Interview: Aaron Draplin

March 2021

1. When did you realize you wanted to be a designer?

It was right out of high school. I didn’t really even know what a graphic designer was, but I knew I wanted to be into art. It goes all the way back to skateboarding. We were making our own grip tape graphics, our own stickers and our own little goodies. We didn’t really know any better. See, what skateboarding did was it allowed us the licence to do that for ourselves without worrying about if it was cool, or if it was official, or if it was even sort of warranted. We just did it. That comes from punk rock music, and skateboarding, and snowboarding. I guess at the time, it was called alternative sports, but really it was just thinking for yourself

Out of high school, I went into community college, and it was called visual communications and graphic design. What I liked about it was that it was pragmatic. Yes, there was a sprinkle of art, which was exciting to me because I like to draw and paint and make things, but it was also practical. I needed to work and make a living. Where I’m from in Northern Michigan, you’re not really allowed to dream and say, “I get to go be whatever I want.” You have to be smart about that and say, “Well, how am I going to be able to, you know, afford things, and, you know, buy a home, and buy a car, and pay insurance, and all that stuff.”

So, graphic design, for me, right out of the gates was pragmatic. It was exciting because there was some art, but also, there was a chance to go and get trained and actually make a living and take care of myself.

2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?

I got started right out of high school into that programme when I was 17. So, by the time I was 19, I went out West to snowboard with my friends, and the biggest hurdle was simply this, I didn’t have a computer. I knew how to use them, but I didn’t have one.

That would’ve been the dawn of all the software. It was PageMaker, it was a little bit of Quark, some Macromedia FreeHand, I remember. I think the very root beginnings of Adobe Illustrator. This might have even been before Photoshop. But, I didn’t have that machine. The machines at the time, I believe were called Apple Quadra and they were expensive. I just did not have that three or four or $5,000. “I didn’t really have a mom and dad that could sort of afford that stuff, right? Or buy that for me.”

So, I went analogue, because I could afford It and it was still allowing me to sort of develop my chops. That was drawing, painting and, “you know, basically being a little, sort of, you know, half-ass illustrator.”

I didn’t really call myself an illustrator. I liked to draw, but I started to study things. I would study comic books, art on skateboards and snowboards, and try to emulate those things and learning techniques. Little by little, I was doing freelance work, and it was all illustration. I was learning little tricks with white ink and how to clean up stuff. Remember, this was all just in our extra room at whatever apartment I had out in Oregon. “You know, living with my asshole buddies.” This was just in the extra space I carved out for myself. It was sort of a small little studio. There was no training. I was just doing it for fun. I was making a little bit of money. “So the first hurdle was just having … you know, getting the right tools.”

And how I overcame it? I went to Alaska in the summer of 1996. I worked 16 hours a day five of seven days, six of seven days, and saved about 10 or 11,000 bucks that summer up in Alaska. I was there from April to September, came back with a big stack of money and dropped $9,800 on a computer, a monitor, a printer, a scanner and a little bit of software. Those were the tools I needed, and that’s really when this stuff exploded for me.

The fall of 1996 I got my first computer, and now I had all the tools. I had an understanding of illustration, how to draw, how to sketch and how to come up with things. Now I had the tools to make it come to life sort of in vector form. So, that was the biggest hurdle and I overcame it by washing dishes on a train up in Alaska. A fucking sightseeing train and it sucked. “All the beautiful people with all their little, you know, pants that zip down to shorts, and telescoping hiking poles, and water bottles, and all that shit. I didn’t care about any of that stuff. I was there to make money, get that computer, and get
to work.”

3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?

I think it might be a bit naive, but just always being willing to show what I’m working on and celebrate it. That could be from a record for a band, or that could be the biggest, scariest logo I’ve worked on in the last recent couple of years and then explaining what I was allowed to do for it, and just always
showing stuff.

As the internet started, for me it became this thing where I could keep in touch with all my buddies back home through email. I used to write letters before that and then the internet became this thing where I could quickly send out little news blasts from the draught, and design company, or whatever you want to call it, just detailing where I was going, or what bands I saw, or something I saw online. So, I’ve always just been into sharing.

I started to show things. I had a blog for just about 20 years with daily updates. That’s how people saw it. As they started to grow and grow and grow, people would see the output I was putting on there and call me and say, “Hey, why don’t you do this for us? We saw this thing you made …” And the funniest part about that is usually the things that they liked, there was no money involved. It was something I made just for the hell of it. I would show it and explain why I made it that way and what I learned from it, or what I liked about it. Then they would see that work with a t-shirt for their company and this is how this all sort of just started to fold out.

