Travis Stearns

Stearns mixes sharp-angled geometry with fluid curves and funky swashes
to create typography and illustrations that seem ready to dance off the
page. The wordplay and sexy texture of his work bring type and imagery
together in what feels like a blind date gone incredibly, surprisingly
right. Inspired by forces as varied as hippies, Vikings, folklore, and
agates, Stearns has a wide-ranging curiosity, and is always looking for
new inspirations.

“You have to be aggressive with your
ideas,” he says. Though Stearns cites icons like Jan Tschichold
and Emil Ruder as inspirations, he also pushes against them, preferring
to see their designs as starting blocks rather than sacrosanct edicts.
“Modernism informs my work, but what comes out is more
schizophrenic. I embrace those ideas even though they conflict with
mine,” he says. “If I picked up crocheting next month, I
feel it would be appropriate. You have to keep an open mind today, in
terms of process and materials. I’m not interested in being in
just one school of thought.”

A small handbook titled
“Minnesoahta Ligatures” reveals Stearns’s Modernist
underpinnings, his Minnesota roots, and his ability to transform Futura
into something fresh. “I developed new characters that express the
way we talk and that would make it easier for others to understand our
stories,” says the native Minnesotan. The Minnesoahtan ligatures
are a graphic representation of the state’s famous accent, a
project Stearns describes as an attempt to understand “how
Modernist ideas might fit into a contemporary context seemingly filled
with anomalies, hybrids, and provincialism.”

The project began
as a tongue-in-cheek exploration, but it ended as a wonderfully
distinctive collection of new letterforms. Stearns adds that ideally, a
tape recording of his mother’s voice would be included with each

Today, Stearns, a 2006 graduate of North Carolina State
University, is a staffer at YouWorkForThem in Minneapolis and takes on
freelance projects as well. He is especially inspired by the work of
Hort, a small firm in Germany, as well as the Dutch firm Experimental
Jetset, whose designers he calls his “heroes.” “Their
work is so simple, but so well done. It’s
approachable—it’s not high up in some white tower of
design,” he says. “Our office just redrew Helvetica, to
loosen up the perception of the font and give it new meaning. Why always
do things the way they have already been done? I’d really prefer
not to.”

His biggest lesson since graduating has been learning
to not be obsessed with where his work is going next. Now, he simply
focuses on each job and makes that one the best it can be before moving
on to another. He does, however, muse dreamily about opening a studio in
the north woods of Minnesota. “I think there is an innate desire
to live close to the earth around these parts,” he says. Whether
Stearns is teaching tourists to speak like the locals or advertising the
work of the area’s DJs, his work is rooted in his Minnesotan
identity. “I think there is this really unique psychogeographic
call of the wild here, [a desire] to be a part of it rather than apart
from it. As a designer, I find myself drawn to organizing these wild