Aaron James Draplin
An interview with designer and speaker Aaron James Draplin focusing on his path to success.
I was fortunate enough to cross paths with Aaron Draplin in 2007 and collaborate on a website for a mutual friend (robbiesellphoto.com). I took a trip to Portland and spent some time in the growing empire of the DDC and left with arms full of merch. Since then Draplin has worked hard and built a brand around working hard. From creating top notch logos for clients, spreading the good word to designers with 40+ speaking dates a year, or his full blown online store - Aaron is always working on something. Find out how he keeps the DDC factory floor operating at full capacity.
DB: You talk a lot about going “pant-less”. Are you wearing pants right now?
AD: No! I’m not wearing pants. I have a t-shirt on and boxer briefs. Seriously, when I get home here the pants come off and they don’t go back on until I get back on that plane. That’s just a bigger metaphor for “It’s very comfortable here, and I can just hide out.”… This has always been this awesome respite to relax. I have to fight to get stuff done here.
DB: You do a lot of things beyond just sitting in front of your computer hammering out logos and Power points for your clients. How do you break it all up through your year?
AD: I’m slowing down with the logos…. Field Notes, maybe a couple of days a month. The speaking gigs take a lot of time and it’s fun to be on the road. I can get a lot done on the plane. Everyone wants to take you out for a drink but I don’t even really drink; I’m kind of saving that for some point later in my life maybe! So I’ll go back to the hotel room and work… A normal day is to just rip down to my shop. I always have a list of my Field Notes and what’s at the top of the list. If it’s a logo, then I’m doing that… I’m just trying to enjoy this, make a shit wag of money of course – I take care of a lot of people with this stuff – and will I slow down? I guess so, but I don’t really know how to.
DB: Your wild life started at 19 when you decided to leave Michigan and head out West to Mt. Bachelor to snowboard. When did you decide you were not just going to be a snow-bum but go back to school and study design?
AD: When I was 22 it was my fourth winter and it was fun, but some of the guys in that scene were really pros and I had no aspiration for that and wasn’t even at that level. But in my own brain I got to a point of riding where I could keep up with some of those guys and I had reached my level but it became an orbit and I thought that as beautiful as it was out there, where was I really making leaps in my life? I was into design and had already gone to Alaska to save for a computer and I had a couple of friends who lived in Portland and worked for snowboard companies, but those guys had gone to design school. So I felt like I was missing out on something and I picked going back to design school as I felt that you needed to have a degree to even get hired which of course is total bullshit and I could have probably fandangled my way in somewhere – I tried! – but the blessing there was that it allowed me to go and spend two years and have this incredible door opened up to me about the discourse of design. Some of it was very fluffy and some of it very elite but some of it was also very down-to-earth where it was just like my idea of how I wanted to make a living. So that was school; it was a chance to take a breather, think about what I wanted to do, what my strengths and weaknesses were and learn and put it all together. It was for me, it was for my Mom and Dad, and taught me that I was ready to go.
DB: It seems that you really applied your aesthetic to snowboarding, but does coming from an action sports background affect your aesthetic?
AD: You’d like to think that what I did what was appropriate for that world. Ride snowboards really pushed me to make things that I wouldn’t really make, but rather what was right for their line … I was just asked “Should designers have a style?” and of course they should have a style! They should have styles, But when clients call you, do what is appropriate for them. If it works out that it is your style, then great, and if not then you have to go and figure out new territory.
So yes, you gravitate towards things you are comfortable with and then you gravitate towards the way you make things and then you start to get hired for that shit and suddenly you have a style that people trust and then you are just working in that... I can’t really say if that is good or bad.
DB: You worked full time for a studio job before going into the contract world, what was that like?
AD: Yeah…I did it just long enough -- two years – to get freaked out because we were spending so much time talking about shit, making a lot of design, debating it in meetings and it was kind of wasteful. It’s not their fault, it’s just the process… It just scared me and I thought, “I don’t want to be in the situation where I don’t like what I work on so I’ve got to jump out.” We’d play ping pong all day and shit and it was awesome but I was like, “What am I doing?” We’d still have to be in there at 9am and try to sneak out of there by 7.30pm and I was like I could have come in from 12-4 and just slayed it and gone home! But when I went out on my own I could just build the day to whatever I wanted it to be.
DB: How did that transition go?
AD: Within that first year I was busy: I tripled my wage. It wasn’t about the money, and some of the jobs were rough: It was about what I was capable of. Every year has been better and better and better, be it creatively or financially, to the point that last year, holy shit, I did really well and it’s scary because I have to pay a lot of taxes!
DB: What does your company D.D.C consist of? Is there someone shipping boxes or is it just you?
