An enviable roster of A-list clients, a sought-after aesthetic, and a totally independent creative career: Aaron Draplin is the graphic designer that other designers dream of becoming. His simple, eye-catching logos—designs that often involve thick black lines delineating neon or sunset-colored shapes—have helped define brands and campaigns from clients as diverse as Ford Motors, Nike, Patagonia, and the Obama administration.
Draplin has made a name for himself in the design world, and he’s known for both his talents and his larger-than-life personality. In this piece, we’ll take a closer look at what makes Draplin so prolific—from his background to his best advice for graphic design students and anyone seeking to learn more about this type of art.
Aaron Draplin’s Background
Draplin hails from the Midwest—Detroit, Michigan, to be exact—and, at age 19, he set out for the West Coast, where he would eventually found the company that he runs today, Draplin Design Co. He started the one-man, Portland, Oregon–based shop in 2004, when he decided to go it alone after years at Cinco, Snowboarder Magazine, and, before that, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
He quickly moved from designing graphics for snowboards to creating icons for multinational companies, but he still makes time for work that he loves, whether it’s creating record covers or designing his own lines of merchandise.
Draplin has become a prolific public speaker, inspiring a new generation of designers with talks on surviving as an entrepreneur in the world of graphic design. He also sets aside half a day every week for work that makes a positive difference in the world.
Designer in a Van
Join Draplin on the road as he travels to meet with fans, students, and designers for a book tour unlike anything a designer has done before!
Where You Can Find Aaron Draplin’s Work
Draplin’s website is a wealth of Aaron-related resources. You can find more imagery of his client work, purchase merchandise that he’s designed and created, follow along with his speaking schedule and upcoming events, and discover more about his life and work.
A scroll through Draplin’s hyper-saturated Instagram page gives a dynamic glimpse into this work. It also shows that he gleans inspiration for his designs wherever he goes, whether it’s a Manila supermarket aisle crammed with tins of Spam or a fuschia-tinted psychedelic record cover. The list of “Things We Love” on his website includes 1970s textile wall art, fall foliage, the open road, Scandinavian flatware, Legos, Utah’s license plates, and “Volvo station wagon typography.” Draplin isn’t a designer who looks to others in his field for trends; he does things differently, turning to obscure influences for creative fuel and remixing them into a signature style.
In the past few years, Draplin has expanded his focus from logo and brand design into other areas that excite him. He’s developed a retro-looking series of notebooks and other creative accessories called Field Notes, and he published a book about his work, titled Pretty Much Everything.
Another surprising place to see Aaron Draplin’s work? Your mailbox: In 2019, he designed the “Star Ribbon Forever Stamp” for the USPS.
Draplin is also a tremendously popular teacher on Skillshare, covering topics like customizing type, the secrets of logo design, illustration, designing merchandise, and how designers can speed up their workflow.
9 Pieces of Advice from Aaron Draplin
Skillshare students say that they enjoy Draplin’s classes because he’s an honest and electrifying teacher, as blunt about the challenges of the life of a freelance designer as he is generous in sharing every hard-won nugget of wisdom he has earned over his two-decade career.
What are some of the secrets of his success that he’s shared? We’ve rounded up some of the best advice he’s given in lectures, podcasts, blogs, and magazine interviews over the last few years, in case you’re wondering exactly how to follow in his footsteps.
1. Work ethic is everything
“My secret? I work hard… I work way more than I should, I’m betting. And that’s how I got ahead.” – Creative Boom
Draplin often works long hours in the warehouse studio that he shares with friends in Portland. He gets in early in the morning and stays late. If he’s on a plane, he’s said, he’d rather spend the time getting ahead on a design for a client than watching a movie—and it’s that work ethic that he credits with helping him find the personal and professional success he now enjoys.
2. Remember to have fun
“I enjoy it, I play with it. You know, that’s a great privilege, on some weird level. I remind myself of that.” – Shutterstock
Draplin’s enthusiasm for beautiful design and for his clients comes across in everything he creates. The love of the work is what he credits with enabling him to keep striving for excellence, even when the going has gotten tough.
3. Don’t be afraid to go it alone
“When I went out on my own, I could just build the day to whatever I wanted it to be.” – 99U
Like many entrepreneurs, Draplin chafed against the restrictions of office life. He says he feels better suited to being his own boss—and he likes being able to wear board shorts to work every day. Leaving a steady job and going solo can be a risk, but the rewards can be sky-high if you have an independent spirit and a plan to help you succeed.
4. Let your clients lead the way
“In the end, it’s the client’s piece. I think we need to remind ourselves of this. Too many times, we want ownership of the final logo or piece. It’s not ours. We were hired for the job. Make it right and make the client love it. That’s our job.” – Print Magazine
Here, Draplin touches on the balance that great designers have to strike between their version of perfection and their client’s happiness. Learning to step back from control-freak tendencies is an important part of keeping client relationships productive for the long haul.
5. Reduce your overhead
“Create a lifestyle where you can live comfortably on a modest salary and treat any extra income wisely, being careful not to blindly increase your expenses.” – Salt of the Earth podcast
Some entrepreneurs choose to staff up and outsource work in order to grow, but Draplin has taken a different tack and remained a one-man operation. He credits his low overhead with giving him the freedom to experiment with new types of design and take on work he genuinely loves.
6. Design logos for scalability
“Make it look good at the size of a pea or a softball, and then all the way up to where it works on large, large things. That’s the world we’re in now. Ninety-nine times out of 100, now, you’re gonna see that logo on your phone, in a little tiny space.” – Retro Supply Co.
Designing logos that are impactful and legible at any size you can imagine is one of the most important aspects of icon design, Draplin says. Aspiring designers, take note: once you’ve mocked up a design, try scaling it to different sizes to make sure it works in a variety of contexts.
7. Less is usually more
“There’s something beautiful about using the least amount of anything to tell a story.” – We Design Studio
Economy of form is one of Draplin’s other key design principles. Take a look at his super-simple “thick lines” posters to see what’s possible by paring work down to just a few strong elements.
8. Don’t bombard your clients with options
“In round one of reviews and pitches, I always show way too much stuff… but the thing is, you can overwhelm them. I’m learning how to fold that back.” – Adobe Blog
Draplin knows that clients are going to hire a designer for their expertise. Be confident in exercising some creative judgement so that you can concentrate on making a case for the designs you feel work best.
9. Gain new clients through public speaking
“I’ll go anywhere. Try me.” – Creative Bloom
Draplin has racked up hundreds of speaking gigs over the years, and he is willing to share his wisdom with a crowd, whether in an online design class or a talk to an audience of thousands at TEDxPortland. There’s a good reason for this: participating in conferences, panels, and other professional gatherings is a good way for designers to get their names in front of colleagues and make connections that can turn into clients in the long run.
21 Tips for Speeding Up Your Design Workflow
Learn all about design productivity from the master, Aaron Draplin.