Aaron Draplin: There Is No Battle Plan
The Portland-based designer has his hands in a wide range of projects—like creating top notch logos for clients, making merch for his favorite bands, or getting designers fired up at his 40-plus speaking dates per year. And if client work for folks like Nike, Burton, and President Obama weren’t enough, Draplin has a healthy portfolio of self-commissioned work and businesses— like his brand of notebooks (Field Notes) and the Draplin Design Company (or DDC)—that generate just as much revenue as the logos he is known for.
We sat down with Draplin to find out how he keeps the DDC factory floor operating at full capacity day and night, his lucky break that started his series of “speaking fiascos,” and his successful transition from employee to freelancer where he tripled his wage in one year.
You do a lot of things beyond just sitting in front of your computer hammering out logos and Powerpoints for your clients. How do you break it all up through your year?
I’m slowing down with the logos…. and I do 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. The good thing is, 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 things to do in my Field Notes and I tackle 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 (and make a shit wag of money of course). I take care of a lot of people with this stuff—will I slow down? I guess so, but I don’t really know how to.
The full spectrum of the Field Notes notebooks, designed and created by Draplin.
How did you decide you were going to become a professional designer?
I started living my wild life at 19 when I decided to leave Michigan and head out West to Mt. Bachelor to snowboard full time. When I was 22 it was my fourth winter as a snowboarder and it was fun, but I asked myself, “Was I really making leaps in my life?” I was into design and had already gone to work in Alaska to save for a computer and I had friends who worked for snowboard companies making graphics, but those guys had gone to design school. So I went to design school as I felt that you needed to have a degree to even get hired, which of course is total bullshit.
However the blessing there was that going to school allowed me to go and spend two years and have this incredible discourse about 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 confirmed to me that it was how I wanted to make a living. It taught me that I was ready to go.
Does coming from an action sports background affect your aesthetic?
I’d like to think that what I did what was appropriate for that world. Riding snowboards really pushed me to make things that I wouldn’t really make, but those things were right for their line … Designers should have styles, but when clients call you, do what is appropriate for them. If it works out that it happens to be your style, then great. If not, then you have to go and figure out new territory.
You worked full time for a studio job before going into the contract world, what was that like?
I did studio work just long enough— two years—to get freaked out because we were spending so much time talking about shit, making a lot of design, and then 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 it was awesome but at the end of the day I thought, “What am I doing?” We’d still have to be in there at 9 a.m. just to try to sneak out of there by 7.30 p.m. and I was like I could have come in from 12 to 4 and just slayed it and gone home! It’s what inspired me to go out on my own. Because when I went out on my own I could just build the day to whatever I wanted it to be.
What does the staff of D.D.C (Draplin Design company) consist of?
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!... All the behind the scenes work is me, account management to janitorial services! To answer your question, why is anyone doing design work? We are doing it for the love of it, sure. That’s why I value my side projects like Field Notes and my thick line posters, but why am I making these logos? Because you make fucking money!
A collection of logos designed under the DDC banner.
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?
The planning is really this: Is my rent paid? Yeah. Is my car payment paid? Yeah. Is my insurance paid? Yeah. Then what happens when you have all that paid off and you kind of go, “There’s no more house and car payment and everything is in the positive”? You have this level of freedom, 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 buddies!” And then they started to sell.
And then there’s the first time someone likes what you do and then comes and says, “Come speak to us.” And then suddenly I’m on a plane making this presentation and they dug it! That was the first time speaking at an event and I was filling in for legendary graphic designer David Carson, a big name.
And suddenly then I’m making room to do the merchandise for all these speaking tours I am doing. Then that takes off, I have now done over 180 speaking dates, 42 last year alone. It’s kind of scaring me. It’s nice to have the money coming in but now I have to make room for less logos just to handle the merch. There is no planning for that, it just sort of happens.
A collection of album covers designed by Draplin.
How do you judge success for a project, whether it’s client work for Target or merch for a friend’s small music gig?
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.
How far do you push clients, to get your way?
Here’s you how you make a good logo: You show them good shit. Seriously, if you give them bullshit then they are going to find a way to be bummed. But if you sense that you have put your best foot forward and show them work you think is awesome and they kill it, then get out and drop the client. 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.”
How close is the viral video you made—"Make a logo in 15 Minutes" (above)—to your actual process?
Sometimes you have to sketch, sketch, sketch and sketch and sketch and sketch. You have to put in the work. You have to put the muscle in… It’s not necessarily reality but it’s fun to see, but that is the normal process. Sometimes you nail one right away and other times it takes a couple of weeks and you show a bunch of stuff.
You’re on record saying that designers should be wary of certain business professionals: telemarketers, TSA agent, transportation security, pickpockets, DMV professionals, horse thieves, tax collectors, and web-developers. Why web developers?
It’s a joke: Web developers are going to inherit the world. Whatever stupid app web developers are already developing that is going to die tomorrow and won’t work for me later on tonight, they make the money from that. 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.
Did you have a moment when you felt like you hit the big leagues?
There’ve been some clients 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 is. It’s more like whatever amalgamation of whatever I did that stacked up allowed me to pay off my house, that’s when it feels like the big time! It’s like a soft explosion in me, it really snuck up on me. I just thought, “You have made a living doing what you like and it’s going really good, so do not fuck this up!” I didn’t feel like I made it because of one job but because of all the tiny steps. By hopefully going the extra mile, and when someone complained about something I adjusted it…No questions asked.
What is your advice for a young designer that would want to follow in your footsteps?
A stringent diet of pizza. 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.…Sometimes I see that my buddies aren’t doing any work, and that resonates. I makes me think, “Oh man, how could I ever say no to another logo gig?” It makes me appreciate every single job.
More about Dave Benton
With a life mission to create exceptional experience Dave founded interactive design firm metajive in 1999. Focused on collaborating with his clients and team Dave is always looking for new opportunities to disrupt. When Dave isn’t working he’s trying to catch a few waves.