Designer Aaron Draplin Talks His Book, His Posters, His Way

international2016


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In front of the Virginia House of Burgesses on a late March afternoon In 1775, American politician and Founding Father Patrick Henry gave the world his immortal quote, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” and at the end of those words pulled a paper knife to his throat, in feigned self-assassination. The paper knife, the potential weapon. The modern day letter opener. A letter, a long-dead civilized way to communicate before the rise of the email and the text. Mr. Henry had his liberty, and now his mock-death construct, in 2016, has had its death.

Or has it. Oregon-based designer and illustrator Aaron Draplin is a purveyor of junk—the lost, the tossed off. The merchandise of Draplin’s own Draplin Design Company is as practical as the man himself. 12″ rulers, pencils, and coin purses. Combs. A pill box. A letter opener. All with the same stoic imprint of the DDC name. These minor trinkets, as they may be, all play an important role in the life of the user. Just as Patrick Henry did, Draplin understands the importance of a sturdy letter opener.


Aaron Draplin’s trade is design. His traveling show “Tall Tales from a Large Man” is Draplin on stage, slideshow-ready, telling his story. Not the story of his career, but his story. It’s a powerful presentation of how he not only created his company and brand but also how he created his life. Draplin is a talker, and with the release of his all-encompassing book Pretty Much Everything, we see Aaron Draplin the writer.

The book breaks down something that all of those aware of Aaron Draplin already knew — there is no separating the man from his work. His voice is in each logo and magazine layout. His taste for classic design is in his collection of “junk” and in the design of the book. No page corner or centimeter of paper-space is free of his touch. Of his voice. Pretty Much Everything is an in-depth dive into Draplin’s life—his youth, his travels, successes and failures. They’re all here, everything, wonderfully cataloged in what can only be seen as a design book as autobiography, but then again, there is no separating the man from his work.

 

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From Draplin’s line of Field Notes Memo Books

From Draplin’s line of Field Notes Memo Books

CJ: I first ran into Field Notes in a small shop in Portland around 2010 and immediately felt they were made for me. Up to that point, I was making my own notebooks out of scrap paper. A Moleskine was too expensive for the simple note taking I do, but a 3 pack of Field Notes at $10 is an easy buy.

AD: All according to plan! My very favorite thing about Field Notes is the $9.95 price. In the bookstore in Iowa, and in the menswear shop in SoHo — still $9.95. I’m proud of that.

Too many times, design or art or cool stuff is only for those who can afford it. I like stuff that does the job and doesn’t break the bank in the process. And usually, the stuff mass-produced far away is affordable, but lacks in craft and you can feel it when you pick it up. Field Notes is made in the states, by your friends, and, at a reasonable price. So proud of that.

Interior of a Field Notes memo book

Interior of a Field Notes memo book

The notebooks show an incredible love of detail – there’s a ruler on the edge, suggested uses, and notes on the production of the book down to the type of stapler used for binding. It’s both a serious tool and an item that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

This sense of detail is all over Pretty Much Everything, it’s a gargantuan book of life, of work, of a discipline. Are you staying conscious of how projects like Field Notes, Pretty Much Everything, and your talks fit into the DDC “brand”? Is there a through line you keep in mind when taking on a project?

Always I’m watching out for opportunities for fun details, but it’s not in order to keep up with some idea of a “brand” I have to maintain. It’s more getting the very best use out of the page, or a project, or an opportunity to light up a page. Plus, I like the kind of stuff that sort “over-exceeds” expectations.

When you flip over a clothing tag and find a little message! Or when recycling a box and find that little “Printed by So-and-So” credit hidden in a flap. Someone hid it there to find. And that’s fun. Why are things always so by the book, you know? I try to make everything I get to touch as special as possible.draplin-book

Detail of Aaron Draplin’s book Pretty Much Everything from Abrams Books

‘Water’, ‘Clouds’, and ‘Sundown’ from the ‘Thick Line’ poster series by Aaron Draplin

“Water,” “Clouds,” and “Sundown” from the “Thick Line” poster series by Aaron Draplin

Coming from the world of limited edition posters, I came across your work first with the “Thick Lines” series of screenprints. They’re incredibly bold yet simple – refined. Meditative. As a designer that spends the bulk of his time of paid client work, what attracted you to making limited edition art prints?

In a lot of ways, I wish I wouldn’t have numbered up that first edition of the Thick Lines prints. Or, hell, any of my prints. In some weird way it “rarifies” them, and that’s not what I’m going for. It’s more for posterity, and tracking where we are at with the printing.

