We’ve been following the work of graphic designer Aaron Draplin since the early days of Draplin Design Co. His elegant logos and brand work have won him many fans, and when he’s not working on new projects, he spends a lot of his time traveling around the country, inspiring other designers.
We sent our interview questions via email, and Aaron responded via voice memo. We were charmed to receive this extra message along with his responses, explaining why he said yes to our interview request so quickly:
When you wrote me — and I’m pretty good about saying yes to interviews, because they’re all opportunities and thank you very much — but when you wrote me, and you said, “Hey, would you want to be on our International Paper blog,” of course the answer was going to be yes, and here’s the main reason why: the International Paper logo is one of my favorite logos of all time. That’s a Lester Beall logo. I think it’s from the early 1960s, but that logo is still the logo all these years later because of that beautiful geometry, that odd IP inside there, that tree. It’s just such a classic modernist gem to me. It’s a triumph. So, of course, I had to say yes, to go be involved in this and to sort of, in a weird way, pay tribute to one of my favorite logos and logo designers of all time, Lester Beall and that incredible Lester Beall logo.
We couldn’t have put it better. Thanks to Aaron Draplin for his time and generosity!
We are long-time fans of your Things We Love state posters. When you're designing a new print piece — whether it's a new poster for yourself, a print project for a client, or something as big as your book — when do you start thinking about the paper you're going to use, and what are the considerations you weigh when making that choice?
The Things We Love state posters are meant to be a treat to those who bring me in to speak, a tribute to all the places I’ve been lucky to go. Instead of a poster with my face on it, which is always weird, it’s meant to be a poster than anyone in the audience can enjoy, and maybe even their mom and dad.
I’m in a lot of hot water with New Jersey people, because I haven’t made a New Jersey poster yet, but I haven’t spoken in New Jersey yet.
If I were going to make a New Jersey poster this afternoon, I would take a look at the neighbors I’ve built and the materials I’ve used over the years as a base to screen print on. What does Pennsylvania look like, and what does North Carolina look like? Maybe everything was white or everything was tan, and I would just react to that. Maybe for New Jersey, it’s a chance to print on a dark piece of paper, or maybe it’s blue.
When I think of the New Jersey poster, I think red, white and blue. I think of it as very American, sort of a burly state for some reason. You know, there’s a certain toughness to New Jersey people. Certainly around the city, there’s like a chip on their shoulder that they're not New York, they’re Jersey, and there’s just something very American about that. So something red, white and blue comes to mind, and maybe there’s an opportunity for it to be blue poster with lighter values that then jump off of that blue. That’s really how I would start to make that decision.
With a print project for a client, like anything, it just comes down to their budget. If I can push them to use something cool, then I’m going to, but really — and I hate to say this, but I have to be honest — it’s a pretty rare thing.
My screen printer in town here, Seizure Palace, they have a house uncoated white. They have stacks of it, and I don’t even know what brand it is, but the stuff works and they always have it on hand. Sometimes because there’s no time to wait for other stuff to show up, we just have to go with their one option, which I’m okay with, as long as it’s different from my last piece.
Whenever I see something new, and it’s something that grabs me, like if I get a sample at one of these shows like Adobe Max, I’ll leave it somewhere I look every day, like near my monitors, just as a reminder to myself to order it, get it into the screen printer and design around it. I try to remind myself, “This is out there, this is alive, you have to use this somewhere.” But it takes a little bit of planning, so I kind of trick myself so I don’t forget about how cool this stuff is.
What are the tools that are crucial to your personal craft? Already assuming a Field Notes notebook is one!
Yeah, really, it’s paper and pencil. I'm the most free there, I come up with the best solutions there, so that is super crucial. Computers are like this weird magnet; that’s where our hands are on the mouse, our hands are on the keyboard, that’s where you start, that’s where things are buzzing and bells are dinging, but we’re just sort of forced to be there. I will pull myself away from that and start with just a pencil and my Field Notes, and there is just something about that. I’ve got a record playing, and it’s like I’m thinking a different way. In the best case scenario, I sketch and sketch and sketch for a while, I take a photo of that, I bring it into Adobe Illustrator and then I sort of trace over that to build those forms. Once I have those forms, I can start refining, and that’s where it really takes off.