At the time, I was working at a snowboarding magazine, I met a lot of people there, and I tried to be a good little worker. If they needed help, if they needed a little extra favour done, I would do these things, and I started to get calls to say, “Hey, you helped us at the magazine really well. Can you help us do this ad? Or can you help us do a graphic? Or can you help us make some t-shirts? Or make some stickers? Or do a snowboard graphic …” or whatever.

So, the successful way was being a somewhat of a good human, being open and meeting people. “Not worrying about the rat race of who is cool, who isn’t cool, who has the big budget, who has the little budget.” All this stuff is graphic design and celebrating it accordingly. You do a little job for someone and that can turn into a big job. There’s been some that have happened that way for me like Coal Headwear, which we started in my basement with a friend, and 15-16 years later they’re a multimillion dollar company now.

Union Binding Company came out of that, which was a snowboard binding company and these turned into retainers where I could sort of bank on a retainer chunk of money every year, and then get to work on those projects. When those were done, I would jump over to logos and things and other freelance stuff.

4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?

Well, I think that’s sort of by being accommodating. I think it’s pretty simple. When I show a logo, I don’t just show the logo kind of floating on white space in a PDF. I try to show it on dark space, I try to show it on a water bottle, I try to show it as a sticker or a patch and get them excited.

Number one, just for context, to show how the thing works, but number two, I load them up with a bunch of stuff. I give them hats and goodies and things to show how it works in my brand, and then they instantly see the connection of how it can work in their brand, right?

So, how do I get clients to stay with me? Well, it’s hopefully by doing good work. They liked the service, they liked that I was somewhat of a good person. I think it comes down to just showing a little bit extra at all times to get them excited. They see how that could work past the logo and then they come back to you for some swag. They come back to you for helping with a menu for their restaurant, or whatever it’s going to be.

Also how do you get clients to stay with you and use more of your work? Well, that’s definitely how you do that but, also by setting a tone. Getting them excited and saying, “Listen, this is the funnest part of your brand. At least this element of making the logo, dreaming up these things. Let me help you with that. Yes, you have to pay for this service, and you have to pay for these products, but let me arm you.” So, right out of the gates, there’s no excuses and stuff. This is just about it being fun and being confident right away. Not this idea that you make the logo, you have to wait six months to make the t-shirt. No, put the money up, do this!

So, you know, I get people excited. That’s by being positive, by being on time and by just kind of pumping them up in those first initial calls to say that this is a special thing. If we do it right, it’ll not only be fun, but it’ll be really effective for their business and I try to do that.

5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?

No, not really. Not really. There’s been some stuff, but you manage it by just hitting all your dates and your deadlines and your things and your stuff and being a human, because if it ever came down to it, I would just go back and be able to say, “Well, that’s bullshit. I hit the dates you asked for, why can’t you guys, you know, pay up?”

Sometimes it comes down to people being busy and they haven’t quite handed the invoice to the assistant regional manager, to the regional manager, to the assistant, to the regional assistant, regional whatever the fuck. There’s always something and then I get a quick apology, but you just have to stay on top of people. If it goes past the 30 days, you have to go and ask and say, “Why hasn’t this shown up?”

Today I have to go track down a rock and roll band, and just kind of say, “Hey, it’s been 39 days. It was supposed to be 30 days. I’m not miffed about that. But that’s not necessarily fair.” I wasn’t allowed to miss my dates and they’re not allowed to miss theirs.

So, how do I manage that? Well, I just tried to be smart about it and have really nice, gentle emails and stay on track, right? Just be fair and I don’t want to say firm. “Firm” is kind of a harsh word, but there’s been a couple of emails that have been sort of terse and kind of weird where I have to say, “Listen, I hit the dates and you guys aren’t hitting your dates. This just isn’t cool” and then you get a check. Maybe I’ve been lucky, you know? If I needed to go, I have people to help me. I’ve heard of people strong-arming people, but these are kind of, like, folktales now where it’s like, “Oh, that happened to so-and-so.” I have to say I’ve been very lucky.

And I also want to say that I’ve sort of been careful how I choose things. If something looks a little flighty or a little sketchy or a little too macho, I’m not really involved in that because I don’t want to try to be that person myself. People who’ve seen me know what a gorilla I am, but on the phone or on the email I try to be gentle. I try to!

6. What does your typical work day look like?

Well, I’m up around 8:00, 9:00, or just let the, you know, sort of let the universe wake me up. Then I’m off to the shop. Some days by 9:00, some days 10:30, or sometimes it’s just dinking around the house and then out there by noon. What’s more important is feeling good and feeling like you’ve got enough sleep to go, and attack the day. I know what it’s like to be on the clock on some sort of standard 9-to-5 schedule. The privilege of what I’ve been able to do the last bunch of years is not really adhere to that. If I’m ready to go, I’m ready to go, and I’ll knock it out.

