Paper Matters Blog
Aaron Draplin: Tall Tales From a Large Man

This blog was originally published May 31, 2013 on Blueline by Domtar’s website.  We later went on to interview Aaron Draplin in our Blueline Magazine, Volume 8.  To read the full article, download the digital version. 

On May 16th, I had the opportunity to attend the Charlotte, NC stop on the Draplin Design Company roadshow tour, “Tall Tales From a Large Man.” The event, hosted by AIGA Charlotte and Skookum Digital Works (sponsored by Domtar), was unlike any other design speaker event I’ve had the privilege to attend.

Prior to attending the event, I knew of Aaron Draplin as an uncensored, talented, larger-than-life designer. What I wasn’t prepared for was the uniqueness in his personality that sets him apart from many of today’s well-known designers. Like many, he’s very passionate about his craft, yet talks about his work without a sense of ego (“I’m thankful as hell to be doing this stuff for a living”). He presents with brash language and manner while also being friendly and interactive with his audience. Most notably, he’s not afraid to show honesty, whether he’s speaking of his passion for uncluttered design or the tight bond he shares with his family.

Born and raised in Michigan, Draplin moved to Portland, OR in 2002 after working his way through college to earn a degree in graphic design. Initially, he worked for a small design agency where he liked the projects and the people but hated the hierarchy, structure and timesheets. He began picking up freelance on the side and in 2004 opened Draplin Design Company out of the basement of his home. The company’s motto is “Work Hard. Do Good Work for Good People”. This keep-it-simple philosophy is something Draplin keeps in mind during every project.

aaron draplin - field notes

When we reached the portfolio review portion of his presentation, it became clear almost immediately that Draplin measures success differently than most designers. For him, it’s not about well-known brand names and attracting what many would perceive as bigger and better clients. Draplin proudly showed off projects he simply enjoyed working on and have changed people’s lives for the better.

Whether he spoke about his work for Cobra Dogs (a Portland-based food truck company) or the logo he created for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Art (ARRA), every project shared this common thread. One of Draplin’s favorite projects are the Field Notes books, which began as a personal project simply because Draplin couldn’t find any “under-designed” memo books. Why the need for a memo book? He wanted to create something he and others would enjoy, and he very much enjoys putting his thoughts on paper.

As he says, “Every time I give one of these talks, a young designer tells me they want to help me create a Field Notes App. That would take away from the whole idea. I mean, I love adobe illustrator and the other software that makes my job easier, but nothing is as powerful as pencil and paper.”

Draplin also left the audience with one task. While he thinks it’s great to celebrate the rock star designers, he also firmly believes it’s important to celebrate the unsung heroes of design. His challenge for the audience: get out there, get dirty and rescue old forgotten design. Draplin regularly digs through the “junk tables” at estate sales in the hopes of finding design work from old packaging.

He celebrates the painstaking processes of yesterday, such as Rubylith and hand-painted signage. Draplin considers these treasures to be great reminders of how far the industry has come and how lucky today’s designers are to be working with the convenience of modern technology. He’s inspired by the principals of restraint and using less in design, which was often the result during those old processes. He takes this idea of preservation as inspiration in his own work.

There were many other fascinating aspects and stories in Aaron Draplin’s presentation, but with many other stops still left in the Tall Tales From a Large Man tour, I don’t want to throw out too many spoilers.  Plus, you need to see the man in person to get the full effect. Aaron Draplin is a unique mix of passion, grit, talent, introspection and honesty. And also gratitude, as evident in his Instagram message to Domtar below.

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