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A "Pretty Much Everything" Potluck

Posted by Lori Walsh on
Hugh Weber and Aaron Draplin
lori walsh

Aaron Draplin charged into the SDPB studio like he built the place, and I mean this in the best possible way.

Draplin is a presence, a life force of creativity and gratitude and (depending upon your definition) joy. He's one of the most influencial graphic designers creating today, and he leads with a Midwestern work ethic and an open-armed generosity. His book "Pretty Much Everything" includes "The World's Largest Appreciation List," a visible reminder of how he lives his life.

He mugged for the camera. He cracked jokes. He transformed the space he inhabited long after he was gone. Not many can do that.

Later that evening, when I pick my daughter up from school, she noticed his book tucked under my arm.

"What's that?" she asked.

"Aaron Draplin's design book."

"It's cool," she said.

Cool indeed.

The following has been edited for web use. You can listen to the entire conversation by clicking here

Lori Walsh:

Welcome to In the Moment. I'm Lori Walsh. It's Tuesday and Hugh Walsh is always with us on Tuesdays as host of the Potluck Society. Today we brought him in a little bit early. It's a special potluck gathering because we have a guest with us in the studio. Hugh, thanks for being here by the way.

Hugh Weber:

It is great to be with you again.

Lori Walsh:

I feel like I should let you introduce Aaron Draplin to really do it well. Design rockstar, design luminary, all these things I want to say, but I think Hugh is going to really put it into perspective for folks.

Hugh Weber:

That's right. I was walking up here today and I saw this man that looked a little down on his luck-

Aaron Draplin:

Someone left the gates open to the whole city and I got in.

Hugh Weber:

No, I'll say this, I'll say this. Aaron's a friend, but I think Aaron right now is one of the most significant designers on the landscape. He's someone that is crafting not only what design is, but what I think it will be in the future. He's leveraging tools like social media, but also just hard one humility, which Lee might disagree with, but just a dose of Midwesterness. He lives in Portland, but is a native of Michigan and has never lost that crust.

Lori Walsh:

Here's what I'm going to say about Aaron.

Hugh brings me some books and some materials for me this morning. Now you probably don't know this, but Hugh and I have conversations every week. He brings a lot of creatives, business innovators, community innovators, designers. One of the things I always go to back Hugh with is what is design, what are we talking about when we talk design because this isn't the world that I sort of swim in. As he showed me you and your work in the world, I started thinking oh I get it. I get it, this is what design is. This is what good design is. I had a little aha moment this morning just looking at Aaron Draplin's work. So I'm a baby step further on the path of understanding.

Aaron Draplin:

Thank you. I'm looking at your mugs for the South Dakota Public, and that's graphic design, whoever made the eagle. Whoever created that logo, that's graphic design. Even just the Purell hand sanitizer-

Lori Walsh:

That's our thunderbird.

Aaron Draplin:

Well it's your thunderbird. It's all around us. On the Kleenex over here, someone made the decision to make that Kleenex box kind of fun.

Lori Walsh:

Then you, having said that, you see it in a way that we just put it in the back of our mind. It flashed by us in so many ways. You notice it, probably more-

Aaron Draplin:

Yeah. Well there's just a lot of opportunities. There's a lot of opportunities to make things that are very binal even a little more special with just a little bit of thinking. My favorite things are like customs forms, or a stop sign, or a way finding system because that is ... You ready for this one Hugh? A democratization of graphic design. Everyone gets to use it. When you're just inside this room, everyone needs a Kleenex, and everyone needs the Purell, and whatever these things are. That's graphic design also looking at whatever decisions were made there. Too many times graphic designers were only for those who could afford it. That gets a little weird because not every kid can afford it. So I like things, when I'm driving across America, where you see graphic design and it's at its very most uncool expression of it, but that's my favorite stuff.

It might be on a combine. At night last night, I don't even know what it was tilling, dirt or something. I don't know, but you could still see the logo through the light. As we're whipping by on I-90 or something.

Lori Walsh:

So did somebody make sure that you would be able to see the logo at night while someone was out in the field? Do you think that was intentional?

Aaron Draplin:

No, I don't think so. I think it was just that they're just trying to make sure that they're picking up the right corn, or whatever they were doing.

Lori Walsh:

No I mean the people who designed the combines is what I mean.

Aaron Draplin:

Yeah, as far as, probably not because just the general sort of quality, it's very understated. But the idea that when you pull really up to any corn field you're going to see some design right away. There's going to be a tiny little sign that says this brand of seed is used here. That's graphic design too. If you look a little farther, you can see a telephone pole. Now yes you can see tons of that out here, but if you know how to look it's everywhere. Just as a fan of graphic design, I love the things that people don't quite see. I nerd out on that stuff, and I collect it. I try to bring that sort of accessibility to what I make. It might just be some hip poster or something, but I want my mom to enjoy it as much as us who understand how to find these things, and maybe can even afford. You know what I mean? I want anyone to walk up and say, "Oh, I kind of get what he's doing."