This morning I was up at, I don’t know, 9:00 and I’ve had a couple of hours to do emails, send out proposals, track down jobs, send off versions of logos, make notes, sketch, and just work ,and be busy, right? But, what a privilege to say, “You know, I’m not ready to do that. I’m going to take this time to just relax or try to sleep in or go do something else across town.” I’ve just been in this lucky position where I’m feeling very thankful to say when I am ready to go back to that shop, then I do, you know?

What I’m learning to do more and more is to get out there as early as I can, get a jump on the day, and get going. Take a little break, do some stuff around the shop be it breakdown boxes, put away merch, play my guitar, listen to some records and just shift my focus, because my focus is pretty intense. When I’m sort of in the zone, it’s a bit unfair to those around me. I just get taken by it, because I’m trying to get as much as I can get done as fast as possible and be smart about it. Then, one phone call, and I’m upside down, or my girlfriend coming and asking me, “What are we doing for dinner,” and I’m upside down. I’m not really proud of that. It’s part and parcel with just being very dedicated to just trying to pull this off in a creative way.

I work some days until 7:00, 9:00, 10:00, come back in, have a dinner at 7:00, try to watch some Netflix, get pissed off, there’s nothing worth watching, and then say, “Fuck it,” and go back out there, and work until 4:00 in the morning. I mean, that’s been awesome. Or, just go back out there and play guitar for a couple hours, and then get inspired and jump into a project.

Sometimes I’ll be in these hotel rooms when I’m on the road and what do people do in the hotel rooms? Well, I don’t want to get into details, but I don’t really go and party, or drink, or any of that shit. I’ll get in that hotel room, and I’ll just cocoon myself, and I’ll work from, I don’t know, we’ll just say 11:00 to 3:00 in the morning and I’ll have four really condensed, weird hours of just knocking a mountain of shit out. It allows me then to crash out and go to bed and wake up without fretting, if that makes sense, but that’s just what I love about my job. To have these four hours somewhere and knock it out and condense things down and just have full fire power for those four hours.

Sometimes I’ll be flying and when I sit down on the plane, I’m watching people how they’re relaxing, they’re going to fall asleep, they’re just trying to get through it, they have movies ready to watch and things and stuff, they’re fidgeting. I just love that time because, for me, that’s a time to really focus and not waste it if that makes sense.

Tonight we’re flying back a couple hours down to Atlanta, and then Atlanta back to Portland. Those five hours on the Atlanta to Portland I know what I’m going to be working on. I’ve got stuff to work on, I’ve got sketches to go after, and I’m going to make myself comfortable the best I can, and get to work. That’s five hours where I don’t have to dink around when I get back to Portland.

7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?

Stay curious and keep this stuff fun. Don’t stretch type! Quit bellyaching about being whatever you call it, having designers block, or creative block or production artist block or, you know, big-gorilla-in-a-hotel-room-trying-to-answer-This-Design-Life-questions-for-Chris-Green-block, whatever you want to call it. Quit subscribing to that shit and then going to it so quickly. Listen, I have bad days. Sure. I have days where I’m tired. I have days where I don’t want to touch the files, but I also have days where I stop myself and realise, “Wow, this isn’t all that rough to do. It’s pretty fun, and I’m not going to bellyache about that shit. I’m going to get my job done,” if that makes sense, right?

Understand that the world is a weird, large place and if you know how to look, there is inspiration all around you. Not just at the coolest websites and the coolest Instagrams and the coolest, coolest, coolest. No! In the shittiest, sketchiest of places is where you’re going to find the gold. I’ve been talking about this for years, but the last couple days, proof. I was here in Vermont, and we went and jumped in with friends, and just digging around in some old antique barns and stuff, we found the most amazing stuff. It’s not about making it one-to-one. It’s about learning from their decisions when they had a tonne of restraints, right?

So, I guess as a piece of advice, challenge yourself to learn how to look. Challenge yourself to learn how to collect, and then when you look and collect, how to learn from it. Exhibit those moves in your work. It’s not being a movie prop designer where you just take the thing you found and make another version of it. That’s too easy. It’s learning from the moves and then showing that in your work.

All right, all you, This Design Life readers, thank you for allowing me to stink this page up a little bit. Go check us out at Dig around my merch. Go check out a little thing called Field Notes. We’ll ship everywhere and, of course, the DDC book is still selling pretty much everything. Go to, or on Amazon somewhere. So, all right, you guys. Thanks and take care.

Connect with Aaron Draplin


Instagram: /draplin

Twitter: /draplin

Learn from Aaron Draplin