Aaron Draplin blows your graphic designer archetype out of the water. No wireframe specs, skinny jeans or soy mocha frappucinos here. He’s a bearded, brute-force having motherfucker who churns out gorgeous designs that look more like they were forged in a factory than made on a Madison Ave Mac.
What’s more, he also knows how to fucking weld. Even though he’s been hustling away for years, he came to prominence in part for a heartwarmingly passionate invective against shitty fonts entitled Why America is Fucked. In between sitting in his studio in no pants designing logos for whatever gig he can get his hands on, he graciously found the time to talk to us.
Before we start talking about your design chops, how’d you get your beard looking so heavy-duty?
The beard is from my dad, that Polish beast. Jim Draplin*, everyone! K-Mart blue light special champion of participating stores. I’ve never seen him without a beard. For all the family knows, the guy might have some scar under all that muff? Hard to say. As soon as I could, I let that beard grow. I started with a mustache in 2003. Then went to a goatee in the “mid oughts.” Then, somewhere in 2008 gave it a, “Fuck it, here goes nothing.” And thankfully, it came in! People ask me about it I’ll say, “Haven’t shaved since 2008.” Done.
And, the balding spot on my dome is from my Scottish ancestors. Thanks, you dicks.
Above – Aaron dropping some harsh words for shitty signmaking.
Across your portfolio you can read a strong theme of beautifully functional work. Chunky slab logotypes and no-nonsense merch with an industrial spirit. As opposed to some shiny new, gradient-heavy app design. Is that something you consciously backlash against in your output, or is that tradesman-esque aesthetic something that’s inherent when you grow up in the work-a-day Midwest?
I just like things that are functional first, and then fashionable second. Gotta keep my priorities straight, you know? Design has these cycles. I love seeing where design goes. You know, that little bit of magic that makes you go, that is NEW…wow! But that is for someone else. I know what I like and little by little, I like to think I’m simplifying things out there. Getting them back to the basics. Simple principles.
LITTLE BY LITTLE, I LIKE TO THINK I’M SIMPLIFYING THINGS OUT THERE.
Above – DDC for Sasquatch Music Festival
In 2004 you went out on your own with DDC, and looking at your successes now in 2013 it seems the gamble probably paid off. But tell us about the challenges you faced early on. How many times were you tempted to throw in the solo game and go back to the safety net of an agency gig?
Was never tempted once. I got a good taste of how things went in agency realms. And hell, it’s not like it was “bad.” It was just…oddly pressurized. Tight air. Maybe a little too tight for this guy. You had to wear pants, too. And on a bigger note, people just didn’t seem like they were into being there on the clock. Pretending. I don’t pretend at my job. Hell, I can’t get down to that shop fast enough after I arise from my life-giving slumber.
I’ll never go back. The loots better in the solo game, and, this fucker can breathe and soar with the eagles.
THIS FUCKER CAN BREATHE AND SOAR WITH THE EAGLES
Your “Pretty Much Everything Poster” (below) is chock-a-block. What’s your method for staying so prolific? And how big do you reckon that that poster be if you were still working for an agency or snowboard magazine?
Above – Pretty much, well, everything outta DDC.
(Current as of 5/27/09. Be sure to check out the new one).
Prolific? Well, hell, thanks. I don’t feel prolific. I just liking making stuff. And I like amplitude. And hell, when I had a straight job, I still made a lot of shit. Same with making magazines. This momentum hasn’t really let up.
I’m happy with the mountain of shit on that big poster. it’s like a big, hairy “FUUUUUUUCK YOU” to the complacency I ran into a couple times back in the day. No one was gonna hire me to make rad shit, so I had to invent it for myself. Now, they hire me for it! Wow. And, now I have to invent a way to CHILL THE FUCK OUT. Is “deinvent” a word?
It is now. If you would, throw down some words for us on the sheer gorgeousness of Safety Orange as a color.
There’s something jarring about it. Makes you react. I love “safety orange.” That shit gets yer attention. There just something about orange that makes me happy. Warmth, sunsets, orange juice, fall foliage, comfort, leaves, carrots and a certain boldness. Orange doesn’t happen enough in the world. That’s why it stands out.
