Aaron Draplin: In Praise of Simple Logo Design

By Chris Dickman
Graphics.com Founding Editor

Aaron Draplin, the owner of Portland-based design firm Draplin Design Company, counts amongst his firm's clients everything from Nike, Wired and the Obama Administration to a large number of snowboard manufacturers. And that eclecticism would seem to be an integral part of DDC, showing up in such places as a Things We Love list on its site, in which Adobe Illustrator not unsurprisingly finds a place. Although to keep this in perspective, just ahead of it you'll find "A new pair of socks."

Draplin, in fact, is passionate about quite a few things and is more than happy to share such passions. One of these is the power and authenticity of vintage American commercial design. As he puts it, "Back in the day, you really got the feeling that this was a trade. It wasn't about just trying to outdo whatever was on some cool aggregator site in the morning. It was about the most effective way to use one color on some old crappy thing."

Intrigued by an Adobe TV clip, in which he points out some of the vintage signage in Portland, we asked Draplin if he could tell us more about the place of such classic design in his own work, to which he kindly agreed.

Graphics.com: You comment in a profile of your work in an Adobe TV episode that, "I might be wrong, I might be totally delusional but the logos were better then." Could you say something about when "then" was and what has led to the decline of the quality of logo design?

Draplin: I guess it would be the "before computers" era. Things were done considerably slower, due to constraints with the existing tools and technology. And with that slowness, it's almost as if there was more attention paid to the craft of it all. As design has become more and more democratized or this climate where you can buy some half-ass $19.99 logo online. Like everything, things were simpler. Restraint played a big part. They didn't have a million colors to use or infinite digital realms. You had to make things with one color or a couple of colors. And I find many, many lessons therein.

Graphics.com: You're on record as being a big fan of vintage signage in Portland and across America. How has that heritage influenced your work?

Draplin: Signage used to be so simple and to the point. Effective, first. I mean, hell, its purpose was to communicate effectively. There was an unpretentious functionality to the landscape. The 50s put a sheen on America. Make believe, more or less. Did people see through it at the time or just buy into the utopian American dream? I think about this stuff.

So with my work, I'm inspired by things that are direct and work. Sometimes shit drifts off into "fashion for the sake of fashion" and that seems a little disingenuous. Or trumped up? I like things that stand the test of time and work.

Graphics.com: Is there current signage and display work that inspires you to the same degree as vintage examples or have we lost something fundamental? What's being done now that our children will find inspiring?

Draplin: I think there's a whole new breed of sign painters, letterers and makers changing the landscape slowly. They've been through the pitfalls of the digitalized "we need it yesterday" bullshit. Now there's a premium being applied to making things feel right. Not just spit out of some vinyl signage shop. I'm thankful for this. Places should savor the opportunity their signage and overall presentation to the world presents. it's a such a fun, creative chance to make a cool mark in the world.

Graphics.com: How would you suggest that others draw on their own typographical and design heritage?

Draplin: Devour some books. Look around you. Go junking. Understand why Saul Bass was Saul Bass. I think it's about understanding how much easier things have gotten, and then, how much lazier we've become when it comes down to the hard work it takes to make something good. Have some respect for where all this shit came from and understand the struggles they went through to make even the simplest of forms! I find it very inspiring how the old guys used to make such incredible stuff with such rudimentary technology. Makes me thankful for the age I live in!

Graphics.com: Could you tell us something about your workflow involving Adobe tools? And has the shift to a subscription model changed anything for you?

Draplin:I use the "big three" — Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign. More and more the programs work so well together and that makes my little flow of how to get shit done quicker and quicker. I've got my little methods and those won't be changing. But the big three seem to get slicker and slicker, and you can still pare things down to the basics you really use. I dig the customizability. Workspaces are everything!

The subscription model was a bit of a leap but welcomed. Less disks, less stress, quicker updates, less panic! I need all the time I can get and quite frankly, whatever little efficiency I can squeeze out of this stuff adds up over time!

Graphics.com: Why did you create a tablet-based digital portfolio app to showcase your work using the Adobe Digital Publishing Suite, Single Edition? Is this something you'd recommend to other designers?

Draplin: It was a new realm to explore! I work pretty flat. Meaning, I make a little logo or form and it stays in one place, neat and orderly. The ability to make multiple pages "flickable"? You have complete control and you can tailor the way people ingest what you are putting out there. You aren't at the mercy of some photo site or bloated social media app. Your stuff can get washed over pretty easily in that shit. This Publishing Suite flap out of InDesign really opens doors. And hell, if I could get through it, you could too!

Graphics.com: Any closing thoughts on the future of logo design?

Draplin: Don't stretch type, ever! Keep the math in your vectors smart. Make things that are effective at the size of a dime and on some banner that's as big as you are. So yeah, make sure you "zoom out" a bunch, check the shit to see how it feels, then "zoom back in" and slay it!

And to all people hiring designers to make a logo for them? Pay them double their rate. They are saving you from your bad selves.