Elizabeth Olwen

Print Pattern & Color Designer, former graphic designer

20 years

Website icon red.

Instagram logo red.


Twitter logo red.

Elizabeth Olwen is a Canadian print and pattern designer living in sunny Portugal. Her gorgeous floral and geometric designs are infused with heart and soul. They're made with the intention of spreading beauty and amplifying joy. Her work is inspired by the world around her, both from her travels as well as her mindful approach to everyday life — the juxtaposed colors of Lisbon, puffy clouds against a soft sky, the way seaweed moves under water. Beauty is everywhere. In addition to her work as an artist, Elizabeth is also a big believer in the power of creativity and play in all aspects of life, which she shares through her online classes and her creative retreats around Europe.

At what point in your life did you learn about design, and what drew you to it? 

Love this question! I heard about design when I was in high school—I grew up in a small Ontario town in the 90s, and at some point I heard someone mention the term “graphic design,” so I asked my art teacher about it, and he told me not to go anywhere near it: “It’s just moving things around a page, and it’s really boring”. That still makes me chuckle. 

Not too long after that, I applied for a visual arts program at York University, where I had to choose either the “art” or the “design” stream. Again, knowing nothing, I asked around and heard that “design” was for bringing other people’s ideas to life, like a logo. After experiencing a few art traumas that made me feel a bit ashamed of my painting work, I decided that design seemed like a far less vulnerable space, so I went safely to it. 

Thank goodness I discovered that design is so much more than I had been told! I discovered it was my actual calling and one of my greatest loves, and I couldn’t be more grateful to have found my way to it! 

What’s the first thing you do every morning to start your day?

I start each day with some grounding practices that help me connect with myself and the life I’m living. Meditation and yoga have been part of my routine for a few years now, and this year I also did the Artist's Way course, which introduced me to Morning Pages (i.e., journaling, basically) which have been so pivotal for me! I don’t always manage to squeeze them all in, but I give myself lots of grace and do what I can to get connected to my inner world first thing when I rise. Oh, and a nice cuppa coffee is essential. 

No items found.

What inspires your work (professional or personal)?

Nature, humans, kindness, colour, colour combinations, bold shapes, the cosmos, personal growth and evolution, hope, optimism, love—these things inspire me both personally and professionally. 

Tell us about your transition from graphic design to the surface pattern industry. 

After working in graphic design for over 12 years, I jumped ship and went wholeheartedly toward a career as a print-and-pattern designer. I’d always felt like I was a GOOD graphic designer, but I felt a fire in my belly, this calling, this potential to be GREAT at something. So, I followed my nose and took a creative sabbatical and went to Berlin for three months to allow myself to discover what that belly-fire was all about. And thankfully, I found it.

I guess now I understand it as creative intuition, giving myself the safe space to listen to the small voices inside me that were quietly trying to guide me. I went into an antique shop and found this vintage teapot with a really groovy motif on it and had a lightbulb moment: 

THAT. What is that? Who did that? How do I do that? 

I quickly found my path to illustration and pattern design after that. I think having that initial boldness and seeing it start to bear fruit inspired me to be bold with the next move, and the move after that. Now, after about 13 years of doing it, boldness and rebelliousness and creative intuition come more naturally (and dare I say, more playfully, too).  

No items found.

What does success mean to you?

To have freedom. To be able to actively play and dance with my creativity. To do the kind of work that I love and that feeds me, and to know I would do it even if I weren’t being paid for it. To enjoy the life I am living. To not be continually stressed about paying the bills and in fact, to live with a sense of abundance. To be constantly evolving, growing, and becoming more expansive.To establish a sense of purpose and connection to others through the work that I do, and to hopefully inspire others. To love and be loved, in all the many forms it takes (especially, for me, friendship!). 

What does it mean to you to be a woman in this business?

It means to bring a certain soft confident strength. Not to lead with an iron fist, but instead with a gentle touch and the acknowledgement that we are all humans doing our best. To allow for vulnerability to come into play, and to know that vulnerability is not weakness, it is strength. To recognize that these are traits of good leaders. Basically, the lyrics to Beyonce’s “Run The World”: My persuasion / Can build a nation / Endless power / With our love we can devour.

Name a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night.

That my style will go out of style, or that one day, I’ll wake up and people will no longer be interested in my work—this one comes back to me on loop, but thankfully I find it kind of inspiring and motivating. It gives me the desire to be constantly evolving and to stay engaged with my work on a wholehearted level.

How would you design the ideal creative workspace? 

I feel like I kind of just did! I bought my first apartment in Lisbon, and then I proceeded to turn it into my sanctuary. A bright and uplifting space filled with colour explorations… a friend referred to it as a ‘playground.’ 

That’s how I want a creative workspace to feel —inspiring, fun, playful, joyful, with lots of colour and abundant inspiration. Places where I can get messy and then tuck that mess away (because another part of my brain really needs things to be tidy). A place that’s cozy and safe and bright, with lots of art supplies that I’ve bought without any particular project in mind (I always think I won’t use them, but I’m finding the opposite—they keep finding the perfect project). 

Which of your traits are you most proud of?

Probably the things I felt were my worst qualities when I was younger. I was taught that I had to have a tough skin, to armour up and take unnecessarily harsh criticisms that were doled out when I began in the design industry. But now, having moved into my own space with my work and getting to choose who I work with, I see that my softness, sensitivity, and vulnerability are in fact strengths that build warm relationships, inside and outside of my work. 

No items found.

What is your creative process when developing a line of surface patterns?

I’m always gathering inspiration, even when I don’t have a specific project in mind. I’ve got my antennae out and I’m observing and collecting things from the world that inspire me, and putting them in my back pocket for later. So, when the time comes for me to begin a new collection, it’s a fun little excavation: I dive into this inspiration folder, and create a moodboard from the things that are speaking to me most. Then, with the moodboard by my side, I give myself lots of time for free exploration through drawing and writing. 

I work in really big collections these days (my most recent collection has 70 patterns and 70 illustrations), so I give myself lots of time to draw. I’m not really rushing the process — I find this foundation is essential for really working out my ideas. 

Once I feel like I’ve really explored and I’m feeling itchy and excited to get going on some prints, I’ll import those drawings on my computer and build the motifs digitally by drawing with my Wacom tablet. I love the craft of pattern design, so I spend as much time as required to finesse these prints and illustrations. 

Sometimes my best work comes together in a snap, other times I have a bunch of design sessions trying to dance it into place. Once I’ve designed a good chunk of work, I print out swatches of everything and create big design boards so I can see how everything is playing together, and then I finesse it all to become one big happy family. Part of this is also settling on a really delicious colour palette so that all of the artwork really mixes and matches beautifully. 

Once the art part is done, I create a big digital magazine I can send to my clients to introduce them to the collection. Then I celebrate, and THEN I go live life for a while, collecting inspiration as I go to inspire the next collection.   

No items found.

How has your design background and training helped you work in surface patterns?

It honestly has helped me immensely. I really felt that I had a big advantage when I embarked on this new career because I already had a deep understanding of branding, layout, marketing, and how to present my work. 

At the beginning of my pattern journey, I exhibited at a trade show, and my booth really stood out because I was applying design and marketing principles I’d learned from working on advertising or point-of-sale displays. I knew that sharing a few pieces of my best work was better than showing a sea of images. I was thinking about things like hierarchy and type size legibility, and of course, I had great branding, a well-designed portfolio and beautiful business cards. It was like all that training in graphic design had come around to serve in my own endeavours. SO valuable!