Born in Detroit in 1973, graphic designer Aaron Draplin was raised on a steady diet of Legos, Star Wars, skateboarding and snowboarding. At the age of 19, he moved to Oregon and, after designing a graphic for Solid snowboards, his art career took off and he found himself, under the moniker of Draplindustries Design Co., with the opportunity to create everything from logos to cafe signs to local advertising campaigns.
After returning to Minneapolis to earn his design degree at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Draplin accepted an art director position with Snowboarder magazine in Southern California, winning “Art Director of the Year” for Primedia 2000. Draplin returned to the Pacific Northwest in April of 2002 to work with the Cinco Design Office in Portland, Oregon.
In 2004, Draplin stepped out on his own again with the Draplin Design Co., and in the ten years since, he has worked on print, identity, web development and illustration projects for companies and organizations including Field Notes, Esquire, Nike, Red Wing, Burton Snowboards, Ford Motor Co., Hughes Entertainment, Wired, Coal Headwear and even the Obama Administration.
To learn more about Draplin and his work, visit www.draplin.com.
What was your childhood like, and how did it shape who you are today?
It was great. Mom, Dad, little sister Sarah and littlest sister Leah. Born in Detroit, moved north to Central Lake, Michigan and grew up there until 13. At 13, moved to Traverse City for high school. Grew up with lots of Legos, playing outside, summers on the lake, baseball and playing in the woods. I grew up in a creative family. Dad with his woodworking, Mom with her crafts. They were supportive of my transition from organized sports to action sports. And thank goodness I got the hell out. Skateboarding and snowboarding opened the world to me. Punk rock, thinking for yourself and creative expression. And, supportive parents. Very lucky.
When you were first starting out as a designer, who were your biggest creative influences and inspirations?
When I was in high school, it was skateboarding and snowboarding. That little world made its own art, and that was super enticing. Out of high school, we moved west. I was 19 and just starting my life. When we’d go up to Portland, we’d hit Powell’s Books, and there I’d flip through design magazines. My favorites were Charles Spencer Anderson, House Industries and T-26. This would’ve been around 1995/1996.
Before you got involved with the magazine industry, you worked on newspaper ads, correct? What did you learn from that experience?
Nickel Ads! My very first design job. Just one quick winter. And what did I learn? The guy watching over me got let go, so I took over his responsibilities. Things doubled, and it wasn’t that big of a change. And yet, it’s not like the guy doubled my wage. That old prick gave me another buck an hour or something. And in that instant, I knew I had something in me to do this stuff. I could handle both gigs efficiently. It planted a seed in me. But also, I knew people would take advantage of you, hidden behind some thinly-veiled, “Let’s see if you can handle this” trial period. I could handle it, and yet, the guy didn’t really reward me for my extra hours. And shame on him. I’m proud of how I cleaned the newspaper up, but equally, feared being held down by the owner. So I jumped ship.
What was the scariest aspect of breaking out on your own and forming your own company? And what was the most rewarding aspect?
Scariest? That I’d go broke. Most rewarding? When I didn’t go broke. And five years later, had all debt paid off, including my house. Not only did I get to choose my clients, but I made a better wage. Incredible.
Stylistically, how have you evolved over the years?
Simpler and simpler forms. I like things that stand the test of time. My favorite logos are simple. And that comes from looking at the masters, Saul Bass and Paul Rand. How has this evolved? Well, I’m more apt to push simple solutions on clients, knowing they’ll have more of an appeal down the line. It’s easy to take the bait on “what’s cool” or “what’s trending.” I do my best to veer from that.
As a designer who is inspired by the strong, simple logos of yesteryear, how much attention do you pay to current design trends?
Trends come and go. When I was cutting my teeth, design was plagued with all the “post post post modern” bullshit. And look where that garbage went. So much noise. So much gratuitous non-communication. I’m interested in things that work. In 1995. And in 2015.
How did the opportunity to do design work for the Obama administration come about?
Steve Juras had noticed Chris Glass’ and my work from afar, and approached us to work for Chicago’s Mode Project, who in turn, worked for the Obama Administration. Such a cool initial call. Freaked me out! The big leagues! Thank you, Steve!
When you’re in need of inspiration, where do you turn?
I turn 90 degrees. Just kidding. My favorite source of finding new stuff is to go junking. Hitting antique malls, junk stores, estate sales and garage sales. So much dead magic out there! For the taking.
How would you describe your ideal client?
Just pay me within 30 days, and we’re all good! Ha. I think it comes down to both sides trusting each other. Them trusting me with my direction, and me trusting them to guide me properly. And for the most part, that’s how things have been. So thankful for good clients. There’s only been a couple times where things were rough. And I wouldn’t give up. I followed it through and completed each project. And then, knew not to take their bait again. I can think of one time where I jumped out mid-project. Showed the guy a mountain of stuff, he hemmed, hawed, questioned my process, and I told him to take a hike. And saw the shit he made after I split, and it was garbage! Ha.
In your opinion, what are the three best Flaming Lips songs?
1. “Gingerale Afternoon (The Astrology Of A Saturday)”
2. “Pilot Can At The Queer Of God”
3. “Evil Will Prevail”
What do you like most about living and working in Portland?
That it never feels like a big city. Yet, has 15 record stores! It’s a comfortable place. No keeping up with the Joneses.
A lot of designers attempt to launch their own agencies and fail. To what do you attribute your success with Draplin Design Co.?
By taking things slow and making good decisions along the way. I never leveraged my finances to get “the big studio” or any of that. I grew slowly, and, wasn’t afraid to bite off a little more than I could chew with projects. That’s how I got ahead.