18 Increasingly Irrelevant Questions for Aaron Draplin
Aaron Draplin, the founder of Draplin Design Company (based in Portland, Oregon), is well known for his design, logo, and identity work—Draplin Design’s list of clients includes Nike, Wired, Incase, Burton Snowboards, Patagonia, Target, Woolrich, and even the Obama administration. In this interview, we get to the heart of some things that matter to him, as well as some things that don’t.
Draplin gets a lot of press, in part because he does amazing work, and in part because he’s just a cool guy to talk to. We’ve featured him twice in less than two years (check out “Past, Present, and Future Design” for an Adobe Create video profile), and we wondered, “What’s something we can do differently with Aaron?” Thus, inspired in part by Inside the Actors Studio and the Proust Questionnaire, “18 Increasingly Irrelevant Questions” was born. (Please note: Like his design work, Draplin’s language is strong!)
Create: Who is Aaron Draplin?
Draplin: I’m a graphic designer. I’m 41 years old. I’m up here in Portland, and I do whatever it takes to make a living with graphic design—and “whatever it takes to make a living” comes with a very weird asterisk alongside it…. More and more, it’s things that really don’t rely on a client. There’s this idea that work involves someone calling you and offering you a great opportunity—which has been the bedrock of what I’ve been able to do and what we all do. But more and more, I’m doing stuff that I just get to sort of invent, be it through my Field Notes or posters or other little knickknacks available through my site. So in that sense, things are sort of shifting.
Create: Is there a current or upcoming project that you’re really excited about right now?
Draplin: Things are going crazy. I worked on a book this summer. And I’ve just been going bonkers all summer long. Now I’m starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel, and then I’m going out on the road for you guys [for Adobe MAX] and a bunch of other things.
A couple months ago, Gary Hustwit, of Helvetica fame—and Objectified and Urbanized and all that stuff—approached me. He has a friend he grew up with, a guy by the name of Saul Koll, who has a guitar company here in Portland called Saul Koll Guitars. And they approached me and said, “Hey, we need a logo”—not only for the headstock, but also to break down to use on buttons and guitar picks and guitar straps and so on. And what was so cool about this is that it was my first chance to do something for a guitar.
Also, I was excited to meet Gary because I’m a fan of his work, and I’m a fan of the guitar—I play guitar—and then I’m a fan of guys who make beautiful things. So this one comes right to mind because—well, I’m working on it this morning, but also it really hits some great stuff. There’s always a lot of compromise in design. Sometimes it might be the money’s really good and the subject matter’s a little rougher, or the subject matter’s perfect and there’s no money, right? So here’s something that comes along, and you love the guys and you love the product…. I didn’t really have a lot of time this summer, but I made time for Saul, because when something comes in and it’s that juicy, it’s not even about the money.
Create: Describe an ideal workday.
Draplin: The ideal day is when I really feel like I’m hitting on all cylinders. Sometimes you come in—and I think this is probably everybody—you come in and you’re working hard and you’re pumping a lot of things out, and it’s a slog. It’s hard to do. Those are the days that are rough. But I know how to power through them. I know how to trick myself into the right headspace. My favorite days are the days when I can get a lot of shit done efficiently and then somehow just enjoy it.
My days don’t really feel like some sort of job job, where you gotta go because you’re chasing a paycheck and that’s just life. Of course, we’re all doing that to some extent, but this job feels less and less like that. So to come in here and be thankful for that, to be cognizant of how lucky I am…any time I’m having a rough patch, that’s what I tap right into, and it soothes me. And then I’ll quit complaining.
Create: What is your least favorite part of your job?
Draplin: What would be the hardest part of the day? Not a lot comes to mind. Sometimes it’s things like having to make changes that clients want, but I’m pretty good about navigating that—there are fewer and fewer curveballs, where they arbitrarily say, “Go this way.” And I know how to handle that stuff, so when that happens, it’s just part of it—rolling with the punches.
Maybe the hardest part is when I’m not using my time in the best way. I don’t have enough time. It’s a battle just to get everything done. I think we all go through that, and there are ways of maintaining it and ways of being creative with it. I don’t really indulge myself too much in bitching about it. I can’t. I have my moments, I lose it; I’d be a bald-faced liar if I told you that I didn’t. But I’m pretty good about stopping myself and saying, you know, “Shit’s pretty mellow.” Things are pretty good.
Create: What about your least favorite household chore?
Draplin: Well, I have to say that my girl, Leigh, keeps that place in incredibly tip-top shape. I am very lucky to have that.… It’s one thing to have a house, but maybe sometimes I get pissed off that it comes with a thing like a yard, you know. And I actually enjoy that stuff; I just don’t have the time for it. I don’t have the time to go and enjoy working on the yard; I don’t have the time to enjoy keeping my car clean. I like cleaning my car! I just didn’t have Saturday afternoons this summer. My choice this summer was to work on this book and a big project I can’t really talk about yet—one of the biggest projects of my life.