The terrifying power of the internet
The Sunset Motor Lodge and the odyssey for its sign
Designing a USA Forever Stamp
Designing the TEN7 logo
IVAN STEGIC: Hey everyone you're listening to the TEN7 Podcast, where we get together every fortnight and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business, and the humans in it. I'm your host Ivan Stegic. My guest today is Aaron James Draplin. Aaron is a graphic designer that’s based in Portland, Oregon. But to me, it feels like he’s all over the planet all of the time. He’s the founder of Draplin Design Company, and has worked with the likes of Nike, Burton, and the Obama administration. He’s somehow involved with Field Notes Brand, I’m going to ask about that, he’s also the author of Pretty Much Everything, a book about the work he’s done so far in life, and there’s a lot of that. I’m so glad that he’s agreed to join me today. Hey, Aaron. Welcome to the Podcast.
AARON DRAPLIN: Well, hello there.
IVAN: So, you’re sitting in beautiful Portland right now, aren’t you?
AARON: Yeah. I hear the aren't ya, there’s some Minneapolis (laughing). Been missing that one for a while. Yeah, I’m in Portland. I got up this morning and dropped my Volvo off. I bought a Volvo brand new in 2010, and I have babied that thing, tried to, all these years, and today I dropped it off for some kind of service doo dad and that was my morning. Then I raced back here, did a little bit of work, a couple invoices, a couple emails, and I’m getting ready to go to Richmond, Virginia in a couple days and then down to Raleigh, North Carolina, a couple days after that.
IVAN: You’re all over the place. I love it. Did you go to Sweden to pick up your Volvo? Did you do that whole pickup thing?
AARON: No, I was kind of told, as it turns out, it sounds really cool until you go do it. And it was like, “what do you mean? What do you mean?” And there was some little hitch to that thing that kind of freaked me out, and it was like, “you stay there a long time.” “it’s expensive and then you’re waiting and you're waiting and you’re waiting. There’s something to it that was like, “oh, I guess I won’t be going to do that thing.” I got all excited. I looked into it, and then someone told me something like, “yeah, it’s better if your like 65 years old and you have a lot of time to wait,” or something like that. I remember just kind of like, “oh,” because I was going to go do it. It was like this attractive thing. Or like, “they don’t put you up in the nicest of things,” or something like that where there was like, “a little bit of a wahn, wahn, you know, kind of thing. I can’t remember what it was specifically, but yeah. But it sounded cool, and I did pick my Volvo simply based on typography.
IVAN: Oh, did you really. (laughing) Of course you did.
AARON: Of course, I did. When I got inside that thing, I knew what I wanted.
IVAN: Station wagon?
AARON: Yeah, and I knew that they were safe, and there were other things, just beautifully engineered, all the stuff they’re known for, but I will say the typography inside the cockpit really made a big difference for me, because it was just like something you’re going to be looking at for a long time. And you’re spending all this money, and all that kind of stuff, but it was just something like that just made sense. I remember trying to explain that to the guy, and that’s another one of those moments where it’s like, “ah, you’re just talking too much,” you know, and it’s like “oh”. This means something to me. They thought about that in Sweden and I appreciate it, and I’m going to be looking at this damn thing for years, let’s get this thing right. I remember that. But, today is one of those days where you’re like, “why did I ever do this to myself?” Because you’re dropping the thing off, and you just know you’re a mark, they got you. Anyway, let’s talk about design, sorry.
IVAN: (laughing) No, this is one of the things that I absolutely admire about you Aaron. It reminds me of that original video that I was introduced to you and your shenanigans and that was, “why is American F----d”? Right. Why? And you had a very similar treatise on the design of the logo of that motel that you saw. I think you were eBaying. Can you tell the story about how that happened and what made you so mad about that?
AARON: Well, all these years later, I will say as a 45-year-old person, I would’ve been about 35 or 32 or something, I do feel a little bad, because the power of the internet is a terrifying thing. The idea that, I remember I got a little bit of a snarky email from a guy that made me rethink my position on that. What it was, was simply this, I was back home in Michigan where I’m from. I was with my mom and dad, and I love eBay, always loved eBay and I’m on eBay, I’m playing around, and there’s a sign for sale. Now, I’ve always wanted one of these…the certain geometry of this arrow…and there was a sign and it was awesome and beyond that it was reasonably affordable. So, anytime I’d ever seen one of these little signs with this arrow, they were so much money, there was just no way in my 35 year oldness, I was going to be able to afford that stuff. They were $7,000. And, here’s this one, where it’s somewhere in the ballpark of like, I don’t know, I spent $300 or $500, it’s over 10 years ago. So, I got excited.
