Fun with Pattern Fonts


Q: Do you have any suggestion on how to liven up my design using some unusual fonts?

A: When we talk about fonts, most people assume we are talking about type. But a font can be used to display more than the alphabet. Take for example pattern fonts. Pattern fonts consist of decorative or illustrative elements which, when repeated (or tiled) vertically and/or horizontally, create a perfectly seamlessly aligned pattern which can be used for a wide range of purposes.

One of the most common uses for patterns is to create backgrounds for websites, blogs, and social media pages. While innumerable background images can be found on the web, they are usually jpg files with fixed sizes and colors, which limit their usage. Pattern fonts offer ease of use as well as unlimited flexibility by allowing you to change their size, proportion, color and transparency. You also have the option of intermixing them to create your own, uniquely personal pattern.

Pattern fonts can also be used for a lot more than just web page backgrounds. They are great for print projects, such as menus, signage, invitations, bookplates, posters, packaging, book covers and editorial pages, as well as fabric and clothing, wallpaper, logos, branding and identity, etc.

Pattern fonts are also great for borders and as individual icons or decorative elements. Some even come with corner elements. With a little ingenuity, they can also be used as a fill for headline type. They can set the mood of a genre or a time period – from traditional to modern, simple to fancy, geometric to organic to abstract. They can be combined, overlapped, and overlaid – your imagination is the limit.

One very beautiful and useful pattern font series is Wallflowers I, II, and III, designed by Laura Worthington. Although primarily known for her script and handwriting fonts, this talented typeface designer and hand-lettering artist lovingly created these unique, hand drawn wallpaper tiles and accompanying icons. Floral motifs, abstracts, skeletons, lipstick kisses, even insects – she’s got them all! They are super easy to use as they all come with a PDF User Guide that includes a key for accessing every image, as well as samples of the pattern they create.

Laura’s inspiration came from her childhood. “I’ve always loved background patterns. They are so useful in graphic design. I grew up in a house with a lot of interesting wallpaper as a kid, and I loved to try sketch out the ‘seeds’ of the patterns on the walls and from the awesome 1970s wallpaper swatch books my mom had. I found it fascinating that any sketch could be turned into a pattern.”

She describes her process: “The core of pattern creation lies within what is commonly referred to as the ‘seed.’ In the simplest of patterns, the seed would be the design element/s filling up the shape of a square or rectangle, which automatically turns into a tile.”

“When I decided to create Wallflowers, the first edition, I scoured my many notebooks for little drawings I had done over the years to compile the first set. Some of them I redrew with tracing paper to fine tune the seed, then I scanned in the group and redrew them in Illustrator. From there, I worked on turning the seed into the tile pattern.

“After that is done, I bring it into FontLab where the work continues on the outlines and making sure it seams up properly and then I turn it into a font. Some patterns are easy and only take a couple of hours to create, other more complex images, such as the lace pattern, can take up to 12 hours to create.”

On a technical note, many pattern fonts are designed to line up when set with no tracking, and set solid, but not all work this way. Depending on the application you are using, be sure to adjust tracking and line spacing accordingly to make sure the pieces line up correctly. Viewing on your computer monitor at 100% magnification can make the pieces of the pattern look misaligned, even when they are not. To get an accurate view, either zoom in close or print the pattern on a high-resolution printer to see how the pieces actually align.

Figure 1. For the background of this image, which I designed for Felt & Wire, I used an intricate lace tile from Wallflowers III, as it fit the vintage mood I sought to create. Regarding this design, Laura says, “It took forever to draw, and required lots of research on how lace is made; I even went to a sewing store to look at samples of lace to figure it out!”

Figure 2. Several more patterns from the Wallflower III series by Laura Worthington.

Figure 3. From intricate pencil sketch to final artwork– this fantasy world is another Wallflowers image.

Figure 4. Patterns from two ornament fonts by Akira Kobayashi: ITC Seven Treasures (top row) and ITC Japanese Garden (bottom row).

Figure 5. Blooming Meadow, a pattern font designed by Viktor Kharyk, contains many images inspired by nature.

Figure 6. Garamono, a pattern font designed by Khaito Gengo, contains a broad variety of pattern styles.

Ilene Strizver is a noted typographic educator, author, designer and founder of The Type Studio in Westport, Connecticut. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, is now in its 4th edition.
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