Yesterday afternoon, we had people in here from Adobe Illustrator — developers, engineers, project managers, the people who build Adobe Illustrator. It’s very fashionable when these sorts of folks come in here to Portland to sort of complain to them and say, I don’t like this, and I don’t like that, but I just
cannot bring myself to do that. I find myself very thankful when I’m around them because they gave me a life inside this software where I am able to bring my sketches to life using great tools with great architecture, and it’s just not my place to complain to them. Sure, if I want to see something reflected, I’ll say something, and they respect my input, which is just amazing. But to thank them for those tools really means something to me.
Those couple things: paper, pencil and then jumping into Illustrator is absolutely crucial. I have to have it. I wouldn’t even know another way to do it.
Anything else you need in order to do your best work?
Last night, I had a bit of a really good, let’s say, “creative momentum.” And it’s because of a number of factors. I had my email inbox chipped down to a record-setting 30 emails. Usually, it’s like a hundred things I have to answer, download, reply to or fill out, but over Christmas people sort of leave you alone, and I was able to chip those things way down into the 30s. When I get that stuff out of the way, then I can open up the creative floodgates and I can really get into a project. Last night I worked until probably 2 or 3 in the morning. It comes to me sometimes in these spurts and I can feel it. There’s just no friction. It’s just me, inside Adobe Illustrator, hammering, grabbing my pencil, jumping back into my Field Notes, making a sketch, taking a photo, bringing that back into Illustrator, doing another little tuneup — and that’s the best time. The answer is just having an empty palette in front of me, that’s the best.
It’s like when you’re on a plane and there’s no way for people to get to you, because you’re on a plane. Now that you can text message on a plane, I guess now people can get to you. But there’s something nice about being in a place where you get to focus. In the last eight years, I have traveled a ton to go talk about myself and I’ve really utilized that time on the plane to my advantage. You look around and people are sleeping, they're watching movies, they’re pecking away on their phone, they're doing things to get through the flight and hopefully enjoy themselves. But the moment that thing takes off, I am ready to start working, because I get to be focused.
So I guess that’s what I need. I need to be focused. To have a clean desk, a clean mind, a brave heart and an iron will.
Tell us about a recent project you’re particularly proud of.
Let me take a little pass at some of my folders to see what sort of punches me in the face… Things I’m particularly proud of, let’s see here… Well, this was a cool one. I got to work for John Hodgman and do a cover for his recent book Vacationland. John has become a bit of friend. He’s a sweet, sweet guy, he is whip-smart, he is nerdy and charming and really, really cool, and I’ve been a fan since The Daily Show. I’ve liked his books, I’ve liked him on podcasts, I’ve just liked everything about the guy, and now we’ve been connected through the power of design.
John saw something I did on Instagram and reached out to me, and we became buddies. I did a poster for his touring live podcast show, where he plays Judge John Hodgman. Then he asked, “Hey, would you want to do the book cover for my latest book?” I collect John’s books, I’ve read those books and loved those books, so to go and do a project for John…. This is how he supports his family and this is his creative output, and I just want to do the greatest job I can for him and not screw it up, you know what I mean? Because how many books in your life are you going to make? So that is a recent one that I’m super proud of because it’s got Penguin behind it, so there was a hardcover, there was a softcover, there was a different color variant. They took John’s input and then, working with me, we made these things come to life. I’m just really, really proud to work for someone who is a sweet guy and is funny and cool and a good family man. I’m proud to contribute that out into the world.
Other things that come to find from the last few years... I got to do some t-shirts for Chris Stapleton, who’s a big country artist. We met him, and he’s so nice, and that was just a real privilege because he reaches a lot of people. He has this classic sound, a stripped-down, authentic sound. There’s just something really down-to-earth about him, and then to see how many people were at his show — that was a proud moment.
One of the logos I did, they used that thing on every road case. Sometimes you sell a logo or a t-shirt graphic, and they sell the t-shirt on the tour, but then when it’s sold out, it goes away. But this logo I made, that thing’s on the side of their trucks, it’s been stenciled onto all of these road cases, and that means it’s on there kind of forever. Those cases stick around for the life of a band or artist, and to see my logo on that, that was really cool.
You're on the road a lot yourself, speaking at events with the "DDC Road Show." Where do you look for inspiration when you're making your way around the country?
If there’s time, I love to go to antique malls. We were in Detroit a couple months ago and we went to this vintage bookstore. I’m looking at spines, I’m just smelling the stuff and going wow, books are cool. Paper is cool. There’s a smell, there’s a must, there’s a musk, there’s a weird quality to this stuff and there’s something very charming about that.
