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.
Create: As someone who deals in logos and identities, do you have a favorite logo?
Draplin: I love the classics, which would be things like your Saul Bass Bell Telephone logo. That’s one of my favorites of all time. And that’s because it takes the shape and brand awareness of Bell Telephone and an actual bell, and it reduces that down to its simplest essence. It’s as easy to use his mark today as in 1969. There’s something timeless about it. Yes, it starts to straddle that sort of “throwback” idea, but that’s not really the connection I’m making. I love it because it still works today.
But I always talk about that one, so let me just pull another one out of my keister here. There’s a guy by the name of Burton Kramer, a Canadian graphic designer. And one of my favorites of all times was his logo for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, from 1974. It’s got this beautiful geometry. It’s got this reducible quality where it can be the size of a dime, and it works just as well on the CBC trucks zipping around Canada. And it just says “emanating” and “broadcasting.” This thing was born one year after I was born, but it still works today. And the CBC still uses it, much to their credit.
These are things that are supposed to be quick reads, and what’s interesting is that now, as we have to be on Twitter and have a 10-by-10-pixel avatar on our Instagram and all of that, isn’t it funny that those guys were forced to do that 60 years ago, because things had to work on the bill as well as they worked on the truck? Today, a logo may work in the corner of a website in 52 colors, because it’s just this digital vapor, but then when it’s time to embroider it on a uniform or even put it on Twitter, you can’t read it…. I’m always excited to champion the idea that logos are getting shittier because we’re making them more and more complex. There are a lot of great examples to look at from yesteryear, because they didn’t have those resources. We need to be careful with how we spend that modern currency.
Three of Draplin’s favorite logos of all time include (from left to right) Saul Bass’s Bell Telephone logo, Burton Kramer’s Canadian Broadcasting Company logo, and Bruce N. Blackburn’s American Revolution Bicentennial logo. He has one of these logos as a tattoo.
Create: Also on the subject of logos, do you have any tattoos?
Draplin: I’ve got a bunch. I’ve got my dad on my arm. I’ve got my favorite logo of all time, Bruce N. Blackburn’s American Revolution Bicentennial logo from 1975–76 on my leg. I’ve got the Great Lakes on the back of my leg. And then I’ve got three little light bulbs—one turns on, and one cracks; it’s sort of a thought process…these are classic industrial icons.
And then on my knuckles I have a couple shitty little blue dots that I did when I was 15 years old, with rapidograph pens in my art class. There was this guy in my class who had done the same—on his inner arm, and I swear to God, he put the band Skid Row’s logo, like this really shitty tattoo. And that’s on him today. But what I did that afternoon, I just broke the skin on my knuckles and I put these little blue dots, and I still have them to this day. When I see my mom, she’ll hold my hand and say, “That is so trashy that you did that.” But I was in art class, I had this incredible set of rapidograph pens, and it worked. So that’s the whole tattoo list right there.
Create: Perhaps you’ve just revealed the answer to this question—but if you could go back in time, what advice would you give teenage you?
Draplin: Oh, man, I don’t know. I tell kids to have fun, to keep it fun. I always tell them that. And I did; I’m pretty proud of that. What would I tell my teenage self? Maybe not to freak out so much…. I guess I wouldn’t really change a lot, though.
I know. I would tell myself, “Just so you know, there’s going to be a lot more people who make things un-fun than there are ones who make it fun.” Because that’s really the truth. I’d say, “There’s going to be a lot more dinosaurs with backward ways of thinking, because of some job that they’re trying to fight for. So just be aware of that, and don’t be so jarred by it.”
I remember being in trouble with my buddies when I worked at a snowboarding magazine because I was the one who met some of the big top brass halfway. You know, “That’s the man, you’re not supposed to be cavorting with the man!” But here’s the deal: When sales are on the line, you’re not going to get around it. So there’s something about that, too: sizing up the turds and realizing how to work them the right way. I don’t know how to say that without sounding like a total jerk, but there’s something to understanding that’s just part of life.
Draplin has a long history with Snowboard magazine.
Create: If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what other career do you think you’d have chosen?
Draplin: I think some sort of woodworking. My dad taught me a lot when I was growing up—how to work with wood, how to measure, how to cut, all those sorts of things. Anything around the house, my dad worked on it. We didn’t really hire people. My dad would be out there, on the ladder, doing the deal.
About ten years ago, I had to build these shelves in my basement, and I had no cutting tools, but in Illustrator I went through and I built out the space, and I figured out exactly what size each piece should be, and then I went out to Home Depot and utilized their cutting service. With a little bit of planning, I came home and had that thing put together in about an hour, and to this day it is beautiful. And it’s just simple plywood, but my dad showed me how to countersink and sink and glue and the whole bit, and that thing is a beautiful built-in.
When I have more time or in my next phase, I really look forward to building some sort of home and having the time to go and trick it out and build all the stuff I need inside that home. But right now—I have a little broken window right now, and I don’t even have time to fix that. It’s embarrassing that I don’t have time to go and do that! I would enjoy that! So that’s the answer—maybe some kind of woodworker or construction worker or contractor. I love making things, be it a logo or constructing stuff.
