The following interview first appeared in our March, 2014 issue.
The best way to stay inspired and current in any creative field is by keeping tabs on your peers. For any of you designers, Aaron James Draplin better be on the top of your list, and not because his name starts with the letter A. In addition to Aaron’s impressive list of clients he is also behind those cult-like notebooks you see being jotted in all over the world, Field Notes. —Brent Gentile
Brent Gentile: Where are you living and working?
Aaron James Draplin: I live in Portland, Oregon, a crusty town on America’s Western coast. Been here about a decade, with a little house in a mellow neighborhood. I rent a big shop with a couple buddies. They work their own shit and I work my always-epxanding mess. My footprint takes up 60% of the joint, and my junk is always looking to lessen their percentage.
Who and what makes up Draplin Design Co,? How large is your staff?
It’s just me. I do it all! Wait, I’m horrible. That’s not entirely true. My gal Leigh does all the DDC merch shipping! But everything else, that’s me. From landing the gig, estimating the job, setting up schedules, doing the work, building the presentations, walking the client through stuff, and then wrapping up print-ready mechanicals—that’s all me. I’m a one man band, and have fought hard for that kind of solitude. I’ve been told my lots of fuckers way smarter than me that I need to “ramp up” and hire a couple designers and an account manager and all that. I don’t know. More people…more problems. Doesn’t feel right. I try to run as lean as possible. I can barely keep myself afloat, much less a couple wide-eyed designers staring me down.
What’s your favorite project as of late?
I have to break it down into three groups…
On the clock: I’m working up an album for my buddy Willy’s new band The Delines. I’ve been a fan of his band Richmond Fontaine for long, long time. All the way back to 1995. I’ve done a couple record designs for Richmond Fontaine, and the chance to work on his new project has been a blast. Plus, I love the tunes. That’s the best part. I love the music, and a chance to make the graphics that go with it? The best.
Off the clock: I recently had an art show in Minneapolis and got to make a poster for it. It’s called “Pretty Much Everything Up To October 11, 2013” and I plopped 666 logos I made on it! In full color! So proud of each and every one on there.
Paper and staples: I’m blown away by the production value of our Field Notes “Cold Horizon” books. Beautiful ink gradients, mixing flat and metallic inks. Each book is different. Subtle page color shifts. Each time I play with ‘em, they feel different. Or, the light hits them a new way, changing the inks. I can’t take credit for this brilliance! That goes to Bryan Bedell, our Field Notes ink wizard. The guy knows printing, and I’m always blown away by what he schemes up. And, they are cold to the touch? Who figured out that part? Awesome.
How and when did Field Notes first come about?
I’ve been collecting dead memo books from junk drawers, estate sales, antique malls and flea markets on my back-n-forth missions of the states from Oregon to Mom and Dad’s compound in Michigan. I’ve ratholed a hell of a collection over the years. Got like 1,000 of the things. And I’d use them for my sketching and notes. I’ve always had a sketchbook or something to draw in close to me. I couldn’t find ones I liked, so I made my own. I printed the covers with my Gocco printer. I collated and stapled them together. Rounded the edges. And made a stack of a couple hundred to use, and give to buddies. Then I printed my first couple thousand of them here in Portland. Gave ‘em out by the handfuls to whoever would use them. Jim Coudal got a stack, and I remember him sorta flipping out. “You are on to something here, man!” And when Jim jumped on board, things took off! Before I knew it, we had a web site, people talking about us and all sorts of people using the books way outside of the design community I knew so well. Seven years later, we’re still going strong, and always on the up and up!
Is Field Notes totally independent of Draplin Design Co.? What’s the relationship there?
Out fulfillment and head offices are in Chicago at Coudal Partners. Im a little satellite, working on special projects, graphics and new stuff for the brand. Everything is diplomatic and we all bounce ideas off each other for new product, new colors and themes. More often than not, Chicago comes up with something so incredible, I’m instantly on board.
You’ve been practicing on your own since 2004, how’s that been?
It’s been incredible! I’ve had a hell of a decade, feeling free and having the opportunity to work with friends, on the sorta stuff I love. There’s been no one to hold me down. No bullshit company owner or meaty account executives. None of that red tape. Just an open road to charge as hard I want to on. I’ve been with Brad from Coal Headwear and George and Martino of Union Binding Co. for that whole time. They are brothers now. I was in on the ground floor as they started their companies and they trusted me with a decade of projects. And these are the same guys I would have been on some chairlift snowboarding with back in the day. I’m told that’s a rare relationship. Like, I’m lucky or something? I’m pretty fuckin’ thankful for the range of stuff I’ve been able to work on.
