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Never Submit: Aaron Draplin Shares the Secrets of Creative Longevity

Posted December 12, 2014 in Classes & Presentations


So went the billing for Aaron Draplin’s recent visit to KCAD (sponsored by AIGA West Michigan and the KCAD Alumni Association). But what the designer and founder of Portland, OR-based Draplin Design Co. (DDC) actually delivered was nothing but raw and plainspoken honesty.

Draplin does these kinds of gigs a lot – over 100 times over the last three years, in fact. But behind his wry public appearance policy of “Go wherever they’ll have you!” lies a genuine desire to spread the gospel of staying true to yourself, designing from the heart, and letting the good times roll.

“Having my own shop was never a goal,” says Draplin, who started DDC in 2004 on the back of years of hard work, sacrifice, relentless curiosity, and stubborn drive. “I just want to do things that I enjoy and that I’m interested in, and work with people I like. All these year later, I have, but I still don’t really recognize it and that propels me to try to do good stuff and keep going and fighting.”

Aaron DraplinAaron Draplin, founder of Draplin Design Co.

Draplin’s path to becoming a successful independent graphic designer was anything but linear. He could have headed right into design school after high school, but he went out West to immerse himself in Oregon’s snowboarding culture instead. When he wasn’t on the slopes, he was doing anything and everything he could to immerse himself in design, and he was soon creating snowboard graphics, lettering café signs, drawing logos, and plotting local advertising campaigns.

Eventually, Draplin would earn a degree from Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Before starting DDC, he worked as an art director for SNOWBOARDER magazine and as senior designer at Cinco Design Office. With DDC, he has the freedom to do high-profile work for clients with which there is a mutual respect – like Field Notes (which Draplin co-founded), Burton Snowboards, and Coal Headwear – while also lovingly crafting one-off logos, graphics, and other designs for friends and other organizations and individuals he feels a strong connection to.

“I think it comes out of necessity,” Draplin said of his freestyle approach to design. “When you don’t have any work and you have to make your stuff up, that’s kind of the weird byproduct. You’re working with your buddies and there’s no money involved, and suddenly your filter changes – it’s about making fun stuff.”

Aaron Drapin interacting with KCAD studentsDraplin dishing out feedback at KCAD during a portfolio review session with Graphic Design seniors

At KCAD, Draplin was like a live wire during a portfolio review session with Graphic Design seniors, switching seamlessly from cracking jokes and spinning yarns to philosophizing about design, process, and the realities of an industry where it can be easy to lose sight of why you ever wanted to be a designer in the first place.

“We’re not just learning how to make stuff for the sake of getting a job,” he said. “We’re not selling insurance – let’s remind ourselves of that.”

In terms of portfolio reviews, Draplin’s style is less about probing the commercial viability of students’ work and more about getting them to question their motivations in creating it, which in turn opens up new ways of thinking about it. Above all, he encouraged students to harness the discoveries that arise from experimentation.

Aaron Drapin interacting with KCAD studentsDuring the portfolio reviews, Draplin kept the mood light and the tone positive: "We're not selling insurance - let's remind ourselves of that."

One student showed him a packing design for a product targeted at men. Draplin suggested that, as an exercise in getting out of his comfort zone, he try designing the packaging to target women instead. Another student who had created a rather political poster was encouraged to turn it into stickers and post them around Grand Rapids. To the student who had hand-drawn her own type on a piece, Draplin wondered why she hadn’t yet begun designing the entire typeface.

“This is your chance to figure out what the hell you want to do and how you’re going to do that,” he said. “Sometimes, kids send me things that make me see the sort of sameness of every kid from every school from every thing, and then it’s just embarrassing. You’re going to have set yourself up differently.”

Aaron Drapin interacting with KCAD studentsEncouraging students to embrace experimentation is at the core of Draplin's critique philosophy

When Draplin was coming into his own as a designer, he was relentlessly driven to learn any way that he could, be it pro-bono work, spontaneous experimentation, reading about design, or teaching himself to master new tools and technologies. He also soaked up the experience, knowledge, and wisdom of designers he admired, like Charles Spencer Anderson, who ruled the Minneapolis design scene during the 1990s. Working as a scanner for Anderson proved to be a pivotal moment in Draplin’s narrative arc.

Another pivotal moment came when, while Draplin was a student, a guest lecturer told him that he liked the young designer’s energy, but that it would inevitably fade with time. That man’s words have long inspired Draplin to prove them wrong each and every day.

Aaron Drapin interacting with KCAD studentsDraplin showed students that opportunities to go further with their work are all around them, often hiding in plain slight

It’s no wonder then that KCAD’s philosophy of talent development makes sense to Draplin. He says that others schools he’s visited want him to be hard on their students, and he loved that professors here see themselves as nurturers of unique talent rather than overlords of a rigid status quo.

As for himself and DDC, Draplin has a deceptively simple endgame: “I just don’t want to be caught or defaulted out. We want that randomness, and that buzz of knowing that we really did a good job that day.”

Swimming upstream is never easy – and maybe that’s the point. For Draplin, all of the hard work, long hours, and frequent interactions with students are worth it, so long as he’s able to instill passion into ideas and rescue them from the hands of mediocrity.


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