It has become a cliché to say that Andy Warhol's greatest artwork was himself. Aaron James Draplin seems to be today's embodiment of that idea. I say this in no way meaning that his character is a façade, an insincere product of self-design: not at all. Rather, it is his straight-talking-no-nonsense approach, and an ability to see the beauty in design long committed to the scrapheap, bound together with a great sense of humour, that shines through in his work (see below).
MAKE LINES THICK AGAIN is his slogan. A playful take on Donald Trump's election campaign (you can see Draplin's political allegiances in his work for Barrack Obama). The style employed by Draplin Design Co. is certainly characterised by the thick lines that separate blocks of solid, vibrant colour. However, there is something more to be said about the origins of his brand of design.
It is extremely difficult to put a name to it but it is easy to draw links between his work and the bank of designs from rusty old pin badges and old-school matchboxes that he takes inspiration from when he goes "Junkin". The name I'm going with for now is "Utilitarian". His design is absolutely about using creative restraint, and using as few flourishes as possible to create somehing beautiful. The beauty lies in form, colour and shape, and somehow it all gets infused with radiant character.
I do not use the word utilitarian to describe a function over form approach. However Draplin seems to emulate the aesthetic of it, yet remaining visually appealing. While Michael Beirut designs a new logo for Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, and chops it up into 64 squares, applying it uniquely to each shopping bag, and therefore giving a "consistently inconsistent", memorable, yet ever-changing identity; Aaron James Draplin would rather go to his nearest junk sale, pick up an empty six-pack of Shasta Cola (nope, I've never heard of it either) and use it to design some awesome little logo for a friend's local business. That's not to say he doesn't work for the big clients too: Nike, Barack Obama and Patagonia are just a few of the big names buying into his unique approach.
Scanning Draplin's website, I found a much better way to describe the feel of his work than labelling it 'utilitarian design', an admittedly misleading term. (Either way, we've gone with it now, so let me get back to explaining how the header of the website is a much better description of the very tangible yet totally abstract character that permeates the work of Draplin Design Co.: most likely the reason for his massive fanbase and huge success.
The small header (below) at the top of his website: draplin.com is great at summarising the feel of a large part of Draplin's work. It speaks of heavy machinery, greased up hardware and fresh licks of thick, gloopy orange paint on embossed metal signage. Critics might describe it as a romanticisation of the vapid logos stamped onto builder's hardhats and arborist's trucks, but to take that view is to ignore the charm that manual labour gives to a logo. To embed the surroundings of a logo in its DNA adds a further dimension to its story.
The reason Draplin often tries to incorporate this feel of industrial machinery etc. goes further than the character and charm it portrays. Draplin's father was an industrial tool salesman, and it was the idea that the tools he was selling were expensive, heavy duty tools, that were bought once and built to last that attracted him. These days products seem to have a very short life-cycle, they are bought for cheap, they break within a couple of years and they are replaced by brand new, flashier models. This is an idea that Draplin rejects. The feel of permanence and no-frills value for money is something he attempts to design in most of his work, his logo for Finex is a fantastic example of this.
Draplin visits junk sales for good reason. He believes that, in the past, designers had more limitations and less tools, and this gave them the restraints they needed to create good utilitarian design. Nowadays the possibilities are endless, so he tries to take inspiration from a time where technological limits enforced good design practise.
Michael Beirut introduced the Clark Forklifts logo (below) to an audience otherwise unaware of it during a talk he gave at Google. He credited it with inspiring him to become a designer. "Look how the L is lifting up the A", "It does what the truck does". The Clark logo is a fantastic example of utilitarian design: design where form is not overlooked in favour of function; form is the function. As well as the usual information: name, type of industry, the form of the Clark logo quite literally illustrates the service their product provides. This clarity suits the industry perfectly. There are no unnecessary frills in this logo, as you would expect, but there is still a story in its DNA, and this is what makes it so efficient as a tool for brand communication.
The Clark logo is by no means perfect, I know some design friends would have plenty of complaints to make, but design is about solving problems, and this logo does that impeccably.
Logos are often over-analysed, an article in The New Yorker complained about the introduction of the new Google logo in 2015, talking about the "reassuring hint of history" in the serifs that were lost when the update arrived. Having said this, sometimes a logo can tell a story, they don't tend to be huge trilogies with Orcs and Elven-folk, but where possible, weaving some existing history into a new logo is an efficient method of brand communication, and that is one of the most powerful tools in a designer's arsenal.
Aaron James Draplin has taken utilitarian graphic design and turned it up to 11, inspiring countless young designers in the process. He has even produced a typeface that compresses the essence of utilitarian graphic design into its rigid, stable letterforms. It's called DDC Hardware, and he hopes that one day someone will use it on a pack of nuts and bolts, telling you exactly where he thinks it belongs. Inspired in particular by a sign he saw in Minneapolis and Hollandale, Mississippi, the roots are in manual labour and design of a bygone era. He used it perfectly on his Redwing Farms logo, it exemplifies a rejection of the iconifying of everything, and places all emphasis on the text. He has built a minimalist logo, with decades of character, through only text and lines.
Below are two great examples of utilitarian design I have found in Madrid and Dorset respectively. They too use only text, but their typography communicates much more than the few words they have used. ESPERE VERDE, the pedestrian traffic light says, in a charming condensed sans serif. It has a warm and uneven, analog glow, speaking of old technologies almost extinct in today's digital world. The traffic light is intwined with the city's DNA, and who knows how long this traffic light button will last until it is replaced by another sterile, joyless green man? This traffic light is not from the same environment as lot's of the other examples here, but it is an example of the same sort of philosophy.
CAR · PARK. This sign, painted on the side of a pub in Dorset, is charming in its own way. Yes, there are issues with the kerning (see the gaping hole between the L and the Y in 'only') but the character of the design still shines through. The typeface is bold and utilitarian, and its presence contributed greatly to the overall aesthetic of the pub, given it was the first thing I encountered as a customer.
So, having now written a blog post about Utilitarian Graphic Design, am I now in a position to answer the question: what is utilitarian graphic design?
Well I can try: it's an emphasis on function, through the design of the form. The designers of the past would show up to work and do their job, there wasn't any aim of a book deal or a feature on designmagazinethatnoonereads.com, it was simply about creating the best design for the brief. Contemporary principles and up to date technology, paired with the same restraints that the designers of the past faced, is a winning combination. It focusses designers on the most important functions and ensures they are integrated in the form. A respect for the older design principles that were born through necessity, if used thoughtfully, can help build character into a design, which is a very effective way of communicating with the viewer.
I'll finish by simply providing a collection of cool examples of utilitarian graphic design, some courtesy of Aaron James Draplin's junkin' trips, the rest are from all over the place. I plan to add to this over time.
I hope you found this mildly interesting, and that I managed to make a little bit of sense. If you need to hire a graphic designer, or you just fancy a chat about what you've just read, get in touch!
Thanks for reading,
Sources: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/sarah-larson/why-you-hate-googles-new-logo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7NuKb9mk0ac, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBbJHIJTq7k, Pretty Much Everything by Aaron James Draplin.