Where are you right now? In an office cubicle? At home on the couch? A coffee shop? Stop what you’re doing and look around. Patterns are everywhere — and a great many of them you see in your everyday life are created using vectors. The vector graphics of computer design are now massively popular in fashion design, upholstery and wallpaper patterns, and in advertising, animation, business logos, car detailing, and more.
We humans love a good pattern. They’re embedded in our cultures and our brains. Since they occur in nature, humanity has a long record of unravelling them mathematically and recreating them in art. We wear them, surround ourselves with them, and, most fundamentally, we communicate with them.
Although “clean” layouts and “white space” continue to dominate the web design trend lists year after year, for very good reason, there remains a place for patterns. Do you want pattern everywhere, competing with text, or busying up a page? Of course not. Web designers have confirmed over the years what traditional book publishers learned over centuries about white space. For information to be absorbed, it needs room to be scanned, sized up, and then read without visual competition in the margins.
The fact is, however, that patterns have always been a staple of web design, providing a subtle visual boost with a little texture and variety. You probably already knew that if you are reading this blog. In a previous article on the Vandelay Design blog, we explored the trend of incorporating understated patterns in website design.
The present article offers a brief introduction to vectors, and catalogs seven of the many excellent, free resources out there for creating perfect vector patterns. How you use these SVG pattern generators is up to you.
If you’ve worked with file formats .svg, .xml, or .eps, you have worked with vectors. Font glyphs are vectors. Most PDFs are vector-based. Most people go about their business from day-to-day, reading and browsing the internet, looking at beautiful illustrations, without knowing how much of their digital experience is created mathematically.
One of the most versatile forms of digital pattern is the SVG – Scalable Vector Graphics – element. As the acronym suggests, SVGs are vector graphics that can scale to any size – on practically any browser or device – and retain their crispness. These files are XML-based, meaning they can be edited not only in visually-based design software, but also as text files of code. SVG images can be modified in a simple text editor, or directly in the code of your website’s CSS stylesheet. We have compiled some of the best SVG code tutorials here.
This format takes up little space and loads quickly, making SVG the perfect choice when you want something besides a flat color as a background or design element. Unlike rasterized images (in .gif, .jpeg, and .png formats), vectors will not pixelate when scaled. At any size or shape, the edges are clean. An image created as a vector can scale from a business card to a billboard and be just as sharp.
That’s far cry from the craggy repeat image backgrounds of GeoCities days. In the Wild West of the Internet, before 1999 when SVG was specified as an open standard, web design incorporated a hodgepodge of tiled jpegs, gifs, and eye-searing colors into site backgrounds, foregrounds, and everything in-between. Even after the turn of the century, Internet Explorer, long the dominant web browser, did not provide SVG support.
Although it feels like another age of the world, this is not-so-ancient history; in fact, it was not until 2010 that Google began indexing SVG content in its image search results. Internet Explorer, losing market share over the decades, finally caved in to supporting SVG in its IE9 release in 2011.
While they are generated mathematically, vector patterns are not limited to geometric shapes. They can look hand-drawn or painted and still seamlessly repeat on a grid when created with programs like Adobe Illustrator and Sketch.
It’s no surprise that SVG patterns and illustrations are in demand on stock image sites. Stock vector illustrations are invaluable to designers because they can be easily customized with specific colors or fit into any sized space.
High quality work, of course, and consistency across a body of work are the keys to success for a vector artist, just like in any other field. But for designers, it also helps to produce variations on what you’ve already done, or to craft your own take on a popular theme.
Perhaps that sounds counterintuitive. It may seem unnecessary to create new illustrations when there are multiple versions of a type of pattern available already, but remember: commercial designers who produce work for many clients at a high volume are always looking for new vectors, design elements they haven’t used before. Clients want their projects to be original and their websites to look unique, not canned. So commercial designers turn to the independent designers for fresh takes on standard themes.
Beyond the digital realm, SVG patterns are used heavily in the textile, fashion, paper and home furnishing industries. Websites like Spoonflower and Roostery specialize in custom fabric, wallpapers, and paper, and offer a universe of artistic options for both hobbyists and professionals. Mixed sets of patterns are perfect for quilting and interior decorating projects. But these designs can pop up anywhere, sometimes on major brand packaging or products.
What is it about a pattern that is so satisfying? The human brain, specifically the neocortex, is evolved to recognize and gather meaning from patterns in a… well, mind-bogglingly short amount of time. The neocortex contains around 300 million “pattern recognizer” columns of neurons that fire off in parallel to understand what we are looking at.
