Profiles in Design: Aaron Atchison
by Theresa Christine Johnson on 05/12/2020 | 6 Minute Read
When you take a closer look at someone’s career, you tend to focus on the wins, the awards, and the accolades. And those all have merit, of course, but they only tell part of the story. Without the failures along the way, you wouldn’t have those successes in the first place. In fact, learning to accept defeat may be one of the most useful things you can do for your career.
“Honestly, one of the best lessons I’ve learned is admitting my shortcomings,” said Aaron Atchison, Founder and Creative Director of Farm Design. “I’m always looking for new and creative ways to solve problems.”
Aaron grew up on a farm in Montana, and he thought that life often felt like a time warp. He lived in a town with 300 people, the main focus of the area was agriculture and livestock, which always felt ten years behind in fashion and music. It wasn’t until he enrolled in college to pursue architecture that he would discover design.
“When I meandered past a classroom of a bunch of students painting pizza boxes, it piqued my interest,” Aaron explained. “So I stuck my nose in there, and they waved me in. When they said they were doing graphic design, I didn't even know what that was. But after that point, on my way to architecture classes, I would always check in and see what they were doing.”
He had nearly finished his degree when he decided to switch his focus and go all-in with graphic design. It wasn’t easy, Aaron said, not only because he only had just a little more to go before graduating but also because he did have a love for architecture still. But after studying for four years, he also discovered things he didn’t love, and he hoped to encounter fewer restraints on the creative side with graphic design. He packed his bags, moved to California, and enrolled at California State University, Northridge.
In some ways, he made a fresh start. He left Montana after one of their worst snowstorms in the state’s history and ended up in the land of perpetual sunshine and endlessly perfect surfing weather, trading farmland for city sprawl. Yet his architecture background still helped out.
"I was able to establish my foundation through the lens of an architect, and I think to this day, a lot of those disciplines cross over into how I treat design," Aaron said. He never considered his time pursuing a degree in architecture as time lost—it added another dimension to his skill set.
"It also sharpened how I look at graphic design since architecture is so very immersive and dimensional in nature," he added. "With graphic design, I was doing a lot of 2D print work and logos, but I still wanted to capture a lot of that dimensionality to design. It’s sort of where packaging would come in. With architecture, a house has to have more than just curb appeal—you also walk by the side of it or the back. It has to have functionality and meaning, so in a way, I think packaging has a lot of similarities."
After school, Aaron jumped right into the workforce, starting at an agency as a Junior Designer. Within five years, he would make his way up to Creative Director, and the work taught him not just about the creative side of design, but about the business side of things—the day-to-day managing of clients and leading creatives. In 2000, he felt his entrepreneurial spirit stirring, and decided it was time to create something of his own.
“It was pretty scary,” Aaron said. “I was pretty much operating on fumes right out of the gate. I had $9,000 in the bank, and looking at all the expenses, I felt I had three months to get this thing off the ground.”
He made the leap and founded Farm Design with a few clients already lined up—something which made the transition significantly easier—and the hardest part he encountered was a new work environment. From getting new clients to continue doing great work as a solopreneur, he had to be brave enough to make mistakes and learn from them.
When the stock market crashed in 2008, Aaron had to reevaluate everything. He’d found success but felt something was missing from his work, so he took the opportunity to reinvent himself and his business. “I felt like I knew everything because I had early success,” he confessed, “but when I went into reflection mode, I realized I didn’t know that much at all.”
This realization took him from Farm Design 1.0 to 2.0, as he likes to say, and he began working with other creatives. He figured he’d hire some people, share information with them, and work together on projects—but it didn’t quite happen that way.
“What I learned is they all have so much knowledge and so many skills to share with me. That’s when I not only matured as an individual but when the business really started to blossom.”
Califia is one of those projects which Aaron feels like represents Farm Design 2.0. They approached the studio for a single project, but he and the team didn’t want to approach the work without thinking of its full reach. “Our process is so rooted in capturing insight and being strategic about how to move a brand forward,” Aaron explained. “We’re very much rooted in strategy first, design second, and implementation last. So we presented to the client not only concepts that they requested but also a projection of what this might look like for the future growth of their company.”
Based on that, Califia chose Farm Design as their agency of record for the past six years, expanding from almond milk to products like probiotic yogurts and cold brew.
Today, Farm Design consists of six employees, plus Aaron, all of them designers. You won’t find account executives or production staff, but instead, a hungry group of creatives always working towards a vision. They pride themselves in never sticking to a rigid process, always asking questions, and pushing each other. It’s not all work and no play, though—they have a Monday morning huddle to talk about their weekends, and everyone has a broad set of outside interests, from running marathons and painting to rock climbing.
The Farm Design team members call themselves “grow getters,” and they want to help others grow, too—so they created a YouTube channel, Do Good Work. They share their knowledge openly so others can improve their skills. “Other designers or clients will ask, ‘aren’t you concerned with competitors stealing your ideas or your process?’ And I would have said yes in the past,” Aaron admitted. “But I think our biggest thing now is trying to give back and share with other designers and young creatives.
“We are not the same studio last year as we are today, so a year from now, we’re going to be different, too, and that’s based on our ability to constantly strive to learn new things.”