Travis 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 booklet.
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 forms.”