Draplin has been inspired by his father and by his dog Gary.
Create: OK, so you’re going to be stuck on a deserted island for ten years—an island that happens to have a solar-powered DVD- and CD-playing device of some kind. What DVD, music CD, and book would you bring?
Draplin: Oh, this is so easy. So, I’m on a desert island, heavily chafed, sweating, in the sun. It just sounds so hot! For the movie, I would have The Shawshank Redemption. I could watch that thing anywhere. Or Uncle Buck…. So that’s Shawshank Redemption, and if I got to put two on my shelf, Uncle Buck would be number two.
For a record, hmmm. It would be…the Indigo Girls. No, just kidding. What would be…Lisa Loeb! No, no—seriously, I’m trying to think. There are so many avenues to go down! I’m thinking of things I was raised on…there are certain Neil Young records that we would listen to over and over again. But Neil Young? I don’t know about that. So put down Son Volt’s Trace. That album is in my top five of all time. There’s just something about it. It’s oddly sophisticated—folky but in an appropriate way.
And a book? Papillon, by Henri Charrière. That’s easy.
Create: Also on the island, we’ve decided to give you an unlimited supply of any snack food. What would you choose?
Draplin: Oh, man, I love any kind of little pretzel—a crunchy little pretzel. Here’s what it would be: pretzel rods, because you can pretend they’re cigars.
Create: Just so we get the deserted island in the right place—because we’re Adobe, you know, and we can make this happen—what’s your favorite ocean?
Draplin: Lake Michigan.
Create: When is the last time you laughed really hard?
Draplin: You know what comes to mind? There’s a comedian named Eddie Pepitone, and he’s got a show you can watch now on Netflix. And I don’t follow comedy much—I’m a big Mark Maron fan, and he will talk about Eddie Pepitone among the other colleagues and comedians he talks about. I watched Eddie Pepitone’s latest special, and there were a couple of moments where I could not get air into my lungs. And what’s interesting is how good you feel after that!
It’s amazing that one guy and a microphone can inspire a reaction like that. It just doesn’t happen to me with a lot of the big comedians. But this guy—I just couldn’t handle it. It was incredible.
Create: Choose a superpower: invisibility or the ability to fly. Explain.
Draplin: Oh, man. I guess I’d have to say invisibility. You can go spy on things…though I guess you’d get bored pretty quick looking at your buddies, you know, brushing their teeth and humping and crying themselves to sleep and whatever else people do. But I think I’d say invisibility.
Create: So which superhero do you most identify with?
Draplin: I never really followed along with that stuff. When my buddies and I started getting into comics in high school, I went down the route of Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware and Fantagraphics and all these antiheroes. So superheroes? I’d definitely go after the guy in American Splendor way more than I would go after someone like the Silver Surfer. So Harvey Pekar is my answer—just for his ugliness and realness. He really taught you that you can be pissed off at the world, and that’s OK. You can be ugly, and that’s OK. And that’s what made him beautiful.
Create: What is your favorite smell—and why?
Draplin: Fall. Let’s just say fall—when it’s just on the edge of too chilly and it’s the last little bit of summer. There’s a freshness in the air that’s the best. It’s the best f***ing time of year. There’s just something about that—everything is dying, and it’s high time. That’s my favorite time of the year.
Or Gary’s breath—Gary’s breath in my face when I would wake up, back in the mid-2000s. Gary was my dog, a wiener dog. His breath smelled like earthworms. It was terrible.
Create: Do you have a personal motto?
Draplin: What I don’t want to say is one of the quotes like “Do good work for good people,” because that’s verging into bumper-sticker territory now. I really do get behind things like that, but there have been a lot of bad ones. So, hmmm. I also don’t want to say, “The devil is in the details,” but there’s something true about that.
How about this: “There’s time for the big jobs, and there’s time for the small jobs.” People are always apt to go after the big jobs, but bigger isn’t always better.
Create: Your life is being made into a TV sitcom—choose a theme song.
Draplin: That’s a funny one, because for whatever reason this summer we have gone on a really weird smooth jazz kick, and it is just gross. Chuck Mangione, George Benson’s “Breezin’”—and somehow that gets you to Stephen Bishop and the Tootsie theme [“It Might Be You”]. We recently watched the movie Mr. Mom, and the music in that thing! It’s that schlocky ’80s music, a lot of saxophones and a lot of—I don’t even know what instruments they’re using to make that music. Xylophones? We’ve been listening to a lot of that.
The soundtrack to my life? The sitcom of my life? You can just say this: It would be some crusty Richmond Fontaine song. That is my favorite Portland band, and [songwriter/vocalist] Willy Vlautin is a buddy of mine. I loved the band for 15 years before I met Willy, and I loved those records. And now as we’ve become buddies, I get to use that music, for instance if someone does a little documentary piece with the DDC, I get to use those songs. So yes, it would be Richmond Fontaine. They’re wild and they’re western and they’re sad—and they’re beautiful. And there’s just something about that.
Can’t get enough Draplin? Check out his “10 Pointers for a Somewhat Fail-Proof Existence.”