Creative Chair Interviews Designer Aaron Draplin
This week Creative Chair is in Portland, Oregan, where we’re talking to designer Aaron Draplin.
Aaron has a bold visual style, which is present in the countless logos he’s designed. In 2016 he released a book showcasing a lot of his work, along with case studies and advice. He also tours the United States (and occasionally the World), regaling audiences with tales from his career.
What made you want to specialise in brand identity and logo design?
Well, that wasn’t necessarily the first sort of pursuit – really it was a to make sure that I could make a living and get a job that I could pay bills with.
Right out of high school I knew that art, you know fine art, wasn’t necessarily going to do that or, maybe it could, but I just saw people struggling with it, and I was from a small town, and it seemed like this really weird, almost esoteric direction; it wasn’t very concrete.
Graphic design offered me just a little bit of a pragmatic approach. It was like, people are going to need newspapers and people are going to need wrappers on food, so I knew that that direction offered a way to make a living.
On getting in and starting to make logos – there was just something kind of magical about that this little tiny form could pack so much data into it, and mean so much about a company, and there still is an interesting little puzzle quality to that.
It’s about how to make your own way, and how to delineate from all the noise around that brand or to make yourself jump out in a really competitive field.
There’s just something really interesting about that little sprinkle of how that process goes, yet sometimes, with the simplest of moves, that’s exactly what a brand needs, and then other times you have to be super, super complex.
So, there’s something about graphic design that grabbed me. It was like a nice bow to wrap around a project, and it was like this idea of like ‘wow we pulled this thing off, it works well, it’s all cinched up, and now it’s done – it’s off doing its job in the world’ and I that really grabbed me.
So, I guess that’s what made me want to specialise, and it was just getting the bug, getting a taste of it and seeing that it could be something that not only I could make a good living at but was really fun to do!
Do you have a favourite past project you worked on and if so, why was that your favourite?
Well, there’s so many, but one that comes to mind is this little food cart in Portland Oregon called Cobra Dogs, and only because it was a lesson. I’ve never made a penny from this project but what’s cool about that is when my friend Cory came to me he was in a little bit of trouble; he had used a logo that was out there in the toy culture, and he kind of kind of ripped it off.
He was doing a sort of homage to it, and that’s not necessarily the best course of action, and he got called out for it. So, there’s a there a challenge there first of all just to make him something cool, but second of all to get him out of any sort of weird limbo of ‘you’re pulling a quick one here’.
So, we had to make him this new thing. There was no budget, and there was no time, and he had to get going, and there was just something cool about that – us putting our heads together and just being creative to not only rescue a buddy but to make him something cool.
We did. It was completely his own creation and my own creation, and he started to use this thing and started to take off.
And yeah, was selling hot dogs out of a hot dog cart, but what was cool was the logo was strong enough that it became a cool t-shirt for kids. People wanted the sweatshirt, yeah they wanted a hot dog, but they wanted just a little piece of this thing.
It was a powerful realisation of like ‘there’s no money for me, but the power of design can help people’, and that’s always gonna be a favourite because it just taught me that not everything is about a paycheck. Sure, you have to make money and you have to get paychecks, and cash them and use them to pay rent and insurance and groceries and shit, but not all projects have to be like that.
There could be a window into something to where you say ‘wow this is a chance to just have fun and make something for someone’. Here’s the coolest part about this – I get a lot of jobs because of that logo. If I would have never put that thing out there because I didn’t get paid, who knows what I would have missed because of that.
There’s just a lesson to me that sometimes something that you make with your buddies can go a long long way, and that isn’t necessarily about a paycheck.
With your knowledge and experience what one piece of your advice would you give to a student graphic designer?
Well first of all – make this stuff a hobby – learn to love it and learn to play with it well before you start getting a job, because when you get a job that’s when it gets serious; people kind of push you around and that’s just life, we all deal with that, but there’s a certain set of privileges of being a creative, or being an artist, or being a graphic designer.
Say you are a home builder, and you look at it like ‘wow, I get to build homes, I love this stuff’; That’s enough – whatever discipline you’re in, you just have to learn to love it because then doesn’t feel like a job.
I meet a lot of kids who expect this and expect that, and they bought a degree, and they’re pissed that they’re not succeeding. You have to just go and do the work, and then all that stuff will sort of fall in line, but no one’s just gonna let you have that – you have to go earn that shit.
It’s a weird thing, and I kind of got going earning that before I even knew I was, and that’s the sneak attack. It was my hobby, it was fun to do, and that’s long before I learned to dislike a boss, or fear a boss, or be bummed about emails and meetings. I just learned to love it first,
Size this stuff up the right way and realise this shit isn’t just a job it could kind of be your life too. Of course, try to keep that healthy but, yeah, make it a hobby and learn to love it
What examples of design have inspired you recently?
We just went to the Sea Ranch, which is this sort of idealistic back to nature, one with the landscape, kind of post-hippie, geometric commune kind of ranch thing north of San Francisco.
