In the sleekly sparse and monochromatic office of user experience (UX) and digital product design firm Interactivism—dotted with white tables, black couches and a few paintings— the company’s co-founder and partner Petra Wennberg (BFA 1994 Graphic Design) reflects on the appeal of minimalism.
“It’s what I grew up with in Sweden, where everything you put forth has a purpose, and minimalist design is interwoven into everyday life, from airports to street signs,” says the Stockholm native, leaning back in her classic Herman Miller Aeron office chair next to a window looking down on busy Colorado Boulevard in Old Pasadena. “It’s a perfect mesh between art and science.”
It’s that same mesh that attracted her to UX design. For Wennberg, the field is partly a science, a rigorous process for understanding users and their needs, and it’s partly an artform. “At some point, to solve a problem, you need to go with your gut feeling and be creative.”
I want to help other women navigate the challenges of being a leader in the tech world.Petra WennbergGraphic Design alumna and co-founder of Interactivism
For more than two decades, from working at technology incubator Idealab after graduating from ArtCenter to co-founding Interactivism with fellow Swedish designer Erik Wingren in 2013, Wennberg has done just that: designed brands and digital products based on research, data and intuition.
Since 2018, Interactivism has worked with defense, security and communications company Kratos redesigning its software products, including the Kratos Management Platform, which is used by cable and satellite network operators and government agencies to monitor, manage and control their networks. Last year, Interactivism designed the full web and mobile experience for PopID, a Pasadena-based startup whose facial recognition identification system enables users to conduct transactions for vendors ranging from universities to restaurants. Also last year, Interactivism won a government contract to serve NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“My work never gets boring,” says Wennberg. “It’s a fantastic collaboration between the left and right brain. The ‘interact’ in Interactivism is about interacting, and the ‘ism’ goes back to that Scandinavian notion of having a design sense that’s ingrained, that’s an entity to begin with. Where I am today, designing digital products, is nowhere near where I started, coming from graphic design.”
The youngest daughter of a neurophysiologist father and a mother who ran a clinical pharmacological lab, Wennberg grew up drawing and steeped in math, chemistry, physics and biology. She studied communication design at the former ArtCenter Europe campus in Switzerland before coming to the United States for the first time as an exchange student at ArtCenter’s Hillside Campus. Her time in Pasadena was only supposed to last one term; she ended up staying and graduating from the College, inspired by instructors like Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography (HMCT) Executive Director and Graphic Design Professor Gloria Kondrup, who taught typography as a system of components.
“The camaraderie and community at ArtCenter was just amazing, and I met some of my best friends,” Wennberg says. “ArtCenter taught me that you need to have a great design foundation.” When she moved to the U.S., Wennberg remembers feeling that she could be whatever she wanted. “I had a real awareness of entrepreneurship and the concept of reinventing yourself,” she says.
Wennberg built her personal and professional life in Pasadena, and now has a 20-year-old daughter and a teenage son. Pointing to what she calls her office’s “faux balcony” with a curlicue metal rail, she laughs, recalling her family’s tradition of dangling their feet out the balcony’s window every New Year’s Day as the colorful and sweet-smelling flower-covered Rose Parade floats pass by on the street below.
For 2018’s Rose Parade, Interactivism designed and built the first augmented reality (AR) experience of a Rose Parade float in a partnership with investment, development and construction firm Singpoli. Using a smartphone app, users were able to take selfies with characters and interact with animations superimposed over Singpoli’s float, which told the traditional Chinese tale of a carp swimming upstream and jumping over a dragon’s gate, transforming into a dragon.
Wennberg has also helped to create thriving hubs of creativity in Southern California. In 2012, she co-founded the Northeast Los Angeles UX community of designers, entrepreneurs and engineers NELAUX. She is a founding executive board member of Innovate Pasadena, an organization that encourages communication, collaboration and success across science, design, technology and other industries. And in November, she became a mentor for Summit Fellows, the mentorship arm of Summit, which hosts invitation-only events with speakers like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and TV show creator Shonda Rhimes.
“I want to help other women navigate the challenges of being a leader in the tech world,” says Wennberg of her role as a mentor. “Being in this space as a woman gives me a unique perspective.”
And in keeping with her minimalist roots, she sometimes goes to a cabin she co-owns in the nearby San Gabriel Mountains. “It’s the polar opposite from my daily life, which is digital, digital, digital,” she says of the refuge, which features a wood-burning stove, no running water and no cell phone reception. “Out there, in the wilderness, I completely disconnect.”