Eight Hours with Aaron Draplin

4 min read

Remember Bob Ross? You know, the afro-topped painter who ruled public access with The Joy of Painting in the 80s. Remember how he would create a mountain or a happy little tree with just a dollop of brown ochre and a palette knife? One minute there was a dry-brushed sky and then, scrape-scrape-scrape, you were like, “Holy shit! Where did that mountain come from?”

It’s this ease and mastery of one’s craft that lives within the mighty walls of Aaron Draplin, the owner of DDC and a graphic design behemoth. The denim jacket–wearing Detroit native is one of the best in his industry, but he’s also one of the most humble. He’s the maker of Field Notes. He has a line of products that range from stocking caps to screwdrivers. But, most important, he’s one of the best at minimalist logo design, all while making it seem so easy. Just as with Mr. Ross, this ease comes from a very rudimentary place: knowing the tools of his craft and having a foolproof process. Aaron uses Adobe Illustrator as his medium, and he’s not afraid to share how he does it. (Check out his Skillshare courses, if you haven’t already.) He’s become one of the industry’s most approachable design rock stars, taking the throne from so many of the buttoned-up, taking-themselves-too-seriously masters who came before him.


His blue-collar upbringing, Midwestern work ethic, and his “quit yer bitchin’ and do something” mentality informs his work and keeps his presence refreshing. The client picked the worst logo, you say? Well, why in the hell did you give them a bad one to choose from in the first place? Your client represents the opposite of every political stance you take? Well, then give them the best damn design you can muster, because even “bad people” need good design.

“Don’t Tweet This”
A few months back I heard Aaron would be teaching a Fuse Session here in Indy. I immediately signed up myself and two colleagues, with Well Done springing for the $250/each price tag (thanks, Well Done!).

What did that $250 get you? Indie Coffee Roasters pour-over coffee and donuts with Draplin. Catered lunch from Noodles and Co. to throw down your throat hole. Free Field Notes and pencils. But, most important, it bought you one out of 24 seats…for 8 hours…with Aaron Draplin.

Draplin started the day by sharing his process. He showed his folder structure (clean as a whistle). He showed his work, picking projects and showing all of his versions from Round 1 to Round Whatever. He shared work that still wasn’t approved for public consumption. He shared cover and spread designs from his upcoming book. All he asks is that you “Don’t Tweet this.” It doesn’t seem too much to ask considering he’s putting it all out there for us to judge. But, inevitably, someone does and we all collectively sigh and think to ourselves “Thanks a lot, idiot…we were having a moment here.”

The group was then challenged to work on a project. It could be a t-shirt. It could be a logo. It could be for a good cause (Aaron’s big on the good cause). I chose to work on a project I’d been wanting to spend time on but hadn’t had the opportunity to get to: my neighborhood logo. Steph, our senior web designer, chose to do a logo design for her hometown festival. Sarah, our art director, decided to conquer Carmel.

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Samples from Amy’s Fletcher Place logo exploration.
Samples from Amy's Fletcher Place logo exploration.
Samples from Amy’s Fletcher Place logo exploration.
Some of Stephanie's process.
Examples of Stephanie’s process.
Sarah paying homage to the cul de sac.
Sarah paying homage to the cul de sac.

We had time for sketching (in our new Field Notes, of course). Then we moved to the computer. With encouragement from Aaron to always keep your design live, we got to use the time to bounce thoughts and ideas off of him. He was our own personal creative director for the day. It was a pretty great opportunity, to say the least.

The Keys to the Kingdom
I won’t give away every juicy little detail of my day with Mr. Draplin, but I will leave you with these design nuggets:

● Have a process.
● Keep your work live. (Don’t flatten that shit!)
● Work hard.
● Don’t take the easy way out.
● Have fun.
● Be kind.
● Be curious.
● Collaborate.
● Do good things with your design superpowers.
● Quit yer bitchin’.

The world needs more people like Aaron James Draplin. Someone who’s not afraid to be vulnerable and teaches by showing. Someone who allows the outside world to take a peak behind the curtain and see that it’s not magic but hard work that makes a person a true craftsman.