Perhaps the simplest, yet most effective form of texture is a pattern. Because it’s so powerful and found nearly everywhere in design, I’ve dedicated a whole chapter to it.
A pattern, just as a texture, is achieved when points, lines, and shapes combine into something that subverts the identity of the separate elements in favour of a larger texture. In other words, the individual elements become unnoticeable and give away the attention to the larger texture that appears.
What’s different about patterns, is that they are perfect. Instead of adding subtle variations or changing the colours here and there, a pattern is a consistent, undisrupted collection of repeated elements. Because of this, a pattern – even though it may consist of maybe hundreds of smaller elements – can be seen as one individual design element within a composition.
Humans are always subconsciously seeking for patterns. Patterns are noticed and interpreted quickly, which means they can attract attention and create interesting visuals. On the other hand, repetition of a simple basic pattern is predictable and boring, and can make elements automatically recede into the background.
Either way, every pattern is the result of repetition; actually, it’s the result of two kinds of repetition. The fundamental element of the pattern is repeated in a consistent and fixed way, without variation or change. This fundamental element, on the other hand, is created by picking a small set of basic design elements, and copying them while making (slight) adjustments every time, creating endless variations and complexity.
There are five common properties you could change to get a new configuration for every new copy: placement, rotation, size, colour, and shape. The last two are a bit trickier, and you’ll need to make sure you don’t change too much, or the contrast within one fundamental piece of the pattern is too big and makes it fall apart.
Obviously, you shouldn’t just randomly start repeating everything. Every pattern follows some repetitive principle, be it a grid, (computer-generated) algorithm, or physical rhythm found in nature.
For example, in real-life flora we can find lots of fractals. The idea behind them is simple: every step, you copy an existing element two times, place them at the end of the previous element, and reduce their size by a fixed ratio. The results are often pretty pictures.
Note, though, that modifications aren’t absolutely necessary. Lots of patterns are actually better when copies aren’t altered, because they are simpler. Nevertheless, when you do make modifications, make sure it’s always in an organized and structural manner, or the pattern becomes a chaotic texture.
What Makes a Good Pattern
You should see patterns as minimalist textures. When overtly decorative surfaces don’t suit your design’s purpose or make the whole composition too chaotic and complex, they are often better replaced with much simpler patterns.
Interesting pattern designs often result from a mix of regular and irregular forces, as well as abstract and concrete or recognizable imagery. A pattern should have a strong relationship to geometry, as it’s a repetition of fundamental elements in a predictable and organized manner. Due to this underlying structure, patterns are always synthetic, man-made, and mechanical – never organic.
Nevertheless, it’s actually recommended to draw ideas from organic textures. Some common patterns to explore are: arabesques, branching, circulation, helixes, lattices, meanders, nests, spheres, spirals, symmetry, volutes and waves.
Patterns are best when they are as simple as possible. When patterns become too complex, they create the illusion of complete randomness. If you really want your pattern to be complex, structure can be recovered by tiling the pattern using seamless tiles.
In the rest of this course, patterns will be referred to as motifs, just as a motif is a recurring element or object in books and stories.