Justin Ahrens on how to build a design studio—and do good for others

Justin and friendsJustin and friends celebrate a special moment.

There are seemingly countless design studios, and almost every one references it’s unique culture. Rule29 does too, but in this studio’s case, it’s accurate. Over a period of 16 years, Justin Ahrens and his team have worked for clients ranging from corporations to Alice Cooper. They’ve also contributed to a number of for-good organizations—even creating their own initiatives. Today, it’s my pleasure to ask Justin a few questions…

Tell me about your path to design. How did you get started?

My path to design was anything but normal. I was always into art. From a young age I drew and painted with whatever I could get my hands on—oil pastels, watercolors, acrylics, charcoal, etc. In high school I took every art class I could. I was the guy who could make posters, t-shirts, album covers, etc.

But I also was very into sports. I played football and basketball and was on the track team. I assumed I would become an art teacher and a coach. Some of the most influential people in my life, good and bad, were teachers and coaches, and I wanted to be one of the good ones. I either wasn’t aware of or just didn’t understand how I could participate in the advertising and design world.

So it was pretty amazing that when I went to college, out of the schools that were recruiting me for sports, I somehow chose the one with the best art school. On my first day of practice I blew out my knee—and my athletic “career” was over. From there I needed to pick up an extra class and that happened to be Intro to Graphic Design. At that point, my life changed forever.

What drew you to design? Did you have a sense for what kind of work you’d end up doing? (Given that this was before the explosion of the popular web, when few knew the difference between an email and a website.)

What initially drew me to design was the craft of it. I loved the intersection of typography, image, color, story, and how that was assembled to solve some commercial need. I didn’t truly “get it” at first, but I knew I loved it. Most of my art had a graphic feel to it. I liked to take complex ideas and try to simplify them. As I was exposed to more of the history of graphic design and saw the career possibilities, I was hooked.

At a press check, for a poster, designed by Rule29.At a press check, for a poster, designed by Rule29.

You studied Graphic Design & Education at Illinois Wesleyan University. What did you take from this experience?

I realized that I wanted design to be my day job. And I also realized that if I was going to stay in education, I would want to teach at the college level. I decided that I wanted to try out the idea of a design career before I went back to school to get my master’s.

Although I still love teaching, I made the right choice. Illinois Wesleyan is a very competitive liberal arts school—it challenged me to do well, and the wide range of subjects I was exposed to made me a better designer. I learned to be incredibly curious, and I also realized that anything is what you make of it—both great traits for a designer.

Did you have any mentors during this time? Did they give you any advice that stuck with you?

I didn’t really have many mentors back then. But I did have a career counselor that supported me and encouraged me to get internships and pursue design. She was unique because the school at the time didn’t have many relationships in this field.

She ended up helping me get three different experiences that radically shaped my first steps as a professional. She opened doors for me and was an incredible part of the whole process. We are still in touch twenty-plus years after graduation. That’s pretty cool.

So, you leave school with a portfolio under your arm, ready for work. How did you get your first gig? Was it tough to find work as a new designer?

My first run of interviews was during spring break my senior year. I had a total of twenty lined up, and during my last one the person interviewing me said it was the worst portfolios he had seen and I should do something else.

Devastated, I went home with my tail between my legs. I decided that, in the month I had left, I needed to redo my entire portfolio, and so that’s what I did. I went back out after graduation and no one wanted to see me from those previous interviews.

I got the name of a potential employer from one of the initial interviewers, and I gave his firm a call. This person hired me over the phone, which should have concerned me, but it didn’t. I was just excited to have a job.

Justin’s studio, Rule29, produces a great many items, ranging from annual reports to a documentary film.Justin’s studio, Rule29, produces a great many items, ranging from annual reports to a documentary film.

What about those first jobs? What tasks were you assigned?

My first job was incredibly challenging. It was a three-person shop, and I did everything from answering phones, taking out the garbage, doing billing, calling clients, and design.

But as a small shop, they hadn’t fully converted to computers. So, I was both working on boards and working on the computer. It was incredibly humbling and stressful. Not having enough experience in either, I felt like I was always behind.

In hindsight a couple of beneficial things happened. I got an incredible and transparent education on how to both run and not run a design business. Additionally, this studio was connected to a commercial printer, so I was able to walk next door and watched my files get processed, and I went on a couple of press checks a week. My overall exposure to these things gave me some valuable experiences. I wouldn’t change a thing.

What lessons did you learn from those who directed you, during these first gigs?

My first bosses were demanding, had high standards, pushed me constantly, and showed me that there was a craft side and a business side to design. This has really stuck with me as I have started (or helped to start) a couple design firms.

In the last fifteen years of Rule29, I’ve often thought about that balance. From those first bosses, I also learned that process is good. Process helps you maximize your time being creative and helping you do what you are best at.

Justin and his colleagues put a lot of effort into working on meaningful projects—and having fun as a group—including a little slacklining in the summer. Justin and his colleagues put a lot of effort into working on meaningful projects—and having fun as a group—including a little summer slacklining, in front of the office.

Tell me a bit about Rule29. What makes your studio different from others?

The biggest point of difference is that we focus on our culture. Culture has always been important to us, but over the last few years we have been ramping up the way we curate, audit, and pay attention to our culture—both in terms of our team and our clients. We’ve come to believe more and more that culture is the key to creating consistent opportunities for the best creative solutions to be developed… in our terms the best way to make creative matter®.

Which client successes are you most happy with?

I dig the vast majority of our clients’ work, but it’s our work with start-ups and organizations that make the world a better place that generally make us the happiest. I think the reason is that we see our impact almost immediately and at all levels.

You work with Alice Cooper. What’s that like?

