«I Forget to Make Small Moves» – Interview with Aaron James Draplin

The man wears a trucker hat and a wild beard, beach shorts and a big print shirt. Seeing him for the first time, you would expect Aaron James Draplin to run his own show on a Vice cooking channel. Skateboarding maybe. Or in a streetwear startup. All of this, but you wouldn’t expect a graphic designer.

I didn’t until I saw him speak at TYPO Berlin back in 2015. His talks have titles like “Tall Tales from a Large Man” – and he clearly is large, not only physical, but also as a creative instance.

Having worked for John Hughes or President Obama, he still finds time to make illustrations for his beloved, now deceased dog Gary. “I make logos”, he introduces himself, humble as anyone could be. Now living in Portland, Oregon you can still feel the Michigan-vibe when speaking with Aaron. He says things like “in the shop” when he describes how he works, he refers to his fans and fellow designers as “kids”.

Selection of Logos made by Aaron Draplin. Source: http://create.adobe.com/­2015/­10/­6/­_18_increasingly_irrelevant_questions_for_aaron_draplin.html © Aaron Draplin

Last year, Draplin released a book that showcased his career so far. Half portfolio, half biography, half design reference, it’s an incredible piece that has sold over 33.000 times worldwide - so far. “You are not Aaron Draplin” is one of Design Inc. founders Marc Hemeon’s teachings for design newcomers. This man is legend.

I meet Aaron in the Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles at his Merch stand after one of his famous talks he gave in the morning.

Question: Aaron, you are traveling the states in a van to give talks at over 40 design gigs, you have your own Merch stand, you’ve got custom-made posters for all the places you go. Aaron, you’re not a designer, you’re more like a Rock Band.

Aaron: I love music, I play the guitar and a bit of drums, but I’d never be in a band. You don’t make any money, it’s hard. What I love though about a band is that every night it’s the same thing, just a little different. It’s fun, you get to see rural America, every night you have a different crowd. That’s the same thing as what I do – with the idea of telling a story. I love telling stories. You go and you share what you do – that’s not different than a band, they’re telling stories.

Q: What motivates you to do a tour like that?

A: It’s a two-way street. Not only am I lucky to share it, I’m getting something from the town too. I get to see their record store, their guitar store, that’s my little paycheck. But also to promote my book – a band makes a record, I made a book. You’ve got to push that! I’ve done that 42 times so far this year – that’s a lot of shows. It was ambitious, but I pulled it off.

Pretty Much Everything. Book by Aaron Draplin

Q: You’ve spoken in about 45 states so far, that is lot. But you’re also missing 5 states, right?

A: I know, I know. I haven’t done all the posters yet, there’s a couple of states missing. I just visited Wyoming and West Virginia, so these will be coming out soon – Wyoming is cool! We want do the middle of America, the Nebraskas and things. That will be the entire nation at that point. I like traveling! I’m not gonna do this til I’m 58 years old. I’m 43 now, so I still have a little bit of time. I like meeting people, share what we do and keep on going.

Q: Do you ever get exhausted?

A: My feet hurt right now. I stood up all day, We have been out here 17 hours. Of course I get tired. When I’m in the shop, and can’t come with stuff as fast as I want, I notice it. I take breaks. I do the recycling, I take out the dog, grab something to eat. I do trick myself sometimes: When I have a couple of hours, I’ll get it done, not gonna fuck around.

Q: By adding constraints to yourself?

A: Plane rides are interesting. You get 3 hours. 10 minutes to take-off, 10 minutes to land, that means you have 2 hours and 40 minutes to work. So I’ll set constraints like having 1 hour for emails, and I’m gonna get it done. I’ll go crazy, wanna pack all of it into that thing. Instead of watching movies, I’m utilizing my time.

Logo Poster for Wyoming. © Aaron Draplin

How do you enjoy just doing nothing? When I do nothing, I feel guilty. That’s where it gets a little unhealthy. You need breaks, you gotta eat, you need to sleep, you need to move and stuff. So I got some work to do. Always.

Q: Mark Hemeon of Design Inc. says that “Resentment creates Burnout, not working too hard” …

A: Resentment is a weird word. You do your best, you enjoy the moment. If you got a bad client, and every now and again you do, or you got a bad take on something, you just power through it, get it done, learn a little something and keep moving.

Q: Are you in a position where you can pick or reject clients?

A: I’m still that kid who takes every job, is very thankful, works very hard. I still take some work, it just needs to be a good fit. Yet I’m very selective – it’s more fun to go out and make things that are personal projects instead of me trying to work for someone else. Why not make my own stuff and sell that and make the money? Instead of working for someone else and get 1% of that project? I’m learning how to do that, but that’s a scary leap.

Q: You developed quite a signature style over the years. Futura Bold, a distinct color palette dominated by orange tones. How did that evolve over time, how did you find that style?

A: You are looking at what is popular and what people are doing. If you like things, you dislike others and start to pick these up and work within that.

I like unearthing things. If I saw something went by that would wow me, I would recreate that thing. It could have been something retro. I like to play with those things, I like to put a little twist on them so it feels new now. That doesn’t need to go out of style, it doesn’t have to be only for the 70s, it could be now. Thick lines or whatever you’d like to call it.

A lot of the stuff that I would work on for myself and that you would see is just a hobby. It’s not for a client, just for the hell of it, so I get to have complete creative control. The trick is to apply some of that stuff to a client. What if it’s not appropiate? You would never see that work because it’s something that was done differently to solve their problem. I would be the first to tell a client: You don’t need to dip yourself in Aaron Draplin, let me make you something that is yours.

