Aaron Draplin of Draplin Design Co. Interview

I had a very enlightening 1-1 interview with Aaron James Draplin of Draplin Design Co. to check in with him before seeing him at DesignerCon coming up. Draplin Design Co. was founded in 2004, specializing in brand identity, logo design and typography. Just a few of his stand out clients include Nike, Wired, New York Times, Snowboard Magazine, Field Notes memo books, the Obama Administration / Mode Project, Old Spice, and so much more. Aaron’s timeless designs and subject matter have a colorful simplicity that will attract anyone at any age. His designs and a few featured videos I saw him in are were what originally inspired me to interview him, but after having so much enjoyment speaking with him, I think you should read this interview because this is a down to earth passionate person who gives you the real low down of what is truly important in life and how he got to where he is now, no filter.

Lindsay Garber: At 19 you moved to Oregon to pursue your career in graphic design. In my opinion that is so early to know about graphic design as a career and to know you wanted to pursue it. I’m curious to how you got into design so early. I know you would go “junking” with your Dad. Was design something your Dad was also interested in or was that something you found interesting from “junking” together? Or was there something else that brought you to this path?

Aaron James Draplin: From 17 to 19 I got the bug. I went and got an associates degree. I graduated high school early, and went right into a program in northern Michigan. I wanted to go out west and be a snowboarder with my buddies right away, but I was a little too young, and I didn’t have the blessings of my Mom and Dad yet. So if I did two years of community college, got that degree then I could go out West with their blessings for one year, then I had to come back and finish up school. As a kid who was lucky enough to even go to community college, I did that, and I got the bug. I started to make things, and things for my own. We were skateboarders and snowboarders. You had to be good looking, but now you can look like me, and make your own brands your own skateboard graphics, and your own stuff. I had that bug when I went out West. I didn’t really know I wanted to be a graphic designer, it was more like I was just interested in being an artist. I loved to draw, to paint, to make things. Before I really knew what I wanted to do, when we got out West, that wasn’t my thing. My Mom and Dad were just prepping me to be a good citizen. I didn’t really hear about design from my Dad. We would look at old signs, and we had an appreciation for cool things, modern things, and old things. So I got that from my Mom and Dad of course. But when I got out West, my priorities were to be a dumb ass snowboarder. Snowboarder in the winter, and skateboarder in the summer. I had to make a living so I was doing pizza jobs, but as I started to draw, paint, and do stuff, my name got around. I started to get hired for things, and of course this whole time as a hobby I was designing things. I designed my business cards, goodies and stuff. I sneaked into community colleges because I didn’t have a computer. Then I started to realize that I had something here, and I could use those skillsets to make a little bit more money then being in a pizza job. I didn’t have a computer yet though, so I went to Alaska. I worked a whole summer washing dishes on a sightseeing train, that went from Anchorage to Fairbanks. That summer I saved ten grand. I brought all of that back and that’s when I bought my first computer in 1996. I had a couple years under my belt of living, snowboarding, drawing, painting, illustrating things. When I got the computer, I could do all the above as vector. That’s when I started doing logos, things for myself, little brochures, business cards for friends, business, and ads. That’s really when it took off in 1996.

Lindsay: You came from a snowboarding background of design jobs which generally has more of a “grunge” style. From what I see from Draplin, you have a very vintage feel in your design, when did you simplify and hone in on this more timeless minimal design.

