Aaron Draplin on Design

aaron draplin

“Nothing is ever, ever going to challenge a good, solid, legible, readable, scalable, beautiful, crafted mark. It’s got the right DNA.” As one of the leading designers working today, Aaron Draplin has a thing or two to say about brands. This past week, Draplin was in Iowa City on his fall tour “Tall Tales from a Large Man,” which he presented at the University of Iowa. I was fortunate enough to be able to chat with him after his workshop and before his evening lecture about identity and the new dynamics at play today. 

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About Aaron Draplin

Hailing from the mighty Pacific Northwest (but a Midwesterner at heart), Aaron Draplin is one of the most unique and outspoken designers working today. The Draplin Design Co. proudly rolls up its sleeves on print, identity, web development (or not web — if you listen to the first thing out of his mouth during the interview), illustration and Gocco muscle projects. They make stuff for Field Notes, Esquire, Nike, Wired, Timberline, Ford Motor Company, Woolrich and even the Obama Administration, among many others.

The DDC motto is simple: “Work hard. Do good work. For good people.”

Episode Highlights

WTF with Marc Maron + the On Brand podcast. Aaron represents a first, as he ties this show to one of my favorite shows, Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. Aaron was Maron’s guest just a few weeks ago and now he’s here. Of course, we had to start there. “(Maron)’ll rip you apart on Twitter but he’s also really sweet.” Aaron connected with Maron a few years ago which led to him creating a poster for the comedian’s recent “Maronation” tour stop in Portland, which resulted in Draplin’s WTF interview. Check it out for deep background on this big thinker.

Today is Aaron Draplin day on http://wtfpod.com! Great talk! Learned things! Do it!

Posted by Marc Maron on Monday, October 26, 2015

What’s the state of the logo in 2015? “I think the state is probably the same as what it’s always been. I see some competitive things today. You also start to see consistencies and cycles — both positive and negative. ‘Six months of these guys doing that. Hmmm. Stay away from that.’ You notice those things. But you know what? Nothing is ever, ever going to challenge a good, solid, legible, readable, scalable, beautiful, crafted mark. Time, trend, trending — whatever the hell — a good, crafted mark is just going to always work because it’s got the right DNA.”

Does brand identity have to be more dynamic today? In short, yes. “When you pick your phone up you’re playing with identity already. This is the life we live now. I’m on my phone, flicking through these icons. As a test, go on Twitter and as you’re scrolling you’ll see brands that aren’t quite getting it. Your brand better work in the Instagram 10×10, on apps, on Twitter. People are seeing that stuff minute by minute. You see people getting it. All I need is a dot or a hue of something. Just an element. That’s branding. It doesn’t totally have to pack down the entire brand experience.” Take a look at how Periscope has gone small with their brand experience. “Like it or not, that’s where we’re at.”


And then we started talking about Walmart. “And the needle just scratched! In Portland (Walmart) is like a bad word. But they’ve redesigned their experience. Whoever redesigned this, they made the experience better for the American people. Good design can happen to everybody. I love when I see great decision making for things that may seem a little stuffy. You see design in elite spaces because they can afford it. I love seeing good design on a train station ticket or a dead sign. Because that’s for everyone.” Amen.

Does Draplin represent a more retro style of branding? “I don’t want to be a retro brand but I’ve seen these typefaces (like Spartan and Futura Bold) become workhorses. They’re used un-ironically for railroad signs. I love to champion that. But are these things retro or is it just a good use of space and fonts?”

What’s next for Draplin? “For my next phase I want to retool environmental graphics. Like my pop-up shop. It has a P on the wall (in the word ‘Pop-Up Shop’) that’s four feet tall! I want to see if I can hornswoggle someone into letting me do that.”

“Why don’t things have the staying power of Bell Telephone? Because we put 10 pounds in a five-pound bag. I’ve tried to bring back simple little marks and gestures and moves.” More isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s just more. “One of my favorite moments in Iowa. In Winterset, Iowa … the logo they use for the John Wayne birthplacethat is a great logo.”

What brand has made Aaron smile? Plenty of things! Like classic sports branding from the late ‘70s and ‘80s. “Racquetball courts with huge balls on the wall!” I flipped the question around on me and shared that Field Notes has always been a brand that makes me smile — for their simplicity and utility. Seriously, pick up a pack if you haven’t already.

To learn more about Aaron Draplin (and find some of his signature, spirited merch), check out Draplin Design Co., Field Notes, and “hell, while we’re at it … Poler brand, Sizzle Pie.” You can also follow him on Twitter.

As We Wrap …

Before we go, I want to flip the microphone around to our community … This week I have to thank Bradley Dicharry at the University of Iowa’s School of Art and Art History for making this week’s interview possible. Fun fact: Brad’s a longtime collaborator who’s helped us visualize our own brand at Brand Driven Digital.

Did you hear something you liked on this episode or another? Do you have a question you’d like our guests to answer? Let me know on Twitter using the hashtag #OnBrandPodcast and you may just hear your thoughts here on the show.

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Until next week, I’ll see you on the Internet!