Member Spotlight: Meet Esther Nariyoshi, Surface Pattern Designer, Letterer, and Illustrator

Esther Nariyoshi is a Surface Pattern Designer, Letterer, and Illustrator who logged more than 130 hours learning new skills on Skillshare before deciding to launch her own class a few months ago. She joined Skillshare’s Teach Challenge last November to get some guidance on creating her first class, and ended up winning that month’s grand prize: a trip to New York, NY to visit the team at Skillshare’s headquarters.

We were excited to meet with Esther when she was in New York, and followed up after her visit to learn more about her trip, how she’s developed her career, and the advice she has for anyone who wants to move from Skillshare student to teacher this year.

Surface pattern designs by Esther Nariyoshi (image courtesy of the artist)

Surface pattern designs by Esther Nariyoshi (image courtesy of the artist)

Hi Esther! Thanks for chatting with us (and congratulations again on winning the November teach challenge)! You make beautiful surface patterns, lettering designs and illustrations. What attracts you to those art forms in particular -- and what inspires the work that you create?

Illustration is the foundation of my work. It’s very personal, and reflects my understanding of the world around me. I think of lettering as an illustrative expression of something more specific - letter forms - and surface pattern design combines all of my skills to make pleasing, seamless visual arrangements.

My creative inspiration comes from anywhere: a stroller walk in botanical garden, field trip in the zoo, or just a random doodle with my kids, etc. I am especially inspired by the creations in nature.

Your website mentions that you first worked as an Art Director, Interactive Designer, and Creative Director before you got into creating work yourself. Can you talk about what inspired that transition? Why did you decide to pursue your art forms as a career?

I started out as an engineering major (for two years!), then somehow managed to graduate with BS and MA degrees in Advertising. After my first child was born and I went on maternity leave, I watched Bonnie Christine and Elizabeth Olwen’s classes on surface pattern design, and started making my own patterns. I absolutely love making all kinds of patterns; my heart sings when a repeat is done right, and I knew it was something I wanted to do more regularly. There were, of course, many factors I had to weigh before I made the transition: financial stability, health, other responsibilities -- obviously everyone has a unique set of considerations that they have to address when they want to jump into a new career. But after many helpful conversations with my husband, we decided the “leap” together as a family. I am ever thankful for his supportive commitment to helping me make this career possible.

Lettering samples by Esther Nariyoshi (Image courtesy of the artist)

Lettering samples by Esther Nariyoshi (Image courtesy of the artist)

Did anything surprise you about becoming a designer and letterer? Were there struggles you encountered along the way?

There have been so many delightful things that have surprised me as I’ve begun to practice art professionally. It was a total surprise that my formal engineering training is useful for making geometric patterns; my inner nerd is super happy when I can use geometric principles to improve my work. That’s the fun thing about learning: nothing is wasted!

This may sound strange, but my struggle now is I love what I do too much. I’ve had to draw boundaries around my art and the rest of my life so that I can protect both. If I only did what I wanted to, I’d be hunched over my computer all day long, feeling insecure about reaching my own expectation (the social media comparison trap is real!), or becoming irritable when something or someone else gets in the way of my focus. It’s been  helpful to find a rhythm that works well and is sustainable: knowing when to step back has been very refreshing -- and has actually helped my regular practice. too.

Esther’s view as she multi-tasks, taking a Bonnie Christine Skillshare class while on a walk in 2015 (image courtesy of the artist)

Esther’s view as she multi-tasks, taking a Bonnie Christine Skillshare class while on a walk in 2015 (image courtesy of the artist)

You have taken an astounding 130+ hours of Skillshare classes. That is an achievement in and of itself! What prompted you to begin taking classes...and what inspires you to keep coming back to learn more?

I first heard about Skillshare from a fellow intern at an advertising agency in 2013. I was told that I could “take classes from real world designers”, which was a huge draw for me.

I think ultimately, I just really enjoy learning. I like chasing my curiosity. And professionally, of course, these classes help me stay fresh, understand new techniques, and stay on top of trends. I’ve watched over 400 classes on skillshare! You never know when a seemingly random technique can save the day when you’re working on a new creative endeavor.

That’s a lot of classes! Any in particular you’d recommend?

I am a huge fan of Dylan Mierzwinski’s. If I had to pick one of her classes, Illustrator Basics: The Pen & Pencil Tools is a fun one to start with. It’s beginner friendly, but somehow also very inspiring for advanced users. I also really enjoy Tabitha Park’s fun-filled classes, Donut Flat Lays: Tips for Better Overhead Photos is probably what I would recommend first. Tabitha makes product photography techniques really accessible to people with little photography experience. She tackles a lot of the compositional and technical hiccups that creatives encounter when they are trying to shoot their work in a flattering way.

I have also taken quite a few of Jake Bartlett’s classes. He is very talented and simplifies complex concepts into easy steps. Video editing and animation can be really intimidating for non-motion-designers, but Jake’s classes really made them way less scary for me. His lessons came very handy when I began to edit my own class videos!

Cloud 9 Fabric Quilt, surface pattern design by Esther Nariyoshi (image courtesy of the artist)

Cloud 9 Fabric Quilt, surface pattern design by Esther Nariyoshi (image courtesy of the artist)

Yes, let’s talk about your class! Why did you start teaching on Skillshare?

My husband and I were talking about moving overseas, so I started thinking about career options that will help with the transition. I have always enjoyed teaching my friends skills in a one-on-one setting, but teaching a group of people online was a bit more intimidating. Then I chatted with an Instagram friend who’s teaching on Skillshare and walked away from our conversation encouraged and excited. I brainstormed a few topics that I could teach, and decided to go for it!

I had been on Skillshare as a student for almost 6 years before teaching my first class but have always found the creative energy of community very inspiring. Now as a teacher, it’s incredibly gratifying to read students’ reviews, knowing that my class and effort made a difference in someone else’s creative journey.

I just started teaching but already have a new class planned, one on exploring lettering styles. I hope to publish soon!

Calligraphy Samples by Esther Nariyoshi (image courtesy of the artist)

Calligraphy Samples by Esther Nariyoshi (image courtesy of the artist)

Speaking of journeys, how did you enjoy your time in New York?

It was pure magic! I hit as many “touristy” spots as I could: the Empire State Building, The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, Central Park. My Fitbit was exhausted!

My time at Skillshare headquarters was so much fun. The entire team was very hospitable. I learned so much from chatting with everyone - it was so nice to meet the lovely people who work behind the scenes.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a Skillshare teacher?

Just hit that little “join” button on the teach challenge of this month. Take a leap of faith. Skillshare will provide you with tons of resources and tips, you’ll be well equipped to publish your own class. Think (very) small, work one day at a time. Do one thing that takes you closer to the teaching goal. It may take a month or more, but keep trying, and you will be publishing your first class before you know it.

Cloud 9 Fabric Pins. Surface pattern design by Esther Nariyoshi (image courtesy of the artist)

Cloud 9 Fabric Pins. Surface pattern design by Esther Nariyoshi (image courtesy of the artist)


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To learn more about Esther Nariyoshi work, check out her fabric collection with Cloud 9 Fabrics here. You can also check out her website and follow her on Instagram.