Q and A with Graphic Designer and Illustrator Petra Eriksson On Travel and Creativity

by Shonette Reed

It takes guts to become a full-time creative. Petra Eriksson, a Barcelona-based graphic designer and illustrator, had her heart set on being a full-time freelance creative despite working for a company she loved. When she's not learning Spanish or sipping a variety of green teas, Petra Eriksson is adding to the world of graphic design through her attention-grabbing graphics.

Getting her start at Pernbys målarskola in Stockholm, Eriksson built a solid foundational knowledge of color and composition. After that, she moved into the workforce before returning to school to study illustration and graphic design at Berghs School of Communication. It was at Bergh’s that she had her first client.

The client led the nearly 29-year-old to working with Refinery29, Anxy Magazine, VICE, and many other cool media outlets. If there’s one piece advice Eriksson would share with up and coming illustrators and graphic designers it’s, “I would remind everyone to keep working on and creating their own personal projects.”

Resolute Magazine caught up with the graphic designer and illustrator to talk about where she’s been, where she’s headed, and all the things in between that add to her career.

What factored into you becoming a full-time freelance creative?

I’ve known that I wanted to be a freelancer for a long time. For me, the kind of flexibility I have now where I can work from wherever, whenever, is really important to me… I’m a person who gets bored with the same task pretty easily so it’s perfect for my to work on one project for a week, then switch to do a quick one day project with someone else, then squeeze in some personal illustrations and then kick of something completely new again… Even though I knew that this is how it was hopefully going to become it took me a while to have the guts to take the leap, which I think was a good thing for me and something that I did for many different reasons.

Have you always been into illustration and design? If not, what prompted you to begin? How old were you when you began? Any illustrators or designers you admire?

Not exactly illustration and design, but I’ve always been drawing. From a really young age, I also wanted to be better at drawing and understand how to improve myself. It started pretty early on with copying my older cousins drawings and later on in school, my first art teacher taught me how to draw faces from a lot of different weird angles, I must have been around 11-12 at that point, but I still remember some of the things he said. Then I just kept going on that path. I studied at an upper secondary school focusing on art and design after which I went on to study fine art for two years and then a few years later dive into the world of graphic design and illustration. There are loads of artists, designers, and illustrators who I love and admire,” she continued. “The first artists I really enjoyed the works of were Andy Warhol and René Magritte, but that was a long time ago. Now I’m more inspired by people like Lotta Nieminen, Karin Mamma Andersson, Kate Moross, Timothy Goodman, Sara Andreasson, Luc Tuymans, Malin Gabriella Nordin, Janine Rewell, Sara-Vide Ericsson, and many more.

What advice would you give any up-and-coming designers and illustrators?

I would remind everyone to keep working on and creating their own personal projects. It’s great to have client work which pays the bills but I think it’s essential to keep exploring your own interests and ideas by just drawing for fun as well.

Who was your first client? Were you excited? Did it open doors or was there a pause before the next client?

My first client was the school I was studying at that time, Berghs School of Communication. I was asked to make a small illustration for the student card and I was pretty excited about it. That was five years ago though, and I was still in school so I wasn’t focusing that much on my freelancing at that point so it was a bit of a pause before I had my second client.

How do you come up with your ideas for design and illustration?

It depends on the project. If I work with a client I might have to start by reading up on a subject or in other ways learning both about the client and the content of the illustration. When I have enough information I usually take a proper break and go out for a walk or do something completely different before returning to the office and start to just get some very rough ideas out on a paper. I often start with writing down a few words (can be things, feelings, colours etc) which I associate with the topic and then see where that takes me. For my own work it often just starts with me seeing something which inspires me and then I just directly throw myself into a creative flow and see where it takes me. In these instances, I usually just want to get something out there which I like visually as a way to clean my brain and just get rid of things that clog my mind.

What is the purpose of your illustrations? I ask because I noticed you have a variety of illustrations with people from various backgrounds.

I draw because it makes me happy and I hope that it will inspire other people to create things, I also do it to tell stories about people and life in one or a series of images. Some images are more about purely telling a message but most of them are just like snapshots from people’s lives and a way to share both everyday happenings and the greatness of good people. I want to try to make sure that everyone feels included in these stories and that’s why I try to have a good mix of people with different backgrounds and ethnicities when I do portraits. I love drawing people that inspire me and I want to do something more with this and create some kind of platform to tell other people’s stories.

Do you feel that the illustration and design community has a solid multiethnic community?

Unfortunately not, or at least not when it comes to the top positions and the most well-known people in this industry. I think this world is way too unbalanced both when it comes to ethnicities and gender.

Who have you collaborated with so far?

