If you didn’t know any better, you could be forgiven for thinking that this blog is based in Portland, Oregon. We’re not, of course. We’re proudly publishing out of Inverell, New South Wales, Australia. But today we catch up with one of Portland’s better known graphic designers. This is a man who dresses like a lumberjack, sporting a work jacket and trucker’s cap, even when delivering lectures to the turtle-necked design elite.
I’m referring to Aaron Draplin of Draplin Design Co. (DDC). Aaron’s love for vintage signs is so great that he once bought a broken-down motel sign in Missouri and drove three days to pick it up. When he arrived, the sign was much too big for his little Passat. I think he would make a great sign-maker, but he has earned a reputation in the design community for his solid, no-nonsense design work. It’s a privilege to have him on the blog today.
(Aaron): My favorite things are designed with function in mind, or, are “undesigned.” No irony, pure in form and free of extraneous, or even worse, pretentious extras. Each little piece on the page means something. I find the same amount of beauty in a grid with a mountain of information successfully laid out, as I would some ornate piece of typography. Beautiful communication and clarity really turns my screw. Get what you need to get across first. And then go from there. Sometimes, design drowns in “style.” And you can’t even figure out what the thing is communicating. Not good. And yes, I know there’s a schtick to my stuff, with all the Futura Bold and orange riff raff. But remember, that’s just my personal stuff. When I’m on the clock for someone, it’s my job to make them appropriate solutions. If it calls for wild, then you go wild. It it calls for simple, then strip it down. I never force styles on a project. If it fits, it fits. If it means inventing something that I might feel a little uncomfortable with, then that’s my job to get it to that place and make it work. What’s the problem? How we gonna fix it? How we gonna tell ‘em what we need to tell ‘em? What’s the marketplace look like? I answer these, and get down to work making something that can stand on it’s own legs.
I love old signs, and not just around Portland! Around greater North America! Hell, the world. The old signs remind me that optimism and color can transform how the viewer perceives that hotel or watering hole. In the end, it’s the same bed or cold beer as the next place, you know? But with a little extra icing on the cake, you’ll savor their good service, or selection, or whatever the hell they are calling attention to. Or the idea of simply telling it how it is. You look up at some old “BAR” sign and there’s three characters: B, A, R. Done. Doesn’t need to say anything else. straightforward and beautiful in its unapologetic sparseness. I love that stuff. A good reminder in a world of overwrought graphic complexity. Sometimes it’ll be the type. Or the optimism of the forms. Or the scale. Or the copy-writing. And I like to document it, file it away and remember the options it offers to the work I do. Don’t forget the old stuff!
I haven’t had the chance to design a sign just yet! Have my fingers crossed for that opportunity. And when I get it, I won’t force the old vernacular on anyone. The sentimental quality of the old signs simply represents a different time in design for me. A simpler time, graphically. And ultimately, how much more successful it was considering the landscape of ugly work people keep whipping up, littering the world. Need a sign? Let’s talk.
Saul Bass is my number one inspiration, with Paul Rand right behind him. Their logos, their restraint, their big picture/global thinking for the brands they built…those principles will never die. Effective communication shouldn’t be a ‘style’ we pick from. It’s a system. A set of principles. And I have to say, when you subscribe to that, just about everything else feels like cake decoration. And don’t get me wrong, I love the “everything else-ness” too. I’m just in awe of the beautiful logos they made, and how they transcend time and generational differences.
A ton of my work is what I call ‘micro-design’ – for regular people! Hell, I just signed off on a logo for a construction company [Duco Construction] for $1000 a couple emails ago. And the guy was blown away. He thanked me profusely, surprised I’d even take the job. Other people shot him down? I don’t know. I just liked how he talked about his company, how he knew he needed help, and how he dug my work. And for that $1000, I’ll treat him the same as treat the $10,000 gig. In the end, it’s my job to make him something that gives his company sturdy graphic legs. I love that exchange. I want him to be fired up to get it on the side of his truck as soon as I hand him that final vector. Design shouldn’t be something that only “those who can afford it” get to tap into. Does that cheapen our trade? I don’t care if it does. I am a working designer and I make things for whoever will trust me with their project. Big, small or hell, sometimes for no loot. I dig making things. I dig how a logo or graphic feel can propel a cool idea or sagging company. Everyone deserves good design. So yeah, I do a ton of stuff for the little guys. And when you stack ‘em all up, it adds up big time. In loot, and in pride.
‘Field Notes‘ is, hands down, the best memo book ever made. Ever. Let me expand on that: Back in 2004 or so, after being frustrated with the current offering of memo books in the marketplace, I up and made my own. Started out by screen printing and assembling a couple hundred for friends and colleagues. Made the first batch by hand! Then I made 2000 books for 2000 bucks. And gave a stack of those to Jim Coudal, and a couple of handshakes later, he took me under his wing and built out an incredible, little company. Thank you, Jim Coudal. For 999 lifetimes. The guy rescued me from obscurity! And all these year later, we’re a scrappy, little company dedicated to making cool little books, writing instruments and leather pouches.
Everything is made in America, proudly. We pay insane attention to detail, from the staples to the inks to the printing processes to the extra goodies each order gets. We’re always scheming up a new set, a movie to launch it and then openly sharing and celebrating the simple, unassuming beauty of writing things down on paper. How it frees you up! We live in a fast world that’s only gonna get faster. Slow down with Field Notes!
Records are my favorite print pieces to make. All the different pieces, surfaces, papers and spaces. I love considering all of it. From the record down to the CD and back up to some poster. Feels oddly antiquated in a world of MP3s and digital this-n-thats. I always enjoy making records.
Right now we’re working on a 7-inch record for Dawes/Conor Oberst, a record for The Old 97s, a four-record set called ‘Divided & United: Songs of the Civil War’, a logo for Resolved Records, a logo for Insieme Music Publishing, a logo for a construction company, a poster for Red Wing Boots, branding and packaging for Finex Cast Iron Works, new binding logos for the Union Binding Co., a limited edition hat/patch set for Coal Headwear, new DDC action caps, prepping for the next seventeen shows on our winter/spring tour, a record for Willy Vlautin’s new band The Delines, a logo for a Seattle gaming design agency and a couple other goodies I can’t talk about just yet. Let’s just say, I keep myself busy. Always.