• Michael Dooley

Aaron Draplin on Portland, Palin, Pizza, and…Design

Poster design by Aaron Draplin.

The theme of last month’s San Diego AIGA Y Conference was “Spark.” But Aaron Draplin, the first speaker, had grander ambitions. Aaron had flown down the coast from Portland, Oregon, which he calls “a good place to get rained on,” and where he started his own design company in 2004. He began by announcing that he was going to astound us, win us over, and fire us way up. And then… he did just that.

With moderator Petrula Vrontikis. Photo by Kirby Yau.

He zoomed through 100-plus images of his “legitimate, bona fide graphic art,” including an identity mark for President Obama’s economic recovery programs. He fast forwarded through his life, from his Midwestern upbringing to his work for Snowboarder magazine and Charles Spencer Anderson to Draplin Design Co., where he makes his living as its sole proprietor. He also tossed a bunch of mind grenades into the crowd, stuff like “Be the client… make shit happen,” “get out there… and get dirty,” and “dig on the unsung heroes of design.” And so he continued for close to an hour, while the audience absorbed his freewheeling rap and laughed at his proletarian swagger and deft wit. Throughout the conference’s full two days, it seemed every attendee had Aaron on their “favorites” lists.

By the Garden by the Sea and at the El Camino. Photos by Kirby Yau.

Following Aaron, there were seven more featured presenters. And, there were over a dozen Thinkshops to choose from, including Aaron’s full capacity hands-on sessions. And, there was the late afternoon post-session cocktail party at the Garden by the Sea on the campus of the University of San Diego, where the conference was being held. And there was the closing blast at Little Italy’s El Camino restaurant bar. Margaritas! Cerveza!

And for me, there was a very moving tribute to Doyald Young, a masterful designer of elegant letterforms who died just a few months ago, that was also held at USD, prior to the conference. There was late night dancing to Miguel and the Atomic 3 at Tio Leo’s. And, there was Y’s afterparty at a downtown high-rise loft space with a huge balcony that overlooked the Padres’ baseball field.

While kicking back at the party my son, a founder and creative director of a motion graphics company and the conference’s closing speaker, and I spent some time with Aaron. Our conversation careened all over the place, and included politics, the Pacific Northwest, and TV shows. And that seems as good a place as any to continue the conversation.

Logo designs by Aaron Draplin.

Dooley: So, does Portlandia prove that liberals are better than conservatives at making fun of liberals?

Logo by Aaron Draplin.

Draplin: But of course! Republicans aren’t funny. Ever.

But it also proves that things can go from funny to unfunny to painful, fast. I think the first episode hit the nail on the head, and then, well, we were “over it.” If anything, I’m just glad there’s all that goofy subculture in Portland to make fun of. Or that I get to live in a place that’s accepting of everyone.

Last time I was Rapid City, there was a big Tea Party rally going on downtown. I’d rather make fun of some overly educated hipster turd than some under-educated hatemonger. There’s nothing funny about those fucks.

Two frames from Aaron's slide show.

Dooley: How has living there, compared with the Midwest, affected your design aesthetic?

Draplin: If anything, it’s made me more cognizant of the beauty of the Midwestern design sense, whatever that might be. I get a little squirmy when I’m asked to explain what I think it might be, as that quickly falls into this flight realm of fashionable vapor.

Stuff comes and goes. One year it’s this style and the next year there’s something new. That’s everywhere though, right? I just naturally gravitate towards things that fall into the “no bullshit” category, and if the Midwest is known for that, then great. Just tell it like it is.

Dooley: You were Chuck Anderson’s “scan man” for about a year. How did this affect your sense of design?

Frame from Aaron's slide show.

