Aaron Draplin Talks Design, His Process & How to Be Human

Below is an excerpt from the summer issue of HOW, which features Aaron Draplin + 9 more of the most interesting, innovative, and inspiring designers, leaders, and entrepreneurs today.

Words by Rebecca Bedrossian




Get this limited-edition poster designed in celebration of the 75th Anniversary of Print by Aaron Draplin.

That was Aaron Draplin’s reaction when he got the call from HOW—to feature him again. According to the Portland, OR, graphic designer, the story hasn’t changed all that much. And to his point, there’s no lack of Aaron Draplin or Draplin Design Co. coverage on the World Wide Web. So much so, that I felt a bit of trepidation about the interview.

What could I unearth that hadn’t been covered before? And why would someone read this story?

My trusty go-to list of questions weren’t going to work for me. I didn’t want to write something that’s already been published. And I certainly didn’t want Draplin to roll his eyes during our chat. I realized I needed his help to build a new narrative. So I came clean and asked: What do you want to say that hasn’t been said before?


Art by Aaron Okanaya

It broke the ice and set the stage. We didn’t focus on his work for Nike, Ride Snowboards, Sub Pop Records, his numerous posters, album art and logo designs, nor his personal Field Notes brand, and we deliberately avoided his Lynda.com logo design tutorial that went viral last year. Been there, done that, and he designed the T-shirt. Instead our organic, candid and, as you’d expect from Draplin, entertaining conversation covered age, gratitude, family, and a book. While it sounds more Kumbaya than you’d expect from this born-and-bred Midwesterner, it comes with its fair share of self deprecation and the occasional f-bomb.

Draplin doesn’t beat around the bush. “How much more of this story do you want to hear?” he asks, honestly curious. “I’ll just never really be comfortable with being some kind of commodity.” He wonders about the saturation level, and admits that the pressure’s on, because the big names in design reinvent themselves. “Every three years, there’s a new talking point, taking a year off, a documentary,” he explains. “I’m just trying to get away with shit—that hasn’t changed.”


Art by Aaron Okanaya

At 41, Draplin wears his “middle age” as a badge of honor. “Every year I know myself a little better. Every year, there’s a refinement process.

“I can remember being 20 and talking to a 45-year-old. They were old. They were different. They wore a different type of clothes. They were beat down and said things like ‘my old lady,’ ‘those bastard kids.’ It was really cliché. Now I can’t tell when a guy is 55. It’s just how they carry themselves and how they laugh. My favorite rock ‘n’ rollers are 55 years old and you wouldn’t know it, because of the way they run their lives. That’s inspiring.

“There are weeks I work every day. You don’t get to put them in the bank. That goes to Uncle Sam. And they go and drop fucking bombs on developing countries with it or whatever the latest bullshit they’re doing. It hurts. I would hope they’d go build homes for people. I’d feel a little better about that.”


This three-pack of Aaron Draplin’s pocket-sized Field Notes includes one graph, one ruled, and one plain paper notebook, each with 48 pages and a craft paper cover. Get yours in MyDesignShop.

With age comes self-reflection, and Draplin is grateful. “Aren’t we lucky to be alive, to punch into design every day? As I get older, it’s better to be chill about stuff.”

And chill he is. He didn’t get to be design’s big draw without his share of critics along the way. Finger-pointing is a waste of time, but the web hands everyone a bullhorn, and it’s frustrating. “That’s something that people expect from me, to be an incendiary character just for the sake of doing it. That is not the case, I wouldn’t do it,” says Draplin, throwing in a technical term for good measure. “You don’t want to shit where you eat.”

Draplin’s genuine love for design surfaces when he speaks about life after the limelight fades—and make no mistake, he knows it will. “When all this stuff fizzles, I’ll go back to living the life of why I got the call in the first place. Working on my own, loving it, and not knowing any better. That’s kind of a cool thing.”

His gruff demeanor, plain speaking, ball cap, and healthy beard led one wag to call him the “Yukon Cornelius of American Design,” but, Draplin says, “there is nothing blue collar about what I’m doing. We live manicured lives.”

Yes, he likes to work with his hands, mocking things up, the very analog and tactile qualities of design, but the reality is Draplin can usually be found pecking away at the computer in his shop, a hotel room, or on a plane. The prolific designer makes his way to design events large and small across the country. He travels on Wednesdays, speaks on Thursdays, and returns home on Fridays. “The more I get done on the plane, the more time I have free on the weekend,” Draplin says with a chuckle, “to have fun like normal people.”


This is just part of the story—get your hands on the summer issue of HOW for the full, exclusive interview, in which Draplin delivers some honest truth about his dad, working too much, and his plans for messing with the world of design in the very near future. Plus: see behind the scenes of HOW’s photoshoot with Draplin!

The Summer 2015 issue of HOW Magazine has been completely reimagined, with a new design and layout from Editorial & Creative Director Andrew Gibbs. It’s divided into four sections: WHO, WHERE, WHAT and—of course—HOW. Check out the TOC for more details.

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