10?’s with designer, public speaker and collector, Aaron Draplin
A prolific designer, public speaker and admirable entrepreneur, Aaron Draplin’s larger-than-life character and beautifully simple style have inspired a generation of graphic designers. He’s done hundreds of talks and many interviews already, so for our 10 questions we wanted to be different and make it weird. Expect screaming kids, aliens and Robbie Williams but also some genuinely touching stories and great advice.
Aaron, firstly… You have a pretty impressive beard, we have to know, what’s your regime for that?
Not doing a damn thing. I just let this thing grow like a Brillo pad. Look those things up. There’s no archetype I’m trying to go after. You know, the bearded, gigantic, near-death, blood-pressure-addled adult graphic designer look? Nothing like that. Do you know what this is? I don’t want to shave, just be free. Let it grow and let it flow.
Will we see a range of DDC/Draplin Design Co. beard grooming products in your merch store in the future? Actually, if you could sell anything in your merch store (and could guarantee it would sell out) what would it be?
You probably won’t see any beard stuff. But I love those guys. They give me the little beard oil vials and what I’ll do is I’ll take the cap off and I’ll smell it and think, ‘well, that smells good’. So I put my finger right over the little opening and look like I’m doing a shot right down the hatch and these guys are like ‘don't drink it, don't drink it!’ You know that kind of shit? I’ve done that a number of times. But yeah, no beard oil in the DDC shop.
But, I mean, it’s hard to come up with new stuff now because I’m selling little pocket knives and blankets and watches and hats and beanies and stickers and puzzles and so much cool stuff and it’s just exceeded what I ever thought it would be. I’m working on some new socks right now. There’s an answer for you, and I don’t really care if they sell out. It'll be cool to have new wild socks with wild colours because I can’t find those out in the world so I make them for myself, and then we go from there. But the last bunch of years of all these collabs have to be a little more strategic. How we do these things and how they get to a larger audience?
Yeah, it’s always very positive and it's really not about the money. I mean, yes, it’s nice to make the money off that stuff, but first and foremost want to make sure they’re affordable and cool and easy to get.
Since 2004, you’ve been ‘fiercely independent’, mostly working by yourself and doing your own stunts. Have you ever had a ‘proper’ agency job or do you prefer to work by yourself and alone?
Well, I had a couple of gigs. I worked for a snowboarding magazine in Southern California and I worked in an agency up in Portland called Cinco Design, and it was great. I could work well with others but the way we would come into our agency job and we would do these painful meetings, and then we would play ping pong all day, just dicking around, right? And that just freaked me out because what they really needed me for was from about two o’clock in the afternoon to five o’clock when you really boil the day down. And it was like, why don’t I just come in from 2 to 5? You know, that’s what I was always running through my head. We’re just coming in for all this pomp talking about things which was and is integral to being a group and working well together. But that’s when it started to become a little prickly to me. I didn’t want to become this sort of fly that they needed to swat because I was bellyaching about it.
That’s when I went on my own because I wanted to see if I could even do it. I didn’t do it by just quitting my job. I gave them a month, gave them my notice and I had money saved. So when I say fiercely independent, understand that that’s also fiercely strategic, Make sure you have your bills covered, and you have what you need to cover covered, right? You can’t just go and just say I’m gonna be cool and pay my mortgage with that. That just doesn’t work.
What’s cool is paying your shit off. Right? But all these years later, do I prefer to work by myself? Well yeah, but more eyes on the project are better than my two. So I’ll run little elements past friends to help me and see if I’m on the right track because it's just good to have a trusted source close by.
Over the years you’ve racked up an impressive number of talks and gigs aka ‘speaking fiascos’; we counted 369 on your website but it’s probably even more than that. What is it exactly that gets you going when talking about design? Do you actually prefer it over designing itself?
Yeah, it’s somewhere around 450 or even more than that. But do I prefer it over designing itself? I mean, it’s a lot easier just talking about it. But of course that all changed in March 2020, there was a big record scratch, and it all went away.
I had all these fun gigs booked. What’s important is, that it was really fun to go share. It was really exciting to go and tell my little story because it was kind of improbable in some respects. Before anyone knew who I was, I never got to do that stuff.
Also, what’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened at one of your talks?
There was a guy one time in Lexington, Kentucky who was hammered. They must have been hopping from bar to bar. And then they come to my talk at what, seven o’clock, and it’s this sort of academic kind of environment with teachers and stuff. Well this guy is shitfaced and he just wouldn’t stop talking and it was embarrassing. He wasn’t heckling me or anything, but the other people around him, they couldn’t enjoy me up there doing my song and dance, you know? And I remember just feeling like God, man, have a little awareness. I mean, you’re not at like a comedy show. I just felt bad so I stopped the show and said, “Hey, get him out of here, go somewhere else.”
But here’s a better answer. There’s a lot of stuff where people have approached me after the show and people wanna shake your hand or get a selfie or get some merch or whatever. And I made a lot of friends that way. But you can kind of see when there was a kid standing off to the side, looking a little ‘off.’ When my dad died, I was pretty open about it because I didn’t know any other way to be. So I would see these kids off to the side waiting for me and they would come up to me and say, ‘the way you talked about your dad really helped me with my dad when he died.’ Call it strange or call it touching. There were moments I was brought to tears when I was like, Oh, my God, I do remember you writing to me. Kids come up to me and say, ‘I was in a bad spot and I told you and I wrote to you. No one else wrote back to me but you did.’ And I said I was concerned and we just kind of hugged it out. Which was cool. That’s what comes to mind.
There’s been a couple of kids screaming in my face one time. That was weird. All of his friends just kind of yanked him out of there. And it was kind of embarrassing. But for the most part, there’d be these really poignant little interactions that I still hold really close. I remember all of them!
