Aaron Draplin Interview, Part 1: “Go Grab It!”

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Have you ever encountered someone whose general enthusiasm is both boundless and contagious? Who leaves you with positive energy simply for having had a conversation? Someone whose “I can’t believe we get to do this cool stuff for a living” passion for design gives you even the slightest boost in your own work?

Aaron Draplin is that guy. Before I met him at HOW Design Live a couple of years ago, I figured Draplin to be one of those young guns whose growing reputation created kind of an untouchable, rockstar persona. Wrong. Talented and humble in equal measures, Draplin wears his heart on his work. He jumped on the designer-as-maker movement early on with his Field Notes brand of workhorse notebooks, and he continues to create self-directed merchandise projects to balance his client work.

As the year winds down and he’s planning a little holiday family time in Portland, OR, we asked Draplin about what he’s excited about, and what he’s looking forward to when he speaks at the HOW Design Conference in May.

Aaron Draplin

First, tell us a little about what you’re up to right now that’s new and cool. What’s keeping you busy these days?

Field Notes “Cold Horizons,” Space Shuttle tribute posters, “Things We Love” posters for new states, scheming up new DDC merch, making a logo for a record company, designing a 4-record set called “Divided & United: Songs of the Civil War,” a poster for Red Wing boots, helping my buddy launch the FINEX Cast Iron Works skillet company, keeping the shop cleaned up, a top secret DDC footwear project, a record for Willy’s new band the Delines, shipping mountains of DDC merch and waiting for my mom to get out to Portland for the holi-daze! That’s the stuff I can remember. I’m sure I’m forgetting a couple doodads here and there.

Oh yeah, I got a personal trainer. Two words that strike fear into the vocabulary of a “man of size!” Party’s over, people. You ought to see us bouncing around with all the ropes, steps and shit. So gross.

061011_ohio_poster; Cool poster design

You’ve got two current gigs, right? Wilderness and Draplin Design Co.? How do those two play together?

There’s strength in numbers. When I’m on the clock for Wilderness, I collaborate with my partners David Nakamoto and John “Goo” Phemister. But more and more, we kinda leave each other alone. I’ve got enough stuff going on in my corner of the shop to keep me out of their hair. And Nakamoto, that bro has a lot of hair. Mainly, we share a shop and watch over each other. Helping each other with billing and the business side of stuff. My older brothers. I’m the baby of the group.

You’re sort of a mashup of Midwest nice family guy and Pacific Northwest counterculture snowboarder. How do your past and current roots influence your design work?

Before I ever got paid a red cent for design, this stuff was a hobby. It was fun to learn, execute and explore new ways of making things. That’s how I got started in design. There wasn’t a knife to my throat by some half-ass, jaded, life-killing, taxpayin’ employer. And like where I’m from, you have to scrap to make it. Nothing is handed to you.

Snowboarding and skateboarding taught me precisely this: You want it? Go grab it. Make your own world and leave the numb nuts fighting for football glory, status and whatever else in the dust. And that’s what I did.

I don’t really complain about what I do. Designers love to bitch about their clients. This stuff just isn’t that hard. I mean, it’s frustrating to have someone make some weird change on you in the heat of it, but hell, it’s our job to move quick and keep them happy. There’s no complaining when it comes to picking up fallen branches all summer while trimming power line routes. That’s where I come from. That shit taught me to be very, very thankful for the life I get to lead with design.

I’m always interested when I meet a successful designer who doesn’t have the typical “I loved finger painting in kindergarten so I always knew I’d go to art school and be a designer” backstory. You’ve done a ton of different things … you’ve had to hustle. How does that show up in your work?

How’s it show up in the work? I’d hope in the following ways: An attention to detail, and overall appreciation for the founding fathers of design, a good sense of hierarchy and always putting the client first.

In the end, it’s the client’s piece. I think we need to remind ourselves of this. Too many times, we want ownership of the final logo or piece. It’s not ours. We were hired for the job. Make it right and make the client love it. That’s our job.

And for every piece I do on the clock for someone else, there’s a couple things I did simply for fun. I know this shows in the work. Serious stuff. Fun stuff.

More often than not, I don’t show the stuff I make for clients. It’s like, I don’t want to muck up their image with my goofy space shuttle graphics and orange DDC crud, you know? When I get their blessing, oh yeah, I’ll show it. Otherwise, I chalk the client stuff up as, “Worked hard for them and loved making them love it.” Scientific shit like that.

open_road_rule_01; poster design

What was it like to be a scanner jockey in Chuck Anderson’s office? Any funny stories to share?

Oh man, I loved that job. I was just glad to have my foot in the door—just to be around their energy, wit and output. The scanning was my little task. I figured out how to “batch scan” and would let that beast run for hours. Then I’d go lurk and dig through stuff, doing my best not to get in the way of Todd, Dimmel, Kyle or Chuck. No juicy stories to really share. Just more of a appreciation for getting to know all the guys. I’d leave each day with a headache. There was just too much to see. I’d go home so fired up to make stuff. I worked on Fridays at CSA. My buddies would go out that night and I’d hang at home making stuff. Thanks, Chuck!

For more good stuff from
Aaron Draplin, check out Michael Dooley’s excellent interview with him on the heels of the 2011 AIGA San Diego Y Design Conference. And read Part 2 of our interview with Draplin, where he talks about Field Notes and what it’s like to watch a personal project turn into a thriving business.

HOW Design LIVE 2014

You’ll find Draplin on the HOW Design Conference program in 2014—check out the full HOW Design Live agenda and register to create your own customized program.