Inside the Mind of Aaron Draplin

Aaron Draplin will be judging PRINT magazine’s 2017 Regional Design Awards—now open to both professionals and students. Enter today before it’s too late! 


Words by Rebecca Bedrossian

 

Surprise.

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Poster design by Aaron Draplin for the 75th anniversary of PRINT magazine.

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?

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

 

TIME OUT

Though he loves what he does, he’s tired and questions how long he can keep up the pace. “Why are we working so much? Because we don’t know any better,” he says adamantly. “It’s all we know how to do. The world just holds us down. I got ahead by working a ton. And then what? How much more money do you need?”

He’s finally stopped worrying about money, because—honestly—he doesn’t even have the time to spend it. This has been tough for Draplin. He grew up in Traverse City, MI, and has seen people struggle. “And I have these carrots dangling in front of me,” he explains, “how can I say no to any of it?

“You’re taught to budget, to be smart and to keep everything in the positive. Then you wake up and realize, uh-oh, that wasn’t the way to do it.

“I don’t know how to solve becoming smaller. I don’t know how to solve becoming healthy. I don’t know how to solve not working so goddamn much.”

But he’s trying. Draplin now leaves the shop at 8 instead of midnight. It’s baby steps. And it feels like a luxury.

“I don’t ever want to worry,” Draplin admits. “I know what it’s like to have nothing. I haven’t had to think about buying a record for about seven years. That to me is such a success.”

 

WIRED FOR SOUND

“I know Aaron hoards music of all kinds,” says Robin Hendrickson of ATO Records. “I get to see him flexing and working out album art that bounces off the classic tradition of record covers. His first comps are a thrill. He’ll show you a wide range of possibilities, some you asked for and some you didn’t. It’s like the ideas are exploding out of him, almost too fast to capture. His work is clean, but never sterile or boring. Somehow it reflects his personality, which is gruff but never unkind.”

Hendrickson continues, “He’s clearly studied—and absorbed—the language and history of 20th-century American vernacular graphic design, but his work never devolves into retro pastiche.”

You can’t have a conversation with Draplin without sensing his respect for design—its history, its unsung heroes, and his contemporaries. He stays on the prowl for overlooked graphic treasures and celebrates them. Sure, he’ll drop the occasional Saul Bass or Eames reference, but he’s not precious about it. “I don’t want to be too professional, too serious, too on point or on strategy, because people choke on it”

This is unusual—when there’s so much value placed on how you present yourself to clients and where there’s no shortage of articles touting five ways to be more productive, make a good impression, or look smarter in meetings—but it’s pure Draplin. It’s part of his allure, refreshing, and he owes it to dad.

 

LIKE FATHER LIKE SON

Visit draplin.com and you’ll find an entire section—an anomaly in the business of design—dedicated to his father, Jim Draplin. You see the love, and then hear it when Draplin speaks about him. “We lost my dad a year and a half ago. I don’t want to be the person who doesn’t talk about this shit. He died. I’m trying to make light of it, because he used to make fun of that shit.”

Draplin’s tone is light as he describes his dad as an incredible character, larger than life, who sometimes opened his shows for him. He admits sometimes the crowd didn’t know what to make of him. “He was as comfortable in front of a tool-and-die shop as much as he was in front of a bunch of nerdy designers, telling crass jokes, Don Rickles style. I’m so thankful I celebrated him viciously while he was around.

“I mimic my dad in terms of my design career: the business practices of how to enjoy your life and how to make things—how to laugh. That’s what I took from him,” explains Draplin. “It’s been cool to apply it to the stuffy thing of design. It’s been refreshing to defy some of that shit with it. People don’t know how to laugh.

“Dad kept me on my toes. He always made time. So getting in front of a client just reminds me of how my dad could loosen things up.” Draplin laughs, then continues.

“And look at me talking so much about my dad all the time. He always hogged the limelight. Still is! I need the world to know that without my mom, I’d be nothing. Fact.”

 

ON PAPER

That practice of loosening up came in handy when John Gall, creative director at Abrams, called about making a monograph. Draplin countered with, “Don’t you do this at the end of your career?” Excited and equally leery to get a big-league call, Draplin plans to keep it little league—as authentic and naive as possible. “It’s got to feel real to me,” he says.

Abrams has a history of publishing books by great designers and, though it’s early in the process, you can bet the Draplin book will be a bit of a departure. It won’t be a typical design monograph. How could it be? And Gall recognizes the value in that.

“I’ve been looking at younger/mid-career designers and wondering why they don’t have books, and if there is even an audience for such a thing,” Gall explains. “Most graphic design books we see are super expensive monographs by older or dead designers. I started looking at people the same age as Stefan Sagmeister was when Abrams published his first book. These are designers who came of age during the internet and social media era. These are voices we haven’t really heard from in book form yet. And they have a lot to say about how to make it in the design world today.

“Aaron’s style is rooted in utilitarian American design, but not totally as he’ll happily incorporate a lovingly designed Swiss grid. He’ll pull from the cool overlooked moments of the 1970s, but then something like Field Notes comes from another place entirely,” continues Gall. “He’s the designer all the kids want to be when they grow up. He has opinions and he’s willing to express them (even if he has to step on some toes), but he’s also a really nice guy with a strong sense of where he came from. He’s an inspiring speaker and entertaining graphic design raconteur. He makes beautiful things that you want to have. Beautiful lovingly printed objects. Aaron makes being a graphic designer look like the best job in the world.”

When I asked Draplin about the book, he goes straight to the Abrams site and tells me that it will live in close proximity to the Eames book. E follows D after all. Draplin says, tongue in cheek, that though the book will make him look “smart and articulate,” he’s not going to pass up this opportunity. It will be his guide to messing with the world of design.

“I take it very seriously how I don’t take it seriously,” he says.

After all, entertainment is a tricky business.

This article is from the Summer 2015 issue of HOW. Since it was published, Draplin’s stellar “Guide to messing with the world of design” earned a place on our sister site PRINT’s 25 Best Design Books of the Year.


The 2017 PRINT RDA: Extended Deadline. Enter Now!

Enter the most respected competition in graphic design—now open to both pros and students—for a chance to have your work published, win a pass to HOW Design Live, and more. 2017 Judges: Aaron Draplin / Jessica Hische / Pum Lefebure / Ellen LuptonEddie OparaPaula Scher. Student work judges: PRINT editorial & creative director Debbie Millman and PRINT editor-in-chief Zachary Petit.

Draplin image: Leah Nash. Hische: Helena Price. Lupton: Michelle Qureshi. Scher: Ian Roberts.

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