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Design geek Aaron Draplin offers budding entrepreneurs advice

He comes off as the guy who took more mushrooms than anyone else on the camping trip, but in a good way



I came dragging into an Uptown office building at about 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, not really knowing what I was doing there. I knew that more than 100 members of Charlotte's "creative community" would be in the house to listen to some speaker from out of town, and my recent desire to do more with said community brought me in to see if I could catch some leads. The fact that this night's "creative community" would consist of software developers, designers and tech professionals as opposed to, say, struggling street artists and jaded theater directors had me concerned that my interest level — I'm not exactly a techie — wouldn't remain sustained through the evening. But I figured these people are our future, already responsible for developing some cool stuff.

As it turns out, I ended up watching the best public speaker I've had the pleasure to witness in person. You probably haven't heard of him either.

Aaron Draplin founded the Portland, Ore.-based Draplin Design Co. He has been bringing his "speaking fiascoes" to small towns and medium-sized cities since 2009, combining his words with music and images to produce his signature speech, "Tall Tales From a Large Man." He has been touring the Southeast in the last few weeks, continuing this year's earlier work on what he calls, "The DDC Winter Right the Fuck On Into Spring U.S. Tour."

Addressing a Dean and Deluca-friendly crowd, filled with tight jeans and horn-rimmed glasses, Draplin flipped from Lewis Black-like facetious fits of rage to sincere tears; he lost it while discussing his almost-unbelievable relationship with filmmaker John Hughes. He spoke about his Midwestern childhood, his struggle to save money for school while washing dishes with "ex-con incorrigibles and happy hikers" in Alaska, and his return to the continental states to work for a few businesses before breaking out to start Draplin.

Although he covered some design-related stuff, such as the importance of using pen and paper as opposed to computers and the role his nostalgia for old logos plays in his work, he could have been speaking to any crowd of young entrepreneurs looking to set themselves apart or break out on their own.

One of Draplin's biggest rules while working is "less is more," except when it comes to opinions, which he said he never comes up short of producing. He are some gems from his presentation:

On keeping it old-school:

"Every week I get a kid trying to build me an app. I'm like, 'No, pencil and paper.' Collect shit. Find some shit on the ground and stick it in there and maybe you can work it in to the next logo you're working on. I love Adobe Illustrator. I absolutely love it. But the most brand-new file is not as powerful as a piece of paper and a pencil. That's what we need to remind ourselves."

On nostalgia:

"I don't want to go back to 1950. America was messed up. My friends couldn't do the same shit they can today. We are getting better and smarter as we realize we are all just a bunch of humans trying to make it work. But coming back down from some loftier things to some nerdier stuff, we're shaving off really simple principle of using less to make more. I have drawers of old stuff that I open before a new project. It's not about making it look like the '50s, it's about seeing a simple color and simple design sensibilities that you don't see by opening up a new Illustrator file.

On perspective:

"We are on a rock, floating in the middle of nowhere. That's real. I know how they vote down here but there is some shit called science. We are cosmic dust floating around and we are down here worrying about typeface and sweating and wiener dogs [three of Draplin's daily concerns]. You look 200 miles that way and there's Atlanta and 100 miles the other way is Raleigh and then 200 million miles another way is Planet Zorgdon or something and we have no idea what's going on there. But we're down here fighting over superstitions. If we all just got a little more cosmic, I think people would chill out."

On politics:

"That asshole cowboy who was in office before Mr. Obama scared me every day, not just his policies but because of his big, stupid mouth. That was enough for me to be freaked out. I won a lottery and got to [go to Obama's inauguration] and it was heavy. I love what he stood for and what it all meant to me: the youth, the community organizing, and human rights getting back into the spectrum after eight years of decimating our morals. I stood there that night and wondered, 'How do you get to mow the lawn, let alone work on designing any logos for the administration?'"

Draplin got that chance not too long into Obama's administration when he designed logos for the American Recovery Reinvestment Act and the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery after David Axelrod, one of Obama's senior advisers during his first term, contacted him. It remains one of Draplin's proudest moments.

"If they knew what a giant pile of shit man mountain I am I would never have gotten that job," he said.

Sure, Draplin can come off as the guy who took more mushrooms than anyone else on the camping trip, but his presence and drive continue to bring him success. And he's entertaining as hell. It was refreshing to sit through a speaking event where the headliner connected with the crowd. Designers and budding entrepreneurs, check him out on YouTube.

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