Draplin: It opened my eyes to the possibility of making a cool life out of design, and not defaulting out to some scary “I hate my job” career. Chuck invented himself, and carved out such a cool little world of design. Made it fun. Made it approachable. Funny, even. I just loved being in there and seeing all the incredible stuff they’d make each day. I saw Chuck and Todd Piper-Hauswirth solve stuff in so many cool ways. Appreciation for the tiniest of details, you know? I try like hell to apply that savvy to my work, hourly.

I miss those afternoons. I’d leave with a monster headache. Too much awesome stuff in CSA to take in!

Dooley: Like Chuck, you’ve got your own line of merchandise. Who’s your main clientele?

Draplin: I sell a lot of merch to young, hungry designers. Brave souls who know a good thing when they see it! I’ll get these notes saying, “I’m a production artist for so-and-so design agency. Thanks for caring about us!” I sure as hell do.

Dooley: So what’s your hottest item?

Frame from Aaron's slide show.

Draplin: For whatever reason, I sell a lot of coin purses! They’re just a cool thing. Weird to the touch, and oddly pleasant in yer hand. Like, so antiquated in a world where credit cards do all the heavy lifting. When I get change, and that’s a sorta rare thing these days, it goes into my coin purse. Right in there with guitar picks and whatever little paper shit I found on the ground walking over to the market for lunch.

All readers of this interview need one! Going fast! Act now! Simple instructions. Fun for all ages. Weird, sweaty plastic. Really orange.

Dooley: Shifting to SoCal, what was your take on Y16?

Design by Aaron Draplin.

Draplin: I had an incredible time! It’s just super fun to go to a new place and meet so many like-minded folks, some accomplished and some scared shitless. And being able to offer my two cents to both ends of the spectrum.

I was honored to be there, really. I mean, I look at the Y people bringing me down there as a bit of a gamble on their part. Ha! I’d never really been able to attend those sorts of things, so hell, I was sorta more excited to be a camper and see all the talks and stuff.

Overall, such a nice facility and a tight staff who knows how to get it done and get me outta bed by 7 am. Still tired!

Dooley: You discussed Frank Chimero and Lab Partners on your blog. Any strong feelings about any other speakers? And I ask this simply as an objective interviewer, not as a dad.

Forum Snowboards designs by Aaron Draplin.

Draplin: I’ll never tire of seeing all kinds of different people talk. Freaks me out that there can be that many angles to this stuff, you know? I was told I was going to hate my job. But each speaker offered this cosmic sense of, “Wow, you can do what you want.” I need to hear that. So do all those kids in the crowd.

The underwater photography guy? I’m still thinking of that stuff and can’t wait to watch “BBC Planet Earth” discs again to see his mindblowing time lapse photography. So good.

And if I might indulge the paternal side of things, you’ve got a lot to be proud of in that son of yours. We spoke at length before his presentation and I instantly knew he was a solid character. Seeing his work was the icing on the cake! Here’s what I took from Chris’s talk: Want it? Go grab it. Make it yours. It was cool to hear how him and his buddies pulled it off. Long live National Television! Wait, is that unprofessional of me to mention your son like that? Hope so!

Dooley: It’s only unprofessional if I leave it in. Anyway, you made comments in your presentation like “Your client wants a piece of shit? Boo hoo. Be fucking thankful. I have friends who sell insurance, and that shit really sucks.” Have you ever gotten in hot water for telling it just like you see it?

Draplin: Hot water? Nah. All this stuff is in good fun. And hell, my friend who sells insurance would tell you the same thing. And regarding clients, they’re like brothers. And any story I tell up on that stage is from the heart and is meant to exemplify three things: one, I love the folks who trust me with their projects! two, check out the awesome stuff we get to make! and three, holy shit, we got away with it!

Those that have messed with me… well, I took it on the chin. Did my job as professional as I could, and gently reference their dumberassery here and there. And that’s it, you never work with them again. Ever. Battle wounds!

Silkscreen, front and back, designed by Aaron Draplin.

Dooley: You specified one particular font, Futura Bold, in the Things I Love part of Silkscreen, front and back, designed by Aaron Draplin.your talk. How come?

