I find that the best way to get any design going is a with good old drawing session. Although I do most of my design work on a computer these days, I always start with a pen and paper. My favourite drawing tools are a dip pen and ink, and that's exactly what I used for my initial penguin sketches. Here they are:
At this stage, I really had no idea how I wanted my final design to look. I just knew that I love penguins, and that was enough! Sometimes I don't even draw full characters; I just draw 'bodies' and 'features,' like the shapes and and beaks above. Then, once I've scanned the drawings into the computer, I can edit and arrange them with a bit more control.
I generally use Adobe Photoshop to clean up my drawings and make any adjustments to them. Then I like to use Adobe Illustrator to experiment with patterns. Here are my penguin drawings once I'd cleaned them up, imported them into Illustrator and used the 'Live-Trace' tool to convert my drawings into Vector shapes. (I prefer using Vector paths over Raster graphics for certain designs, especially if I might be using a variety of scales in different versions. Raster graphics use pixels of colour but Vector graphics don't; they use mathematical expressions to define their shapes. This means that that you can zoom far into them, or scale them right up, without any loss in quality.)
I then decided to try layering up my penguins, as if they were in a crowded colony:
I liked the monochrome look of my penguins, but I found the round shapes of their tummies a bit distracting. I decided to try adding extra black shapes to define their flippers and add more character, and tried a few versions with and without their tummies. I use a Wacom tablet and pen to draw with on the computer, which offers you amazing control. It's like drawing with a real pen!
I felt like this was making progress! The next step was to try building a repeating pattern:
This design was experimenting with a 'half-drop' repeat. This means that the repeat box travels horizontally by the full width, and half-way down, creating a zig-zag effect. This can help to disguise the repeat in a pattern!
At this stage, I was happy with the way the pattern was looking, but felt like it needed something extra to make it more special and quirky. This was the answer:
I created one character wearing a festive hat, and tried to 'hide' him in the pattern, a bit like 'Where's Wally?'
And bingo! My design was complete. It took a bit of re-shuffling to make the repeat work (with so many characters, I had to be very careful that they were all overlapping in the right order when I repeated them!) Once this design was finalised, it was easy to create alternative layouts and placements with individual characters:
A lot of the concepts weren't used in the end, but I definitely got a lot of mileage out of one set of penguin drawings!