Lori Walsh:

We have this book here called Pretty Much Everything. It's a mid-career-

Aaron Draplin:

Crisis.

Lori Walsh:

Hugh brought this by for me to look at this morning. We were looking through it making those noises of cool, ooh, that, I recognize that. Hugh's logo is immortalized in this book.

Aaron Draplin:

Oh he could be taken out in the next spring too, no problem. That's still under negotiation right now.

Yeah, my proudest stuff in the book is from my buddies. Whether or not he'll admit it, let me slather you some stuff. The Mayor of the entire state, with him in here it's dangerous. Who's going door to door right now talking about how great Millbank is with him in here? My favorite things were for buddies. There's like whole section where I think it's logos that didn't make me a cent. Because someone had a good idea, and design can really take their idea and make it fun. Who doesn't want a t-shirt with the Institute of Possibility all over it? That just sounds cool whatever your relationship is with Hugh, or to this program that they're putting together. I love that stuff. I love to see design take something tiny, a little band, and make it bigger. Just because of my little mouse finger, just because I gave someone a quick little voice. If people can't afford that stuff, they don't even know about it. Then their little brother does it, and often times that can kind of hurt it.

Lori Walsh:

Is there a moment where you felt as a designer that yup I get to do this for the rest of my life? I have now arrived in the sense that I will have work tomorrow, and next week, and the week after that.

Aaron Draplin:

Well, I mean I can look at the numbers, and I can look at the little metric, and say well wow, we are definitely selling this many posters, or I'm getting this many offers, but as a Midwesterner, I will never indulge in that because, you've got to turn the mics off for this part, I get to meet the ones who do. They'll tell you how great they are, and they'll tell you how much they're going to make. Then when they have a downturn, they don't know what to do. Then they're bummed. I kind of welcome things to slow down because I'll know how to handle it, I think. All the, and this is a very big air quote, the success that I've enjoyed, I saved it because in essence it's in a can out back. I could not bank on some idea that this was just going to be a substantial sure thing. It could all go away in a lot of ways.

I've had little moments of that where I go oh my gosh, this is happening. I have to stop myself and remind myself while I did accomplish a couple things, but the hunger is always going to be there. All that takes is to go home. I go home and I see friends either working really, really hard, and not being rewarded like some of the funny little things I've had happen. Then I go out west, back out west to where due to whatever little set of circumstances I have opportunities. I can't say no to any of that stuff. That is my sickness. I go home and I see things a smidge rougher, and I go back out there. I'm not going to say no, and then I take too much on. Then it perpetuates into this thing where I have tax planners and things and stuff. I'm not complaining about any of that, but I'm just surprised. I was ready to live off $15,000 a year. I know how to do that because I'm locked in 1996 in the first year when I actually made over $10,000.

When you work and work and work and work, and you had a zero to that, things get weird, and awesome, and you pay everything off. To answer your question, I would love to have that really locked in, but I'm ready to always fight for this stuff, and always reinvent, and always be ready for a call that comes out of nowhere that says we need a little bit of help with something. I know how to handle that versus, or make my own things. Hugh is an inventor. He is going to reinvent how to solve the problems around here, or how to just ignite kids who don't have that little firecracker in their town. He's going to go invent a way to do that. I love to be around those sorts of people. I've tried to do it with the way I make a logo, or the way that I am open to donating time.

I mean a lot of people will say to me things like, not a lot of people, but just the random knucklehead at one of these things that will say like, "How do you pay your bills with all this free work you do?" They're like challenging me. I'll say, "Well, I just make the time for both." I make the time. Before I say no, these guys are good at saying no, I'm trying to be good at saying yes.

Lori Walsh:

So work ethic is not a problem for you?

Aaron Draplin:

Not at all.

Lori Walsh:

Is taking a break, and pausing, and restoring yourself a problem for you?

Aaron Draplin:

Yeah, a little bit. I know on radio here I sound like I'm 6'2", 180, a sound mind, and a good head of hair, and all of these other things, but that's not the case. Okay people, I don't need to get into details, but I'm 800 pounds-

Lori Walsh:

Stop it.

Aaron Draplin:

-and I am a gorilla. Well I don't know.

Hugh Weber:

Just give them a sense, give Lori a sense of the amount of shows you've done. We talk about it as being kind of your version of being in a band, but just the number of shows you've done. You're doing these at well below even your hourly rate for the sheer amount of time you've put it.

Lori Walsh:

What's the show?

