How Aaron Draplin Became an Icon in the world of Graphic Design

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.

A scroll through his hyper-saturated Instagram page shows that he gleans inspiration for these 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, looking to obscure influences for creative fuel and remixing them into a signature style.

Based in Portland, Oregon, Draplin runs his own one-man company, Draplin Design Co, from a warehouse studio that he shares with friends. His business may be idiosyncratic—but it’s flourishing. He founded it 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 still makes time for work that he loves, whether it’s creating record covers or designing his own range of merchandise.

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, he has published a book about his work, Pretty Much Everything. He has also become a prolific public speaker, inspiring a new generation of designers with talks on surviving as an entrepreneur in the world of graphic design and setting half a day every week aside for work that makes a positive difference in the world.

In the last few years, he’s also become a tremendously popular teacher on  Skillshare, covering topics like  customizing type, the secrets of logo design, illustration tips, the benefits of the classic circular logo shape, and how designers can speed up their workflow.

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 on 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. …But 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 the clients he works for 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 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 overheads

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 a hundred, 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 Studios

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 Boom

Draplin has racked up hundreds of speaking gigs over the years, and he remains 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: participating in conferences, panels and other professional gatherings is a good way for designers to get their names in front of colleagues and to make connections that can turn into clients in the long-run.

Want to learn more about how Aaron Draplin works? Check out his new class, Design Like Draplin: 21 Tips for Speeding Up Your Design Workflow, to learn how he completes design projects quickly and more productively.