Q: So Aaron Draplin also does Helvetica Light on a stock photo backdrop?

A: Of course! If that’s the job, that’s the job.

Q: Wouldn’t have expected that!

A: I’m not an artist who sells you “I’m gonna do what I do”. I’m a working designer. If you want Helvetica Light and different colors, I’m designing it for you. I’m not designing for Aaron Draplin. I’m working for you. I’m very clear about that. Forcing your style on someone is kind of not fair. There’s people who get bummed because they can’t do fun things in their work. Make your own stuff! Someone’s gonna see that and will go: “Aw that’s pretty cool!” Be alive in that stuff.

Q: Finding your own style is a fine line between being too specific and being too generic, like it could be from anybody else. How much attention do you put into these details?

A: Well you know if it sometimes just looks like a ration can from 1950 I’m not concerned about it, it’s supposed to be fun. I want people to enjoy it. I don’t want to have to think to hard when I work up to something, I want to enjoy it and make it enjoyable and pleasing. That’s my style. I don’t want it to be a gimmick.

Q: So you keep working on it until you enjoy it?

A: I have accidents where I think “oh yeah this is cool, let me try this” and then, I get tired of it. I go on to the next thing. There’s a lot of stuff that I did that you wouldn’t even see. Things I do for my mom or my sister, making a card for my nephew’s birthday party. This doesn’t look like Aaron Draplin, this is made for a 7 year old.

Q: Let’s talk about these things: lot’s of things you do feel like they’re coming from the inside of you, like you are doing those for yourself. Do you ever consider how people interact with your products, how they experience your design?

A: Of course! When we made Field Notes, we made a lot of tiny details – you want people to enjoy these things. That’s why I take the time trying to be creative to fill up all these little spaces. I want to get them, I want them to enjoy it. You think about them. I don’t make things purposely difficult, but I don’t make things purposely anti-intellectual. I want people to think a little bit but sometimes something is just straightforward because it feels right. When you go with your gut and you make it really simple, there’s nothing wrong with it. I have to be reminded to do it.

Q: How so?

A: I go and look at websites of other designers, just as a reminder that I can have little bit of extra something sometimes, just to see how they add a little twist to their work.

Q: Aaron Draplin checks Dribbble?

A: No, not Dribbble. It’s more like I go look at large agencies to see how they handle big things. Sometimes there is something really big they couldn’t go crazy with, they had to be more conservative. There is lessons there. I might be working on a small project, that can be conservative too. Small moves instead of being loud. I forget to make small moves sometimes.

Q: You do a lot of personal work, you show a lot of personal work, you integrate your dad, Gary your dog, you spent a lot of dedication on these things and you do a lot of internal logos for DDC. What’s your motivation here?

A: There is no one paying me, there is no one saying it’s due right now, it’s just fun to do. I just pretended my dog was my client and make a logo for him.The fun part is when someone sees it and goes: “God, that’s pretty cool, let’s hire him to do this for us.” And then you trick them into hiring you.

My dad was this really funny guy, I liked to mess with him, putting his face on stickers. He loved it! My buddies would put these stickers on their boards and guitar cases and they would meet my dad and go like “You’re on my guitar case!” They would meet him and it was this cool exchange. Why can’t there be a logo for your dad? Maybe your dad’s not the kind of guy. So what if you made a logo for your dad’s business? Same thing.

Logo Drafts and Illustrations for Gary the dog. © Aaron Draplin

I just like applying design to things close to me. I made my little dog a little hero. Little son of bitch, he’s so dead! (Pounds his chest and point to the sky) “What’s up, Gary!”

Q: Looking at all your internal logos it felt like DDC must be a really big design firm, but eventually it is just you.

A: I had the same thing happen to me when I was a kid. It might have been some great, prolific flyer designer in the 1990ies. They did a lot, they had a groove and they were just going for it and you couldn’t figure out if they had a big staff or if it was just them. I still don’t even know. But that inspired me.

I love when a kid thinks it’s bigger than just me – cause then I get to demystify it and say “Hey hey hey, you can do this too.” No one told me that. They told me you need a staff, you have to wear pants, be in a big shop and don’t swear, do meetings and emails and shit. You can work pretty dirty, too – I’m the proof of that. Well, my girlfriend Leigh does the shipping.

Q: Have you ever considered scaling up?

A: Of course I thought about it. What for? So I’m in the shop more? Or I’m not even working on things? It’s not about the money. When my friends start businesses with 15 people they don’t get paid 15 times more. They got $20,000 more. I can make $20,000 more on my own selling patches and stuff.

People react like: “That’s not smart”. But what is? To build some system where you don’t wanna be in your shop? Fuck no, I want to be there. I don’t want to have 9 kids looking at me “Now what?” I’ve seen that, it’s not fun. I might take on more work and hire a kid, but I make it quite clear: “You’re only here for 4-5 days, so go make the project and take your 4-5 grand and go and live for a couple of months. I’m proud of that. You can keep it small. And I’m gonna.

Q: Last question: If you weren’t a designer, what would rather be?

A: Uugh. A cowboy! I’m kidding. A homebuilder maybe. I would build homes.

Q: Making things!

Making things, building things. Designing things for people’s needs. I think about that a lot. A guy who builds shelves for record collectors. Could you be that specific? I think you could.

Dig into Aaron Draplin’s book “Pretty Much Everything” and browse through the whole collection of Field Notes. If you liked this interview, let me know on Twitter and share it with your friends.

Johannes Ippen
About the Author

Johannes Ippen is a designer from Berlin, passionate about French punk rock, really strong espresso and writing about design. Follow him on Twitter for more of design-related essays. Full bio →