There is, evidently, a lot to be learned from Lego.
When Aaron James Draplin was a child, he was captivated by the simple designs on the stackable blocks. "The fire department Lego, the police department Lego – the beauty of that tiny little logo, that a kid from every country could read it," Draplin says. "That was a tactic those guys did that was really smart, really cool, and it spoke to me when I was 7."
Today, Draplin evokes this simplicity for a living. The acclaimed graphic designer and Field Notes co-founder makes his trade in sense appeal – the tangible pleasure of a well-kept notebook, and clean, recognizable logos that exude timeless elegance. His life is busy, but his work is not: Simple patterns, bold lines and carefully curated colour palettes fill his vast portfolio, but he travels the world over talking about it. In eschewing design zeitgeists, Draplin has built a cult following of fans eager to display his work on their walls and desks.
Michigan-born Draplin cut his teeth in graphic design in the 1990s, avoiding the busy, congested design fads of the day. Much like the rap-rock pioneers and wide-leg jeans that rose to the fore of pop culture in the latter part of the decade, the design world tried to do too much at once, with "discombobulated" projects such as Ray Gun magazine winning much acclaim.
"I quickly realized it was just fashion. It was just cool for that time. You can't read something from 1995 now," he said in an interview, "but art and design had to go there."
Instead, Draplin fell in love with the work of designers Paul Rand and Saul Bass, the necessity of a grid and simple sans serif fonts such as Futura and Helvetica. After stints as art director with Snowboarder magazine and senior designer at Cinco Design Office, he broke out on his own in 2004 to start Draplin Design Co. in Portland, Ore.
Before getting into design, Draplin made pizzas and washed dishes; now that he's able to "click a mouse for a living," he makes use of every minute he gets to work, finding pleasure in every moment he applies his skills for a client or personal project.
Draplin – big, boisterous, and refreshingly honest – has no problem doing corporate design. "It's pragmatic," he says. "You make a living. Fine art? … Man, you gotta be really good. Commercial art? We're always going to need wrappers put on things like toilet paper."
As his own boss, Draplin lets the simplicity and universality he found in Lego guide his work designing corporate logos and other work for companies like Nike and The New York Times, plus snowboards, posters and a slew of other projects.
Much of those inspirations come from history, such as simple corporate logos from yesteryear. "The universal quality of a good logo that can work in 1977 and in 2007 – that doesn't die," he says. "That's not fashion. That's function."
But the world of the past isn't just limited to corporate logos. Draplin seeks out the fine details in the knick-knacks, signage and gizmos of old, from place-name tourist stickers to faded nameplates. He calls them "ghosts," and attributes a meaning – almost a sentimentality – to all of them. "Don't let them go," he told a crowd of hundreds at the Future Innovation Technology Creativity conference in Toronto in April.
"Savour the language, the colours of stuff. ... We are at the mercy of new things, and new things kind of suck."
Many of these old designs and logos find their way into region-specific posters he designs and prints to great acclaim – including the four-colour, 24-inch by 30-inch Canada Collected poster, featuring dozens of logos including Via Rail, the old Ontario provincial trillium and most of our beloved pro sports teams. (He's also covertly working on Canadian province-themed Field Notes editions to be released sometime in the near future.)
Draplin grew up in a home that relished artifacts of the past, rather than blatantly accepting what was being sold. When his parents needed a new table, his father would buy an old one, strip it and make it new again, savouring the fine work that had been put into it instead of letting it go to waste.
"You can apply some of the principles from that stuff to new stuff," he says. "That's exciting."
It's unsurprising that Draplin numbers every tweet to assure that each one has a special meaning; he is a person who takes care of every little detail. That's also why his Field Notes notebooks are so popular: Their meticulous details make their owners want to be equally meticulous.
"I hope you guys discover that making a grocery list is really cool," he told the conference crowd.