Catching up with founder of Draplin Design Co: Aaron James Draplin
“Learn to love design. We’re a lucky bunch to work in this stuff and always savour that, on the job and off.”
Late last year, we had the pleasure of welcoming graphic designer Aaron Draplin on to the stage at our Creative Meet Up in London. In the hour that Aaron spoke, he had the audience hooked with his inspirational talk about the highs and lows of life in the creative industry, along with some great life lessons on how dedication to your craft pays off.
For anyone that missed Aaron’s talk, we caught up with him to chat about the key to being a successful designer, his inspirations and what’s next for Draplin Design Co…
Adobe: Tell us a bit about yourself
My name is Aaron James Draplin and I’m 43 years old. I have a great lady in my life named Leigh, who I’ve been with for a decade. I was born in Detroit, raised in Traverse City, Michigan up north. I moved west in 1993 to Oregon to snowboard with high school buddies, then worked summers in Alaska, then art school in Minneapolis, then a couple of years in Los Angeles, and got back up to Portland in 2002. I’ve been here for 15 years. Love it!
A: How did you start out in the creative industries? Did you always want to be a graphic designer?
A.D: Right out of high school. I was 17, jumping into community college. I grew up drawing and painting, so it was an easy transition. And, I needed to make a living so graphic design made sense on a pragmatic level.
A: What does your usual work day consist of?
A.D: I’m up at the house around 9am. Down to the shop by 10am. Then I hammer all day on projects, or taking out the recycling, or shipping merchandise, or playing my guitars, or whatever feels right. I make a list, and I start chipping away at it. When I’m done with the list, I’ll go home. It might not be until really late, or, sometimes, I’ll just cut it short and split. The important thing is this:
“If I stay late, or leave early, it’s on my terms. That’s a lucky spot to be in. I worked my ass off to get to this point.”
A: Have you got any quirky rituals that help you get into work mode?
A.D: If by quirky, you mean: When I wake up? That’s when I check for a heartbeat, and if things feel okay I get up and race down to the shop. That’s pretty much the deal.
A: How do you approach a new brief for a client?
A.D: The first thing is that I just try to get them excited to do the work, and have the chance to create something from scratch. I want them to be into it. Too many times, it’s this adversarial thing. Scrap that. We’re in it together. And I explain that in the beginning. Then I dig into the questions, research, listening, sketching, all working towards that first presentation.
A: What’s the secret to a great logo?
A.D: Legibility and scalability. Simplicity. Wit. Impact. Economy of form.
A: Do you have a favourite logo that you’ve designed?
A.D: About a decade ago, I did a logo for my friend Cory’s “Cobra Dogs” hot dog car. Mainly because he was in trouble, and I rescued him with graphic design. There was no money for me. I did it because I loved my buddy. Not every gig is about a pay check. The full story is in my book!
A: You’ve got a super-impressive client list including Nike, Patagonia and the Obama administration, at what point did you realise you had made it?
A.D: When I paid my house off in 2010. It was symbolic for a couple reasons. First, it meant that I was successful enough to get ahead and chop that debt down, and fast. Second, and this is the most important part: I did it on my own terms, working for friends and things I loved. I’m so proud to type those words here.
A: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
A.D: That you can do this stuff on your own terms, from your basement. And this was from a buddy who did production work and production work only. At my only agency job. And he’d laugh at me, saying this, “Look at you…trying so hard to go for the gold! Here so late each night. Me and you? We still make the same loot. You should jump out on your own and be rewarded for all time you put in.” And it knocked me to the ground That’s when I put my months’ notice in and went out on my own. I haven’t looked back since. That was 2004.
A: Who inspires you and why?
A.D: All sorts of folks. Some are living, some are dead. Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, Cornel West, Michael Moore, Pope Francis, Neil Degrasse Tyson…those are the big names that come to mind. Those are the ones making change in the world. For equality. For fairness. For science. And often, for the people who get beat down looked over or disenfranchised. In the interstellar cosmos? Maya Angelou, David Bowie, Martin Luther King, Isaac Newton…and my Dad, whom I miss horribly.
A: What do you do when you suffer from creative block? What helps you get back into the zone?
A.D: First thing’s first, I don’t subscribe to that term. It’s a big, stinky crutch. Graphic design isn’t something one should complain about, or, wrestle with. It’s art. It’s a lucky world to operate in.
And here’s why: We are lucky as hell to be inside, clean, insured, working on cool computers, on projects big, small, cool or downright ugly. And I’m not going to tarnish that set of privileges bellyaching that I can’t come up with something creative. People use that term a little too much, when frankly, they should work a bit harder.
I’m simply saying that graphic design is pretty easy on us, and coming up with stuff shouldn’t be a battle. Savour that, and be thankful for that simple fact.
A: What would you tell anyone who’s looking to follow in your footsteps and get into the creative industries?
A.D Make design a hobby, and the rest will fall into place. I’ve always loved this stuff, which never really makes it feel like a “job” that people always complain about.
A: You’ve just wrapped up a hugely successful book tour – how’s that going?
A.D: It went well! We wrapped up our fall tour last week! Seven weeks! 12,000 miles! 34 gigs! A million wild-eyed designers! So fun. I’m back in Portland, and I miss the van.
A: What’s next for you and Draplin Design Co.?
A.D: Scheming up the spring tour! Hitting the road in March and April for a romp across the rust belt, down the eastern seaboard and back out west through the plains states. Excited to get back in the van!
A big thank you to Aaron for taking the time to speak with us. Follow him on Twitter at: @draplin to keep up to date with all his latest projects.