In a world so reliant on technology nowadays, what is the magic of pencil on paper?
There’s just something random to it. I don’t quite know what’s going to come out of my fingertips. Sometimes I just get going, and you screw up and there’s these exciting happy accidents. I like opening my process up to that, sometimes just seeing what’s going to happen and then there’s this odd quickness, because when you’re on the machine and in Illustrator with vectors and the precision and everything lining up and all that shit. So when you're on paper, it can get dirty and all bets are off. You get to just for it. You’re not worrying about things from some structural standpoint you're just going and there is freedom there.
I also use paper to organise myself, I make a list in my Field Notes each day and just go through it. I use paper to unlock myself because I’ll have an idea and I can try to jump into Illustrator and start to flesh it out. But it’s just easier to start on paper and get sketching and get going, and discover something and then amplify it. And that’s really it. I mean, listen, I’ve had the same exact buzz on an iPad.
It’s not about the idea that the technology is pushing us into these new realms, it’s about how do you get this quick idea from your head down to your fingertips, onto the page and then onto the screen.
For me, when I nail something on the page, then all I have to do is take a photo of it and get it into Illustrator and start building that damn thing. I wish it was always that simple! Ha!
You’ve got one hell of a record collection. If you had to send one of them into space for an alien to listen to, what would it be and why?
Oh, man, I don’t know. Maybe the fun answer is there would be a couple of Flaming Lips records from their guitar period to show just how weird and wild things could be here on Earth. But really, it would be something a little more sensory to ask what does this music make you feel? There’s a quality to the Red House Painters, a couple of records that really make you feel morose or make you feel melancholic or certain songs, it’s like you have to make them a little mixtape to be like, this song just makes me feel good. What does that mean in your alien brain?
Or, I’m trying to think of something cheeky for the UK. That record would be some shite Robbie Williams remix. I’m kidding.
Speaking of aliens… who built the pyramids? Seriously.
We did. Humans, baby. Slaves and indentured servants gunning for afterworld guarantees? Maybe even ’conscripted‘ people? I don’t think it was the aliens. I think it was just with sand and dirt and stuff and momentum and building things up using logs and sand and whatever. But, yeah, no aliens.
What’s the single most weirdest thing in your collection of collections? And we mean properly weird.
Hmm, as I look around the room here I’ve got some of the greatest hits in plain view. But there’s nothing weird about a Han Solo plastic gun that I used to run around with when I was five. There’s nothing weird about these old Flaming Lips posters or these modernist design artefacts. I mean, I don’t get off on collecting bones and you’re not going to find a suspended foetus in a jar or something…or a collection of toenails or anything weird like that.
The other day I was digging through some old shit and I came across this old pair of brass knuckles, the kind where you would put it over your four fingers, then you make a fist and it’s suddenly deathly dangerous. And then you fucking hit someone it? No. Insane. It was in a junk store and I was like, Well, how much is this? The guy was like, “You know, that’s the real thing.” And I said, "Listen, man, someone died and you got this from their estate sale or whatever, okay? Settle down with the provenance taunts.” But it’s just a reminder of, like, some of the weird shit that’s out there. So that might be the weirdest thing I have. There’s ghosts in those brass knuckles. You can feel it.
But other than that, yeah, I’ve kept every bit of diseased, green pus squeezed outta me since I was about 14, and that’s in a 50-gallon drum in my basement… Okay, I don’t know what I'm saying now.
Finally, we know it’s your favourite colour, but what do you think Pantone Orange 021 tastes like?
It’s your lucky day, I know exactly what it tastes like. It tastes like ink. Okay, there were these press checks back when I was printing stuff on the regular. And I did this poster back in 2009, it was Orange 21 and black on white paper; all my logos on one big page. So I go in for the press check. And there’s all this ceremonial shaking of hands and stuff and we sit down at this big board room table and now we’re going to have the press operator bring in the page in a bit. Just all this unnecessary schmoozing and shit and they finally bring it in. And there’s like four people and they’re sitting there watching me and they have all these loops and shit and they got the big fluorescent lights and all whatever else and I'm sitting there and I’m looking on the loupe, feigning some microscopic concern.
Next thing, I’m staring at the edge of the paper, seeing if it’s straight and shit, and then I just put the paper in my mouth. Just the corner and press my lips on it.
I ‘tasted it’ and they’re all just kind of looking at each other. Like what? ‘Why is he fucking tasting the paper?’ And I go, ‘Yep. The pH factor of the ink is really, really good’. Which was funny as fuck to me at the time.
So the answer is: I don’t know. I don't know what it tastes like, but I will say I have tried to taste it just to make the printer people uncomfortable. Can you imagine someone seriously being like, listen, I eat paper and I want to know what this tastes like. That would be amazing!
But what does it taste like? I don’t know. It tastes like Fall. It tastes like an orange. It tastes like the sort of hazard quality of orange, like hey, ‘Warning! Watch out for this curb.’ I’ve always loved yellow and orange fluorescent things because they were sort of neglected down into being like hazard colours, I like that kind of stuff. I like colours that are sort of jarring. And yeah orange has always reminded me of Fall and leaves and cider and doughnuts. It’s that not too cold but the cool temperature in Fall, it’s my favourite time of year always is. And that’s what it probably tastes like. Tastes like leaves and cider and doughnuts and pumpkins and shit.
You know, I don’t know what I’m even talking about.
Aaron Draplin is an American designer, public speaker, author, entrepreneur and collector.
His clients have included Nike, Burton Snowboards, Fender, NASA/JPL, Ford Motor Company and the Obama Administration and has been featured on TED Talks and talks at Google. He is the co-founder of and designer for the Field Notes brand and owner of his own firm, Draplin Design Company.