The return of an innovative designer

An artist whose mysterious disappearance sparked Web forums talks about where she's been and what's next

By Stephanie Orma
Published July 29, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

Thankfully, graphic designers are a bit too nerdy for the paparazzi. But had the snooping press hounds any clue into the talents of our industry's rock-star creatives, Jennifer Sterling surely would have been one of their buzz-worthy targets when she abruptly dropped off the design scene a few years ago.

As one of the most visually distinct voices in contemporary graphic design, the San Francisco-based type artist rocketed onto the radar a decade ago with her minimalist style and uncanny ability to transform type into modern art on the page. Her vocal typographic work has been featured in a laundry list of design compendiums and museums. And it's not hard to see why.

Poster for Sterling Design Lecture/Workshop Events

Poster for Sterling Design Lecture/Workshop Events

Sterling Design

Poster for Sterling Design Lecture/Workshop Events

Yet a few years ago, Sterling went radio-silent. Her website suddenly went dark and "Where's Waldo-esque" Web forums and Facebook groups launched with outpourings of concern over the designer's mysterious disappearance. While some claimed random grocery store sightings, Sterling's absence was undeniably palpable in the design industry.

But I'm super excited to say "she's baaack!" Her website recently popped back up with a new blog, and all the social media trimmings to boot. I chatted with the talented type-pro to see where she's been, what's she been up, and what's next.

lecture series poster

Poster for Sterling Design Lecture/Workshop Events

Are you comfortable sharing the personal reasons why you took time off?

We had a series of family deaths that took priority.

Wow -- I'm so sorry for your loss. Was it a tough decision to step away from something you're so passionate about?

I never completely stopped. I just didn't answer my phone and, well ... I took down my website. It was just for a few years and even then I continued to work for environmental/social issue clients and lecturing/teaching/workshops. Having been an adjunct professor in design at CCA since 1996, I found this was something I really enjoyed.

But the time in a large sense gave me the opportunity to experiment and just learn new instruments (both software and traditional tools). When you're busy, you're trying to satisfy clients and solve the creative so quickly that you tend to use the tools you know, the tools you have.

Typographic solution for Editorial Work

Typographic solution for editorial work


I know a few other top designers who have taken breaks and swear by it to recharge their creative juices. Do you feel it did the same for you creatively?

I completely agree with that theory. For me, I think the time to just pause and stand still tells you so much. Mostly what you're missing ... and that you don't necessarily need to be headed in the direction you're going, or particularly, in the direction in which everyone else is going. We're perpetually running and this doesn't leave a great deal of time to just discover and create.


Is your approach to design any different now than it was before?

I think now, I will always plan to take time off from commercial projects. I tend to just want to create, and anything (with the exception of loved ones) that disturbs this becomes an annoyance. Another development, in the last year particularly, is the abundance of technological changes that fit my personality/work habits so much better.

Obviously, these have been around for years but in the last year everything has become much more immediate. I like the access of sending files from my phone and being anywhere and being able to create immediately when something occurs to me.

Abstract Textile Art

Abstract Textile Art


Your work has typically been heavily type-driven with an abstract edge. But in recent designs, it looks like you've fully embraced that modern art element. Can you say more about this new direction?

I painted growing up and was originally an illustration major, however I switched my major to design to have more control over my work. The new large abstract pieces have (thankfully) led to textile/fashion work.

Abstract Textile Art

Abstract Textile Art

Abstract Textile Art

Abstract Textile Art


What exciting new projects are you working on now?

I have a nice mix of projects at the moment. Some is work in the music industry. Some is textile design. I'm also working on a launch for FREDA SALVADOR (a luxury shoe line). They come from a great aesthetic background -- one being from an iconic family of shoe designers and the other having been a stylist at both Calvin Klein and Anyi Lu. Additionally, I'm creating work for environmental/social issue advocates. I'd like to work more with advocates, human rights, global environmental causes, as well as collaborating with other designers as musicians tend to do. I think future work will focus more on typography and illustration as a complete piece rather than trying to incorporate my love for this into a larger enterprise. I still enjoy clients that have more of a science/technological bent.

To see more of Jennifer Sterling's awesome work check out her site.

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.

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Stephanie Orma

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