Aaron Draplin on Life, Design, and Taking the Work Home

Aaron Draplin on Life, Design, and Taking the Work Home

By Aaron White | March 28, 2018

Design icon Aaron Draplin talks about the philosophy behind his influential career. From lettering and logos to poster series and books, Draplin has done it all – here’s some of his wisdom.

All images courtesy of Aaron Draplin.

I had the great pleasure to talk with designer and force of nature, Aaron Draplin, a man with a heart as big as Oregon and an even bigger personality. Cultivated in the fertile soil of the upper Midwest, Draplin has been deeply influential in contemporary design.

Aaron Draplin on Life, Design, and Taking the Work Home

In addition to running his own blog/website since 1999, Draplin has been involved with the design of Field Notes, made his own font from Lost Type Co-op, written his own book, and even created a poster commemorating the Space Shuttle. That’s just a sprinkling of his achievements – the dude stays busy.

Instead of talking shop, I wanted to get into his inspiration, his thoughts on gratitude, and the hard work that got him to where he is now. Draplin is a deep well of wisdom and experience when it comes to success in design. I’ll let him tell it.

Field Notes pocket notebooks.

Aaron White: Designers are, by nature, sensitive to the world around us. That means we’re taking in a lot of information all the time. We’re good at what we do because we’re able to spit it back out in new ways. But to be that open, we take in some bad with the good, and that can lead to doubt and uncertainty. Have you had experience with that stuff?

Pretty Much Everything by Aaron Draplin.

Aaron Draplin: I still have a lot of that, and I think it’s healthy too. But what you can’t do is let it beat you up. You gotta have some of that, otherwise you’re one of those people who is like, “This is what I do and I’m one of the greatest at it.” Be careful with that stuff. This shit can go away quick.

Be able to stop yourself and realize what we’re really up against here. First of all, who ever wrote that you just need to be the best, or last, who gives a shit? Who cares who’s coolest or what? I know because you start getting better jobs, make more money, get more likes and clicks and links… I like to diffuse a lot of that and say, “You know what, that stuff just doesn’t matter.” It’s ok to let it not matter, if that makes sense.

Just be cool with doing. Be cool with surviving. Be cool with being productive. We forget, you know, we’re not selling insurance here. This is all pretty cool stuff. I will never, ever, ever forget that, because I just feel so lucky to engage in this stuff, to be creative, and have a life in it, and not let it be this thing that I’m gonna beat myself up over.

Every day we’re making things in here. Every day we’re doing stuff. Some days aren’t all that cool, and so what? We’re still making stuff, we’re still creative. All due respect to your insurance salesman, but they don’t take that stuff home with them. They leave it at that shop. I am allowed to take this stuff home with me; I think about it, I breathe it. I enjoy it, I play with it. You know, that’s a great privilege, on some weird level. I remind myself of that.

AW: So you’re still reminding yourself, and checking the ego, staying grounded?

AD: Of course, every day.

AW: Well that’s cool to hear, in a way, that someone of your stature still deals with things we all have to deal with. Being creative people, in a very competitive, non-creative world, where everyone has an online brand, and everyone’s branding themselves constantly, and only posting pictures of themselves acting awesome…

AD: Right. There’s this weird culture now where, do I mean anything if I don’t have a shit whack of followers? I’m more excited when I release my Mustard Pin.

City of Portland poster.

AW: You have a large presence online and you’re very popular on the conference circuit. Is this something you wanted, or planned for in your career, or did it happen naturally?

AD: No, I wasn’t expecting any of that. Hell no! But because you’re not afraid to speak your mind, you just kind of put it out there, it just happened, you know. When I was young I couldn’t afford to go to conferences. It wasn’t like, political or anything, I just couldn’t afford it! I didn’t even know that this culture of talks existed.

