The man, the myth, the BEAST, Aaron James Draplin. Austin, TX.
Toward the end of last year, I attended a really dope event here in Austin known as Mondo Con. A full weekend of all-out creative assault, food truck overload, and poster pandemonium, Mondo Con hosts discussions with amazing talents from all over and opens up a showroom floor with some of the dopest artists and designers in the game selling some of the illest screenprinted posters around. During my time at Mondo Con 2016, I got the opportunity to chat with one of my design heroes, Arron James Draplin. Sometimes you meet your heroes and it's a let down due to an off day, lack of sleep, or just the reality of shitty attitudes. You're left disappointed and distraught wondering how your hero is not a great person. Then you meet someone like Draplin and realize that you can be a huge success while still remaining humble, humorous, and insightful. Never one for a lack of words, Aaron and I discussed his book tour (now on its second leg as of this post), making it as a designer, working for others as your own boss, and much, much more. Huge shout out to Draplin, DDC, and the wonderful folks at Mondo Con for having me out at their event making this conversation even a possibility. THANK YOU.
BLUE731: In the most outlandish way possible, tell us what you do.
AARON: Well, outlandish, let's see here...I'm a graphic designer. I make logos and Field Notes and things and stuff. We're on a fucking book tour right now, selling my book. I can't believe I got to make a book. I guess, if that's outlandish, I mean, that's what I do. We're on a book tour, going all over the world and nation and shit. And that is pretty outlandish to us. How cool is it to do 40 shows, about two months worth, like a band? It's at schools and nerd conferences and art clubs and all sorts of shit. Some of 'em, we're gonna be in a Target parking lot just standing on top of the van yelling about logos and we'll sell some books to enthusiasts. So, that's what I do and then to come here to Mondo, I'm a guest, man, I don't know what I'm doing here, ya know? I can't compete with all these cool movies and things. We had an incredible day. These kids walk up and they don't even know what I do and they like the stuff and they bought some shit, so, it's been a good day.
How have you been able to do this successfully for so long?
You know, everything in life is in stages. If you go all the way back where you're like, "What is success?", for me, it was just having some money in the bank where I could just say, "Ok, my rent's covered for this many more years," or something like this, right? And that's an incredible thing, that's a great privilege right now. Because I know what it was like when it wasn't covered. Four or five years ago I still had clients, of course. I still have clients, but it's a little different now. Now it's more like, "What's my favorite thing to do? Can I make a buck doing that? Can I kinda chill out?" So that's been four or five years, but it's just kinda having the balls to say, the guts, or even the kinda naivete to be like, "I don't know why I like this, but when I make it hopefully kids wanna buy one and I'm going for it." And that's a different thing than waiting for a client to bring you work.
You did lot of work like designing at snowboarding magazines, Union, Coal, etc., before going off on your own. What was the major turning point where you decided, "Hey, I can do this on my own, I don't have to do these 9-to-5 things anymore."?
It was this one guy who pulled me aside and said, "Hey, here's the thing, you're working hard in this agency and it's not like you make more when you stay late.", and he was absolutely right. And that's a weird thing, it's sort of a debilitating thing after you really start to think about it and you're like, "Oh my gosh, he's right. Here I am going for it and I'm not really being rewarded. He was a production guy and he basically said, "Look at some of these guys--they look down on us as production guys. I leave here every day at five." So there was a beauty to what he was doing, him understanding, basically, his limitations. Here's the thing: Who had it better?--The guy who was working all night making ten more grand? Or the guy who left at five and had balance in his life? You know? It's an interesting thing. That's a big one for me because he said, "Hey, you're an animal, I know you're gonna do the work. Get out of here, go do this on your own, and you're gonna see the rewards. Not to mention, you know, you can make your own fucking schedule." That's a guy named Chris, I met in Portland probably fifteen years ago. Incredible guy.
Over the years how have you managed to keep, not only consistent in your creations, but consistent in the success where you have just been able to, "Hey, my rent is covered, my shop is covered", all those kinds of things?