We went there and we drove around looked at these homes, and every single home just has the most incredible early 70s / mid 70s geometric architecture.
Every single home has these cool little widgets and divots, and ding dangs – just little moves that are made that just make your home this really dynamic place.
What’s interesting is you can just have a box plop down on land and that will suffice for shelter, and somewhere to put supplies, and somewhere that raise a family and shit. But the moment you take the roof and put a big angle to it, suddenly you have these dynamic shadows, and you have these dynamic geometric opportunities.
It’s just space, I mean how much more lumber did it take to lift the roof up there? We rented a house there, and when you get inside this place you really see how your body works with it, and how you’re looking up, and how you’re sitting, and how you’re enjoying that space
There’s just something amazing there that really inspires me, because it makes me look at the way my house is built, what I could do to affect it, what I can do to change it, what tiny little moves I can do to enjoy the space that I live in a little bit more, and I find that super inspiring.
Maybe someday I could build one of these things. The weird part about driving around that Sea Ranch, is you just kind of feel like you’ll never have this because who the hell gets to have like some million-dollar home?
But no, I get my act together, and at some point I go build a home somewhere, a home that I can spend the rest of my days in – then you kind of you put all of your cards into that hand, and say I’m going for it, I’m gonna build this thing- it’s gonna be right to my spec, it’s exactly how I want it, I have enough land, and I have enough resources to just do this right this one time and live there for 15 or 20 years.
So, it was a great lesson that things like that could exist in a landscape north of San Francisco, but maybe even in your back yard in Michigan; there’s something about that too. So, the Sea Ranch – that’s that’s an example of design that recently inspired me.
After working in the industry for many years, what keeps you motivated?
Well… responsibilities. Responsibilities to pay for bills, responsibilities to take care of my mom and sisters and my girlfriend and just people around me. I don’t just get to stop whatever momentum I have and say, ‘okay I’m done’.
What motivates me? I want to live my life creatively. I mean I have bills; I don’t want to be complacent; I want to keep moving, I want to keep being productive, I to make a good honest living and – that really motivates me.
I used to have these weird transitions I would work all summer long, it sucked, all summer long up in Alaska 1996-1999 – four summers there, and I would be up there for four and a half/five months and you’re in cooks whites, you’re dealing with all these happy people, and you’re in this culture where you’re up at 4:00 in the morning and then you’re working till 10 o’clock at night, and it just sucks!
There’s nothing better than the last day of Catholic school, right, there’s nothing better than the last day on the train up in Alaska – I’m high on life, I’ve completed this thing, I’ve got money in my pocket, I’ve made the sacrifice, and I know I get to go and enjoy this thing and there’s just nothing better than those days.
Yet, I remember getting back to the northwest or getting back to the Midwest after this shitty five months and having a week or two off, but a couple of days into that – starting to beat myself up, feeling odd, and just feeling a little out of it because I had just lost that motivation I had to just power through that shit.
What does that even mean on some clinical level, like is something wrong with me? This is the kind of shit that like goes through my brain in those moments – like why can’t I just decompress and take a week off? Well, I would, but there was something about having that plight and having things laid out in front of me that really makes sense, and I kind of feel that now when I take a little break it starts to kind of eat at me.
I like having things to do. I’m learning to slow all that stuff down, I’m trying to, but yeah, that’s what I mean just moving forward – not accepting that this is the shitty or the really good situation I put myself into, that maybe there’s something I can always do a little bit different.
It’s slow going when there are things that haven’t worked, the things that have worked, how can you make those better? The things that haven’t worked well – maybe there’s a chance to look at them a different light.
I’m always trying newish things. We’ve landed on a pretty good handful of stuff. I built a little bit of a monster with the DDC merch, and the field notes, and the book, and all these things – it took a lot of work with each one of those things; but those tend to keep you honest because you have to grow them – they don’t just go away. They could go away, but that’s the shit that motivates me -building these little things, and enjoying that, and staying busy.
And finally, if you died and got reincarnated as a song, what would it be?
There’s probably a couple of my favourite songs out there that have sort of touched me. There’s this one song – Lookup this band Son Volt and their album, it’s called Trace, and this is one of my favourite records of all time.
There are a couple of songs in there that really kind of get me.
There’s just one song called Windfall, and I don’t really know what it’s about, but it seems to be very fleeting that we are just blips and the river keeps going by, the seasons change, and yet the earth is so much older than we are, and we are just these tiny little things and it just kind of comes down to us being like dust and wind whipping around.
There’s something very poetic about that. To hear that as a 23 or 24-year-old kid and realise the gravity of what it means to be mortal,- there’s something there so maybe, I would come back as my favourite Son Volt songs Windfall – that’s a pretty good one, and pretty dark and pretty weird.
It’s also really beautiful that like, yeah you’re not going to live forever, you better make good use of your time, and when it’s all done you’re just a puff, you know? In and out through the landscape.
Go listen to that one and I hope you dig it.
This interview was conceived by guest curator Cameron Randall