I remember going to see Shepard Fairy in Minneapolis, in 1998 or ’99. I paid $40 or $50 but I didn’t get to meet him. I remembered him from skateboards and stuff and I was all excited, and it was cool. But they just shooed him out of there. I don’t know if I’m as big as Shepard or not, but I make myself available for anyone who comes up to me. I remembered that. People are looking for something when they go to these things, and I try to provide a good little service when I speak.

But no, I did not expect this stuff, did not gun for it, I didn’t even know it really existed to the lethal quality that it has for me. The idea, that for the last seven years I was able to go do as many as I did, just because I said yes a lot…

People are hungry, they’re a little freaked, they want to be told that everything’s going to be ok, or have some validation, that what they’re doing is worth it. Like the 50 year old guy who’s like, “Am I too old for this stuff?” It’s like, “No, man. Let it be your hobby. What happens if it becomes a little job? There you go! What if it doesn’t? Who cares?”

“A Tribute to the American Space Shuttle Era” poster series.

AW: I wanted to ask about your website and how it came to be a destination for inspiration, and also, just keeping up with Draplin. You started it many years ago, and kept up with it without the validation of Facebook or Twitter?

AD: Well I was always gauging exhaustion. Starting out at my first jobs, we would work all day, make cool stuff, but then leave it at work and go home. I was always interested in people who would go home and work on their own little projects.

I would go home and screen print and make little goodies, I just love to make things. My hobby wasn’t to go out and party, I just liked making stuff. The people who loved this stuff and were making things, that’s who I held close. Every day they had something they were working on.

And you saw the gap – we were making something every night and there’s people who didn’t make stuff. They were depressed and doing this stuff for a job, and that scared me. So I made these little constant decisions: I’m gonna keep my blog going, I’m gonna share, I’m gonna talk to people, make little stories and anecdotes about my parents and things. But only for me so I can enjoy it myself.

People caught on to that and they would thank me for that stuff and it was really cool. I didn’t want to go to work to pay bills, I didn’t want that life, and I don’t have that life now. Have I pissed away a lot my years sitting in front of a machine? Sure, but I dig it. I still dig it.

If nothing ever came of this stuff I’d still be doing this stuff. To an audience of six? Maybe, because it was like that for a lot of years. But that turned into 60. Then 600. Now it’s getting pretty big, and I like to make fun of the fact that a Taco Bell hot sauce packet was really interesting to me.

I’m trying to make my life, and be weirded out by whatever I’m weirded out by, which at one time was a sauce packet. I just like the idea that the audience grew and you have a little bit of a platform to talk about this stuff, or you got some feedback. I feel privileged to have been able to share, and not be afraid to put it out there.

AW: So with the merch side of your website, do you do this stuff alone? Do you work at a computer all day alone, surrounded by all this merch?

AD: No no, I rent space with two buddies. We rent a little warehouse sort of thing, about 1600 sq. ft. It’s awesome, we’ve been here 10 years. We watch over each other. There’s strength in numbers, you know.

Stuff comes in, I put it away, when it sells it goes out. It’s small and I’m really into that. I don’t want it to get too weird, where I need a warehouse. I mean that’s success, sure, I just hope it’ll always have the feel that it was just thrown together, and fun, and goofy. That’s exactly what it was.

I liked the idea that, you buy a hat and a couple stickers come with it. That’s what Sub Pop Records did for me, so I’ll do that for some kid. Heres’s some goodies, thanks! I’m proud of that. Sometimes shit gets a little crazy and we forget to throw a sticker in, and that gets to me, but we’re doing good stuff.

Poster for Dinosaur Jr.’s 30th Anniversary concerts.

AW: Let’s talk about the freelance lifestyle. You know, personal goals, taking care of yourself, managing time off.

AD: Well, it can become a sickness. You don’t know how to take a break, or slow down, or shift gears, or just do nothing. It’s hard to just… do nothing. There’s always a list. There’s a list tomorrow, there’s gonna be a list the day after it, but this is your time to do nothing. But I’m bad at that, I’ll beat myself up, or feel guilty.