There was this big sign, and there’s attached all these different arrows. I’m getting the one arrow I want for this price, I’m getting another arrow for this price, and then here’s this big awesome sign. The thing is, I’m not much of a drinker, and I was back home, and my buddies and I had gone out or something, and I was just a smidge tipsy. I remember my buddy having to drive me all the way back out to where my mom and dad lived, which was basically just far from in town. So, I bought this thing, and I might’ve been a little under the influence, and I wasn’t quite thinking, or maybe I was thinking too…I don’t know it was weird. I woke up the next day and was excited and then there was this moment where I was like, “oh my God, what did I do.” It was one of these moments somewhere there, like, “what did I just buy?” “What did I just get myself into?” Because I got an email saying, “hey, you do understand that this thing is this size.” And I went and looked at it and I remember talking to my dad and saying, “it’s like 30 feet tall.” My dad was like, “you asshole, do you even know how sharp that thing is?” And he was kind of mad at me, and I’m like, “don’t you worry about a thing. I’m my own person. I’m driving back out west starting tomorrow, and I’ll stop and get the thing.” So, here it was like this funny thing where it’s like, I remember the sign was by St. Louis, and I was like, “I can go down Chicago and work my way out west or I can go all the way down to St. Louis and it’s just on the way,” we’ll say, just’ on the way. (laughing) So, I’m going to go grab this thing. And I get this email that says, “this thing is pretty big and how do you want to do it?” It’s from a sign company. So, you know, here’s the thing, I get down there and I’m all excited, like I’m going to have this thing for the rest of my life, just the funny little parts of it, like, “oh, right, I get this cool arrow. I don’t even know what they’re going to do with this big giant sign part.” It’s big. And then you’re freaked out by that, and then you get up close to it and you’re realizing this thing, “I am way out of my league here.” So, when I get down there, I go to this sign company and I check in and say, “yeah, I bought the sign and I’m here to pick it up. What’s that all entail?” And I remember it’s just in pieces in the back. I didn’t get to see it. I saw certain pieces that were already taken down and then he’s like, “by the way, that thing is still up over here. The Sunset Motor Lodge, it’s still up, go take a look.” So, I drive over to this thing, and it’s on this big highway, 4-5 lane highway with a middle turning lane, and I pull into this little motor lodge and there it is, and the thing’s big, and it’s like this thing is coming down tonight or something and I’m going to spend the night there. It’s coming down today, I get to pick it up tomorrow, and I just realize in my Passat Wagon there’s no way I’m going to get this thing out west, so it’s like “oh, shit.” And I’m kind of like, they’re going to be mad at me, but here’s the deal. I paid $300 for this thing, it went to someone, and now I have to go and fess up and say there’s no way I can do it, and I think they just knew that the moment they saw me. But, here’s the thing, I go into this little motor lodge and there’s a woman there from somewhere far away. She has a thick accent, and I explain to her, it takes her a couple seconds to process, well who is this. I explain to her that I’m the guy that bought the sign, and I’m going to try to explain to her I think these things are really cool, and it’s such a piece of America, and I’m going to try to do all this stuff, and somewhere she thinks I must be working for them or something and she pulled out this little folder, and the folder had a big stack of paperwork and basically it was all the paperwork that was going to go into the building and installation and the design of the new sign they’re going to put up. And it was kind of like, oh, they’re putting up a new sign, and she was like, “oh, do you want to see,” or something to this effect, so I see in front of me all these invoices and stuff, and the invoices I’m seeing are $15,000, it’s a lot of money, it’s a sign, it’s this big tall thing, you got to turn it on, there wiring, there’s stuff, but I get to the page where it’s the mockup and just frankly it’s just this really phoned in, really shitty. I mean, first of all, who am I to even judge right? Who am I to say that I know what is good and what isn’t bad, but it was just in this really fleeting moment where it was heartbreaking to me to be like, “oh, my gosh, this family, who knows where they’re from? Maybe from Russia? I don’t know where they were from.” But it was like, this is what they’re handed, like what a bummer. Sure, it was already signed and they were making it for these guys, I saw it in the sign shop when I was picking up the pieces later that day, and it just was this really weird moment that broke my kind of heart, because it was like, we have this responsibility, whether or not we’re working for cool things, or working for big things, or working for uncool things, it is absolutely our job to do a good job, because frankly what just punched me in the face was, that sign, you’re going to see it up forever. So whatever goofy little thing I’m working on right now, like right now I’m working on some graphics for this thing called RoosterTeeth and what it is, is this cool video game and they make podcasts and kind of a media, I don’t know. Well, I’m making these graphics, but frankly the graphics I’m making for this thing, it’s only gonna last so long then it kind of goes away, and then maybe they’ll ask me back again, but it’s just sort of like, up, and down quality and then it’s done. And here’s the thing, I’m there, it really made me angry, because they kind of couldn’t defend themselves, and then who’s their advocate to kind of go back to the sign place and be like, “man, do a little bit better job for them.” They didn’t have that. They just were handed what they were handed, and it was done, and it just made me mad, and I drove out of there a little miffed, like, they deserve more. You pay the price, have a little pride in your craft. The things I’m making today I’m nerding out over what a privilege to do any of this stuff, but frankly if you’re making a banner for someone…I don’t know, I might’ve talked to the kid when I went in…I remember someone running my card which was like the fee to take the thing down, it was like my Mastercard and there was a fee to take down the sign or something and I had to have my card swiped, and when I talked to that kid I was kind of asking, “who designed this thing?” This is after. I had to go back. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t get in anyone’s face, or nothing like that. What I did was my buddy was going to try and do a documentary about me, and that’s one of the first times I’ve ever had anyone really interested in what I do, and “hey, we’re going to do this thing.” The premise of his documentary was that no one else in town had the time all of a sudden, so try it on me because no one else has the time and I’m like, “sure, come over, put the camera on me, let’s see how it feels.” Well one of the rants I went on was about this story, and about this sign, and nothing kind of came of it. Like my buddy, this thing wasn’t really happening, and blah, blah, blah, and then he put it up somewhere, and we just kind of put it up for fun, for our friends to see, cause he wasn’t going to quite make the documentary. We put this thing up and then it goes nuts, and it starts getting some traction, and then you start having people contact me and start saying things like, “well, do you want to go on the record, because you kind of fought this thing back, do you want to go on the record talking about this?” And, it was like, “whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, like, that’s everywhere in America. That’s not just Sedalia in Missouri. That is everywhere this stuff.” As a person who loves old signs and things and stuff, it’s not any big revelation that there’s just kind of crappy work out there polluting the sort of, countryside everywhere you go.
IVAN: That was 2007 or 2008, or at least about 10 years ago. Do you think we’re still in the same position or have things changed?
AARON: I don’t know, I mean, what good would I have done. I’ve reached a lot of people with my little rant. Do I think things have changed? I don’t know, but I’ll say this much, it’s like I have a profound respect for those who really look at the communities that are around and say, “yeah, this is the right way to do this, and here’s the right reason, and it should look like this,” and let’s be respectful of them working and selling this product and things. I don’t know, I just have a respect for people who are thinking about that, because in that moment what I realized was these people that were making the sign, they just weren’t thinking about it. This is like a little motor lodge, you pull in, there’s probably 12 units, and when you run into this thing it’s like, what is their charm. A hundred yards down the road there’s a Hampton Inn the size of a football stadium and then there’s their little thing, it’s like what is the charm? All the charm, all the juice has just been squeezed out of this thing, it’s just this chumpy sign and it could’ve just stayed a relic, because maybe that’s their best angle. And, it pissed me off, because one of my jobs as someone who comes in to do a logo for someone is to kind of say, “well, wait a second, before we go and trash this thing, maybe there’s some good moves to be had. Let’s just pump the brakes just a little tiny bit. Why are we going to be simple? Because all it needs to be is simple. Why are we going to be complex? Because everything else we’re doing is simple. And your just kind of like in this moment where it was like, I would’ve really went and took a look at least a block around me. One block around me to say, “how are these guys going to compete and what is the best way to compete and what do they have going for them? What don’t they have going for them? And then, why is it going to not look just kind of like this forgettable thing? I don’t know. It was about responsibility, mainly.