Every one of those is a little mountain you climb. It's sort of like, you make your goal, you say, "OK, these are all reasonable things to go for.", which would mean like, "Damn, I've got rent paid for this long--", see thing is, this bullshit where people say, "I don't have to do work anymore", I don't look at it that way. I look at it like, "People are gonna continue to call me." I just did a logo for two grand, right. Could I have gotten paid more? I don't really care. Two grand to me, still, as a 43-year old, is a couple three or four months of buying records. That's the way it looked to me when I was 22, and at 42 it was kinda still the same shit. The idea is, I just have better padding in the bank. When I had no money, and then that job would come through, I wouldn't buy the records. I would make sure that would cover--have your insurance, have your rent, and all that kinda car payment and shit covered, right. So, you know, it's an odd thing. I don't know, it's just about being able to understand where you're at and then adjust accordingly as you go. Not taking too big of a bite, that's an interesting thing. People bite off way more than they can chew all the time in so many ways: loans, things, stuff, mortgages, whatever. I've just always kept one foot in the pragmatic. And then one, just a little couple, just a couple gnarly crooked little toes dipping in the dreamy, ya know what I mean? I know how to pay my bills, let's just say.
Draplin's talks are always entertaining and fun.
In reference to Field Notes, how do you decide what's gonna be the theme or the process or what kind of paper, that sort of thing. How does that whole thing come together?
Well more and more--I work with such incredible people in Chicago, they come up with incredible stuff--Jim has an idea, I have an idea, Michelle has an idea, whatever. We just see if we can cost it out, make it work, and then go for it, ya know. It just comes very democratic. If Brian Bidell has an idea, we kick it around and then we all kinda just really pound that and say, "What's the best way we can make it? Can we afford it? Can we do this, can we do that?", and that's how we do it. It's very simple. Someone's got a cool idea, that wins. Sometimes I hit it, sometimes those guys call me and say, "Shut up, we got it, we're making it, you're gonna love it. We need a logo for this part of it." "Alright!", and I just go and do it. And it's as simple as that.
"I'm so thankful to be around any of this, all of this, any of this."
As a designer, in general, what is most important to you, in the entire process?
I think it's just enjoying what you do. I mean, I love to answer that because it's like...today is just another day of frosting, right. To come here and meet all these--holy shit, talented people. A hundred talented people you've met today. I'm so thankful to be around any of this, all of this, any of this. It's so cool. I enjoy my job. I couldn't get here quick enough this morning. Seven hours, eight hours later?--my feet hurt. My feet look like--you oughta see my feet, man, that shit is gross! And they hurt, and I'm ready to go lay down in the room, but you stop when you get to the room and you're like,"Man, what an incredible privilege, ya know, to go and do this and be around all this stuff, sell a bunch of bullshit, watch a kid's eyes light up when he plays with some Field Notes or my book or whatever. I'm pretty high on all this the whole time. Pretty thankful. I keep that perspective.
"We're a service, if someone needs some help, do what they need to get done."
Draplin keeps it real.
In watching some of your interviews and in reading your book, you've mentioned when you're working for a client, you're there for them, to solve their problem. How do you accomplish that while still injecting your own brand, without putting too much of your own ego into it?
Sometimes it doesn't. I could never be bummed on that. Here's the thing, it really comes down to what's appropriate. If they come to me and they say "Hey, we have this restaurant, we like what you do, Aaron, but we need this.", I know how to do that. I know how to handle that. Now if they come to me all the time and say, "Hey, sprinkle Draplin on this.", of course my big ego says, "That never happens.", but sometimes it does. Sometimes, it's the same old shit I love to make. I forget that that's actually a really cool thing. I'm lucky to even do that. As long as it's different, for their project, and it's appropriate. But, if they come to me and they're not really feeling what I do, I know how to handle that. It is never this kind of thing where I try to shoehorn them into whatever couple typefaces I'm into that month or colors or whatever. Right now I'm into turquoise a whole bunch--I'm not gonna try to make everything turquoise, I'll make my own shit turquoise and I'll have my own little buzz from that. We're a service, if someone needs some help, do what they need to get done. If we can jam-pack some Futura Bold down their throat, I will.
Right on. In the entire span of your career, who have been some of your favorite clients that you've worked with and who is someone that you haven't worked with that you're itching to get with?