In the beginning of my career I mostly worked with Swedish design agencies and magazines but now, most of my collaborations are with people and companies in the US or in the UK. I’m currently working on a project with the design agency SuperTuesday and during the past month I’ve been working on smaller projects with Refinery29, Buzzfeed, VICE and Anxy Magazine -an amazing magazine putting the focus on mental illnesses!

You shared on your portfolio site that you like to travel. You're from Stockholm, Sweden, have lived in Dublin, Malta, and Berlin, and are currently in Barcelona. Which city is your favorite? Why?

I’m really enjoying Barcelona, but all of the other places has had it’s perks as well. Malta is a very small island which makes it very limited and for that reason, I wouldn’t wanna move back there, but I could definitely see myself moving back to both Dublin, Berlin, and Stockholm at some point. That said, Barcelona has been the easiest place for me to settle in socially and I love the relaxed yet still very creative vibe here. Extra plus for having the nature so close by and easily reachable.

Since living in Barcelona, you shared on your site that you feel as though you can’t leave until you’ve conquered the Spanish language. Has that been an easy or difficult feat for you?

I wish I could say that it’s been easy but to be honest, grammar and learning new languages has never been an area where I excel, but I’ll get there eventually. I’m in a pretty fun phase right now where I feel like I start to understand many of the things I read and hear and that I’m starting to dare to have super basic conversations with people in Spanish. What’s been holding me back the most so far is probably the fact that I’m a pretty shy person who doesn’t like saying the wrong words which has kept me quiet for a long time though I most likely would have progressed quicker if I had just dared to start speaking Spanish earlier.

How did you come up with your awesome and distinctive illustration style?

It’s a combination of looking at and experiencing a lot of art, design, culture, and fashion to find out what you are drawn to in the world around you, and to just work hard. The main key to finding your own style is to just keep drawing, or whatever your creative field might be, and experimenting, through that process you will find what feels right for you and your style will keep evolving.

Do you believe that illustration and graphic design changes the way people view the world?

I do! I think that if graphic design and illustration are done right it can help people understand and grasp ideas, content, instructions in a different way. It helps people communicate and it can make difficult ideas easier to take in. Graphic design is already used pretty much everywhere, it’s in everything from road signs, the text in a book, the food packaging, websites and infographics and loads more.

Would you consider any of your illustrations or designs a form of protest?

Not really a form of protest but a way of telling and spreading important stories. I like to help out visually to support causes that I find important. One example of that is a fanzine about sexual consent which I’m working on right now together with the writer Saina Joy. I’ve also done some illustrations for projects like The Women’s March and Women’s History Month in collaboration with Refinery29, for example. And more recently, I’ve had the pleasure to work on illustrations for some important LGBTQ articles. For my personal work, I try to think about showing a diversity of the people I’m portraying. I could definitely be even better but I keep reminding myself about doing my job here as an illustrator and try to make all kinds of people feel included.

Do you have a favorite illustration or design up-to-date?

Another hard question! If I have to chose just one though, I think I’d pick Wall of Wally because even if it’s a couple of years old I still like it a lot and I felt like I kind of found my style while working on that piece.

You use a lot of bright colors, is there a reason for that?

Just personal style. I just love adding bright colours and patterns wherever I can.

How important is color in your illustrations? How do you go about choosing the colors?

Colour in illustrations are super important for me. I enjoy other illustrators works which might be black/white or have a completely different colour spectrum, but the balance needs to be there. I have a set of colours that I keep using just because I like them but then obviously they don’t work for all kinds of themes and contents. The main thing for me is to use the colour to set the tone and feeling of the image, and that the colours work well together. Some lighter colours, some slightly more toned down to balance the image, something dark, something warm to balance something cooler. If those things are set I can go crazy with splashes of colours on smaller details.

Are you working on any projects now? Do you have any recent projects that you don't mind sharing?

The project which I’m mostly focusing on right now is the fanzine about sexual consent which I mentioned briefly earlier. Shaina Joy wrote a brilliant article on the subject for Broadly and now we’re turning it into a fanzine which we want to spread here in Spain. We’re gonna print some version that will be available for sale but then we’re also gonna share a less colourful version which will be free to download and easy to print (hence getting rid of the colours for this one) so that schools can share it with their students and hopefully use that to start a healthy discussion about good sex and what sexual consent really means.

Are there any projects or collaborations you hope will come your way in 2017?

I’m just kicking off a new personal illustration project where I will be interviewing people and making portraits of them. It will start as a blog but I want to make a fanzine out of it when I have enough pieces. I’m also gonna push myself to create an exhibition and start producing some physical pieces this year. Collaboration wise I hope to get the chance to work with more magazines and content sites on interesting subjects.

Resolute Magazine