IVAN: Design is important, and we all have a responsibility to make sure that it gets executed. Take pride is what you’re saying, from what I hear.
AARON: Yeah, just do the job and think about who’s going to be playing with it, who's going to be looking at it, and be a good little citizen, I guess.
IVAN: Let’s go back to the early seventies. So, you were born and raised in Michigan, right? Have you always had an interest in typography? What are your earliest memories of cool looking things, of design, were they in Michigan?
AARON: Yeah, I’m 45, so it’s just weird as we get old, but I think back, because I want to tell you things that you would remember. That was something premium that I remember we didn’t have a lot of, but that was something really, really premium that got me excited, because it was just this sort of thing where it was like, we didn’t have a lot of these things. I remember my dad saying they’re from Denmark, or somewhere far away and it was just this thing where it was like, I knew that they were special and I knew you had to savor them, and I knew you couldn’t just trash the boxes and stuff, because this stuff, my parents couldn’t just load us all up on a ton of it, you just got this sense when you held a package it was this kind of special thing. That’s one of the first times when I just understood, it did not feel like my other toys, which would’ve been Star Wars things, and whatever those things were. It just felt a little bit…it reminded me, just the packaging even, it reminded me of when my mom and dad would go get these, kind of, modern Dansk it was called, they were like Danish cups, Heller, Vignelli, but we had a couple of those laying around and those were splurges for my mom and dad, you know, they were splurges for my mom and dad to have this nice, kind of well designed, modern, not necessarily furniture, but just cups and things and plates and stuff. And it had this really interesting utilitarian quality, it was just a cup, this is how your hand held it, it was plastic, it was bright, and I loved that stuff. That felt like a Lego to me. So, I just remember those things as splurges. I remember what my grandmother's china plates and things looked like. I remembered what all that stuff looked like, and it felt like that of an older Polish lady. It felt like that. It smelled like that. My mom and dad had a lot of oak and a lot of stuff, but it’s like they also had these little moments of this sort of, modernism, and when you go all the way back, it’s like that’s just kind of where it started. The first time I remember being appreciative or sort of, cognizant of Helvetica was on the side of the Space Shuttle, because it felt like my Lego boxes, and it felt like this system instead of this one-off thing. It felt like there could’ve been a hundred of them or something. I mean, you’re a little kid, so I always nerded out on that stuff, but I remember when I started to get to whatever age it was, where I started to make my own little typefaces, I would draw these things and play with these things.
IVAN: Did you ever use Letraset?
AARON: Well, I saw it from a distance with a couple of my cousins. I saw it from a distance with a buddy of mine whose dad was an architect, and I got to see it there. We weren’t really allowed to touch anything, I do remember that, don't touch this stuff. I understood it was this thing that like, you would…trees and things…this guy was an architect. He’s building all these pieces and I remember seeing that stuff. There’s kind of a quality of like, at a young, young age, from my uncle who was a bit of an engineer and my cousin Tommy Draplin, who was an artist who was going to art school in New York City, and I just remember his art supplies just felt like the real deal. My stuff was from a rural community up in Northern Michigan, and his stuff felt like, you could tell it was from a city, and my stuff felt like this is what you could get. Well there’s a place in my town called Meyers, and Meyers would be kind of like a Target, Meyers Thrifty Acres. I knew where my stuff was from, that was what we had, and then when I was around him, I remember wanting to play with his sketch books and stuff, and I was like a little kid. You can’t touch that stuff. All those tools, all those pieces, all that stuff, that’s when it really started for me. Just the drawing board, my buddy Tom, his dad’s name was John Prote, Tom Prote was my buddy, I went to high school with him and middle school with this guy, and his dad was like this architect, and he could draw, and just his handwriting was so incredible. I just remember that stuff and I remember it being this, it felt like this exotic thing. I was just telling a story to a guy the other day. We were kind of talking about how New York has changed. This guy lived there for a lot of years. He kind of left and came back to whatever it was going to be, he came to Portland. I told him the first time I went there my cousin Tom, he took me to Pearl Paint, and he was like, “Pearl Paint.” And Pearl Paint was just this incredible art store, three stories of it, right on Canal, and here I am this young kid, you go to Canal where it’s like a place of the world. You get anything, shitty jewelry, fake purses, this commerce quality, like around people that might rip you off, it’s exciting, you’re seeing scarves and tourist trinkets and junk and things, and I remember it just being exciting and then here’s a couple block away, Pearl Paint. I went there as a kid who didn’t have a lot of money, and that day I dropped like $600. I bought like markers, and paint and stuff, because I just really felt this is the only place in the world, you’re going to get this stuff. This is the only place, and, like what we were talking about is like, what a bummer that that changed. That like yeah you go on Amazon and that’s the only place you can get it. And I remember being there on Canal with my cousin Tom who I always have looked up to and going “I’ve arrived. I’m within striking distance of the cool stuff.” I was getting ready to go back to art school in Minneapolis, there was a place called The Art Cellar, I think it was, in Minneapolis there, and they had all the cool supplies there too. I just come from a small community. You don’t know all that shit's just a couple towns away.
IVAN: You started your Associates degree at Northwestern Michigan College, and then you went out to work, but then you came to Minneapolis after you’d already started work. So, what drew you to MCAD? That's the Minneapolis College of Arts and Design. Why here, Aaron?
AARON: They were nice, number one, but here’s the thing, when I moved out west as a kid, it wasn’t necessarily to go work, it was to go and be a snowboarder with my buddies. So out of Northwestern Community College I had an associate degree that was basically, I learned the basics of design but a lot of it was to placate my mom and dad, if that makes sense. This is like, I could not leave and not have them with their blessing. We were going all the way out west, it was kind of like a long way to go, and it’s kind of a Midwestern thing, but I had to have their blessing. It couldn’t be this thing where I’m kind of just going for it, although I saw a lot of guys do that, I just knew better. I might need their help. I need their blessing. So, that’s where that all started. I went out West with all my buddies, we go all the way out to Oregon, and it’s totally awesome, I guess, which a young kid would say. It was just incredible. We were these young kids. But after a bunch of winters of Peter Panning it and living out west and going crazy, all over the West, it was incredible, what an incredible way to cut your teeth as a young kid, I just started to realize that in that little town, I was into design, and I realized there’s only so far, I’m going to go. It’s not this kind of thing, it’s like all who you know, no.
