s Teaching? - Debra Valencia

What’s Happening?

Let’s Chat About: Production & Tech Packs

Designer Spotlight: Miriam Rowe

Designer Profiles



April 2024 Issue# 35 

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This month's featured designer

Meet April's Featured Designer: Michael Zindell

Michael Zindell

Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be a surface designer.

  I'm Michael Zindell. My journey into surface design might seem like a winding path. I don't see myself solely as a surface pattern designer, though. I'm more about the product, the whole package, you know? That's why I usually go with the title of "product designer".

  I've always been an artist since I was young. My identity was pretty much "the kid who could draw" from early on. But it started feeling like the only thing I was good at, and that didn't sit right. So, I kept exploring different art forms in college and grad school, trying out everything. While others were mastering 2D art, I was deep into 3D product design, like an industrial designer.

  I ended up in roles where I'd design products from scratch, and gradually, I started adding 2D elements to my designs. It wasn't a formal move into surface pattern design; it just happened as part of the process.

  I never thought much about it until I hit a creative block. That's when I stumbled onto Spoonflower. Back then, it was more about expressing creativity than making money. That's also when I began using the term surface pattern design (SPD) more regularly, especially on Instagram, where I'd share my projects and follow others in the same space.

  It's funny how things work out. My journey to surface pattern design was a gradual one, woven into my journey as an artist and product designer.

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What influences your art the most?

  My career in design is a large part of my adult life, and it's fair to say I see the world through the lens of design. Most of my work has been in the housewares and home decor arena, designing everything from mugs and water bottles to ceramics and wall signs, among other things. Over the years, I've been fortunate to gain a deep understanding of the industry across various categories.

  In addition to considering practical aspects like cost and market appeal, I'm always drawn to the more conceptual side of design. Nature, animals, flowers, and plants are big inspirations for me, as are decorative arts and objects with a story or intention behind them. I'm particularly fascinated by trends—how they emerge, evolve, and eventually fade. I find it satisfying to interpret trends in my own unique way, adding my personal touch to the mix.

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What mediums do you use to create your art?

Once upon a time, I was all about the analog tools, but I'll let you in on a secret—I actually detest art supplies. The whole process of buying and maintaining them just isn't my cup of tea. So for most of my career, I've leaned heavily on digital tools like 3D CAD (mainly Rhino3D) and Adobe products, especially Adobe Illustrator for vector work.

However, a game-changer came when I got my hands on an iPad and Procreate. At first, I was a bit apprehensive, wondering if it was worth the investment. But within a few weeks, it became my trusty sidekick. I adore Procreate; it's become my go-to tool for illustration work. It's such an intuitive and versatile tool.

Honestly, every software has its purpose and strengths. I simply gravitate towards whichever tool gets the job done best. Procreate is perfect for illustrating, and when I need something a bit more technical, Adobe Illustrator still reigns supreme for its vector capabilities.


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You have the unique opportunity to work as an art director and also as a freelance artist. Can you share any advice on what designers can do to be seen by art directors?

  This is a tricky situation for me because I operate in two very distinct realms simultaneously. On one hand, I often encounter advice and Instagram posts suggesting that an artist needs to cold-call, email, and generally barrage the world with their work to get noticed. It sounds logical, right? After all, how else can an artist break into the scene? But each time I hit the "send" button, I can't help but wince. Why? Because, as an Art Director (AD) myself, I find receiving such emails rather bothersome. Most of the time, they feel disruptive, lacking in essential information, and frankly, misplaced. More often than not, the email will begin with "I believe my art is a perfect match for your products," followed by artwork that's just not the right fit. To this day, I haven't received a single email where that initial claim has held any truth. Much of the art that's sent my way feels disjointed, out of season, or irrelevant to my current projects.

  So, here's my take: before you hit "send," do your homework. If you're going to claim that your art is a perfect match for a certain company, make sure you've done your due diligence. Understand the company's ethos, the products they specialize in, and the season they're currently working on. Familiarize yourself with what they're looking for before reaching out. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, especially since some companies rely heavily on artist submissions. In those cases, perhaps start with an email inquiring about their submission policies.

  Another crucial point to remember is that Art Directors are not necessarily rooting for your success or failure; their priority is the job at hand. Your artwork may be fantastic, but if it doesn't align with their current objectives, it's essentially irrelevant. Elizabeth Silver has delved into this topic extensively, and her insights ring true.

  Ultimately, it's about finding that delicate balance between making your presence known and respecting the time and objectives of those on the receiving end of your outreach efforts.

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As a freelance artist, what are the difficulties you have encountered when trying to get your work in front of an art director?

  I can totally relate to that frustration with the submission process. In my own freelance life, I tend to avoid cold-calling unless I have prior knowledge from someone else or thorough research to confirm that the person or company is open to art submissions. After being in the industry for a while, you start recognizing companies that frequently work with licensed art, so they're easier to identify.

  To navigate this challenge, I've established pillars in my business. There are certain areas where I actively pitch myself to companies that I've researched or have previous connections with. Then, there are the aspects I leave to my agent, as that's part of what they're there for, and they get a share of the success.

  My advice for designers is this: don't get caught up in the allure of big names. Sometimes, getting your art picked up by a smaller, lesser-known manufacturer can actually result in higher royalties than what you might earn from a prestigious retailer like Anthropologie. It's essential not to let the pursuit of reputation overshadow the potential benefits of working with a less renowned entity.

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We recently discussed the topic of success.  What do you think it means to be a successful designer/artist?