Aaron Draplin:

Well the show is we go and we do a workshop and basically I just open up my laptop and show them exactly how I do it. We'll be doing that in about 45 minutes here. It's sold out here in Sioux Falls. It could have been five kids and I would have done it. It's going to be 50 or something, or 36 or something and I'll do it, but the idea is I make the time in the afternoon to go and show them what I do and how I do it. I have little tips and tricks prepared. Then tonight we'll do, at Fernson Brewing Company, we will do a ... It's F-E-R-N-S-O-N. They're nice people. Good, the coldest beer in all of South Dakota everybody. We'll do a talk, and it's just sort of this multimedia sort of like just this exchange of ... In an old-fashioned way to get up and say this is what I do.

I used to pay for these things in Minneapolis, and it was always frustrating because you didn't get to meet the person. But no, we will have a merch table. We will hang out there. It's not a lot of money to go. If you're a graphic designer and you're ... People come ... Kids are fans. Also, people are curious. They're like, "What is this guy's problem?" There's a little bit of that. You sense it. They're just kind of curious to see how I got away with what I got away with. This is all kind of stage craft and show business. I'll gladly tell them that I had to work this morning. I had to get up an hour early and just work to get paperwork filled out.

That's the absolute truth. Tonight I race home, or race back to the hotel room after we're done hanging out. I just want to be with my buddy for the day, but after we get done I will work a shift from 11:00 to 1:00 in the morning to send off the next deliverable. Now, as a traveling graphic designer, does that even exist, someone who goes on a graphic design tour? Well, we made it exist, and we've done over 100 shows in the last year, Lee and I. With hitting up my friend here and saying, "Can we come there? We're going to be on this path." I'll figure it out. Then other things people have invited me, so schools and-

Lori Walsh:

When people say how do you get away with what you get away with, and you talk to them about how often you work, and how you're making it happen behind the scenes, I think, and maybe Hugh you can help me articulate this, but I think some of what they're saying is how do you get away with sort of busting ideas open and not following the same rules that everybody else follows, and doing something that nobody has seen before. Do you think that that's part of what is at the heart of that question too Hugh?

Aaron Draplin:

Yeah, I think definitely part of it.

Lori Walsh:

Or when you look at his work, you're like how do you get away with that.

Hugh Weber:

That's right. We literally, we were sitting down to lunch, and we literally had a gentleman, who I happen to know, but kind of bust into the restaurant. He drove all the way from Bismark to sit down. I think what you're describing is exactly it. He sees a certain affinity and I can do this with my unique voice and my unique perspective, and Aaron's an example of that working. Aaron is one in probably 100 million. Not because of his talent, but because he has a unique perspective on the world like we all do. It's what we do through the Potluck Society. He's managed to make it a career and a profession, pretty good one at that.

Lori Walsh:

In writing we call that voice, and sort of developing your voice, trusting where you came from, who you are. What do you call that in design?

Aaron Draplin:

I think it's the same thing. You're shaped by what you work for. You're shaped by stimulus. In the 90s when I was kid who was jumping in, design was pretty lofty. The things that really spoke to me were the things that my dad could pick up and enjoy also. He wasn't a graphic designer, but he could look at house industries, or Chuck Anderson, or some of these different type face foundries who were just trying to promote type faces to our group and enjoy it. That's graphic design also. But in the same breath, you would go a little higher up the food chain and you were just lost, and I just couldn't handle it. It scared me. I couldn't afford it. I didn't know those sorts of really high concepts. No, maybe I still don't, but I like this idea of, I don't want to say dumbing it down, but just sort of making it a little more, like I could ... I don't know how to say it. I could wrap my head around it and work that way.

I've been in situations where things were made really, really difficult with too big of words because someone was trying to impress someone. The idea, the freedom that I've had to be able to say you guys, I am who I am. We're in the dark together, and we're going to find this thing, and we're going to find this little hit of light, and that's the process of how we get to whatever your logo is on your hat, or your logo for his movement he's making, or something Hugh's making. That's the same thing. You send a bunch of stuff and it whittles on down. I'm their instrument. Sometimes they paid me really, really well, and sometimes there was no money. If that's a voice to say I'm open to both of those, I absolutely was because it all adds up. Not to mention just sort of karmic value of I wasn't going to go lament that someone wasn't paying me the right price, I just kept moving. If it dried up around me, I made my own things.

This whole time I've had a blog. I like to talk. I like to share. I didn't want it to be this guarded thing where I was afraid to tell what dumb little secrets I had. I just want to put it out there and share. I've had this incredible dialogue with friends over almost 25 years of going back and forth of sharing how we do what we do. Like how do I get out ... I have a lot of kids writing me. I'm in a little bit of a pickle with my job or something, and I have cut and paste things that I can grab, but I make the time for all those kids. Unfortunately, to get back to this thing about voice, I met a lot of people who are so guarded and so ... They had businesses to run. They had people in HR and things. I had just enough taste of that.