IVAN: You gotta put it in. You work.
AARON: The harder you work the farther you’re going to get, and all this kind of stuff. But here’s the thing, I really, not in a sad way, but realized this isn’t going to happen for me here, and the only way it’s going to happen is if I go back. Where I’m from, it’s a privilege to go to art school. It’s a privilege to go to any school. I knew that painfully clearly, because we just didn’t have a lot of that opportunity. I was lucky as hell, just to go to community college. My mom and dad just didn’t have that opportunity to go to community college. So, I knew clearly this is my shot, I’m going to do this, I’m going to get this part out of the way and then I’ll go out west with my buddies. So, I did that. When it was my time to go back, you know, you are excited. I was this young guy. I did not have the funds for it, and when I went back I was terrified to go into these art schools and stuff, because I just knew I didn’t have the money, and then here I’m going to be back there and it’s going to be embarrassing, and I’m going to be told you kind of can’t come and do this or something. So, the first one I went to, I went to the University of Michigan, because I’m in Michigan, and I go over to this thing and I’m all excited, like this is the University of Michigan, this prestigious place. My dad is a fan of the football team. This is where you go when you make it, if you’re one of the lucky ones to go, and I went there and I pulled my portfolio out, showed all my stuff, and I remember the guy said something to me like, “well, we’re kind of a cerebral school.”:
IVAN: What does that mean? (laughing)
AARON: I remember thinking, well, fuck, did I do something wrong? What did I do wrong? He was basically just kind of saying to me, “our program is just this,” whatever that meant, and I was like, “ok.” Then I went over to Kendall School of Art and Design which is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and it looked awesome. It was an art school, you have to apply, you have to do all this kind of stuff, and I was terrified and excited, and I was like, ok, I’m going to turn this around for myself, I’m going to start doing these things and see what this is like to be a part of this stuff. Where I was out west, the one common denominator when you would meet guys who had these cool jobs in snowboarding or whatever I was trying to get myself into, was, you realize they all went to art school. They all went to school. I had an associate degree, but I had this hole in me that said, “well, you haven’t done this yet and you’re going to need to go do this, otherwise,” whatever. So, I had this hole in me because where I’m from, if you’re one of the lucky ones to be able to go and achieve that, well, you’re one of the lucky ones. So, I knew I had to go do it, you kind of had to go do that, that’s the only way you’re going to get this thing going. So, I started looking, when I’m at this Kendall School this guy looks at all my stuff, I’m all freaked out, and the guy says, “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t know if I’d even want you to go here. I’m going to push you up the food chain. Are you going through Chicago?” Well, “yeah.” He says, “well, I want you to go to the Chicago Art Institute. I want you to go see what they have because you might be challenged more there.” This is what he told me and I’m just like, “oh, alright, alright.” And I drove through Chicago, because I didn’t have an appointment, I couldn’t squeeze in, it was on a Saturday or something, I don’t know, whatever it was. By Monday I get up to Milwaukee, and that Monday morning I go to MIAD, is what it was called, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and I go into there, I’m excited, it’s just this specific place, it’s all art, it’s an art school, it’s just like Kendall, whereas U of M was this big thing, here’s the deal, the woman was mean to me, she was just mean. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” like not listening to you, and I’m all excited, I’m asking a thousand questions, “what does this look like?” And she just was miffed. Maybe she was having a bad day, but I’ll just never forget it. She was just mean. Whoever this person was, she was just kind of mean to me, and wasn’t interested. I remember asking for a catalog and she gave me one, but it was like bit of a flick to it, and I just left there just kind of going, “God”, she was just kind of mean. Like, ok, next stop is Minneapolis. I get up there, and this woman named Becky Haas, was so nice to me. She saw my work, saw what I had going on. I don’t even think I got to show it in Milwaukee, but I got to show my work here, explain my situation, I’m this kid out west, I want to come back to school, I don’t think I can afford it, I don’t know how I’m going to do this. Am I too late? I’m 24 years old. She was so nice to me and then she let me go and walk all around the school. She let me go and meet a couple professors. One guy, he was a little prickly, a little full of himself, he was riding high on like, “don’t you know who I am?” kind of shit. I don’t need to name his name, but all these years later, I don’t know, I hope he had a good life, but anyway the guy was just kind of a dick, and I remember being like, you know what, I get to make this anything I want. I’m in Minneapolis. My heroes are from there. These bands, Chuck Anderson is there, this hero of mine, graphic design hero and I want to be a part of this, and how do I get to be a part of this? Well, they were just cool, and basically that was it. I got this big, funny application and I filled it all out, really meticulously, I was so excited they were even considering me. This is the way it felt for me. It was an honor to even be in striking distance. I go back out west, and I have another winter and I’m kind of waiting on this call, and I got a call a couple months later, I was in Telluride, and basically, I was awarded a pretty sizeable scholarship. It was $36,000. I remember it being, “what does $36,000 mean?” The most I’d ever made up to that point was working in Alaska, and it was a sightseeing train, and the most I made was $15,000 a year. So, here’s $36,000, how do I get to use this? Well, if you go here for 4 years it’s $9,000 per year, or if you go here for 2 years its something like $18,000 or whatever it was, I got this big awesome scholarship, and that allowed me to go, right? Then I took out some loans to cover rent and other things, the rest, and went and did this thing. My mom paid my rent which was about $400 or $500 a month, $300 or $400 a month for my share of rent wherever I was living, and it was this thing, and I absolutely fell in love with Minneapolis. I fell in love with the city. I fell in love with the style. I fell in love with the accents. I fell in love with the gritty quality of it. Yes, the Walker Art Center was this incredible thing, because it was the highest of the high, it felt like to me. It was like, really kind of, I mean I went there before school even started because that’s just like a museum you go to. They were known for design or something. Then I remember when I was in school, you would go to these things, it was kind of like you had to pull teeth to get kids to go over there, and I remember this being like, wait a second, I was just paying for this, not just when I got into town, I was exploring towns, so, it was just this instant excitement to be close to all these things. Not only the design community was really exciting to me, but there was also this kind of ferocious, you didn’t have to be cool or something. It was okay just to be kind of a regular designer or a regular person there. That was really exciting to me that, dare I say blue collar, but there was this sensibility of, some of the stuff they even teach you at Walker, that’s just for the luckiest of the lucky.
