Aaron Draplin on hard work, keeping things small and fun, and his design process
One of the best things about our magazine, Creative Boom is that we get to interview some of the biggest names in the art and design world. A recent subject was none other than internationally renowned Aaron Draplin – the man behind developing the identity of Esquire, Ford Motors, The Obama Administration and Burton Snowboards.
He's one of the new school of influential graphic designers who combine the power of design, social media, entrepreneurship, and DIY aesthetic to create a successful business and way of life.
Based in Portland, Oregon, he's just launched a new book – Draplin Design Co. Pretty Much Everything – a mid-career survey that includes examples of his work via his own studio Draplin Design Co. – posters, record covers, logos – and presents the process behind his design with projects like Field Notes and the Things We Love “State” Posters.
Here's an extract from our interview with the fun, larger than life character; a popular regular on the world speaking circuit for some of the biggest events in the creative industries:
You've achieved so much in such a small amount of time. What's your secret? How do you fit it all in?
"It’s been a good fifteen years or so. My secret? I work hard. And, I do this stuff for fun, way more than for a buck. When you ask how I fit it all in, I suspect you ask how I fit design into my life? But I have to say, I kind of flip it around the other way. How do I fit life into my designing? That’s the challenge. I work way more than I should, I’m betting. And frankly, that’s how I got ahead.
"I understand very clearly these opportunities are fleeting, and go away in a blink of an eye. So I’ve taken advantage of all the gigs, big and small, good loot and for free… in the pursuit of building a life I could be comfortable with. So far, so good!"
You mentioned you worked in a studio before you went freelance. What was that like? And what drove you to go solo?
"It was cool, because it’s a good environment to learn in. Plus, they protect you with account managers and all that. But, it quickly became claustrophobic. I’d go home from a long day and work on my own shit, to oddly decompress. From the big leagues, to the little leagues. Each night. And the little leagues? I could make better loot there. So I split."
Today, you have a successful design business and all these interesting side ventures, like Field Notes – what's that feel like?
"It feels warm and paper-ish. Occasional paper cuts! (Sorry, I keep answering this literally! Laugh it up.) Field Notes is growing and growing. And I’m forever thankful to Jim Coudal for his vision and guidance. Without all the folks in Chicago, that thing would’ve died a decade ago. It feels awesome to have invented our own little path. And the coolest part? Our little books are affordable and designed precisely how we want them to be. No compromises. So proud of those books. And damn, thanks to everyone who uses them! New stuff coming this summer!"
Was there a point when you realised you'd 'made it’?
"That’s still debatable. But there’s been some bright spots: Paying off my house was a big one. Tripling my wage, my first year on my own, too. Or being able to take care of my mom and dad with this stuff. That sort of stuff. And the best part? I did it working with friends. So proud of all this shit."
Any projects you're especially proud of?
"Funny enough, it’s always the underdogs. It’s natural for us to take our biggest projects and shine the most light on them. I do it a little differently. I like to show the long shots…the sketchy things…and how my design brought something to life, or rescued it, or made it a player amongst bigger things. I’m way more proud of those instances. Mainly because that’s not how it’s supposed to go. I like messing with that."
You touch on avoiding the big leagues - why do you deliberately stay small as a design business?
"It’s more comfortable. But honestly, I squirm trying to answer this. I’ll put it this way: I don’t want to be woken up, or, have some alarm going off in my ear each morning, and then having to drag myself to some job I sorta like. You know what I mean? The stuff I work on? I can’t get down to the shop fast enough. I sleep until the world wakes me up. Then I whip down to the shop and pack it all in. All those big jobs I’ve had? You had to be up so early, hating life. Like, pretending to like it. And you can feel people putting on an act. Just not for me. I could play the game, but it felt fake and forced. So, I’ll stay small and let the universe wake me up and not some account manager with a little too much pep in their step. And barely make rent each month. Just kidding!"
There's a culture to encourage us to grow, grow, grow in the creative industries. Why do you think people still associate 'big' with success?
"I don’t really know how to answer this one. I mean, here’s what I know. Bigger isn’t always better. 'Bigger' in my world? It means more people weighing in. More emails. More meetings. More bullshit. More time being around people you can’t stand. I know that sounds terrible, but I’ve been in enough of those situations, mad at myself for not having the guts to bow out. And I took it on the chin, smiled and finished the job. Like a good worker bee.
"Working with a friends, or some band? We’d look at each other in some moment of high tension and just laugh and go, 'Really? This is how it is! Fuck it, let’s take a break and go hit the record store. Let’s go nap. Let’s quit for the day and hit it hard tomorrow morning.' Stuff like that.
"You want the big job? Go get it. You want the big client? Go after them. I’ve tasted it a couple times. And like anyone, I take the bait here and there. Sometimes you get the sense it’s something big, but with the right folks guiding a smaller component of it. And then I bite. And do the job ferociously."
What frustrates you about the design industry?
"Not that much. Of course, when I indulge and think about it, it’s chumpy stuff like design trends. So funny, and kind of predictable. Oh, and trolls, who would rather leave a shitty comment instead of taking the time to actually do some good work. Those little fuckers. But you see, I don’t really consider myself part of the design industry, per se. I operate outside of it. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself."