Before I interviewed Aaron Draplin, the man behind Draplin Design Co, this is what I knew of them:
- They have their very own branded merchandise. We ordered a bunch and the goods are hot.
- They make some unbelievable prints with Gocco.
- They’re fans of Wilco and Flaming Lips.
- They design for some well-known snowboard / skateboard companies.
- They are obsessed with a Dachshund named Gary.
I. “I can pay my mortgage for two more years, without any other projects.”
Hear, Hear: What is Draplin Design Co. and who is Aaron Draplin?
Aaron Draplin: The Draplin Design Co. is a small design company based out of Portland, Oregon consisting of three employees: I’m Aaron and I run the deal, Gary is security and Lovejoy handles the clipping pathery. If one man goes down, we work extra hard to cover the open slot. We roll up our sleeves on matters of print, identity, Gocco printing, photo direction, illustration, web design, copywriting and shameless self promotion.
About me. I’m a graphic designer by trade, from the Midwest, raised on art, punk rock, skateboarding and snowboarding. I’m into my guitars, my roadtrips, my dachshund Gary, my family back in Michigan, my studio, my friends, my clients, my house, my wanderlust, Portland, America, Earth and my pledge to make each day here better and better. It’s an uphill battle, folks.
HH: Why did you start your own studio, and what was your first year like?
I had an amazing gig at a design shop called Cinco Design here in Portland. Everything was on the up and up. Clients, challenging projects and good, inspiring folks to work with. But, after a couple years working hard on the Cinco clock and on my own time, I kinda outgrew the joint with my freelance opportunities.
Once my freelance workload started to rival my salary, I knew it was time to go out on my own and give it a shot. Of course, I saved up some scratch before venturing out, and lined up some soft retainers from existing clients. And in no time, things were up and running. I had a couple steady gigs and they were reliable enough to say, “Wow, this gig and this gig and this gig adds up to: ’I can pay my mortgage for two more years, without any other projects.’” Everything else was profit and icing on the cake.
I work out of my home, so, the integration of home and office has been a very natural thing. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to separate the two. My life is in my studio, the rest of the house is just sorta where you brush yer teeth or watch a DVD or something.
I do long for the employee-to-fellow employee dynamic. Lots of eyes on a problem is better than just my own. I miss the culture Cinco offered; having good people to hang with for the day, which spilled over into our free time too. We were a big family, in a sense.
My first year was absolutely amazing. I found myself able to focus on a number of projects, all at my own pace. I worked the entire summer and then hit the road in the fall for two months! I took off out of Oregon and headed back to the Midwest for eight weeks of adventure, roadtrips, visiting the parents, working from the road and just enjoying being free from the constraints of office life. Many things changed for me when I went out on my own, for the better.
HH: How do you balance your time between running your business (admin work) and finding time to design and blog?
It’s just all part of the big ball of wax: Client discussions, billing, filing, web searching, taking naps, playing with Gary, running errands around town all mix into the design process somehow. I just keep a big list going and check stuff off as I go.
I look at my blog as a fun communication tool; a way to share with friends and colleagues. I like being blown away each morning by a link that makes me want to keep going and put off throwing in the towel one more day. It’s such a big, wild, beautiful world with so many little pockets of inspiration and greatness. The internet is like a Grand Canyon-sized encyclopedia at my fingertips, constantly. I love grazing this chasm.
I thrive on the weight of a hefty workload on my back. People always say, “How do you do it?” It’s just a big part of me. Be it the big client project or something fun for the DDC, it’s all part of the bigger picture: Making things and being creative, all the time.
One time a jaded creative director guy back in Minneapolis looked over my pile of school/fun work in front of him and said, “Great energy here. You’ll lose this once you start really working.” Fuck that. Another stiff. That was great to hear because it made me swear to myself to always keep this stuff fun and challenging.
There is always time to learn something new, or, a chance to go the extra mile. And that’s all there is to it. No excuses.
II. “If it wasn’t for this work, things would be so much different in my life.”
HH: As designers, a lot of what we do is to make things look ‘cool’ or ‘hip’, and we play a large role in our over-consuming society. How do you feel about this topic?
A cog in the wheels of an over-consuming society? Of course I feel that way, of course. It fucks with me. I consider myself a responsible, thinking citizen of the states and the world, and, what does my little contribution to all it entail? I love to ponder this and challenge the whole relationship in my head. Does my work make a difference? Does anyone notice? Does it even matter? Should I fret about it?
I think the answer might be a resounding, “No man, just get on with yer life and do yer best with each little step.”
As designers we get to make the world a more beautiful place. Through communication, through decoration, however you want to cut it. I think that alone is an amazing contribution to the big world around us. I mean, does a stockbroker think about that kind of stuff? Hard to say. I know I do and take a lot of pride in each little solution I send out.
I have a hard time dividing who’s work is and isn’t valid. I’ve learned my lesson: The guy laying out a newspaper is just as valid as some big shot art director in New York. Just as valid. Be it decoration or hook or functionalism, there’s always something to dig on.
HH: The guy laying out a newspaper is definitely doing valid work. Let me resume the role of the self-conscious designer – do you think as designers we should think about our role in society, and care about ethics?
In school I saw a lot of folks getting pretty heady about design’s place in the world. But, that sort of “discourse” never left the school grounds. If you are making a book for some hi-falutin museum or a logo for a small engine repair shop, I think it’s our responsibility as “visual problem solvers” to make the solution work for the demographic it’s intended for, meet the client’s needs, all the while, doing it creatively so you meet yer own creative needs.
Plus, I like the idea of “making the world a better place” with each little design. I bought some nails today and the packaging was simple and easy to read and, well, there was some beauty to that.
Sometimes I feel guilty about what I do. I mean, how many positions out there can be so self-conscious about their place in the world? It always seems like everyone else is more worried about surviving, instead of questioning the bigger role. It’s funny when I pose this question to colleagues who will give me this look like, “You think about that shit?” or, “You have time to think about that?” Yet, I’m amazed at how self-conscious designers can be, and all the pressure systems we create for ourselves.
Yes, I think designers need to dig into our role in society. But, I don’t have the answer, and, in running the day-to-day racket of “making stuff for good people” I just try to take gigs that I’ll be proud of in the end, love the people I work for, and, give ‘em my all. I mean, fuck this talk about “easy” or “just get through it” work. Have some pride and do yer best. Big gigs or small gigs. An honest effort comes back to ya in the end.
Where I’m from in the Midwest, there’s this very down-to-earth sense of trust when making a transaction. I like the idea of being able to hand off a file knowing I gave it my all, solved the client’s problem and made the experience enjoyable and comfortable for all involved. That’s a good code to follow for this stuff, I’d wager.
HH: Salesmanship (to sell a design to the client) vs design skills. What’s more important?
I think it comes down to letting the work speak for itself. Put some time into it, man, and let the stuff sell itself. Then, be strong enough and pliable enough to roll with the punches of the client back-and-forth game. The give and take of that part of the process is an art form. Gently guide them and have respect for the fact that they are paying the bills. I often get humbled when I might start to pull my hair out over some little client change or request in the simple truth that, “If it wasn’t for this work, things would be so much different in my life.”
Selling junk will come back to haunt you. We owe it to the profession to be responsible and do good work, no matter what the case. People are spending good money on us. I try to take a little time out to be thankful for the jobs I get to do. We are very lucky.
III. “I just like to give out trinkets.”
HH: Besides being a design studio that serves clients, you also have your own line of products – how & why did you get into that?
There was a time when you’d buy a tractor in the Midwest, and leave with a hat, memo book and a couple pencils. This little transaction served a number of purposes. First, and most importantly, the farmer could use these things in his day-to-day life. Second, the proprietor’s name was out in the world that much more. Third, the gesture of a couple freebies to “seal the deal” is a time-honored tradition that is being phased out by stricter and stricter marketing budgets. The simplicity of these often-overlooked items and gesture is something that is very endearing to me.
Plus, I just like to give out trinkets. People like free stuff. And, it’s the least I can do, considering the blessings of this career.
I love the device of simple advertising. A slogan on a pencil or phone number on a key chain can make the difference for a little car lot in rural Iowa. I like to apply that same soft phenomena to my little company. It’s the small stuff that can go the farthest.
I started getting requests for stuff on my site and launched a small, rudimentary PayPal store that hawks some of the promo items I’ve made over the years. Simple stuff like pencils and t-shirts. I buy a lot of little things from designers that inspire me, cuz, I like the idea of supporting those in the same trenches, and, the notion that my couple bucks will go to their bottom line, and they’ll be able to keep making good stuff. I hope that’s how people view my offering. Plus, the products work!
I’m launching the FIELD NOTES memo book project soon with Coudal Partners out of Chicago. Simple memo books, American-Made, using the best materials we can find. In a world complicated by so much information and confusing hierarchies inside a handheld Blackberry or something, it’s just kinda refreshing to “make a list” or “write out an idea.” We are forgetting how to write! Our penmanship skills are lacking! Time to fight back, and this time, on grid paper.
Jim Coudal has been very, very inspiring to me the last couple years. I met him while passing through Chicago about three years back. He said something amazing that will stick with me forever: “Why wait for clients to bring us a product? Let’s make our own!” So true.
Which takes me back to the “buying things from designers” thing I spoke about a paragraph ago. You can trust that these things will be beautiful and “right.” A good designer won’t settle for anything less. They aren’t concerned with margin costs or business plans… they just want to make the thing good. Let’s hope so, at least.
This is a double-edged sword, cuz now, I find myself challenging clients to improve the quality of their products, even if it means making less money. That sort of risk-taking pays off in the long run, if you ask me.
IV. The little man, Pad Kee Mao, Wilco, Michigan, etc.
HH: What’s your daily routine, if you have one?
I wake up, roll outta the bed and make my way downstairs to the back door so the little man can go out to pee. This is how I start my day. Gary pees first, and that’s that.
Then, sadly enough, it’s time to go to work. But, “work” can mean a lot of things. Checking/replying to email, planning out the day, playing my guitar, working on projects, trying to learn a song on the drums, billing, shooting the shit on the phone, going to lunch, housecleaning, playing with Gary, naptime, a hike over to the Safeway for vittles or guiding my assistant Lovejoy on projects.
In the summer it’s pretty much, “Hammer all day and then try to do something cool at night when the sun goes down.” It’s a “strike when the iron is hot” kinda thing when I am home in Portland. I knock out a lot of work to free me up for my fall roadtrips and adventures.
HH: People say you are what you eat. What are your 3 favorites lunch dishes?
01. Chaba Thai – Pad Kee Mao noodles with Chicken.
02. A Caesar salad, a slice of pizza and a coke from Pizzacato.
03. Sandwiches assembled in the DDC mess hall.
HH: What’s the last item on your current to-do list?
Finishing my “A Decade of the DDC” poster. All the vector goodies from over the years. All the warts and moles. All packed onto a 28” x 40” sheet. Gonna be awesome to see it all packed in there.
HH: People say that musicians want to be athletes, and athletes want to be signers. What do you want to be (give us 3, if you can)?
I want to be a good provider for a family.
I want to be a husband for an amazing dame.
I want to be a dad.
I want to be a woodworker.
I want to be a drummer.
I want to be a travel writer.
I want to be a philanthropist.
I want to be a roadie.
I want to be a walker of the earth.
Right now I am:
A graphic designer.
A guitar player.
A old sign archivist.
A misser of his parents.
A problem solver.
A business owner.
A staunch Liberal.
A freedom fighter.
HH: What are the last 5 memorable things you’ve consumed?
01. I went through three sheets of 11-ply plywood and built a sturdy set of factory floor shelves that I am gigantically proud of.
03. “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy. The harshest, most-poetic look at the wild west that I’ve read up to this point. And, the most challenging read. Had to read and reread lines, savoring those words. The kind of book that makes you say, “I will read EVERY word by this fella.”
04. Lots of gas on my spring tour down to Appalachia, the Ohio Valley, Northern Michigan and then back out west to Oregon.
HH: Lastly, what are the 3 things you can’t live without?
01. A call from mom and dad back home in Michigan.
02. Good projects.
03. The drive to make my time alive a good, beautiful, proud life.
Thank you for your time, Aaron!