Aaron: To be very specific, when I was 22 years old, getting immersed in graphic design, design was very scrappy, cut up, trashed, beat up, and damaged under this guise of being hyper sophisticated, and hyper post modern. Frankly it was damaging communication. People were just going ape shit, and it was the high fashion at the time. So here I come in and I’m a young guy, seeing whats cool, and what is sold to us in college. I had to react. It did not make sense to me. It felt elite, gross, and only for those who could afford it. It wasn’t even communicating it was decoration. You had some grad student telling you that you don’t get it. Here is the difference, my favorite stuff I got from graphic design, my Mom and Dad could have got it. My favorite stuff could have been a tablecloth in 1977 that my Mom and Dad bought at a Kmart with a big design on it. Is that retro, is it clean, who gives a shit. It was just cool when I was a kid, and I wanted to exhibit that stuff in my work. I wanted to make good decisions, and have the confidence to use one line as a stairway. Or to have the confidence to use a million lines in a million ways, because that’s what the job calls for. Coming out of 1995, where I started making industrial flavored stuff that felt like old ration cans, military items, and handbooks. I just loved that it was not bullshit. It spoke to me. As a kid from a lower middle class family, it spoke to me because my Uncles could get it. Not just those in grad school and those into hoity toity bullshit. The common person could enjoy it. I wanted to make logos that were simple shapes and really simple. I saw that these things while “junking” with my Dad. They worked in 1975, why wouldn’t they work in 2005? Well they did. So I started to manifest that stuff, make a lot of it, and when they come to my booth, at DesignerCon they will see a booth filled with stuff that is simple. The funny part about that, there will be some complex things, but there are things where seventeen year olds come up and say, “Oh that’s cool!” and if seventeen year olds can find it cool, then so can seventy year olds. They are reacting to things, they remember them from a different era because they are that clean and that simple. I get it! It becomes a cute quality, but also a reminder that we can work with restraint and have it can be really beautiful. One booth over and there will be crazy monster posters, thats fine. They come to our booth, and it makes me so proud to tell you that we make these things called the “Thick Line Series” and I sell a ton of these things, and its for everyone.

Lindsay: I especially love the simplicity of your “Pizza Slice” and “Space Shuttle” hat designs on your site and I think those are designs that can speak to people at any age.

Aaron: We are going down to DesignerCon and Hugo told me, listen you want to bring characters, be it your “Pizza Slice” that’s a character, your “Space Shuttle” that’s a character, your “Simple Mountain in the Woods,” that’s a character. Some of your complex stuff might not do as well, because you are going to be among all your other pieces. So me asking you, do you think “Pizza Slice” is charming enough to grab the people as a refreshing thing among the DesignerCon crowd.

Lindsay: Oh yeah definitely! Like you said, the shapes are simple, it’s easy to see. People are not confused with what is going on, and it connects with people at any age and any level. I don’t know anyone who is not a fan of pizza first of all. If they are, then they shouldn’t be a friend of mine.

Aaron: There you go, that’s a good policy. I just did a new wiener dog poster that we are bring down and a big tree poster. The thing is, if they don’t like the poster, then we got patches and they are 5-7 bucks. The idea is, we are going to have a fun pile of things. If you walk up, you can find something. If you are kinda over it, you might find something too. That’s why I’m excited to see what people are into. I’ve looked at some of the booths and names, and the illustrators are incredible, and there are all kinds of cool stuff. All I would hope is that our little brand of goofiness has it’s own little place, that’s all.

Lindsay: I definitely think though, because I was looking at DesignerCon’s Instagram for example, a lot of the items started looking the same to me. So you’ll definitely stand out in a good way, and a lot of people will enjoy you. Plus a lot of people know you.

Aaron: I appreciate that, but you have to understand that I wouldn’t know about that. I am aware that I have a good following, but I’m looking at DesignerCon and, oh man, it’s these plastic doodads and things, what are they going to think about us. I think we will do okay. What I am trying to do though, is I’m trying to understand something new. I’m excited to go see it. I’m hoping it will be refreshing.

Lindsay: Some of your clients under your Draplin Design Co. include Nike, Wired, New York Times, Snowboard Magazine, Field Notes memo books, the Obama Administration / Mode Project, Old Spice, and so much more. What companies are next for your bucket list?

Aaron: I don’t know, I’d love to do something with Saucony because I love Saucony’s classic look. I’m in some talks with some of those guys right now. I’d love to make something with Lego, and I almost got to work for Lego one time. I don’t know. I learned to not really gun for those things. If it comes around, because there have been a couple times where I worked for someone I really liked and then I was on the inside, I got to see how they made the sausage. I didn’t enjoy the process much after that. I do limit myself, and say, “Man I would love to work for this band”, but if I was to find out that “Band X” or whoever was mean, I could never listen to their albums again. That would break my heart, you know what I mean. I’d love to work for Levys or Carhartt or… I don’t even know. It’s not even a specific brand, I want to figure out a way to do work that helps people. Maybe it’s Big Brother, or Big Sister of America, or things to empower young women, or to empower underprivileged kids. I say this shit, and it sounds a little hooky and patronizing, but I’ve made enough money off of sports brands and stuff. If there is a way to use, not even my money, but use my life force to help people, that’s kinda what I’m interested in moving forward. I don’t even know if there is a paycheck involved. I’m just cool with being a fan. If I never get to work for some brand, who cares. I still like to go buy a pair of Carhartt’s or buy a Carhartt jacket. But we do a lot of things with brands that I’ve looked up to. There is one project that I can’t talk about, that’s on my bucket list, and it’s coming out early next year, and I would love to tell you all about it, but I can’t. I’ve been sworn to secrecy and it’s terrifying. It’s kinda like, oh well, but as soon as I can, oh I’ll blow it out everywhere. Until then, I can’t say anything. I’ve got to make something I’m not able to talk about until it comes out. Until then, it’s killing me. There are bands I’d like to work for. There are certain kinds of Red Wing boots. I own a couple pair of those. Usually it’s really down to Earth things. I just did a poster for Fender. It’s awesome. That was one of my bucketlist items. It was just a limited edition poster, totally cool. I got to do a poster for Dinosaur Jr., three years ago. But it was one of my favorite bands growing up. I love all of those records, and I love J Mascis. I got to work with a couple of my heroes, and that’s kind of enough.

