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Interview: Designer/Humanitarian Justin Ahrens Designs Life in Abundance

Justin Ahrens | Designer/Humanitarian | Stated Magazine Interview

Justin Ahrens on Stated Magazine


Justin Ahrens is the founder and creative director of Rule29, a multidisciplinary design agency located in the suburbs of Chicago. The commercial success of Rule29 and Justin’s enviable passion and energy have recently led him down a path of altruism into poverty-stricken areas of Africa in a partnership with NGO Life in Abundance. During an inspirational phone conversation, we learned how striking a balance between the desire for career success and the urge to help those less fortunate can be achieved with absolutely no sacrifice to our quality of life. In fact, Justin’s life is a lesson in the potential harmony between the conflicting belief systems of Karma and Faith. He has served for several years on the HOW Conference Advisory Board, more recently on the Epic Advisory Board, and is a member of STA and AIGA, where he has held board positions in Arizona and Chicago. Rule29’s objective is to make creative matter™, and thanks largely to the idealism of their leader, they are succeeding.

stated: Thanks for making the time for us today.

JUSTIN AHRENS: You bet. The pleasure’s mine. Thank you for asking me.

stated: One of Rule29’s initiatives is raising awareness of poverty in the US and Sub-Saharan Africa. Can you share with us some of the projects you have worked on in the US and Africa and how those came about? I believe one of the more recent projects is with Life in Abundance. Can you walk us through that relationship?

Justin Ahrens on Stated Magazine Justin Ahrens on Stated Magazine

JUSTIN AHRENS: The whole poverty scenario, to me, is hard to get my mind around. I can’t understand how we, as one of, if not the richest country in the world can have extreme poverty even in our country. It just baffles me. One thing I’ve learned is that poverty is a very complex issue. It’s not just the lack of material goods. There are many, many levels to it. And that’s been the one benefit of working with Life in Abundance and taking this on as an initiative. And it really all started with Africa.

Africa would be the catalyst. Part of Rule29’s objective of “Making Creative Matter” is that we want to give back to our community in some way. Not only with our creative ability, but also with our time and actually going, seeing, doing and being a part of the solution. 

Prior to our relationship with Life in Abundance, we’ve worked with a couple of non-profits and other organizations that are doing great things, both domestically and globally. We’ve worked with American Cancer Society, American Red Cross and some other faith-based organizations that are doing great work throughout the country, and we’ve given those groups our work for free or at a discounted rate, and some of them we got paid just fine on. But the point is that the work has really inspired our team. We really love working on that sort of thing because just the ability to do our design work in a way that affects the human condition I think is incredibly exciting. And that lit a passion here for everyone.

stated: And when did your relationship with Life In Abundance begin?

Bono was giving a poverty talk several years ago and I saw it on YouTube. He explained that we could get rid of extreme party in X amount of years. I’m not a big celebrity endorsement guy—I’m not even a huge Bono fan, actually—but I loved what he said and thought the speech was very inspiring. And then one night I was watching American Idol with my daughter and they had a segment titled “Idols Give Back.” We watched this whole segment where celebrities were going to Africa and giving people malaria nets and I wondered, geez, if I give my dollar how much is actually going to go to that effort? So I started looking into it trying to figure it out and I was getting really excited thinking maybe this is where we should be—maybe we should be in Africa.

Justin Ahrens on Stated Magazine

I didn’t intend to go there. I’m a Dad, I have four kids, I run a company; and the last thing I need to be doing is going halfway across the world for a couple of weeks, right?

But every year I go on a trip with a couple of buddies that all happen to be in the same industry and we sit and we talk about things and Africa kept coming up over and over again; and turns out one of the guy’s son’s was interviewing that week for a job with Life in Abundance. He was telling me how they work in some of the poorest areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, arguably some of the poorest areas in the world, and they work in the slums to create micro-finance programs and tackle issues related to children, HIV aids, food…the list goes on. But they have a process to it, actually very similar to our design process at Rule29 where you evaluate the issue, come up with needs, and then the end result, and—this is the part that really hooked me—they want to be able to leave there and have the community be self-sustaining. They teach the community how to change themselves. Because the only way Africa is going to change is through Africans. It’s not going to be because of you or me. I mean, we might be able to help them along the way, but the last thing we need to do is throw money at the issue. That’s kind of the Western way of doing things. So to make a long story short, a couple of months later, I called my friend’s son at Life in Abundance and I said I’d really like them to pick us as one of the firms that would do pro bono work. At that time, the situation in Africa was becoming a reality for me.