I met Alice in 1995 when we started working on his nonprofit called Solid Rock. Initially it was nerve-racking and exciting to work with a rock legend, but as soon as we engaged with him, he put us at ease. He is a master storyteller, as well as a designer in his own right. The way he uses design to develop his band’s ideas, albums, and shows highlights that he is a dynamic creative. I love that he is always open to possibilities (sometimes too much!)—it’s a great exercise to work with him. And no matter what, we know we’ll walk away having heard a new story about some legendary moment with the Beatles, Elvis, or someone current. It’s pretty cool.

Lately, a number of design studios have consolidated into larger organizations or shut down. Rule29 is in its 16th year and is going strong. What’s your secret?

I really think it’s the focus on our culture, but it’s also the fact that we conduct a yearly assessment of our company, clients, and work. I’m very open to trying new things, but I want to make sure we’re also paying attention to things we do well and are profitable doing. I realized quickly that if we want to keep doing what we love, we have to pay attention to our core business. It may sound obvious, but I’m often surprised how many design firms neglect this. For example, Rule29 has an advisory board that I rely on throughout the year for advice, guidance, and perspective. On top of that, we are careful to hire great people, and we work hard to develop relationships that help us to be sustainable and foster growth.

Rule29 puts on an open house at the studio—looks fun, doesn’t it?Rule29 puts on an open house at the studio—looks fun, doesn’t it?

What mistakes did you make as your studio grew?

Like everyone, our greatest strengths are often our biggest weaknesses. There were times I tried too many new things at once instead of focusing on our core capabilities. Patience comes before growth, and many people mistake busyness for perceived profitability or signs of growth. I learned this early on, and so we’ve been very conservative about taking any major growth steps.

Your studio puts 20 percent of its time and resources into helping groups you believe in. What groups have you worked with, and what role have you taken with them?

Our investments have been quite varied. We’ll help an entire organization from strategy and brand to promotion (print, web, and social). We have worked with Alice Cooper’s foundation to help provide opportunities for kids in some of Phoenix’s toughest communities. We’ve partnered with organizations such as Lifewater or Life In Abundance to work with some of the most marginalized people in some of the toughest countries in Africa. We’ve assisted Levelground, an organization that focuses on creating space for dialogue about faith, gender, and sexuality through the arts. And we’ve helped launch and develop Team RWB, which serves America’s veterans after they come back from active deployment. We care deeply about so many types of organizations that align with our culture. We’re excited to be working with several new ones—such as the Positivity Project, a group focusing on positive education, and a new start-up committed to making a difference in some of the toughest areas in inner-city Chicago.

How do you structure this time? Do you take off every Friday as a group and commit that day to an organization you care about, or is this work more blended with your paid client projects?

The only way to make it viable for us is to weave it into our “normal” workflow. And we don’t do this work 100 percent pro bono anymore. It’s just not financially responsible for anyone, and this helps all parties work in a more timely fashion. Occasionally we will take on a small group and crank things out, but that isn’t the norm.

Talking to passers-by, at the Wheels4Water booth.Talking to passers-by, at the Wheels4Water booth.

You seem especially committed to Wheels4Water. Tell me more about this initiative.

Wheels4Water is an event we created with one of our partners, Wonderkind Studios. We wanted to get outside of our normal day-to-day and do something we all could rally around at whatever level we chose, and we wanted to see what kind of impact we could make. We chose Lifewater, which brings safe water to someone for life for just $40. The first community we helped Lifewater serve consisted of one thousand people, so $40,000 was needed. We decided as a group that we would create an event to raise that money. We created a cycling event where sponsors would donate $40 for each mile we rode. We cycled from Boston to Chicago—about a thousand miles—filtering our own water along the way. Both before the ride and during it, our team promoted the event, and by the end we had raised $102,000!

We thought that was it, but in 2015 Lifewater asked if we would consider doing a smaller ride (450 miles) in California to raise $18,000 for a project in the DROC, a youth development program. At the end of that ride, we ended up raising over $60,000. This year we are asking people around the country to join us in a couple of one-day rides that collectively will assist another thousand people. Besides the impact we have made, all those involved learned a ton about donor strategy, promotions, cause design, storytelling, and so on. This past fall I was able to see the work firsthand in Uganda and the DROC, and bringing that back to the team was pretty powerful. We don’t know how long we will keep doing this event, but we know the work is changing lives, and that is pretty awesome.

Many studio managers want to contribute to meaningful causes/groups but aren’t sure where to start. What do you recommend they do? What are some first steps?

We get this question a lot. Our answer is broken down into two elements: First, make a list of the things that piss you off the most about the world, your community, or particular issue(s) in general, and second, ask how that list aligns with your company’s culture. Are there common themes, beliefs, and passions that seem to fit? Start there. Once you narrow it down, find an organization that’s in that space and connect with them. We recommend volunteering first—we believe it’s important initially to see their reality as much as you can.

Justin hangs out with some kids, during one of Rule29’s overseas projects.Justin hangs out with some local kids, during one of Rule29’s overseas projects.

Why are you on Officehours? Who do you most want to help?

Officehours is perfect for me because Rule29 gets lots of requests for various forms of advice or input. We are honored and excited to be contacted, but since we can’t respond to all the emails and calls, we direct them toward Officehours. If we run out of sessions, we just open up some more, and so far we really love it.

What five questions are you best suited to answer?

  • What are some ways I can run my firm better?
  • How do I or my studio start doing more Design For Good-type work?
  • What do you look for in a new employee or portfolio?
  • What are the best ways to collaborate?
  • How do we understand and/or shift our culture?

If you run a studio, odds are that you started it so you could make some sort of a difference. And, admittedly, the path to doing so isn’t always clear. So, here’s your opportunity: request a session with Justin. He can give you some feedback on your ideas, and provide some one-on-one tips on how to get started.