Well...it's not stuff you guys would know. It's like, buddies. The things that were the most fun were the things that, you were risking your time, really. It's nothing more than time, cause there's no money. So you can't pay your mortgage with it, but then here comes a buddy and says, "Man, I can't get this figured out.", and you help him make a logo and then it starts to take off. That is so cool. And sometimes it's taken off too big where it's like this weird thing where you can't, you don't have enough time to feed the monster, or whatever you call it. So, those are my favorites. But you know, notable things, I got to work with President Obama, that was pretty cool. There's been some Nike things that were really, really rewarding. But, Cobra Dogs, Coal Headwear, Union Bindinds, a lot of that comes back to like, my friends were way more fun to work with than the Nikes and the Fords and some of the bigger shit I've done. Way more fun. There's a lesson there, there's nothing wrong with working with your buddies.
When you get "the call".
I didn't get to attend the over-sized Field Notes workshop at Industry Print Shop, but what is some advice you can give to someone putting together their own memo books, or their own books in general? What is one solid piece of advice you can offer?
Just go make 'em! It doesn't have to say Field Notes. We love when it does, of course. It's more like, the cool part about all of the shit that we do is that you can go and build your own little memo book and have your own memo book. It's a couple of staples, and there's some rounded corners, why wouldn't you? It's pretty cool. That's how I made Field Notes. I would just say go get some rulers, and brayers, and folders, and flappers, stapler, and all that shit, and try it. Make your own shit and enjoy that stuff because that's exactly what I did and I made my own. There's not gonna be enough memo books, if you ask me. I want people to use these things. I love when people use Field Notes, but I love when people make their own shit. Advice?--just go do it!
Caught a few hours before our conversation when I was walking the floors. Such a fun guy.
What are some final parting words for our artist and designers reading this?
I know it's tougher and tougher to be sort of this idea, this original little hot, little flash of something. People are very competitive with that shit and that gets a little bit weird...find what you like to do and do it. I don't wanna be a cliche, I don't wanna be that bumper sticker that always says the same old shit of like, "Just go make.", and "It'll just happen.", cause it won't. But understand, that some things you're gonna do for a job, and they're gonna suck. And understand that some things you're gonna do, you're not gonna make a penny, and it's just gonna be for fun, and that might be the most rewarding thing you made because what we're looking for is a buzz. I wanna enjoy what I do. You can't necessarily enjoy what you do and pay your rent with it. Sometimes you just have to go take it on the chin and do some bullshit and whatever that is. Just having perspective, you know? The very worse day in a life in graphic design is probably a little bit better than the very best day at your pizza job. The End. Ya know? So I keep that in mind. I've worked some fucked up jobs over the years because I just didn't know any better and that was like, the best way I could get away with something was to go to Alaska and make ten grand, and that's how I got a computer, or any of these things I've said a million times up to this point. I love telling that story, because that was the only way I can do it.
Hard work pays off.
Hard work does pay off and you know what? Even if it doesn't, what do you want to spend your time with? Just fucking go for it. And even if you don't sell one of 'em, who gives a shit? Give 'em to all your buddies. That's still cool.
Awesome advice, Aaron. What's next for DDC?
We're gonna do this tour, of course. A couple of more months here and then there's some shit...just weirder things. Just weirder things. Once you get a little cake in the bank, you can stop yourself and kinda go, "Well, what didn't I get to do or want to do to make fun?" I wanna work on a stamp for USPS and I can't confirm or deny that I may or may not be right now, but I can tell you what--you see a stamp coming out, it's got some DDC on that shit, well, it may or may not have happened. But, I'm on cloud nine, man. I can't confirm or deny it, but it's gonna be awesome. We'll see.
Thanks again, Aaron, it was an honor and awesome opportunity to chop it up with you. Everyone, be sure to go grab Aaron's Book "Draplin Design Co.: Pretty much Everything". It is super inspiring and full of so much design flavor you'll be busy for months on end, salivating over the kerning and tracking and Futura Bold and so much orange you'll get your daily Vitamin C just by reading it*.
*Statement not endorsed by the FDA, USDA, American Heart Association, DDC, ICP, OPP, EKG, ESP, or LLC.
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