Book Review: Pretty Much Everything

I can’t think of a more inspirational figure in the graphic design industry than Aaron Draplin. And I can’t think of a book that I’ve been more excited about getting. In fact, this is the first book I’ve ever pre-ordered. (That’s right, folks. I’ve got a first edition. Complete with a few, since-corrected typos and everything! This review is a few years late.) If you aren’t already familiar with Draplin, this video does a pretty good job of summing it up.

In short, he’s the working man’s graphic designer. His whole ethos is applying a blue-collar work ethic to the craft of graphic design. A ton of his speaking and writing work attempts to demystify graphic design and make it more accessible and actionable. And that is so fucking important.

It’s definitely attractive to think of graphic design as art. And, I mean, it is (or can be). But “art” has so much negative baggage that is completely unnecessary to what we do. 1) An artist relies on a muse. 2) Art is purely subjective. Those are two concepts that can totally poison a graphic designer’s mind.

As designers, it’s our job to solve problems through visual communication. There are methods and systems in place to help us get started. And there are objective results. As soon as our noses go up in the air, we lose sight of these simple facts. And worse, we start sitting around and waiting for the muse to visit instead of doing the hard work and (metaphorically) getting our hands dirty. What other craftsperson gets that luxury? Who else is allowed to get “creative block” and sit around browsing the internet?

This seems to be Draplin’s core message. Or, at least, that’s the message that has had the biggest impact on me and the way I think about my profession.

This is a photo of me meeting Aaron Draplin at Adobe Max 2016.

Oh yeah, this is a book review.

It’s tough to separate the man from his message. But luckily, the book does a great job of showing it all. It’s part portfolio, part memoir, part merch catalogue, and part how-to guide. It captures all of the magic of one of his talks in a convenient book that looks great on your coffee table.

In addition to having an incredible body of work, Draplin is also a storyteller at heart. The book is packed with his signature Midwestern wit and hugely entertaining ramblings. He takes you through his history in graphic design, but also goes on tangents about everything from working as a carny, to pondering the mysteries of the universe. He talks you through the creation of Field Notes; the importance of utilitarianism, punk rock, and road trips; the benefits of sharing your work; and how cool his dad is. It’s all really good stuff. And almost every story circles back to serve as a source of either inspiration or motivation.

Another important element of the book (and of Draplin’s ethos) is blurring the lines between high-profile work and stuff he’s created for fun. He gives equal space to things he’s made for friends and the work he’s done for the Obama Administration. And he encourages us to do the same.

Yeah, if you have it, high-profile work is a great thing to share. But that hiring manager or prospective client probably isn’t going to care who you created that kickass logo for. The important thing is the “kickass” part. In my experience, the hiring manager has been more impressed by the stuff I created in my free time than the work I make a living off of. That’s the stuff that really demonstrates passion and, often, skill.

This is another super important point that I haven’t seen other famous graphic designers touch on. And it’s so incredibly helpful and motivating for a young designer. It’s an escape hatch from the “can’t get work without experience, can’t get experience without work” circle of Hell.

There’s honestly so much more to talk about here. But for brevity’s sake, I *really* like this book. (Surprise!) Attending one of his talks should be on every designer’s bucket list. But having a copy of the book may be even better. It’s great. Go buy it.