I'll just say this much. No millionaires are allowed to yell at thousandaires. I've been in that situation where these clients that we were lucky to work for were screaming at us. Not me directly, but maybe my big art director, or just the group of us. I just stood back and was like they get to work, they could quit today and they're set for life. You don't get to yell at the people who aren't. That's when I started to get on my own, or just sort of back off and say I'm going to make my own way with this. If that means working for every little body, I'm going to do it, and talk about it.

Lori Walsh:

Hugh, what have you learned that you didn't already know from Aaron? I mean I've learned so much just in this past few minutes.

Hugh Weber:

Yeah, I mean I think we'll cry together later, so I won't do it on the air, but the karma piece I think is important. Aaron is someone that could just sit in Portland, or for that matter he and Lee could retire in Northern Michigan and spend the time there with family, but he is on the road a ton. These guys, they look great, but they're tired and I know that because they've been on the road so much. That karma piece is the piece. Aaron won't break so I will. When they first came out with the book, the hope was, ambitiously, that they might sell a couple copies. Maybe five to his mom, two to me, and maybe a couple here along the way. How many have you sold to date? Where are we?

Aaron Draplin:

We're somewhere around 38,000.

Hugh Weber:

38,000 copies of a design book. This is not the latest Tom Clancy thriller, although it's thrilling.

Aaron Draplin:

Well, I mean how many should a book sell? That's the other thing. It's like when they tell you a number ... I mean I'd ask you, how many did you sell. I don't know. If it was going to be 40,000 after Christmas, and it will. It's coming up on this thing, it's just amazing, but if you took a zero off and it was only 4,000, that still would have been really, really cool. Let's just say, it's all how you look at it, let's just say it was only 400, but you made the perfect little kit and it was only 400 of these things. You can spin that a certain way too. I was ready for 40. I'd still make 40 pretty fun. Now it's become this thing where it's just 10 times as much as they said it would be, wow. Well I fought for that. I fought for it to be affordable.

I could today, and no one will ever see this, but I'll see a kid who's looking through his wallet, book are $40, and if this kid's having a little bit, I'll just say "Just take the book man, just take it, you can have it." He says "What?" He's trying to put a cash and a combination of a card together to get this thing and I just say just have it man. I want you to have it because either know the kid. I've done that every show. There's always someone I just throw a book to because if I don't have room for that, why do any of it. I was the kid who went to some band, Jesus Lizard. I went and saw the Jesus Lizard in 1993. I didn't have a cent. The guy who was probably just didn't want to have to put it away, but he just gave me the record. I'll never forget that. I didn't have enough money, and I was like pining over these things.

Lori Walsh:

It's what you remember, yeah.

Aaron Draplin:

It's that little quality of like I try to do that with kind of every element, make room for that.

Lori Walsh:

Let's close with this. I apologize in advance, but I think it needs to be said. Your dad, not a graphic designer. You and I lost our dads right about the same time.

Aaron Draplin:

I'm sorry to hear that.

Lori Walsh:

How much of his legacy though, even though he wasn't a designer, do you carry forward with you in how you design your life?

Aaron Draplin:

He was about 645 pounds. There's a lot. He was really cool. He was really funny, and weird, and witty. He never liked you Hugh. I don't want to say it on the air, but he never liked you. No, he would have climbed all over, he just was the kind of guy that would light up a room. But on a sort of fiscal level, he had to have a job all those years. He loved his job, and he loved to go talk to people. So when I go to a print or press check, I meet the guys in the back. I smooth talk the print rep. How do you tell when a print rep's lying? Look to see if their lips are moving. These are old ways. I watched my dad do it. A lot of those character came to his funeral because it was fun to work together, and he made his job fun. That's all I ever really wanted was to enjoy what I do, do it sort of ethically, and I guess make a good living. That's a weird little byproduct, but make a living just like my dad did.

Lori Walsh:

We'll put a link up to his website, Draplin Design. The book is called Pretty Much Everything. You can do some research on your own, read the blog. Thanks so much.

 

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I have always been a devoted scribbler in the margins of books. As a reader, I underline and highlight. I add questions marks and exclamation points. I argue with the author. But where are the margins in a radio program like In the Moment? 

You have to create them. 

Welcome to In the Margins. It’s a place for behind-the-scenes. It’s a place for expanding the conversation.

It’s a place for just one more question.

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Meet me in the Hills! In the Moment heads to the South Dakota Festival of Books for a live broadcast from the Deadwood Mountain Grand. It's my favorite event of the year, and much reading awaits. I'm currently deep into the sweetness of "Braiding Sweetgrass." Here are a few other titles waiting on the nightstand.