  This is a topic I've thought about a lot, especially how social media has influenced our perception of success in the Surface Pattern Design (SPD) space. It's become a bit of a competition, hasn't it? Everyone's vying to show they're better or more deserving of recognition, whether it's by flaunting their work in big-name stores or through prestigious clients. The problem arises when the story is spun in a way that isn't entirely honest. For example, someone might claim their work is stocked in Target, when in reality, it's licensed to a third-party manufacturer who sells through Target. The story may be twisted further, giving the impression that Target handpicked the artist, which is often far from the truth. (It could happen, but let's face it, it's rare.)

  I'm not trying to criticize anyone for sharing their accomplishments. Any win, big or small, should be celebrated. But I think there's an important distinction between honesty and embellishment. The glossy, glittering successes we see online aren't always the most profitable or satisfying in the long run. Sometimes, the quieter, less glamorous wins pay better and provide more personal satisfaction.

  Success means different things to different people, particularly across generations. For many Gen X designers, success might be a stable, well-paying job with benefits, supplemented by a handful of secret freelance clients on the side. Nowadays, success seems to be more about flaunting achievements, name-dropping prestigious clients, and teasing about super-secret projects—all to build up anticipation for a class that may not be as enlightening as it seems.

  For me, success means feeling content with myself and my work, whether it's sitting on the shelves of a local boutique or a major retailer. It's about collaborating with respectful, kind people and earning a comfortable living. Sure, my ego can be as fragile as anyone else's, but I find that having a more defined perspective on success helps to ground me. If I were driven purely by the desire to outdo others or achieve some abstract notion of 'more success,' I'd probably end up frustrated and perpetually chasing something I might never catch. But trust me, I fall victim to the comparison monster, I sometimes feel inadequate, or scream at my phone “someone licensed that???” we are all only human after all.

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Do you feel there is too much misinformation being circulated on social media about what it takes to become a full-time, working artist/designer?

  Absolutely, and you touched on a critical aspect of the industry. It's like a self-perpetuating cycle—someone takes a class, has a bit of success, then decides they're an expert and starts teaching their own classes. And it just keeps going, often becoming more about the hype than the actual substance. Now, not to say all classes are without merit. There are definitely some valuable ones out there (Elizabeth Silver's, for example). But when the focus seems more on promises of fame and fortune rather than actual skill-building or business acumen, it's a red flag for me.

  To be honest, I'm not entirely convinced that traditional art school is always the answer either. It's incredibly expensive, and while you'll undoubtedly learn a lot, you simply can't learn everything you need from a few classes. Experience and collaboration with others are invaluable and cannot be replaced by any class or degree.

  In my view, talent and a few new skills or tricks from a class aren't going to magically catapult you to success. It's a journey that involves dedication, hard work, and a lot of learning from mistakes. So while I wouldn't discourage anyone from pursuing education or training that fits their needs and budget, I'd caution against putting too much faith in any one course or program. If someone approached you with a similar offer in another field (say, promising your kid could become a model in 6 weeks with some headshots), it would likely raise eyebrows. It's important to step back and evaluate these opportunities from a more objective standpoint.

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Do you work with a licensing agent or do you approach companies on your own?

  I operate in two different ways in my design career. For some companies, I handle the business directly, while for others, I rely on my agent, especially for those I'm not familiar with or where my agent has helped introduce my work. I also have some ethical guidelines that I adhere to.     For example, I try to avoid working directly with companies that could potentially compete with my current job. To ensure this, I focus on different product categories when licensing, and I make sure the artwork is entirely different from what I'm doing full-time. This way, I'm able to balance my freelance and full-time work without any conflicts of interest.

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What has been your favorite or most rewarding collaboration?

  I recently had a successful run with a greeting card company that was honestly fantastic. Everything just seemed to click—the product, the creative process, and the positive reception. The paychecks were pretty awesome too, which was a bonus. This was my first time delving into the world of greetings, and it was a thrilling experience.

  But as they say, every rollercoaster has its ups and downs. Currently, my greeting cards have hit a bit of a lull. I think it's important to share this aspect of my journey to be transparent about the fact that not all growth is linear or consistently upward. There are inevitable shifts in the market, changes in tastes, and the unpredictability of personnel changes (like when Art Directors leave and you have to start over with someone new). It's all part of the ebb and flow of the creative business. Notice how I didn't run out and start a ”how to succeed in greeting cards”class? I suppose I could have, but the reality of everything being a gamble is just part of this industry. There are just no guarantees to any success.

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What's next for you in your artistic endeavors?

  What lies ahead in my artistic journey is a question I find myself grappling with quite often. Having been in this field for a considerable amount of time, my thoughts on the matter often diverge. There are moments when I contemplate stepping away entirely and pursuing something entirely different. However, those thoughts are often accompanied by a sense of panic and even tears when I think about abandoning something that has been such a fundamental part of my identity.

  At other times, I entertain the idea of taking a step back and focusing solely on creating art, or conversely, of moving into more of an art directing role with less emphasis on making art myself. I've also contemplated returning to teaching art at the college level, although I'm aware that this may be a very long shot.

  As things stand, I'm simply taking each day as it comes. I'm adaptable, and I find that the ever-changing nature of this industry is a blessing and a curse. Some days, I lean more into certain aspects, while on others, I focus on something entirely different.

  For the future, I'm intrigued by the prospect of working internally for a retailer or brand as a creative director. In many of the studios I've worked in, the focus was on serving a wide range of clients, which often meant lacking a distinct point of view. This resulted in a "one-size-fits-all" approach where you simply did whatever was asked of you, without a clear guiding principle. I would relish the opportunity to be part of a team that has a clear sense of purpose and direction, and to contribute to the creation of beautiful and innovative products that support that vision.

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