In 2008, Portland, Ore.-based graphic designer Aaron Draplin outlined a North American dilemma in a video that quickly went viral among design folk called “Why America is F*cked (Graphically, At Least).” Draplin was on stage at the annual Future.Innovation.Technology.Creativity. event in Toronto on Apr. 24 to discuss the importance of bold, timeless design, hard work and other important details in his presentation entitled “Tall Tales from a Large Man.”
Draplin is known for his work on Nike, Ford, a wide variety of action sports brands, his buddy’s hot dog stand as well as the official logos for U.S. government stimulus projects like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) team. He’s also the creator of the eclectic Field Notes brand, a product inspired by his love of old memo pads and his disappointment upon finding out the whole Van Gogh-Moleskin thing was just a bunch of marketing.
The Michigan native quickly won over the FITC audience of mostly young designers with his love of Rush, classic Canadian logos and stories of moving from upper Michigan to Oregon to go snowboarding and live out of a van. One of his tallest tales included getting the call on a Thursday to work on the U.S. government’s stimulus package logos that were unveiled the following Monday. The other was about getting a call from a “Farmer John” in Illinois to design a new logo for his farm. “Farmer John” turned out to be famed filmmaker John Hughes.
Needless to say, Draplin’s an eclectic guy. I sat down with him to talk logo design and the challenges of entrepreneurship.
Canadian Business: If you could give one piece of advice to a brand or company looking to rebrand or redesign its logo, what would it be?
Aaron Draplin: First, who am I to tell some big agency that’s just spent six months toiling with a tough client how to do their job? That’s a tough spot to be in. Aside from that, my advice would be to make things you think are cool, something that you’d wear on a hat or embroidered in a shirt or jacket. It’s got to look as amazing printed as small as a pea or on the side of a Lear jet. You’re really looking for a classic, universal quality.
But again, I’m saying this first as a fan as opposed to as a designer. It’s a real bummer when you see something that’s so ubiquitous out in the world, that we cannot miss, and they did a poor job on it. That is not cool. That’s pollution.
[In terms of rebrands,] you can tweak here or there, but be careful. You don’t mess with something like the CBC logo, ever. Why would you? That guy hit it out of the park. A lot of times companies or brands are taken over or go public and they’re suddenly under pressure to make it new and fresh to placate investors. It happens all the time and it sucks. All that money spent and it’s not dynamic? Not cool.
My Field Notes and stuff like that is a nod to things that were made out of systems, made to be functional and understood. It’s almost undesigned. The label on a ration can. Things like that. It was just about a font. It lacks pretention.
CB: What are your primary goals when creating a logo?
AD: When I’m creating a logo, I’m trying to use the influence of all the great designers, the Saul Basses and Paul Rands, while doing something that’s appropriate to the client. The Nike Air Max logo I did has a lot of qualities of things I love about good logos: easily scalable, good round edges, looks dynamic punched into leather. These are the constraints you work with and it’s great. And in a world of webness and appery, where you can make any shape or whatever, it doesn’t always work in physical form. Back in the day, a good pizza place logo had to work on the pizza box, on the plastic thing that went above the delivery car, on the napkin, the matchbox. That’s where the rubber meets the road.
The principles of 1960 still ring true to me. It was about a certain economy of space, that it worked big, small, embroidered, that’s a lot different than just going with what feels good.
CB: You left a stable job at a design studio to start your own business back in 2002. What made you take the leap?
AD: It had never really occurred to me before, it sort of just dawned on me. I was working so much on the clock, off the clock for my job but wasn’t seeing the reward. I was increasingly uncomfortable making the principals of the company a whole lot of cash with my sweat. It really hit home when I had enough freelance work going that I could leave. And when I did, in the first year I made triple what I did at my job, so I really saw how well the sweat could pay off. All that and I didn’t have to wear pants to work.
CB: It doesn’t sound like that was a tough decision.
AD: Well, the idea that I could go and handle running my own business was a tough one, but I had seen other guys do it. I had a job that gave me a steady paycheque, health insurance, there were account managers and all that, but it sounded a helluva lot more adventurous to say I could work less, make more and—here’s the kicker–work on stuff I like. Now when I talk to clients it’s direct, one to one, with no account middlemen and all that. I love it and I don’t think I’ll be able to go back.
The Draplin Guide to Entrepreneurial Success
Don’t spend what you don’t have. “If you only really need one desk, don’t go buy five just to make the office look official. Don’t hire a bunch of people just because a big job’s coming in, because when that’s over you’re going to have to lay them off and that’s bad. Take on as much business as you need and as much as you can keep.”
Little things go a long way. “I may look unprofessional, but I work like a pro. If you say you can do it, do it. Take the time, do the research and astound them. If I’m on the clock for Ford Motor Company, and I was, I give them everything I got.”
Be on time. “If I say it’s going to be done by Friday, you have it Friday. If the meeting is at 2 p.m., I’m there at 1:50 p.m.”
No one-word emails. “I take the time to communicate, as well as thank clients for their business and their time. Sounds simple, but too many people are whipping off emails that just say ‘Cool.’ Attention to detail pays off.”