Some of my Thick Lines are in their seventh and eight printings, which is so cool, cuz it means people are buying them and enjoying them! But it’s that one turd who wrote me and said, “Uh, I thought these were only supposed to be an edition of 150?!” He was pissed I did a second run or whatever. That freaked me out. I’m not down with that game. I’ll print those things forever. And if you got a 34th printing or whatever, just know, each one was toiled over and loved. And signed by MY hand, proudly.

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Detail of Aaron Draplin’s book Pretty Much Everything from Abrams Books

With all of the junking you do, you have a very hands on approach to finding inspiration. I imagine you being a very present and involved creator. How involved are you in the production of your products?

If I could hot-stamp each little coin purse, I would! I’m as involved as I can be. From the dreaming up of the thing, to the sourcing, to the art, to the funding, to unloading the shit into the shop—that’s me. And I love the whole process. Especially the time on the phone battling over prices and shipping logistics. I’ve learned how to be one of hell of a problem solver, dealing with feisty promotional products people over the years. Too many times I feel like a cake decorator, which is fine. With the stuff I make, I feel close to it, like I got to help bake the cake a bit, too!

Oh and I totally forgot a big part! My gal Leigh ships it. The merch mistress needs to get some light shined on her. She’s a big part of what I do. It’s one thing to make it, then sell it, then…SHIP THAT SHIT! And that’s where she comes in and keeps the whole thing moving along. Thank you, Leigh.

‘Pretty Much Everything’ by Aaron Draplin

Draplin’s book Pretty Much Everything from Abrams Books

How closely did you work with the publisher and printer for Pretty Much Everything?

As close as humanly possible! I was in Portland, they were in New York! Daily, hourly phone calls from John Gall kept me in line! They called. And I freaked out and made a book. With guidance of course.

I wrote it. Dug up the shit. Scanned stuff in. Shot stuff. Laid it all out. “Designed” it! But, under the watchful eye of John Gall, Gabriel Levinson and Sarah Massey from Abrams. They kept the stuff tight. I think it surprised them how eager I was to tackle EVERY page with fervor. I had to. This was my one shot to do it the best I could. And I went for it!

The 'Everything Else Enhancement Kit' from Draplin Design Co.

The “Everything Else Enhancement Kit” from Draplin Design Co.

I saw your “Everything Else Enhancement Kits” on your site. Is that something you’re doing with Abrams, or is that all DDC?

All me on the slipcase! The whole EEEK kit.

Your book Pretty Much Everything shines a light on one of your skills that I don’t hear about enough—Aaron Draplin as writer. It’s one thing to have a chapter on your design work for bands, but reading the accompanying stories heightens the connection for the viewer. Your writing, like your talks, is about that connection between you and the customer, the audience. Did you envision the book being as text heavy as it is from the start?

Not from the start. The thing ended up with 55,000 words! And that was surprising. What should design books be, you know? Just simple spreads of eye candy? I love that stuff here and there, but I also love when you pull back the curtain on something to see what really went down. Or, the thinking behind it.

This book went from a way to show EVERYTHING, to a way to show everything, and tell the story about it all. And in a lot of ways, that’s me. I can spin quite a yarn.

Detail of Aaron Draplin's book 'Pretty Much Everything' from Abrams Books

Detail of Aaron Draplin’s book Pretty Much Everything from Abrams Books

How close is the final book to what you had planned from the beginnings of the project?

Very, very close. I don’t feel like I’m missing much! The only part that hurts is the 16 typos we found! Dammit! The book is in its third printing and we corrected all the extra spaces and misspellings in the latest printing run. I’m so proud of the thing. I built it from head to toe, just like my half-ass career. And it’s all in there. Makes me happy and proud and freaked out!

Yeah, the book is incredibly packed with stories, big and small. One story that struck me in the book is your time with Grenade Gloves, a company that had great success and then faltered after losing key people that made it great to begin with. Seeing situations like that from the inside, does it make you cautious, or fearful, of it happening to DDC? Is that even a possibility?

Not at all. You have to remember that, simply put, all of this shit? It’s icing! The cake we baked…from years ago…that is still there. And once I got myself stable, on my own two feet, and, able to work on shit I loved, I had ARRIVED. And everything since that? The world tour, the mile high orders of merch, the press and now that book? All shit I never planned on happening. So hell, if it went away? No sweat.