IVAN: It’s a really great place to live here.
AARON: There was funding for the arts, all these positives. In my travels I would hear things to the contrary. You know, we just don’t have a lot of that here, but we’re fighting back this way, and it was always just like, they’re holding us down kind of shit, and when I got to Minneapolis it was like, this is no excuse. This place is colder than all hell.
IVAN: Yes, it is.
AARON: I remember getting there, it was in late August, and it was hot and sweaty, and I was like, “oh man.” I’d been up in Alaska where it doesn’t go past 70 degrees, and now here I am in this place where it’s like kind of sweaty. I was a little freaked out, but I just dove right into school, and I did it about 2½ years and then I had a big 4-year degree and then I went back out west and started to work.
IVAN: And, you worked for a couple of other agencies. You worked on big projects. What I’m interested to know is, why did you start Draplin Design Company? When did you know this was the thing you were going to do? You go out on your own, you leave the safety of a regular paycheck. You insane?
AARON: No, because you’re hitting on all the things that would’ve like held me back, and that is what I always say, as a good Midwesterner, I knew better. I knew better than just jumping out because it was like this thing, like I’m going to go do this. First of all, what’s at the end of that little rainbow? Freedom? Creative freedom? More money? More this? More that? All this kind of stuff. And it was like, whoa, whoa, whoa, why would I even go do this. Well, here’s what it was, it’s just as simple as this. It was like, I was in this situation where I was working for a really cool place, and they did an incredible work, but it was just like I was in there on my own, using the space of the place a lot. I would make these postcard sets with my GoKo machine, and I was realizing my drive and my work ethic, it is considerably different than some of my colleagues here. They’re just okay with going home at 5:00 every day and just kind of being cool with it. I just looked at it like, first of all, just to be close to all of this it wasn’t enough for me from 9 to 5. I got out of my job, job where we were working on client stuff and then I would work on my own projects all night. And here’s the thing, I was on my own, I had a girlfriend, I didn’t have a girlfriend, whatever, but I had this drive to do this, because I just knew where I’m from it is non-negotiable. You have got to your your own way. It isn’t negotiable.
IVAN: Nothing’s guaranteed.
AARON: Well, here’s the deal. I didn’t get to go back to my mom and dad and say this didn’t work. I had to go back to them and say this is getting kind of rough, I’m doing my best to do this and do that, but I didn’t have any parachute to kind of catch me. I had to go make it work. So, I’m in this situation where I’m seeing myself working late, I’m alright with it, I’m being a good worker, I’m trying to perform and all that kind of stuff, and then it started getting freaky. And the freakiness was like, “wait a second, why are we working so much? Like, I’m not getting any more money for that.” Well, that’s just what you do, and I was one of the guys that would stay late. I would stay late thinking, well this is what you do. You don’t rock the boat. You stay late, you be a good worker and then you get a raise, and then you get one of these, and then you get to travel more. I was already getting a go on projects and stuff because either they liked what I was doing or they could see that I could kind of handle it, or I was this young guy who was ready to fight the fight and all that stuff, and then I just realized, man, I remember when I put my month in there, it was just kind of like, they offered me more cash to stay.
IVAN: Yeah, that doesn’t work. That just makes it worse.
AARON: Well, I was like, where the hell was that shit a month ago when I was in here working all the time. Then you get resentment and it was like, I’m not there to fight anyone, I’m there to do my job. I’m doing my very best to watch my language on this. I’m trying so hard.
IVAN: It’s okay. You be yourself there, that’s all good.
AARON: Here goes the first “f” word, here it comes, flugelhorn (laughing). No. Whatever. I’m fighting hard not to be…you know…just doing my job. Then, I just saw the writing on the wall. It’s like I have this energy…
IVAN: You got to harness it, man.
AARON: Well, this guy pulled me aside and said, “hey man, just so you know, you’ve got what it takes.” I’m like what are you talking about?” He said, “you’ve got what it takes, man. Look at the hours you’re putting in here. Why are you in here so long?” I was like, “because I’m doing this, I’m doing that. I’m excited to go and just use the facilities.” I remember I had my guitar and an amp in there, and that means I could crank that shit so loud and just blow the roof off the place, and I could not do that at my apartment. I couldn’t do it. I would’ve pissed the people off below me and above me, or whatever it was. I remember even that was a privilege to be like, “wow, man. These guys can have their own parties and their own stuff and it’s awesome,” and all this. That’s when it was just kind of like I want the freedoms of all this stuff, on my own terms, from my own hand, and this guy was like, “you’ve already proven to me that you’re going to put the time in. Go do it.” And, I did, and I jumped out and it was scary, but I had a couple people saying things like, “hey man, just so you know, we’ve got some work for you if you’re willing to take this from us.” I was like, “are you kidding me?” I am scared. How am I going to make a living? I remember telling my mom and dad, “I bought a house, and I’m moving into this house and I’m quitting my job.” My mom and dad were like…they were pissed. They were like, “is that the best decision?” My mom has always been an incredible sounding board for me, always been. Always been someone I could go to. My dad was a little more just kind of like, “just go for it,” but my mom was always like really pragmatic and “let’s just think this through.” We would do checks and make a list and she’d say, “what are the pluses and negatives of this decision you’re going to make before you go racing out west? Let’s think about this just a little bit.” My mom was always there for me and it taught me to kind of try and think through the cause and effect. What happens if I do this, and what’s that going to be and what’s my money like. I couldn’t really go to them and say I’m in trouble. It was only me making this decision, really. I jumped out and then that first year I tripled my wage.
IVAN: Good for you. That’s so awesome. And, you haven’t looked back. It’s been 15 years, you’ve done an incredible…
AARON: I’m never going back.
IVAN: Never going back. So many speaking fiascos all over the world, I would say that you could classify this company as a success. If I’m going to go out on a limb.
AARON: I don’t want to be superstitious, but for the second quarter of 2019 it is going to be a mothafucka. It’s awesome. What I understood clearly when I got out, clearly, is if this thing doesn’t go well, I can go get a job. I’ll go get a job. I know how to be a worker. I know how to be a good employee and citizen and do my job and not take it on the chin and be with clients. I knew I could do all that stuff. I’ve already proven that to myself, but this thing was like, let me see what I could do on my own. If it doesn’t go well, I can always go back. Well, it went well.