AD: It’s me! Well, my girlfriend Leigh does the shipping but otherwise it’s me. All the management, all the billing, all the check cashing, Oh God I love cashing those fucking checks!... Fucking A! Why is anyone doing it? We are doing it for the love of it, sure. That’s my side projects Field Notes and thick line posters, but why am I making these logos? Because you make fucking money!
OH GOD I LOVE CASHING THOSE FUCKING CHECKS!...
DB: You talk about making a plan and sticking to your plan. Did you have a plan at the beginning, and do you still have a plan now?
AD: The planning is really this: Is my rent paid? Yeah. Is my car payment paid? Yeah. Is my insurance paid? Yeah. All these little ducks in a row (talking 2004 here.) Then what happens when you have all that shit paid off and you kind of go, “There’s no more house and car payment and everything is in the positive.” Then you have almost like this level of freedom where it’s like an internal freedom where you can be like, “Why don’t I make some really cool posters? What’s the risk? If they don’t sell I’ll give them to my fucking buddies!” And then they started to sell! And then there’s the first time someone comes and says, “Come speak to us.” And I’m on a plane and thinking about making this Pdf and presented that and they dug it! That was the first time and I was filling in for David Carson, a big ass name.
And suddenly then I’m making room to do all these tours. Why am I going to do all these tours? Sure, you get paid a little bit but then I ask if I can bring a merch table and suddenly a business is built out of that! In that first year I did 16, then 24, then last year 42 – it’s been like 180 gigs altogether. But then you have to make room and say wow... It’s kind of scaring me. We shipped 50 items of merch last night (we being Leigh) and this morning I looked and we are already up to 16 or 17 more things… Now it’s like 150 on a Friday. It’s nice to have the money coming in but now I have to make room for less logos just to handle the merch, know what I mean? There is no planning for that, it just sort of happens!
DB: Give me a real world example of your process?
AD: I’m doing a music festival right now and the guy said he could hire a young kid to do all the banner ads and I asked his price and said it is probably just easier that I do it…The other night I had to make 15 banner ads. You go through all the little pieces and kick the things ass. That’s just production but it’s not a bad word, it’s still money. In the end there will be this whole kit I built those guys and this perspective and that’s really important to me. Should I have delegated some of it to someone else? Fuck, who knows?
PRODUCTION... IT’S NOT A BAD WORD
DB: It sounds like you love most of the work.
AD: I love all of it!
DB: How do you judge success for a project, whether it’s Target or a friend’s small gig?
AD: Did I meet their brief? Did they love it? Do I love it, selfishly? Does it work in context? That’s my bar. Can I make them something that makes them feel successful with what their message is…A lot of that comes down to the client. Are they happy with it? Done.
DID I MEET THEIR BRIEF? DID THEY LOVE IT? DO I LOVE IT, SELFISHLY? DOES IT WORK IN CONTEXT? THAT’S MY BAR.
DB: How far do you push clients, to get your way?
AD: Here’s you how you make a good logo: You show them good shit. Next question. Seriously, if you give them bullshit then they are going to find a fucking way to be bummed. But if you sense that you have put your best foot forward and show them awesome, awesome, awesome and they kill it, then get out! Because it’s not going to get it any better. Push it through a couple of rounds and then say, “ You know what guys, I’m not the right fit. I’m going to go and take naps instead of doing this.”
HERE’S YOU HOW YOU MAKE A GOOD LOGO: YOU SHOW THEM GOOD SHIT. NEXT QUESTION.
DB: How close is the viral video you made, Make a logo in 15 Minutes, to your actual process? Because you obviously don’t make a logo in 15 minutes!
AD: Thank you for allowing me for this chance to put a fucking disclaimer on that piece, because I know I was really clear that that is not how you make a logo! That is the first iteration, and isn’t it funny that after 15 minutes you have something to show? That’s not even it either. Sometimes you have to sketch, sketch, sketch and sketch and sketch and sketch. You know, you have to work! You have to put the muscle in… It’s not necessarily reality but it’s fun to see, but that is the process. Sometimes you nail one right away and other times it takes a couple of weeks and you show a bunch of stuff.
DB: So to clarify for the world, that video is your process, but a snapshot of it.
AD: What’s funny about that is say it’s Friday afternoon and you get a call and they say holy shit, we need a logo for this! The money is right but the timing is terrible and you know you have to work over the weekend… I am kind of cool with that shit. I like it. Let’s go! Let me see what I can knock out. I just made $5000 in an hour! Or $1000 for a t-shirt graphic. There’s something fun about that, and weird…Sometimes a client’s going to call and say they are in a pinch and need some help and what are we going to do next? That little process suddenly applies to that hour you have. It’s not a bad thing. It’s an anomaly, but it’s kind of a cool thing. So I test myself with it too. Sometimes you only have a couple of hours.
DB: You’re on record saying that Rule Number 17 of the Creative Manifesto is as follows: Be wary of certain business professionals. Telemarketers, TSA agent, transportation security, pickpockets, DMV professionals, horse thieves, tax collectors, and web-developers. Why web developers?!