Can you talk about your process?
I really try to make the way I work as collaborative as possible. I show a pile of things and then have the client comment of things that grab them, always open to morph elements and change directions if need be. It’s my job to show a range of options, and then steer the projects toward the final piece. Along the way, we create ownership together. I try to keep something in mind when I’m on the clock for a client: In the end, this is theirs. it’s not mine. They need to love it, and it’s my job to make them something they love. So I’m always down for the back and forth, and thrive on it.
What’s it like on day one of a new project?
I take a lot of notes and love revving things up with discussions with the client. Just to spitball ideas and hear their concerns on a call. Briefs, emails and all that are cool enough, but there’s something about sitting together and seeing how they get excited about certain things. And after those initial chats, I get to work and start sketching. Making notes. Collecting inspiration. Setting up documents. More or less, getting myself ready to kick butt on it. Then when something hits, I jump in…add a little something…tweak something, all the time pushing towards that first presentation to the client. I keep my Field Notes close at all times so if something comes to me, I can jot it down. I’m always thinking about this stuff. It’s important how to capitalize on all the moments “off the job” too. Like, drifting off to sleep? Shit’ll come to me, and I have to write it down. You gotta be open to that sorta shit.
Is there a dream client you have? Mine would have to be NYC travel bureau...
I would love to do a record or poster or t-shirt for the the Flaming Lips. That’s my favorite goddamn band. And each year, they are getting weirder and weirder, and more fun. But damn, there’s something sweet about never being able to pull it off. There’s this idea of “staying a fan” that I hold very close. And sometimes, you meet the band and learn the inner workings and frustrations and bullshit, and it taints how you look at them. Each time I’ve met Wayne, he’s been sweet and let me hug him and thank him. I got to hang with their visualist George Salisbury when I visited Oklahoma City a couple months back. He was the nicest guy and told me about what it takes to make a Lips record, from the art to the recording to the hand off to the record company. And you walk away going, “These are regular guys, doing beautiful irregular stuff. A working band.” So thankful to get that glimpse. They are magical to me!
What's the oddest feedback you've gotten from a client?
Man, this one’s really got me thinking. I can’t really think of too many notable curveballs. Usually the stuff goes pretty well and the exchange is professional and chill. I can tell you this much: if they rub me the wrong way, I’m getting better and better and just sorta cutting the cord. I don’t like to back down. When I’m on the clock, I’m on the clock. And if I didn’t nail something for them, I go back to the drawing board. But if I sense that odd phenomena of “no matter what you ‘em, they won’t know if it’s right,” I pull the ripcord can get the hell out. Nothing sucks more than showing solid stuff and the people missing the point.
If anything, it’s the that one time I handed over 10 pages of stuff and they came back and said, “Page 1, number 3, we love it!” And I keep developing it, they sign off, and bam, the project’s done. Then, I got this email saying, “Oh shit, we didn’t even see pages 2-9!” That happened once, and now with each opening volley email I write, “This is a multi-page PDF…” Ha!
What's your most unusual source of inspiration?
The act of “turning shit over.” When I’m out junking and I see some weird little item, I always turn the thing over. Just to see the bottom of the package. Sometimes, that’s where you find some cool, little logo or type lockup. All forgotten and perfect. And it’s covered up. You have to look for it. I always find cool shit on the bottom of stuff. Always turn shit over!
It's day 10 of 2014, what do the next 355 have in store?
A good 80 percent of them have an hour each day of me hating life. I got a personal trainer. Fuckin’ party’s over. I’m a man mountain and this sedentary shit just isn’t gonna cut it. So I’ve been moving a lot. Whipping these fuckin’ ropes and stepping up steps and lifting weights and hamstering on treadmills. I’m going for it.
I’ve got a good spring tour lined up of speaking gigs, a slew of logo projects, four records, a coffee can set, tons of new DDC merch, new “Things I Love” state posters and always fighting hard to keep everything as loose, fun and wild as possible.
Who do you think is setting the bar in the design world today?
There’s too many to list. And, they are obscure. Like, they don’t really trump up who they are. No fucking glamour shots or narcissistic “look at me” projects clogging up yer social media feeds. They’re just folks who do good work, and can morph with the client’s needs. Style is one thing, but versatility is a whole ‘nother beast. And way too often, they are unsung heroes. So, I apologize for not listing any names or groups. It’s sorta better that way. Let all the ballhogs out there be ballhogs. I like seeing good work that doesn’t come with some big asterisk next to it, painfully reminding you how cool some numb nut behind it is.