IVAN: It’s gone well.
AARON: It went really well.
IVAN: You should be very proud. I was recently in London and my wife and I are walking through the Conran Shop, and I’m looking at stuff, I’m picking things up and I get to the stationary section of the store and I see something that I think I recognize, and I look at it, and I pick it up and its Field Notes. I’m like, Field Notes, that’s Draplin. What is that doing here? Like, that’s amazing. So, what’s the story behind Field Notes? I mean, everybody makes a notebook, right?
AARON: Well, yeah.
IVAN: So, how did Field Notes start?
AARON: Well, that place I was talking about, it was this incredible place I got to work for called Cinco Design, and they are still an awesome shop here in town. I don’t want to ever feel like I’m like, it just was my time, I mean those guys who I worked for, they went on their own to, and it was my time to go try it. When I worked at Cinco that’s where I made my first Field Notes, and it was just as simple as like, here I am in this place, and here I am in this, like we have these resources, and I’m going to make my own book. I always was using little notebooks and stuff. I went to Italy a couple years after getting out and I bought my first set of Moleskins or something, right. Then here I am in this place where it’s like, I made my first Field Note in extracurricular activities at this place, Cinco Design. Like, when everyone’s out of there, I’m in there dincking around with all my own stuff. The freedom to say, I just like to make stuff. Art school taught me how to make my own stuff. Like, make your own paper. Make your own binding. Put the thing together on its own. It really created a monster, because it was like, wow, you could do all this stuff on your own, for yourself, this is cool, and never, never, never, ever forget that. This kind of thing. So, I made my first ones in a late-night session at this Cinco. I’m in there working and doing my stuff. I’m doing my things, and I made enough just for my own. I screen printed one and I remember people asking, “what are those things?” When we’re sitting there taking notes in a client meeting and it’s like you think about it, you use these things in a way where it’s like, to chart what we do, and their kind of field notes within this realm of us listening and stuff. So, this is where this kind of starts. I just kind of made my own. Then a couple years later I need some more, I’m on my own now, and I hand screen print another 200 of these things and give a couple to friends and give a couple to this guy named Jim Kudall who I was a fan of, in Chicago, and Jim kind of flips out. He’s like, “what is this stuff? Who made this?” He’s kind of confused. I said, “it’s me. I made it. This is this little thing, I have this little project I’ve been working on, and I don’t really know what it’s for,” and all that kind of stuff. He kind of says, “do you know what you have here?” I kind of, with my tail between my legs, I said, “why, I don’t know what I have. Tell me.” We kind of shake hands on it, and we get this thing going, and before I know it we have a company, and we have people interested, and we have people wanting to write about it, and it was like this time right when the iPhone is really taking off. And yet, it’s kind of a prickly thing, because it’s like, people are realizing there’s going to be this detriment to how much time we’re spending on our phones. So, there’s a bit of a cultural timing to this stuff where it’s like, wow, we’re lucky that people are sort of reacting to this stuff and seeing that this is going to be kind of freaky how much time we’re spending on these machines and things. So, here is paper. It’s this fun, refreshing thing to use. It’s not this, whatever you want to call it, and here’s the thing, it’s like, we hit something, and I just couldn’t find ones that I liked, so I made my own. It’s just as simple as that. I couldn’t find ones I liked, and I made my own. And out of that came a company, and out of that came this thing that all these years later, I joked that Jim gave me life, well, Jim gave me life. I will always be thankful for what he saw in me, or something, and saw in this product, and gave me that much more freedom just to say, “it’s okay to make this stuff.” I learned that kind of from art school. It was like, I’m not going to wait for other people to tell me something is or isn’t, I’m just going to go do it. Then that all really goes back to the skateboard world and stuff, just not quite knowing any better and just kind of going for it.
IVAN: What’s your role in the company these days?
AARON: I own half of it, and what they do, is…Jim…it’s Jim himself, Brian. There’s a whole crew of people.
IVAN: Art director. You’re still designing, you’re still participating in it.
AARON: Of course. Oh, yeah. It pains me not to be there on the front lines with those guys every two minutes, but I’m in Portland, they’re in Chicago, they’re shipping orders all the time, stuff is going out, stuff is going crazy, it’s going awesome, and yet, I trust them with my entire, entire life. Those guys make really, really beautiful decisions. Sometimes I’m right there as part of it, other times I am disconnected, I’m out here and it’s basically Jim just sort of guiding me and saying, “whoa, whoa, whoa, I need you for this.” “Alright, tell me what I got to do.” And, he’ll just let me know. “This is what I need you to do now, and you’ve got a day to do it. Go.” Then I’m off and running.
IVAN: Which one’s in your pocket right now?
AARON: I’m actually using what’s called a Snow Blind. If you take it outside this thing, and this is from 2015, but if you take it outside, it’s white, white cover, you take it outside, it’s got some ink, something on that stuff, that will turn bright blue when the sun hits it, and it was like a winter edition and they were awesome and I’m using one of those right now. I can’t quite talk about the next one I’m using because that’s a bit of a prototype. That one’s coming real soon here.
IVAN: They’re beautiful Aaron. I just love seeing them. I love the different editions that you have. I think I like the one that has the spacecraft on it the most. What’s it called? Three Missions?
AARON: Yeah. Now, when I talk to Jim, and this is always like a bit of a, I always feel a little bad, but I’m starting to forget the names, there’s so many of them.
IVAN: It’s okay.
AARON: Well, yeah. We’re always coming up with new stuff. I love these guys. I am in awe of the thinking and the films, the films are just incredible on their own, that promote these things. Every time these things come flying out of the gates, we have these cool little films these guys make. These guys are filmmakers. I’m not a filmmaker. I’m a graphic designer who's in awe of a couple filmmakers, and it’s like, they’re just constantly blowing my mind, and I get to be a fan, and I get to be this weirdo whose like, well sometimes responsible or some of this stuff. I mean there’s days when my role, Jim will just call me up and go like, “hey man, I need this now, now. You only get a day to do it. I don’t care if you’re on the road, or whatever you’re doing.” He’s very good about that. He knows what an animal I am and all that stuff. He’s just really good about it, and then he’ll tell me this is the time you have to do this, and we’ll see something soon buddy. I’m like, “alright.” And then I know that Jim is directing me, and that’s no different when it’s Michelle or Brian, I just understand that these guys have got me going.
