Jackie Tahara in her studio
Canadian designer Jackie Tahara never knew there was such a job as surface pattern designer, but once she learned about the possibilities, she never looked back. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Bold and colorful, modern but with a retro flair, Jackie Tahara’s surface designs definitely make a statement, whether they are on wallpaper, kitchen décor, clothing, water bottles, or as a background for celebrity photos at a film festival.

Her designs are inspired by her frequent travels, which is why you’ll see vibrant, lush botanicals, whimsical colored fauna (from birds and butterflies to fish, snakes, and frogs), abstracts and geometrics, child-centric prints and novelty and special occasion designs from surfers and geishas to snowflakes and skeletons. She has licensed her designs, sometimes through an agent, sometimes on her own, to various companies, including Spoonflower, Happywall, TeePublic, Redbubble, Society6, and Raspberry Creek Fabrics, and has collaborated with a variety of others.

Tahara, who lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and owns UnBlink Studio, took a long, meandering path before she even realized “surface pattern designer” was an actual job. An inveterate learner, a curious seeker, she has always gone where her interests take her, be it cultural, spiritual, or the law.  “I wasn’t a career minded person,” she says with a laugh.

She attended art school in Toronto, then studied South Asian mythology, religion, and folklore in Vancouver; started a master’s degree at University of California, Berkeley, then returned to Canada for a textile design diploma, studying weaving, embroidery, block printing, resist dyeing, basketry and “all those craft arts, which I loved.” Because art never seemed like a career, and law school sounded interesting, “I took that strange fork and became a lawyer,” practicing tax law for about three years.

In between all that learning, she traveled, including to various parts of Asia and the Middle East, all places where “I was interested in what people were making.”

She and her husband, a physician, lived in Hawaii for a while, and all the vibrant beauty she saw in various lands and cultures is easy to see in her art.

When her second son was born the family moved to a small “artsy” town in British Columbia. She left law and started doing art again, playing with gouache and India ink and collage, selling prints and cards at craft shows and on Etsy.

tote with jackie's design on it
pants with jackie's design on it
Tahara’s designs can be found on fabric, wallpaper, kitchen decor, water bottles, tech accessories and more. Left/top: Tote bag made by Erika Kirramier of @custom.totes.by.erika. Right/bottom: Photo courtesy of Tracie Tee of @ive_been_stitched.

Noodling around on the internet, she stumbled across an online course on surface pattern design, a term she had never heard, and learned about Adobe Illustrator, also new to her. “It just went from there.”

She entered several design challenges, including those on Spoonflower, where she won one challenge and placed high in several others. When her first Spoonflower design sold, around 2017, she finally realized this could be a business. “Print on demand became a big thing for me.”

Her career path has definitely been an evolution, she says, with lots of trial and error. For example, early on, she tried Shopify to sell her art prints and t-shirts, but after a while found “it wasn’t for me. I hated the back-end work. It took too much time away from my actual designing. It wasn’t fun.”

She’s worked with agents over the years, and she learned a lot, but today she is happy working on her own. Agents watch trends and know what is selling, she explains, but it can be stifling creating art to fit a trend or align with a client’s needs.

“It’s sometimes hard to do creative work that has to please someone else rather than yourself. But at the same time, you’re excited that you have a customer. And it’s sometimes good to have design parameters, so instead of having to choose from a whole spectrum of colors you already have a palette. That can save a lot of time.

“You might not like the (chosen) color palette, but you use it, and you learn new things, so you have to be open (to new ideas). It’s a learning process. The only way to learn is to experiment all the time, which is what I’ve been doing.”

            As a freelancer, she notes, “I’m basically just satisfying myself.” She keeps an eye on trends, but “I’ve become more comfortable just doing what I like.”

            Tahara starts by sketching ideas on paper, creating either an overall illustration or motifs. When she finds a design she likes, she’ll refine it, trace it on translucent paper, scan it, place it in an Illustrator file, “and go from there,” adjusting size and colors.

As a result of Tahara’s long-time friendship with photographer Chris Chapman, she was offered the opportunity to provide photo backdrops with her illustrated designs for shots he was taking  during the last several Toronto International Film Festivals. ‘Of course, I accepted!’ she says.

“I can’t really picture it until I start putting it into Illustrator and move things around.” When she finds a palette she likes, she saves it in an Illustrator file. “The process is fairly organic.”

            While she is disciplined in her work process, time management is always a challenge, she says, especially when social media is an important business component in getting your designs noticed. “It’s time consuming, but worth it if you’re a creative and you’re trying to get yourself out there.”

            One trick, she says, is to create some posts ahead of time. “Sometimes at the end of day, when I’ve got half an hour left before I start making dinner, I’ll prep posts for the next day or two.”

            The business side can be a time suck, between answering emails, sending invoices, posting on social media, drafting contracts and agreements, querying magazines, and more.  “There’s a lot of unpaid work.”

Pricing is probably the hardest task for a creator, she says, so she “works within a range.” She often references the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines (published by the Graphic Artists Guild), and also finds Facebook groups helpful.

Most importantly, she adds, “don’t sell yourself short. That’s not good for anyone.”


The market for designers is quite competitive today, Tahara says, so approach this work with a realistic understanding of what it entails, and an ability to face rejection.

“You have to have faith if you want to be an artist,” she adds. “Give yourself time. Nothing happens overnight; it’s a slow, continuous process. Focus on your goal then pursue it.”

For instance, she knows that once or twice a year, she wants to have a fabric licensed. “So twice a year I’ll create a new collection, and I’ll send (the designs) out and hope someone bites.”

But in the end, she says, “I never lose sight of the fact that I like making designs. For me, it’s all about the art.”

Roberta G. Wax

Roberta G. Wax


Roberta Wax is an award-winning journalist and imperfect crafter. A former news reporter, her freelance articles and projects have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, from the Los Angeles Times and Emmy magazine to Cloth Paper Scissors, Somerset Studio, Craftideas, Belle Armoire, etc. She has also designed for craft companies. Although she has no art background she was a crafty Girl Scout leader. www.creativeunblock.com

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