For more than thirteen years, Justin Ahrens has led strategic design firm Rule29 in its commitment to “making creative matter.” Through a collaborative approach to both strategy and design, Rule29 has fostered a culture that encourages the pursuit of wonder through story and seeks involvement with clients small and large as well as many social causes. Ahrens has also been a consistent voice in the design community for balancing life and career. He is the author of Life Kerning: Creative Ways to Fine Tune Your Perspective on Career and Life.
A Balanced Approach
Who have been your most influential mentors and why? My fourth-grade teacher, Mr. H. When I was struggling in school, he allowed me to draw my homework. He encouraged me to explore how I see the world and learn, and he made space for me to be myself. It changed everything. My grades went up, I participated more and I became comfortable with how to use creativity day to day. I am pretty sure he saved my life.
What excites you about design right now? The impact design and design thinking is having in the social sector. Design’s impact is broader and deeper than I can ever remember, and it’s inspiring to see design thinking being used in so many different areas to help make this world a better place.
What’s the biggest challenge facing designers right now? For those who own their own firms, I think it feels like a challenge to stay ahead of, or even in step with, the technology.
What personal/pro-bono creative projects are you working on, if any? I have started to raise money to bring water and sanitation to Ugandans through a project called Wheels 4 Water. I’m going to bicycle 1,000 miles from Boston to Chicago with one of my best friends, who is also Rule29’s photographer. On the way, we’re going to get all our water from open-source areas and filter it ourselves, to show solidarity with those who struggle for water every day. Rule29 will help with branding, social media, etc., and we will film the experience and share it as we go.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your work and what did you learn from it? Over the years, I’ve learned that you should never do bad work, or even just okay work, no matter how much money you are offered. It seems doable at first, but some cosmic karma reminds you that the work stinks, and it really starts to suck your soul. It’s hard to walk away from a big opportunity, profit-wise, so I have parameters built in for each project to help me make the right decisions in moments of weakness.
What well-known identity is most desperately in need of a redesign? This is a tough one, because most major sports teams and some major brands need some love. But I would say NASA. It needs to be more exciting and capture our wonder again.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a designer? It would be creative for sure. Sometimes I think I’d be a teacher, or chef, or actor. In some ways, all of those things exist in my current job, which is great.
Do you have creative pursuits other than design? My biggest pursuit right now is creating space to escape and do things that are good for me and those around me. That includes cycling, doing public service and being present with my family. Some of my favorite creative activities have to do with my four kids—coloring, making stuff out of LEGOs, taking photos.
Which design firm, other than yours, do you most admire and why? There are many firms that I admire, but few I am closer to than our friends at Grip in Chicago. I’m a sucker for great food, and it’s been fun to see Grip brand some of my favorite Chicago restaurants. I admire their attention and approach to startups and their level of strategy and design.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Be open. Learn technology. Be a great writer. Don't be in such a hurry and eat less cake.