IVAN: It’s a beautiful product. I have one more thing I want to talk about and then I’m going to let you go. I think I’ve at least saved my favorite for last. So, you’ve done some work for our government, you know, the Obama Administration tapped you awhile back, and you recently started working with the Postal Service, and the thing that I saw that I absolutely fell in love with was, the new star ribbon USA Forever stamp, and I believe it’s coming out very soon here at the end of March, it’s beautiful. I saw it without you mentioning it, and I knew that it was familiar. It looked like something you made, at least I thought it did. There’s so much to unpack here. First of all, congratulations. This is a designer of the USA Forever stamp. It’s literally going to be around forever. How does that feel?
AARON: Oh man. I’m on podcasts and stuff, right? So, thank you for having me. I am lucky to do these things, and yet, people will say to me, “well, what are your dream jobs?” “Who do you want to work for?” Because maybe so and so from, let’s see, some band, like who do I really want to work for? I don’t know. The Flaming Lips. I know their art director. We're kind of buds. When I go through Oklahoma City I'll dial him up and we'll go have a piece of pizza. I've been able to see how the sausage is made there. Well that is something that comes right to mind when you say what is a dream client. But that one who has always been on my plate, just to say I want to make a stamp. Who gets to make a stamp? If you look, different people have done it and stuff, and how do you even get involved, do they have to tap you, what are the politics of this stuff, and how do I get to go be one of those people that do this. So, the answer is, I still don’t really know, but that frankly was one of the dream jobs that I had where it was like, I want to do one of these, not just for the design nerderie of it, I want to do it for America, man. That kind of thinking. Because to get a little weird for a second, what I love so much about stamps, it is a clear democratization of design. That means, everyone gets to use a stamp. And sometimes, it’s only those who could afford it, and I’m just not feeling that shit. I like the idea that anyone can afford these things, and it’s not just those from a museum or something. It’s like, people need stamps just because they need stamps, and there’s something so cool about that. It’s no different than a street sign. People need street signs. They need those things. Everyone gets to use a street sign, and, in some respects, that’s design also, so I knew that stamps were just this democratization of graphic design there. I was excited about that. I saw a couple come down the pipe. I saw Jessica Hisch do one, I saw the guys, my friends Tyler and Elsa from Always with Honor in Portland, Oregon, they did this coastal bird series, and I was emotional when I saw it, because it was just like, I know these kids. Whether or not I got to do it, I was so proud for them, because they got to make something for America. Not just this neat coastal bird’s thing, which actually was really kind of a hard thing to work on. It took a long time. You get to hear some of these stories. Well I was just absolutely blown away and then I was like, I want to do one, but we’ll just see what happens. I would mock things up on my own and just play with it, and then just kind of say someday I’ll get the call, or whatever. And then I got a call. What does it feel like? I’m a little emotional about it, honestly, because I know it’s a once in a lifetime kind of thing, and to everyone who's listening, the thing is, I was just okay with being a worker who was just going to go work and hopefully work for good people, and work on good projects, and make good money, so I could pay back my mom and dad and payback things, and take care of my life and my stuff, whatever. I was just okay with that. That’s not a dirty word, right? I was okay with that. I just didn’t think it would ever be this sort of situation where it was like, “and by the way, not only are you going to love every single element of your job, you’re also going to build a work for your country. I don’t want to say it’s patriotic.
IVAN: It is. It’s exactly that.
AARON: Well, yeah.
IVAN: It is. This is a service to the United States, and we are thankful as a design community, as a regular community. And honestly for those of you that are listening, you should check out our website where the transcript to this podcast is, so you can see the design of the stamp. It’s classic, but it’s modern, it’s just, I don’t know how you thought of it. Where did the inspiration come from? Did you have a hundred of them and then you showed…
AARON: Oh my God, you should see the ones that got away. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
IVAN: How long did this process take with the government?
AARON: Well, I mean first of all it’s like, just kind of to go back one second to the Obama thing, it’s not like Barry Obama called me up. It’s this group that works for him in Chicago, and that group called me and said, “hey, do you want to work on this thing? We need a little bit of help.” So, they were already in cahoots with Obama and then this group, the Mode Project, called me, so what you get is you get, like a telephone. If the White House is the biggest thing, the biggest call, and all the way down to me, I’m like the 17th step in this thing, just straight up, the very last bit. Well, with this thing it was like, how long’s it take? I can’t really go into details because it’s still really fresh, I just wouldn’t want to embarrass those guys. It is kind of a tricky thing. But I will say this much, when I had a chance to grease the wheel, and what I mean by that is like, I was at this How Conference in Atlanta and I noticed these young ladies who were at my merch table, and by the way, everyone in Atlanta who came to the merch table, boy you guys set a whole record that day, thank you, so much. I’m still thankful to everyone who just came and bought shit that day, right. So, same thing here. I see this girl and she’s like, I see on her lapel, or whatever, it says USPS and I go crazy. I just go up to her and go, “oh my God, you work for the post office?” She’s like, “yeah, it’s tough, and it’s this and that.” And I’m like, “wait, you work for the post office.” And she’s like, “have you ever worked?” And I said, “just tell me about your job.” And I go crazy and I told her, “it would be a dream of mine to work for them. You’re so lucky to work for them.” She’s like, “you know what, no, I work behind the scenes and I’m just kind of like this grunt,” or whatever the thing was, and I said, “you get to work for America.” I remember her kind of being like, “well that’s one way to look at it,” because to me it’s so much bigger than whatever little goofy bullshit I’m working on. It’s so much bigger. You’re working for your country. Say you work on something and the next time you go to the post office you are buying one of the things you got to work on, that is just almost too much for me to even think about. I know I’m getting a little dramatic, but it’s absolutely the truth. That is so cool that she got to…
IVAN: I agree, it’s important. It’s very important.
