Meet Aaron Draplin: Award-winning designer, noted conference speaker, frequent flier and to-do list crusher.
Aaron Draplin likes to keep busy. He's been the proprietor, designer, janitor and receptionist at Draplin Design Co., in Portland, Oregon, since he opened shop in 2004. And that's just the way he likes it.
Draplin's identity work has been recognized by leading design publications and he's often asked to speak at industry conferences. This year alone he'll be doing a workshop at Design Ranch in Austin, Texas, speaking on the main stage at the HOW Design Live Conference in Chicago, and presenting at TYPO Berlin, among many others. And when he's not doing work for clients such as Timberline, Union Binding Co., and Gnu Snowboards, he's making his own DDC merch and selling the products on his site.
This big man – in life and personality – has a relentless travel schedule, so we caught up with him to find out how he manages his projects and conquers his daily to-do list, all while staying true to his character.
You're doing a ton of travel and speaking gigs. How do you have time for actual projects?
Hotel rooms are very conducive for getting stuff done. I just focus and chip away at the mess. It's like you are hiding – and I love it. Same goes for plane rides. I get so much done on a plane. I kind of look forward to air travel because there are no distractions. As I type this, the guy next to me wakes up every 10 minutes to spit in his chew bottle. Five hours from Atlanta to Portland, and he's gonna spend that time nodding off, staring into space or having a chew? That's the best you've got, buddy? Weird. I make good use of my time. All the time. To a damn fault, I'm betting.
Do you have a typical work schedule or are you working whenever you can fit it in?
I get into a rhythm when I'm in Portland for a stretch of time. Usually I'm up around 9 a.m. or so, and down to the shop by 9:30-ish. And then, depending on the job load or promises made, I don't leave the shop until the list is complete.
I start the day with a blank Field Notes page and get a list going. And then I destroy each item. And those items might be "taking the recycling downstairs" or "working feverishly to get the next round off to the client" or "organizing DDC merch shipments" or "pecking away at the never-ending stream of email." Usually after I've crossed off 20 things, it's time to head home for a nourishing supper. It all goes toward a good day on the clock. And I love it. Still.
How do you balance work and personal time?
With a tiny scale that fits on my desk. Just kidding. To my detriment, I follow some weird code of, "Until the stuff is sent, I'm on the job." And I won't leave the shop until I fire off the latest PDF to the client. Everything else? Gravy. When I'm on the clock for a client, I don't mess with the timing unless it's a loose exchange and I can stretch out the process. There's always something else to go after, unless I've got that proverbial "knife to the throat."
Do you find that frequent travel and meeting new people impacts your creative thought process? If so, how?
Yeah. It gives me perspective on the design scene in interesting ways. I've been able to get to know the regional flares and trends with each stop. And the best part? Meeting all the kick-ass designers!
Here's a list of golden glow champions I've been able to get to know: Jim "Kubrick" Coudal, Bryan "Beer Chug" Bedell, Matt "Illi-Noize" Jorgensen, Nate "Cougar" Utesch, Aaron "OK Pants" Sechrist, Mike "Sweet Ol' Twang" Jones, Dan "Honey Bee" Christofferson, Bob "Dale" Fraser, Gene "Columbia" Crawford, James "Signalnoise" White, Josh "Freedom Fighter" Higgins, Henry "Chunklet" Owings, Dan "Thunder Thighs" Cassaro, Dana "Iowa Style" Lechtenberg, Mike "2600 Ways To Die" Davis, George "Wayne Pain" Salisbury, Justin "Rice-A-Roni" Pervorse, Chuck "CSA Empire" Anderson, Derek "Y'know, Go Bears" Schille, Geoff "Texas Toast" Peveto, David "Wild Eyes" Sizemore, Levi "Tron" Burgundy, Sara "Inky Ink" Thomas, Ryan "Tarantula" Trayte, Josh "Hydro74" Smith, Jason "Genghis Kern" Wedekind, Jon "Beacon" Baugh, Chip "Batwing" Kidd, Hugh "Dakota Destiny" Weber, John "Beardmaster" Tullis, Steve "White North" St. Pierre, Jerry "Pulp Gulp" French (and his damn son Brian), and Nick "Mama's Sauce" Sombrato to name the scuzziest of my favorites out there on the trail.
I like splitting Portland. And I like coming back to it. Wanderlust, wanderlust, wanderlust. Then homesickness, homesickness, homesickness. Is that some kind of mental disease?
You've got this authenticity about you and your work that is so appealing. Does it ever work against you when you meet a client?
Hard to say. I just try to get them comfortable from the first call and reinforce the idea that I've got their very best interest in mind. Is that a schtick? Hell no. That's just being a good service provider. I mean, isn't that what everyone's got going for them? If you were to tell me that the average designer wears a different face on the clock than he does in his personal life that would make me sad. I know that exists and I veer from it. Let's be comfortable!
You have products on your site such as hats, T-shirts, Field Notes, and more. Are you getting a lot of traction on that? Are you filling these orders yourself?
We're up to 140 items, which is amazing. And, yes, it's a good 50 percent of my yearly intake. Shipping is done by my gal, Leigh. Let's talk about Leigh for a second. Not only is she a sight for the sorest eyes, but she's a mom, a sister, a daughter, a girlfriend, a Master degree-earner, a teacher, a hiker, a well-read bookhound, a champion of the little guy and a world traveler. And with all this, she's able to ship all the DDC merch? Amazing. Thank you for 1,000,000 years, Leigh! Thank you.
I noticed that many of your products are American made? Is that a requirement for you?
There are a couple that slipped through my fingers. Either a vendor told me one thing to make the sale or I just had to have something and let it slide. But know this: When I can make it in the states, I do. It's job number one and I'm proud of this commitment. And you know what? The quality is always better when it's made here in the states.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming creatives about the importance of being authentic and true to yourself?
Don't create some pressurized, professionalized, nightmarish work environment that allows for no wiggle room. Want a cool life? Make the part where you work cool, too. That's been my aim since 2004, and IT'S BEEN WORKING. ALL CAPS, AMERICA, ALL CAPS!
Photo courtesy of Aaron Draplin. Photographer: Zac Wolf.