AD: It’s a joke! Web developers are going to inherit the world, ok, so get ready because you are already doing it. Whatever stupid app you guys are already developing that is going to die tomorrow and won’t work for me later on tonight, you made the money from that. No one can laugh at each other? I can’t laugh at other designers? Oh yes I can! Because it is goofy…Can I laugh at the relationship that a web developer holds over a graphic designer? Yes I can because they hold the keys and wield them the way they want… But I’ve got tons of buddies who are web developers and they love that joke! Because those guys make a shit ton of money, as they should.
CAN I LAUGH AT THE RELATIONSHIP THAT A WEB DEVELOPER HOLDS OVER A GRAPHIC DESIGNER? YES I CAN BECAUSE THEY HOLD THE KEYS AND WIELD THEM THE WAY THEY WANT…
DB: The reason I bring it up is because there is still this constant tension between designers and developers and people are getting better at working out processes and how it works, but there are still unrealistic expectations on both sides that come through.
AD: Yes and no. If I am going to come to you and hold a knife to your throat and say, “Dave, you are going to build a site and it has to have this weight of typeface on it.” If I’m going to make you, that’s not good design.
For instance, we just had a kid come in and a website was re-designed by committee and of course, all the things that we’d tuned up to look like the product etc… the committee screwed it all up…So I brought the kid in and said, “You are my instrument. Help me tune this up. Can you tell the computer to make that typeface smaller?” And he did it and we slayed that thing and it is now in harmony with the brand again and the funny thing is that that committee won’t even know, because they are not looking at that. They just want to change it because they can change it. Once again, bad design.
What I should also so is this: Love your web developer. That is your brother or your sister and you are on the front line together. If you say, “The website needs to do this here, here, and here.” I’ll say, “Great! What’s the typeface that works on that and I’ll give you those”, and they say, “It’s benton bold”, and I say, “Great. Use fucking benton bold because it works. Can we get done quickly?” and the guy says yes. Then you use it. The end.
LOVE YOUR WEB DEVELOPER. THAT IS YOUR BROTHER OR YOUR SISTER AND YOU ARE ON THE FRONT LINE TOGETHER.
DB: Did you have a moment when you felt like you hit the big leagues?
AD: There’ve been some jobs like Nike, or when I worked on the Mr. Obama thing… But it’s tough because the taste in my mouth wasn’t all that good because the bigger the job the more complicated. It’s more like whatever amalgam of whatever I did that stacked up allowed me to pay off my house, that’s the big time! It’s like a soft explosion in me…It’s sneaked up, like, you have made a living doing what you like and it’s going really good. Do not fuck this up! It’s not because of one job but all the tiny steps. Hopefully going the extra mile, and when someone complained about something I met it…No questions asked.
IT’S NOT BECAUSE OF ONE JOB BUT ALL THE TINY STEPS. HOPEFULLY GOING THE EXTRA MILE, AND WHEN SOMEONE COMPLAINED ABOUT SOMETHING I MET IT…NO QUESTIONS ASKED.
DB: What is the most rewarding part of the job for you?
AD: I’m just so thankful that I get to do something cool. That doesn’t necessarily happen in my hometown…Sometimes it starts to feel like work, but it’s only because I took too much on. The moment you say you are going to slow down the jobs come flying in! You strike while the iron is hot.
I’M JUST SO THANKFUL THAT I GET TO DO SOMETHING COOL.
DB: You have stated you plan to retire at 40 and that’s got to be getting close. What does retirement look like for you?
AD: Well imagine if you had enough loot in the bank, which I don’t, to say, “I’m done!” Basically that would mean not taking on logo gigs... Is that retirement? I’d go nuts but it’s just being in the position where I don’t have to fret every job and I’ve already been there for four or five years. Imagine just being able to say, “I’ve got enough in the bank to cover this next year.” I do. My life in Portland costs $22,000 a year. That’s good insurance, nice food, going to see my Mom a couple of times a year… That’s what it costs and I do considerably better than $22,000 a year. Why try and make it that much crazier? The shitty part about making a lot of money is how many days it takes you to make that money. Let’s say it’s nine days a week…But you don’t get days six through nine back as you give that straight back to Uncle Sam so there are lessons here… you are not getting that time back, so take that time back, enjoy it in a different way and make less. That’s the next challenge.
DB: How does a young designer coming up become the next Aaron Draplin?
AD: A stringent diet of pizza…I don’t know! It’s so hard to answer that stuff…There’s no battle plan but just be prepared and be thankful for every job that you get and learn how to use that stuff in a good way… When I come home and my buddies aren’t doing shit, well that resonates. Some of them are doing incredible stuff but some of them are in trouble and it’s like, oh man, how could I ever say no to another logo gig?