AARON: And then she says a couple, like, “here’s the deal,” like I get this call from a couple days later whose like “hey, we were tipped off. You are someone we have seen before, and we have seen these things and these forms, and would you want to work on some of this?” I went fucking crazy on that phone. I just went nuts. I just told them, “man, this has been a dream of mine, and I’ve wanted to do this for so long, and I would do whatever you ask of me.” This is not about me picking and choosing and saying I’m this and I need to do this kind, no, no, no, This was just me, completely just being like, “if there’s anything you guys ever need, you let me know, and I’m ready to go that minute.” Not, there’s none of this like, with this caveat, or this or that, no, it’s just like “you let me know. If there’s no money involved, I’m involved. I just want to prove to you.” And I proved to them. I said, “I’m down to do this. I’m down to help out anytime you’re ready.” And, he got me going and I had all this stuff on ice. I’ve been dreaming about this for years and I had all this stuff on ice, so I showed him a bunch of stuff, and he reacted to a couple things, and I remember the things he would say were like, “you made this?” I said, “yeah, I made it. Let me show you the other 43 things I made too.” And then he would go completely crazy. I remember there was one I showed that I had already printed on my own and he was like, “did you already print that?” I’m like, “yeah, I made a mini print.” He’s like, “damn,” because we can’t really show that now. So, here’s the thing. For the one that was selected, I think I showed 43.
IVAN: 43, wow.
AARON: I went crazy. I would do it again tonight if the guy called me. I would just say I would do it right now.
IVAN: You’re so prolific. I’m not surprised that you made 43. We have a blog post about the history of the TEN7 logo, and a description of how we went through the process with you, and what’s important and so on and so on. But I remember you had over 100 initial stabs at the TEN7 logo, and one of them, in the first round, was very close to what we ended up with, and so you are certainly prolific.
IVAN: I want to ask about the typeface, USA Forever. What typeface is that? What did you choose?
AARON: I didn’t choose it, it was art directed by Greg Breeding at the Journey Group. I’m trying to figure out how to talk about it. I think it’s Helvetica. I have to go look. There’s been a couple versions I’ve seen, and it’s like, wait, I didn’t even design it. I gave him the form of the star, and then he went back, and he probably took a look at all the other stamps and said, “ok this one is going to work this way, and here’s why we do it this way.” I’m pretty sure it’s just Helvetica Light. But, like I say, of course you know what I would’ve picked to go with that thing, and I had other versions and other mockups.
IVAN: (laughing) What would you have picked? I know what it is, but you say what you would’ve picked?
AARON: I think I showed Helvetica Bold. This tribute to where I learned about stamps, it was like when I was a little kid and I remember those stamps from the late seventies. I have all those stamps now. I collect that stuff. It’s like they would use it unabashedly and it was beautiful and legible and that was a tribute…but here’s the thing. It’s like you give it over to those guys, and then they take it from you and then they make the best decision, and I just couldn’t be more tickled.
IVAN: I can’t wait to see it in person.
AARON: And there’s others in the mix I’m not allowed to talk about. There’s all sorts of stuff. Who knows what’s going to happen?
IVAN: It’s going to be awesome.
AARON: I just hope I make it through today, just today, much less make it to the 22nd.
IVAN: Final question, Aaron. Are you going to buy the coil of 10,000 USA Forever stamps?
AARON: Oh my God. Let me just tell you right now. I absolutely was like; how would that work. Would it come on a roll? Does it come on a sticker? Because I was like, once in your life you’re going to buy a $5,500 10,000 stamps @ 55 ¢ is $5,500 bucks and I’m going to roll in there and what? Throw it on my credit card? The idea is I can just go door to door, how many doors do you have to go to to get through 5,500 stamps? (laughing) But, I have to tell you, when the announcement was made, I was laying there and I was doing the math and I was like, it was a complete, it wasn’t a ridiculous option, I was like, “no, I’m just going to buy the $5,500.”
IVAN: You should do it.
AARON: I know.
IVAN: Put it up in your studio. Put it on a big old bar or in your studio. Stamp savers give them stamps.
AARON: I know, there’s just something about it where it’s like I’m just going to have to go do that. The idea is the 20 stamps that come in, sure I’m going to get a bunch of those and put those away, but I just want, when anyone comes into the shop, to be able to be like, over there, I got your stamps covered for the next…I mean, I hope people are still sending envelopes with a stamp on it, you know. A lot of the stuff I get as junk mail and I noticed up in the corner it’s going to be one of my patriotic stamps. This is what you call a patriotic stamp and it’s like, they use that sticky patriotic stamp to send junk mail, so this one will be used that way, but I’m going to use it to pay all my bills and all my stuff. Then I was like, what the hell am I going to do with $5,500 of these things. But I think it’s just giving them to buddies for the rest of my life. It will just be this thing to have my buddy build me something that’s like this awesome, sort of, thing that just distributes these things, just emits these things. You’re allowed to grab a couple every time you come in here for the rest of my life. So, I gotta come up with the funds, but I’m going to do it. I just want to have the picture of me shaking the hand of these gals at my post office on 50th & Sandy here, they know me. A month ago, I was like, “guys, I made a stamp.” She’s like, “you didn’t make it. You’re the guy that brings all the poster tubes.” I said, “yeah, yeah, yeah.” I said, “I made a stamp. It’s coming soon.” The last time I went in there, about 3 or 4 weeks ago, I got to say, “it got accepted. It’s real. Now it’s announced. It’s happening. And the next time I get to go in there I get to go buy them. So, I get the photo of me shaking their hands and the whole deal. There’s a first day cover these guys are designing and the whole bit and I am just, I’m on cloud 9.
IVAN: You should be. You deserve it.
AARON: Cloud 10. Cloud TEN7.
IVAN: I love it. Thank you so much for spending your time with me today. It’s really been a pleasure talking to you.
AARON: Well, thanks Ivan. Tell your better half I said hi, and the whole family, and go door to door in Minneapolis and say that Aaron Draplin says hello. Draplin.com you guys, go get some merch, go to fieldnotesbrand.com, go to ddcbook.com. Last I heard we’re at 54,000 sold. That’s pretty cool.
IVAN: We never talked about your book. We never talked about pretty much everything. Let’s have you back on the show. Let's have you back, and we could talk about your book.
AARON: Hit me up in a while. Alright, thanks you guys. See you around.
IVAN: Aaron is the founder of Draplin Design Company, the author of Pretty Much Everything and an all-around nice guy. You can find him all over the internet as @draplin and, of course, at draplin.com and fieldnotesbrand.com. You’ve been listening to the TEN7 Podcast. Find us online at ten7.com/podcast. And if you have a second, do send us a message, we love hearing from you. Our email address is [email protected]. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.