Lindsay: Yeah, and I love that also recently you helped out your nephew, making a really dope Pizza King shirt for his baseball team.

Aaron: Yeah, that little shit. We mess with each other. He is the light of our lives, and I’m his Art Director. He comes to the house, he is allowed five swear words. You can leave that on the record, but every time my sister reads it, she gets all pissed off, because then he’ll go right up to my ear and go, “Uncle Aaron, Bullshit,” and I’ll say “Okay. That’s one, you got four left. Use them sparingly.” He is 8, just good clean fun.

Lindsay: I just love it, also, congratulations on your fourth Skillshare class which is now up and ready, ‘Situation: Iteration – Iterating with Shape, Style, and Color”, I love how you title things by the way. You have three other classes you have available which are various logo design and type/wordmark classes. You must have a passion for teaching to make these classes. Is there one key thing that you yourself have learned the hard way through your experience that you can share with us that could help other artists or designers knowing?

Aaron: Yeah, of course. It could be something technical, but you can actually go a little deeper and something more bureaucratic, it’s your taxes. I know it’s not something fun to talk about, but I will say, if anyone has ever asked me, “Hey, what’s the biggest mistake you ever made?” and it is the easy one to answer, “I screwed up on my taxes one year, and I had to pay a really big fine.” I didn’t get into any trouble, but I just screwed up just enough. What happened was, every year my accountant would send me this thing in February and say, “Get your stuff ready, and you want to be done in April.” I would need the extension, because I was going too fast. I was travelling and on the road, I was an animal. He knew, and would put in an extension for me every year. Then I would come back in August, and September, and I’d have it all ready by the extension date of October 15th.

Lindsay: That’s your birthday.

Aaron: That’s right, Thank you! How do you know all these things!

Lindsay: My birthday is also in October, so I know everyone born in October.

Aaron: That’s pretty cool! Happy birthday to you! Nonetheless, I screwed that up, because the year that he sent me another envelope, I didn’t open the envelope. I thought, oh 8 years in a row, he put another extension for me, I’ll call him up in September, and do all the taxes like we’ve done the last 8 years. Well come September, I open up the envelope, and the letter says, Aaron, you need to find new services, I’m retiring. That year was the year I didn’t get my extension filed. I got a failure to file fine, and I had a really big year, and I owed a lot of taxes. I was officially late, and I remember it being really bad. I remember the guy kind of saying to me, “This is going to be pretty bad,” and I said, “Okay what does that mean?” Well, when people say what are things I’ve learned? I’ve learned you don’t mess with your taxes. Go learn the laws and play within the rules. Some people learn how to bend them. I’m the kind of person, where if I didn’t do them, I couldn’t live with myself. I just can’t sleep at night. If I’ve learned anything it’s just to play by the rules. Get the shit done that you can’t mess with, and then the other 97.2 percent of your life, kick that shits ass! I wish I could say, here is a fun way to pick a Pantone, but my mind goes right to the stuff that’s scary for everyone.

Lindsay: I appreciate it. I’m sure others will as well. Definitely good to know. So I have a question about your website. You have an amazing shop, and an equally amazing portfolio but I’m wondering what your reasoning or thoughts behind the way that you designed your website. You reveal a lot about yourself, your family, and you have a great sense of humor on it. So what is your reasoning behind having a website like this for your services?