I’ve seen cool stuff try to go big and then internally kill itself from the inside out. That’s rough to watch; rough to be a part of. I’m keeping my shit small as I can, for as long as I can. Or let’s put it this way: I have my rent paid for a decade. A decade!

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Detail of Aaron Draplin’s book Pretty Much Everything from Abrams Books

You’ve built a career from just yourself to having other folks help out. How did you grow from a one person business to many successfully?

Don’t really know. And I have to say, every time someone smarter than me tells me they know the way how to make this bigger, I squirm. I’m doing my very best to meet the demand, with one foot on the gas, and one on the brake.

Here’s the thing: I like to think we keep it as big as it needs to be. Past that, new, freaky territory we cautiously grow into…slow and steady!

A collection of DDC merchandise

A collection of DDC merchandise

The DDC shop is full of incredibly simple and useful items – A comb. 6” ruler. Coin purse. A first aid kit. These are products in the everyday life of folks, and also easily branded. The DDC style works well with most items out in the world, and it seems as if you have a connection to that item, you can write about it and sell it.

I like making useful things. And the more that can get out to people, cool. It’s just funny how the most basic stuff can take on a new life when someone is reintroduced to it. Like a pencil. Or paper. Or a simple plastic envelope opener. We all need these things in our lives, and it’s like we forget how to use them effectively. Is that due to iPhones and minute-by-minute data dumps? Maybe. My favorite things have been my favorite things for a long time. And it hurts when you can’t find them at the store.

So yes, I understand CLEARLY there’s a kitsch to the bulk of what I make, but for one second, get delusional with us: What if, I’m just simply making things to better people’s lives? Cuz man, that’s how I look at it, as upside-down as that might sound. I like things that make people smile, or, open an envelope in a more efficient way.

I don’t see your products as kitsch at all, there’s no irony or garishness to what you do that I see — just pure practicality, which is rare these days, which makes a DDC comb or an envelope opener fresh in their physical usefulness.

You ride a very interesting line between being a boutique collectibles brand to being a major design firm. If a store like Target or Wal-Mart started carrying DDC brand combs and rulers or had your “Thick Lines” prints in their home goods section, would that a be a good thing? Is that a win?

I’d love to see them in a bigger setting. There’s nothing wrong with going bigger. I love when my stuff makes that jump, out of my hands. There’s a limit to how big I can push this stuff. People are too quick to call that “selling out” or some shit. My version of “selling out” is a little bit different. I want to SELL OUT of the print, and then make something else! Or use the profits to make something new!

We go to Target once a month. And you know what I love? It’s beautifully designed. And that’s something EVERYONE gets to enjoy. Same goes for Wal-mart. Sure, they’re evil and all that, but shit, like it or not, that’s where America shops. So the idea of offering my work that can reach that many more people, at a fair price? I’m okay with that. It’s still about the end user: “Did they enjoy the t-shirt, poster, product or graphic?” If the work does its job for the task at hand and you are paid fairly for it, then no sweat.

Detail of Aaron Draplin's book 'Pretty Much Everything' from Abrams Books

Detail of Aaron Draplin’s book Pretty Much Everything from Abrams Books

Field Notes has done limited editions of various DDC designs as well as those of fellow illustrators Landland and print house Mondo. How do you decide who to work with? Were you friends first and business partners later?

They are buddies. Dan Black and I go back to 1998 as buddies and classmates at MCAD, and I’ve been a fan of his mind-blowing work ever since. I got introduced to Mondo’s Mitch (Putnam) through Dan and another mutual buddy, Aaron Horkey. Whom I am told, Aaron is a bit mysterious and reclusive! Which adds to the lore! I met Aaron back in Minneapolis in 1999 through mutual friends from his hometown in Windom, Minnesota. I know him as a nice, genuine, down-to-earth guy. And of course, was fuckin’ blown away by his work.

And all these years, I’ve been watching these guys grow, and the whole time have loved how authentically sweet and gentle they are. I’ve run into some real turds along the way who’ll tell you how great they are. Look at their work. That’s how they tell you, in their own incredible ways. So to meet Mitch and get closer to the crew who makes so much cool stuff, it’s been fun. I’m a fan, and know better to take any of it too seriously. So of course, these kinds of folks, they are a blast to work with. I feel lucky to know ‘em!

A glimpse at Aaron Draplin's merch table

A glimpse at Aaron Draplin’s merch table

Being around guys like Mitch, Dan, and Aaron and everyone at MondoCon, are they rubbing off on you in anyway, creatively? Are there things that they do that you’re able to pull from?  