He said yes, but added that you can’t do our account for free unless you go to Africa. And I thought, hold on a second, you want ME to donate all our work to you but I have to go to Africa to do this? And he said, yes, absolutely. And it was probably one of the most brilliant things that’s ever happened in my life. So I went to Africa with my friend Brian McDonald, he’s a photographer, and he shoots the majority of our work and it’s just great to have him because sometimes we don’t even have to talk…we’ll just look at each other and he knows what we are looking for. And so we went and travelled throughout Ethiopia and Kenya.

stated: You personally financed all of this?

JUSTIN AHRENS: Yes. And so we went there and I was just devastated. It was horrible and it was awesome. It was horrible in the sense the it absolutely rocked me. I remember one night we were in Kenya and we’d just been to Kibera, which is the second largest slum in Africa. Anyway, we were sitting there talking to some of the leaders that work for Life in Abundance and they were saying that it’s a horrible place when it rains because there’s really no drainage. It’s basically a big trash heap, there’s sewage everywhere, and when it rains there’s this whole list of awful things that happen. And I remember, I got home that night and Brian and I didn’t really talk to each other. I smelled so horrible and took a shower and I just was like, “What can I do here? I live in the suburbs of Chicago. What the heck can I do?” I went to bed and all of a sudden I heard it raining out, and I realized that Brian and I were both sobbing. Because we knew that the people we just saw that day were living in this horrible condition. And that a little thing such as rain could literally endanger their lives. So, I said, “Alright, whatever it is we need to do…we need to do something.” So for the last three years we’ve been working with Life in Abundance.

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We’ve been helping them in the most practical way design firms do. We helped them reposition themselves, rebranded them, we took them through a whole process of understanding who they were. They are an African-based NGO [non-governmental organization]. The Americas’ office is responsible for raising awareness and money to fund the work that goes on there. As you can imagine, Europe and the United States are their largest areas of financial support. We went back a year later because we’d done a book for them, and the printer and the book binder saw it and they basically donated their goods so Life In Abundance could get several thousand copies to sell at their fundraisers. So we sent that out and were were telling people hey, we’re doing this, this is important to us. Not only are we doing this in Africa but we’re going to do this more locally.

And all of a sudden we started getting these really interesting conversations with our clients and it was just a blast and it still is a blast, just talking to them about things that really matter to them. Outside of making sure the stock price is high enough.

stated: And you have produced a documentary on your experiences in Africa as well?

Yes. One one of our trips I took some B-roll video with my handheld. We put together this little trailer for Life in Abundance that they could use at presentations and that sort of thing and one day they called me to say, “I know that little trailer was just something that you kind of threw together, but if we could really bring Africa home through video, since not everyone can go, that would be amazing.” So we brainstormed this idea of doing a documentary and two years ago we went and shot a documentary about the street children that they work with. There are 50,000 street kids in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. And to date, the documentary has helped them raise over $350,000—I think it might be $400,000, I don’t have the exact count—by screenings and dinners they’ve had.

This Is My Normal (Trailer) from Rule29 on Vimeo.

stated: There are 50,000 homeless kids in Addis Ababa? Where do they come from?

JUSTIN AHRENS: Some of the kids are results of broken relationships that are already in the slums. Prostitution is high, broken families are high. But the big myth…and this is not just in Africa but in most developing countries, is that when you go to the city there’s going to be work.

One night, one of the nights that changed my life, we were walking around Addis Ababa. We had military guards with us because it was pretty dangerous in the slum and it was like two in the morning and it was freezing. I was holding a light that was warm and I was still freezing cold. We came upon two kids. One was 12 and one was 10, and they were buddies from a country town, I don’t know how far away it was. I think it was under a $10 bus ticket to get them there. When they got there they discovered they had no work, they were starving, they had no shoes, their pants were torn up, their shirts were something you would barely call a shirt, and they were huddled together sort of like spooning to stay warm. When we woke them up they were terrified because they thought we were going to rob them and beat them, which happens a lot to them. I looked around and the whole crew was like, alright, we gotta do something about these kids. So we started taking our jackets off and I was going to give them my shoes, basically anything, and our guides stopped us. They said you can’t do that, because you are actually going to put them in danger and they are going to get beat up because they would now have these things that are obviously not theirs and that are valuable. And we thought, well, we can’t do just do nothing. Right? So we did all we could and got them some bread, and took them down to the next pile of kids that were laying together in a huddle that was bigger and we stuck them in the middle so they could get warm. And then, we had to leave.

stated: A 10-year-old kid?


stated: How old are your kids?