Aaron: Well, first things first. I have to apologize, because the website is old, but it still works. It’s not the latest technology, it doesn’t do well on the phone, and there is a long list of where I screwed it up. In the last bunch of years, I just haven’t been doing the daily post. I’ve filled it up with so much shit over the years, that if you are interested, anyone can go back on it, and click on something from 14 years ago and see a little post where I’m showing a JPG, or I’m showing this thing, and I’m talking about this or that, I’m listing little things. All these sorts of things add up. It’s just this weird thing where it’s kind of a blog, kind of a diary, and kind of a way to get away with making cool stuff. In another sense, a way to be completely transparent. Nothing is that sacred. I’m not going to give you my social security number…

Lindsay: That was my next question!

Aaron: 395-22-…. It’s this thing where, it takes you right to the edge where it’s appropriate. That’s fine. My bands, that I grew up watching, listening to all their lyrics, they would tell you everything, and I always loved it. I always loved that they were transparent in a lot of ways. They didn’t have anything to hide. They weren’t trying to be bigger then they were. The punk rockers, and the people I grew up with, these guys are still scumbag punk rockers, and that’s the story until they die. There is a certain type of integrity to that, and a certain type of all not that much flashy, and yet it’s real. The same way, in building a website or blog, sharing lots of things, having this capacity to not be concerned about what is, or isn’t cool, it was just fun to go make. There is no license that says, this is or isn’t cool, or doing well. Who gives a shit. Who cares, lets just go enjoy this stuff. Whether or not I sell a lot or a little, lets hope I sell a lot, but if I don’t, it’s okay if I don’t if that makes sense. Because I could just donate it to a school or something. People will say, “Your website is really to navigate the store,” Well it is, until you learn it, then you can go back. We are in an iPhone world, where everyone expects everything to be awesome right away. Also, an Amazon type world where you expect to get data and feedback instantaneously. I do my best to accommodate that somewhat, but here is the thing, the grid of the website has worked since 1997 when we built it. I don’t necessarily need to change that. If I need to go load it up with logos or things, then I will, and you’ll see a lot of stuff in there, but for the couple hundred of pieces I’m showing, there is another thousand I haven’t had the time to upload, or update. It gets a little weird. People will say, “Where’s your portfolio?” and I say, “I don’t know,” But I guess I have a portfolio on there somewhere. Is it a portfolio enough to say, “Just look into my Instagram. You are going to see work, you are going to see records, groups, friends, babies, and all kind of cool shit. The question is, is that enough. The website was simple kind of work and we don’t need to retool it. If you are that kind of person, I really appreciate you going and reading some of the dumb stuff inside there, it’s only a couple clicks away. People don’t even see that. To me it was a privilege to have a nice thing that I could expand on, and anyone all over the world could read. When I started to get that worked out, I realized, “How lucky am I to have it.” It’s a lot easier then writing to all of my friends, my friends can all jump in and dig around in here. Then theses exchanges were going back and forth. They were leaving comments, and that was 10-15 years ago. I have a new website built, what we are trying to do, but to a detriment, we are tying to keep all the funny stuff we put inside of there the same way. However, it’s just a little bit different. When you go to my new site it will feel like you are going to a store first. So we are trying to tune it right so when you go to the site, you are getting content first, as in if you are interested in a draft and design company, there is always going to be something new that you are going to be punched in the face with. Always. Versus, having to pay for it, or sign up for it.

Lindsay: I love that you can dig into the site to find these cool little things that you’ve put in there, these silly things, as well as love for your family and your friends in there. A lot of other design sites are kind of cold. So I had a lot of fun going through your site. I also found out that I don’t really know that much about music. I see some of your playlists, and I am like, “Wow, I know none of these guys. I need to check these guys out!”

Aaron: You should do a couple clicks. That’s how I learned. I’ll show my age, but if I go to a 22 year old’s list, I wont know any of it. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, and there is nothing wrong with that. I love sharing that stuff. When someone turned me onto a new band, I loved sharing it and talking about it. I play it and enjoy the record cover. That keeps me young. Someone commented a couple months ago, about how I had a section for my dog and Dad. Of course I do. My Dad died, and it sucked. Where do I get to go and enjoy him? This becomes a service for a lot of other people too. It’s not just design people. If people do a search for my Dad, they find all the stuff of my Dad. I’m just so proud to have that. Just a little photo gallery. My old dog Gary, boy he was cute. 7lbs 19 inches. He became a little character. Yes your job is important and gives you a paycheck, but who cares? What are you going to take to your grave? You are going to take the love of you dog, your Mom and Dad, your boyfriend, your partner, or whatever the hell. You’re going to take that with you, you are not going to take, “Well I made this amount of money,” at some place you hated being at. That’s kind of the same thing with my whole life. I’m just going to try to enjoy this stuff, be the animal that I am, and never take myself to seriously. Always make time for the dogs, Dad, and babies. I’ll always make time for that.