Honestly, I see them so rarely, we just end up bullshitting and laughing. Horsing around. Dan has showed me some incredible tricks of the trade for setting up a booth. I study his ways!

A glimpse at Aaron Draplin's merch table

A glimpse at Aaron Draplin’s merch table

A few of the 'Limited Edition' Field Notes sets

A few of the ‘Limited Edition’ Field Notes sets

Some limited edition Field Notes go for quite a price on the eBay market, a jump from the $10 for a pack of 3. You come across as a very inclusive man, everyone who wants one can have one, but the “limited edition” is only for a special few. Even the “Thick Lines” prints get later editions. Do you concern yourself with the idea of “limited editions”? Is it just a matter of if the project needs that sort of distinction?

Those initial Field Notes runs were not “limited editions” in the sense that we kept them limited. We were just starting out, and that was just the size of the run! 500 is a lot of something when you don’t know if they are going to go or not. So when we use that verbiage it’s more or less just cataloging the size of the run. Plus, I like those sorts of details.

There was no strategy. And then, I go and make a couple of the first Thick Lines posters, and I am cautious. Mainly, I made them cuz I wanted one for my wall! Ha! And then they go NUTS and fly off the shelves, and then you have to make another run, and are cautious all over again. And another run. And another. It’s bonkers, really. So thankful to have moved so many, and, kept track of the whole mess, with surgical precision!

I found it interesting to read in the book that you’re not much of a drinker, something you’ve said in past interviews. This is something I’ve been hearing a lot from freelance creatives and I’m not sure if this is connected to working for yourself, but it is an idea I’ve toyed with myself. Do you find drinking interferes with getting work done properly, or is the decision based on something else?

I’m a teetotaler, more or less! And not for any health reason, or, political angle. I just don’t really like beer. And past that, who’s got the time to simmer in some bar, downing overpriced drinks? I sure don’t, at least right now. Maybe, I’m saving all that shit for later in life? Just sit around with a perpetual buzz, in my 60s?

I mean, when I do catch a little buzz once or twice a year, it’s always special and goofy. And wobbly. And that’s good. Feels dumb, like it did the first time I did it. And, there’s something powerful about having control of yourself, at all times. I’ve had cops mess with me, and to look them in the eye with a certain kind of certainty is a powerful, weird thing. I’ll only drink if I’m in a controlled environment. Like, Las Vegas. That place is weird as shit. Might as well make it weirder by suckling an ass pocket of cheap whiskey!

Aaron Draplin at MondoCon 2015 with fan (Photo courtesy of Eric Houtman)

Aaron Draplin at MondoCon 2015 with fan (Photo courtesy of Eric Houtman)

MondoCon 2016 logo by Aaron Draplin

MondoCon 2016 logo by Aaron Draplin

In 2015 you made your first booth appearance in Austin for the Mondo gallery’s convention MondoCon. The event is similar to Comic Con in a way, as it focuses on pop culture and mainstream collectibles, yet the DDC booth fit right in. How did you get involved with that event? Had you done other poster events like Flatstock in the past?

I was a little nervous to go to Mondo! With Flatstock, I’m not allowed in due to arithmetic and content rules, which is fine, and, hell, I don’t want my funny, little posters to compete with rock shit. I mean, I get it.

It was so fun to be around all that new stuff. It’s new to me. I don’t know the first thing about monsters and superheroes and stuff. There were a couple kids who stood there sort of scratching their heads at my booth, which was fun to win them over. Who doesn’t like a cool hat or set of memo books or weird coin purse, you know? Word traveled quick and before I knew it, stuff was moving. I’m really looking forward to going back, mainly, to see all the cool art. Met so many insanely talented people there, all willing to shoot the shit. So cool.

DDC Action Caps

DDC Action Caps

I have a DDC Action Cap and I love it, BUT, I have a narrow pinhead so it looks odd on me. One thing I love about DDC is that the products come from you, if you wouldn’t wear it or use it, it doesn’t exist. Your shirts come in kid sizes, but any future plans for women’s shirts or better yet, hats for narrow pinheads? 

Yeah, damn, I love making hats that fit big heads, which on some level is discriminating against our customers with more normal sized, or small-ish domes. Sorry, you animals! But hey, we’re the ones who can’t find the stuff to fit our gourds, so, well, I’m doing my part to outfit my brethren with large melons. My apologies for your head size. We offer a “Grow Into It” policy on all DDC dry goods. Get to work, man!


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