Expanded long ago from its humble beginnings in subway stations, the "subway tile" trend continues to sustain in kitchen backsplash design. Subway tiles are simple, inexpensive and the default selection for those seeking a clean, simple look in their fresh new kitchen.

There is nothing ostentatious or abstract about this mighty little tile. Classic subway tiles are just 3- by 6-inch white, glazed ceramic tiles. In kitchen design, they are traditionally installed in a half-offset pattern with white grout, most often adorning the walls behind white cabinets and white countertops. Because of their glazed, glossy surface, they are easy to clean and resistant to stains, so their brightness will endure over the years.

Since this common tile is one of the most inexpensive on the market - pennies on the dollar - homeowners continue to flock to its simple lines and clean design. However, not everyone is as enamored with the subway tile. Luckily, there are a variety of options to transform these everyday tiles into something extra special.

There are primarily two ways to add a little spice to this classic backsplash. The first is by deviating from the gloss white; the second is by deviating the installation pattern on the wall.

"Imitation is the highest form of flattery" holds true when it comes to subway tile. Given the popularity of the classic theme, many variations are variations are available on the market. A matte finish (instead of glossy) offers a softer look. A hand-cut texture juxtaposes old-world quality with a modern kitchen. Subtle white-on-white patterns or stone-replica imagery offers extra detail for those with fine eyes. Beveled-edge subway tile adds extra dimension. Even sized down to 1 by 3 inches (instead of 3 x 6), mini-subway tiles retain the classic proportions at a new scale.

Then, of course, there are nearly limitless options for colors: Why go white when you can go anything? From off-white to bold primaries, subway tile is available in a rainbow of colors.

Not sure you want to go with a vibrant color? Consider changing the color of the grout instead. In the past few years, "farmhouse chic" and similar trending kitchen styles feature classic subway tiles with black grout for a bold highlight of their pattern rather than a subtle offset. This is also a no-cost upgrade: Where deviating color or texture often comes with a price hike, there is rarely a price difference between grout colors (unless you go into the metallics, and gold is a great grout complement to white subway tiles - especially in a classic white kitchen with brushed gold hardware).

Besides going bold with the color, texture or grout, there is another easy way to dress up these ubiquitous tiles with one simple, but significant, change: their installation pattern.


The classic subway tile pattern in kitchen backsplashes is half-offset. This horizontal pattern is also one of the most popular in brickwork (and is known in masonry as a running bond).

1/3-offset, continuous

Rather than each new row of tile being lined up symmetrically in the middle of the row below and above, the 1/3-offset, continuous, pattern creates clear movement in your backsplash. Any time there is direction in a tile pattern, consider which direction you want the eye to move (left or right).

1/3-offset, zipper

For a variation on the classic that has movement but not direction, the 1/3-offset, zipper, pattern is a symmetrical variation of the half-offset.

Diagonal half-offset

Such a simple change but remarkable difference! Angling the classic pattern by 45 degrees creates a little drama and direction in your tile design.


A stacked pattern draws the eye to the uniformity of the tile. This pattern leans more contemporary and creates clear, uninterrupted lines across your backsplash.


A classic in its own right, herringbone (either standard or diagonal) is a complex pattern with natural movement that can be rotated for a sense of vertical direction instead of side-to-side.

Vertically half-offset

As a contemporary style, the vertical half-offset disrupts the status quo with clear vertical or horizontal movement, depending on how you orient the tiles.

General vertical patterns

Classic subway tile patterns are horizontal, but a vertical stacked pattern or vertical half-offset pattern offers a modern accent. Consider rotating any of the aforementioned horizontal patterns by 90 degrees to see a fresh take!

Stephanie Brick is the owner of Stephanie Brick Design in Baltimore.