Lindsay: I love it!

Aaron: Why even keep living.

Lindsay: What are your current most used programs you use to design and are there any other programs of note that really help you out in your business or design process?

Aaron: It’s definitely Adobe Illustrator, 90% of the day. Photoshop would be the other 10%, and then maybe once or twice a week, I have to crack something open in InDesign. So, really just Adobe products, and that’s really it. I look along the bottom of my computer right now, and it’s Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, obviously PDF, and then it goes to, I always have a browser open, Twitter open, and itunes open. Those are things that all computers come with. Before I go and kiss Adobe’s ass, as I always do because I love that stuff, I would say, “Whatever you can use to just get your designs as proper as you can,” that’s all commendable stuff. If you are using Corel Draw, fine. If you are using Adobe Illustrator, cool. Love your products, love your software, be thankful for your software. People love to complain, like, “This isn’t fast enough,” or, “This isn’t cool enough,” but these scumbags have no idea what it was like back in the day to have to close a program, and open it back up. You might be old enough in your thirties to remember that shit, but some 20 year old telling me, oh my laptop is not quick enough. Buddy it’s not your laptop that’s your problem. It’s your face. It’s something deeper then having a fast machine. You don’t know how to dream. If I was to tell you, what is the best practice that I use, I use paper. That sometimes is better then any program would be, if that makes sense. Paper becomes little accidents and cool things like that. There is a piece of paper in my Field Notes. That’s just a cool thing that it’s still very refreshing to me to be surprised by the power of pencil on paper. There is still a lot of magic to be had, and that’s kind of the idea. I can get to something a lot quicker on paper then I could inside of my Illustrator. When I get inside of Illustrator, then it really takes off, but the idea is, that I have to have a foundation about what the thinking was behind the form, logo, or piece or whatever. Illustrator is simply a tool, a tool to use to make the thing come to life. Whatever people are using to get to that, that’s fine. For me, yeah it’s the three programs: Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign. When I was making magazines, it was a lot more InDesign, because we were making these multipage do-dads. Now it’s less and less of that. I handed off two posters that will be printed for DesignerCon today. They were sketched on paper, designed in Illustrator, and then will be screen printed this week, to be posted up at DesignerCon. Hopefully I’ll sell some of them. I made a lot of new shit for this con. Little stickers, patches, and goodies. It’s all the things you’ve seen before, but the idea is that when people come up to the booth, we want to have a big splash of color, we want to be voted one of the nicer booths, one of the happiest booths. Not one of those fidgety, can’t make eye contact booths.

Lindsay: I was going to ask you about what we can expect to find at your booth #2018, at DesignerCon, 16th-18th, but you already answered it.

Aaron: Colorful things, stickers, posters, tins, decals, fun things that are little surprises but wont break the bank. I don’t know if people are selling $50 plastic toys, or $5 plastic toys, I just hope everything is affordable. A kid comes to our booth and $3 is a fair price. Our stickers are not digital bullshit, they are the real deal. They are screen printed and will last forever. There is a story behind each one. We will tell you about them, but if you don’t want to hear the story, about the wave crashing, heart expanding, pizza slice or whatever, they can make it theirs too. These are just simple forms that are fun. The idea is that people walk up and are pleasantly surprised, and say, “Well that’s something I haven’t seen before, and that’s fun. I’ll take one.” That’s the idea, though. You aren’t going to break the bank at our booth, we do okay. We appreciate every sale, but a lot of our success comes from a ten year old being able to come up to our table and buy a couple things too. Not just the rich people. You will see some of that.

You can find Aaron at the following events below through this year:
November 8th: Blue Fish, Speaking Fiasco & Blistering Workshop, Mobile, AL.
November 16th – 18th: DesignerCon (Booth 2018), Anaheim, CA.
December 13th – 15th: Portland Night Market, Portland, OR.

You can also help support the artist by going to one of his EVENTS, sharing this article, connecting with him on INSTAGRAM, checking out his online MERCH shop, taking one of his SKILLSHARE classes, or ordering his amazing BOOK.

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