If you and Wes Anderson went at it in a game of Futura-only Layer Tennis, do you think you could take him? What about in a bar fight?
Ah hell, I could take him with my girth, but that’s just about mass. He could take me with his mind. What a peculiar, beautiful, crafted little thinker that guy is. Such a cool taste for things. I really enjoy his art. I’m thankful he exists, and, like, uh, gets to do what he does? You know, considering all the other BULLSHIT out there. He’s a little, shining jewel, in a big turd.
You’ve collaborated with Coudal to bring Field Notes into the world. Can you tell us a bit about how that compares to your full-time client work? What are the things that suck most and suck least about launching your own product?
Above – The inspiration behind Field Notes.
It’s a different taste in the mouth. When I’m on the clock, I’m on the clock. I work hard and try not to blast the deadlines to shit. I take my time and am a good worker bee on the email, on the job and in the exchange between client and designer. It’s calculated. No surprises allowed! But yeah, it feels like work.
When I get to work on something for Field Notes, I do it with a little smile. It’s our baby. We’ll make it or break it. I feel so proud of what we’ve built it into, and, am insanely thankful for the guidance from Jim, the proliferation from Michele, the wit and precision of Bryan Bedell.
Above – Field Notes, the Fifty States Editions.
When I give it some thought, the only thing that sucks about Field Notes is waiting for the box to show up from Field Notes Midwest when the new stuff hits! Pins and needles! Other than that, it’s all incredibly rewarding and just plain fun to see how people are using it in their lives. Proud as hell.
I would like all readers of these words to use Field Notes, then, tell 1,000 people about them. Go!
Sometimes on the web you come across articles aimed at creative professionals about “how to grow your personal brand”. Which always seem to amount to some bullshit like updating your LinkedIn profile or keeping your Klout score high. It’s all so salesy and sanitized. Your personal brand (for want of a better word) however, is pretty unapologetically awesome. You’re known as a burly, bearded dude who’s not afraid to call out shitty Blippo Bold heavy signage, or liberally use the word “fuck” in a sentence. What are your tips for young designers/creatives looking to define themselves and their work?
Kiddies: Don’t be afraid to go after the fun stuff on yer own time. And when you are on the clock, be gracious and do a good job. And the fun shit you make, show it in yer portfolio. Load it up.
People who hate their jobs: Save some loot and then quit that shit. Get all Johnny Paycheck on ‘em and slap yer boss or something fun like that. Then go take control.
Designers with glamour shots: Really? Relax, you fucks, you aren’t that important.
Big design shops: Keep up the good work! And hey, nice job on the Proctor & Gamble account.
Little design shops: I like how fast you move! Don’t lose the fire!
Some scrub working out of his basement or bedroom: We’re right there with you. Let’s make our world! Lift-off!
Designers with glamour shots: Really? Relax, you fucks, you aren’t that important.
Best case scenario, ten years from now, where do you wanna be?
For starters, I want to be alive. If I make it pass the “still breathing” part, I want to be living in a home in the woods. Where it’s quiet. I want to be healthy, happy and not afraid to keep going for it. At 39 and 11 months, I feel very, very free. I’ve paid off my car, my appendix operation and my house. My house! Debt free, motherfuckers! If I can’t afford it, I don’t buy it. And man, I haven’t thought twice about a record, book or deadstock gem in a long, long time. That’s just mind-blowing to me. I know what it’s like to go without. You had to get creative. You had to bite the bullet. I still carry that off pride and bitterness that goes with being held down by all of it. It shaped me.
These days, things are infinitely easier, and I’d like to turn my sights on helping people more and more. Mom, Dad, Leigh, sisters, little Oliver and all the other buddies down the line. And strangers. The world’s big and can be rough for people, and man, I want to help ‘em however I can.
And I’m fighting hard. I hope at 50 I’ll still have the fury inside me, but also, the intelligence to know how to manage it all.
Oh yeah, and buy some DDC merch, you roughnecks!
* Note: Sadly, Aaron’s father Jim passed away a few weeks after this interview.
RIP Mr Jim Draplin.