One thing about being on the road is if you buy a bunch of records, they weigh a lot, so you have to be careful how you get those things home. You don’t want to screw them up. I take nice cardboard cases with me, just in case I come across a couple records.
Some of these events I go to, there’s no time to go junking or to go screw around. First day, you fly there, get all set up, second day you’re on the clock, third day you’re on the clock, fourth day you fly home. It’s pretty fast. But I’m going to Salt Lake next week and I’ll have a rental car, so I can go hit a couple record stores or junk malls or antique malls or maybe, if there’s enough time, an estate sale — that’s the best.
They brought me to Hallmark in Kansas City, Missouri. Hallmark has the most incredible archives — Warhol paintings and all the artists from the 50s and 60s. It goes back like a hundred years. In the 50s, they were buying art from up-and-coming artists to fill their corporate offices, so you go through the halls and their art collection rivals museums that are filled with Rothkos and Jasper Johns. They have that stuff in their collection. For that afternoon, for them to walk me through their archives for an hour... my mind is still blown. They were opening up these big flat files and showing me original art pieces that these artists and illustrators would make, sell it to Hallmark, and that would show up on a card somewhere down the line. That was just in their backyard.
To answer your question, I just like the randomness of life, the randomness of a yard sale, the randomness of a public library. Every library always has some artifacts behind glass, and that’s enough for me, just to go look at the paintings and artifacts at the library. It’s just really about making time to go find these places. And making sure to have your phone on hand so you can take that photo. Get the light right and document it. Photos are free. Get going too fast, especially on the road, and before you know it you’re on the plane and off the plane, and you have no record of where you went. That is terrifying to me. I always try to take photos of the weird things we see.
Finally, we’re wondering what your movie and TV queue looks like. Any binge-worthy shows you'd recommend?
My girlfriend Leigh is more on top of that stuff. I don’t make a lot of time for it usually, but after Christmas, there was time. And I’m always starting off the new year with this long list of resolutions, and always at the top of the list is just slowing down. I had an incredibly busy 2018. It was great, but I need to slow down. My way of slowing down was to say, I’m just going to go in there and watch a couple of hours every night. And I was flipping through and I saw the Office and I laughed and thought, you know, I’m just going to go start this thing, and I did. I’m probably 4 seasons in. I’ve been doing a couple hours here, a couple hours there, and it’s just been incredible. It’s just so charming and funny and weird and awkward and so well done. Honestly, I just miss those characters.
To answer your question about what’s in the queue, it’s always documentaries. We’ve been watching these music documentaries, Classic Albums, on Netflix. There was one was Steely Dan where they took apart their classic album Aja and it was just incredible. It’s grainy footage, and they were probably done in 2007 or something, so they don’t quite have the polish that whatever we're making in 2019 might have, but they’re beautiful, and it really goes deep. There’s Motörhead, there was some Queen, Fleetwood Mac. And it really humanizes these artists and is really hyper-specific. It’s one thing to listen and love the album when it’s just a click on your iTunes or putting that needle down on a record, but when you start to tear it apart, you learn to love it even more. So that was a little goldmine I found, and I went through just about all of those.
Beyond that, there’s the hits. I can always watch Shawshank Redemption, I can always watch Raising Arizona, the Coen brothers movies, anything by Todd Solondz, anything by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Recently, something that really grabbed me was Interstellar, and I’m reading the book about the science behind it, by a guy named Kip Thorne. We forget how lucky we are to be alive, to be breathing, to be warm, to be cold, to be thriving, to be hurting, to be loving, to be lonely, to be out there. All the human experience, it all takes place on this tiny little floating rock. There’s not even a word for how vast the space around us is. There’s not even a word for how remote we are, just even within our own tiny pinprick of a solar system. That, to me, is just so staggering and beautiful and real. Right this very second, if I look up — I’m talking to my phone right now, but if I look up — what I like to think about is that trajectory goes on forever. Once you leave earth and the stratosphere and our orbit, our solar system, our mega-cluster, our flugaflosker — whatever things are called out there — if you keep going in the direction I stared in, looking up at the night sky, that could go forever in that one direction.
Whenever I’m having a hard go because I can’t get the paper I like in on time or my clients are pushing me around or there’s too many emails, I stop myself and look up and go, “Wow, that is real, and it’s beautiful and we’re all part of it.” Add this one to the question about the tools that are crucial to my personal craft — a grand curiosity, respect for the mystery of life and love for how weird our place is inside the universe. That is real. Don’t ever forget that.