We respond to the symmetry, balance, and order of a pattern. Zen gardens, in the Japanese tradition, emphasize serenity with swirling raked rocks and checkerboard patterns. We find enjoyment and even peace in the predictability of a pattern. That’s why when something is “off,” we know it immediately, and it can be unsettling, irritating, or downright rage-inducing. That’s why the internet is replete with documentation of “you had one job” pattern flubs.
Patterns in nature branch and crystalize in different directions, form crack textures like tree bark and tortoise shells, meander like a stream, and cluster like bubbles. Physics and chemistry explain the ways density, viscosity and surface tension can create these patterns. But even when nature takes its own course, we know when a pattern feels right.
Human pattern-making – like art in general – is ultimately a part of the history of humanity’s struggle to understand and “master” nature. When you think about it, the age of vector illustration represents the merging of the arts and the sciences in that great historical struggle. The free vector pattern generator may just turn out to be the ultimate symbol for our evolutionary strivings! It’s pretty profound stuff.
But sometimes it’s just polka dots, right? Designers don’t always have the time to create patterns from scratch, let alone ponder the universe while they’re at it.
In other words, there is always a place for original vector illustration. However, reinventing the wheel is not always a good use of time.
So let’s look at some tools to create perfect patterns.
There are many, many resources out there. Some are better than others, and there are new resources cropping up all the time. Just do a Google search yourself and see. Whether you search for repeat patterns, seamless patterns, vector patterns – all of these terms turn up some useful tools, free designs, and inspiration for your own work. Maybe even you’ll come away with ideas for new projects.
Bump Set Creative designer Matt Lipman has a complete SVG background generator tool free to use with attribution, or without attribution by purchasing a license. Customize one of the 95 backgrounds, then export as CSS code to insert into your website’s stylesheet. Lipman is adding new backgrounds every week until the collection contains 200 options, so this is a great source for fresh patterns. He includes useful tips on how to properly provide attribution for your background.
SVG Stripe Generator
What if you just want something simple, like stripes? Coffee Break Designs created an SVG Stripe Generator that offers controls on line thickness, spacing, direction, and color. Do you want a bold pattern or something subtle?
Customize stripes with your branding colors using the hex code, or just play around. What do stripes say to you? Stripes are an invigorating and clean background for a restaurant menu or recipe page. They can be friendly and sophisticated at the same time.
Patternizer.com Plaid Generator
How about plaid? You can go a little country, cute, or vintage, depending on your color and scale preferences. Plaid has been associated with hipsters, grunge, and lumberjacks over the decades, but it’s just as ubiquitous in bedsheets and baby clothes. The truth is that plaid, properly called “tartan,” has been around for thousands of years and it isn’t leaving the scene any time soon.
The humorously titled SVGeez site, built by designer Megan Young, offers classic patterns alongside some truly kitschy options. All are customizable and free for download. If you’ve ever needed a Bigfoot pattern, now you’ve got it. Or, hey, how about a “hot wing time machine” theme?
You may not use something like this for your own project, but SVGs like these can act as an inspirational launchpad when you’re creating a web design that needs a little extra kick. Background image CSS can be just the twist you need without sacrificing readability or white space in your prime real estate.
Along these same lines, User Interface designer Steve Schroger cooked up a full menu of standard patterns as well as a few funkier options. Customize and download code for free under the Creative Commons 4.0 attribution license, the same license in effect for many of these sites.
SVG Background Pattern Generator
“Plain Pattern” tool
Finally, Kenneth Cachia has a pattern tool similar to the operation used in Adobe Illustrator to create a repeat pattern. Cachia has a list of features in the works to be added to this currently under-development tool.
I saved this one for last because it takes us back to the issue of creating your own vector drawings to create repeat patterns. Here, you can upload your own SVG elements to produce a pattern perfect for textiles or custom backgrounds. Experiment with some of the charming icon presets to get the feel of the interface, and download the result as an image file.
If you’ve never attempted to make a repeat pattern using multiple design elements, my advice is to take a look around at textiles, wallpapers, or packaging you like and dissect how their patterns are put together. Look at the frequency of the repetition, scale, color, and rotation of individual elements in the pattern, and see if you can replicate it with your own original vector drawings or icons.
What do your patterns say about you and your blog or website? What will you make today?