Draplin: It’s readable. Holds its own at small sizes, both upper and lower case. I appreciate that versatility. But like I said in the talk, I just really identify with its utilitarian quality. It works. Might not be the prettiest, but it gets the job done. Like me!

Two frames from Aaron's slide show.

Dooley: Okay, on your Things I Hate list you included Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. You also spoke highly of WPA graphics. And, you’ve said that “The guy laying out a newspaper is just as valid as some big shot art director in New York.” Mr. Draplin, are you really some sort of Tea Party-hating Socialist?

"The People's Sandwich Portland" mark designed by Aaron Draplin.

Draplin: Mr. Dooley, the answer is “yes.” If being one who believes in equality for everyone and a fair shake at making it in this world, then I am guilty as charged.

I put those turkeys in my presentation because of one reason: they are bad people. And hell, maybe the more we laugh at them, the less well take those wing nuts seriously. Maybe not. In any event, I’m doing my part wherever I can to properly defame them.

And fuck the Tea Party. Bunch of angry dinosaurs, on their way out. Scared people. A new America is coming whether they like it or not. Progress works like that.

I like to think that things just keep getting better. I hope so. For everyone. Not just those lucky enough to have figured it all out.

Dooley: Your “Under Pressure: Making a Logo in Two Hours” Thinkshop produced some amazing results. Does your “Try lots of shit and plop out something awesome” method also describe Draplin Design’s typical M.O.?

Aaron's Thinkshop. Photo by Kirby Yau.

Draplin: I just like to expel the energy and see what happens, you know? Get a little wild. Every now and again I’ll find myself in the outer limits of an exploration and I’ll stumble upon some magic. Maybe some folks can hit it right out of the gate. Sometimes I can, but it usually takes some weirdness for me to hit on something.

That workshop was about “going with yer gut” on a solution. Funny how those can outperform something toiled over, or strangled with research and focus groups or whatever. I like that kind of immediacy. Feel something? Go for it! Feel something weird? Grab it by the throat and try that. in the end, you have this page full of wild stuff, and in that pile might be the winner. Dooley: What would you recommend to designers planning a trip to San Diego?

Cobra Dogs identity design by Aaron Draplin.

Draplin: Bring some shorts! And, be hungry for incredible Mexican food. I made a pledge to eat Mexican food every meal and did just that, except for some nibbling at that high rise apartment thing where I met up with you guys. The best meal I had in San Diego was from a place with bars on the place where you ordered and where you picked up the food. Carne Asada!

Dooley: And did you score any good vinyl while you were there?

All Tiny Creatures record label design by Aaron Draplin.

Draplin: Oh yes! Got an old St. Vitus record from their weird, early SST days. Real dark and kinda Satanic stuff!

San Diego has incredible record stores. So many. A well stocked town. Portland has a ton of great record stores. I consider myself very lucky in that department.

Here’s another tip for that next trip to San Diego. Bring a box to carry all the records you scored home with you on the plane. You just can’t trust the luggage tossers. Protect that wax!

Dooley: Any last comments?

Draplin: Sure. Here’s a little something that always get my goat in our little design world.

The next press check you go on, bring the guys running the machines a pizza. That’ll win them over quick. I’ve seen just enough designers who treat those guys like servants or something to freak me out forever. Shake their hands and thank them for making this shit possible.

That kinda applies to everything, I’d bet.

Below, from the top, is the lobby outside the auditorium at USD’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, followed by the eight main stage speakers. In order: Aaron Draplin, Brian Boyl, Lab Partners, Frank Chimero, Bridgid McCarren, Peter Kragh, Raphael Grignani, and Chris Dooley. All photos by Kirby Yau.

Read more of Michael Dooley’s reporting on the backstory of the Y Conference in his four part series. Part 1 here. Part 2 here. Part 3 here. And part 4 here.

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