JUSTIN AHRENS: My oldest is 10. I mean, it was horrible.

stated: So you can relate. 10 is really just a baby.

JUSTIN AHRENS: It just doesn’t make sense. This is a generational issue and it’s a complex issue.

stated: So when all these kids pour into the city the sheer numbers make it impossible to deal with the problem.

JUSTIN AHRENS: Right. And so what happens is they get into stealing, and selling drugs, and they usually sample the drugs. Whatever they need to do to deflect the fact that they are in this horrible state. So there’s nothing really good that comes out of it unless someone intervenes. And you might say, why don’t they buy a bus ticket back home? Well, it could take them years to make enough money to get home. And by the time it gets to that point they’re just so far gone that they just try to make it work.

stated: There are people that are preying on them right? So who is preying on these little kids?

JUSTIN AHRENS: It’s kind of like you take your pick. These two particular boys go to the city and they don’t know anybody. So they get off the bus and they are in this big, huge capital city. And they start walking around. And they don’t know anything, right? So they’re trying to figure out where they can stay, where they can eat, where they can live. And they are just two of thousands of kids. So there are slum lords that will take advantage of them. God forbid they are are a girl. What you think can happen happens. We met some young prostitutes there that really risk their lives every night. If they don’t have AIDS, they are going to get it. We met with one girl we interviewed and she said, “I either have to have sex and risk AIDS to feed my baby, or let my baby die.”

Stories like that you hear over and over again and it’s unacceptable. I know this happens in India and China and South America and other places. But just happening at all is something that we can’t grasp. So we did this movie to tell the story and help organizations like Life In Abundance continue to be funded to do their work.

They do work in two prongs. They work with what they call hardcore kids. And these are the hardest of the hardest kids. Like the ones that are just really, really off the wagon. They work trying to rehabilitate them because they usually have the biggest impact on the community if they can stay clean. The second one is preventative; using schools where they can teach kids about making good decisions and thinking about future possibilities.

Justin Ahrens on Stated Magazine Justin Ahrens on Stated Magazine

stated: What is the nature of the hardcore kids? Are they drug runners, drug addicts, kids that have been in and out of jail?

JUSTIN AHRENS: All of the above. Homeless. They do whatever they can to get by. Most of them are addicted to something.

stated: Do you know what the drugs are that they are doing?

JUSTIN AHRENS: It’s called Khat. It’s a local indigenous plant that they chew. And it’s addictive. It’s easy to get. It’s cheap.

I tell you, we met the one girl we featured in the movie and she was amazing. I asked her about her plans for the future. “What is your dream?” And she said, “I want to be a doctor so I can come back here and help my community.” And that’s just so foreign to a lot of Westerners who might think, “Don’t you want to live in a better place?” But she said no, “I want to come back here and make a difference. I want to change the lives of my brothers and sisters.”

Everywhere you go there are kids. Everywhere. Some are lucky enough get into the government sponsored grade school. But once you get into what we would call junior high, or middle school, 6th - 12th…that’s usually where you have to pay for education.

stated: And that’s when the gap between the rich and the poor opens up?

JUSTIN AHRENS: Yes. This past Spring we went back and did a story of extreme poverty in Nairobi, Kenya. And that was even worse than Ethiopia. That’s where were really became educated on poverty. We interviewed government officials, people working for years in some of the largest slums. And we also spoke with families and kids that lived there. That experience has really affected the way we, as a company, see and do our work.  And it’s affected me and my family.

I think the a lot of people have the attitude that someone else will take care of it. Our whole concept here is simple: let’s do something! We want to start getting better and better at our film work, and start telling better stories. So we’re going to go around and find issues or organizations or things that we think people should be aware of and interview people, and put it up on a site, and really all we want to do is raise awareness as a personal corporate project. Because we have to do something.

Justin Ahrens on Stated Magazine

stated: Do you have anything in mind for that?

JUSTIN AHRENS: I’m opening it up to each creative here to tackle an issue they are passionate about. So it could be recycling, Alzheimer’s, blood drives, cancer, etc.

I have one project in mind now.  I met an amazing artist who she just found out she’s going blind. She’s in her mid-40’s and she’ll be blind in three years. And she’s been giving all of her time to the Lost Boys of Sudan. And they’ve really rallied around her and tried to help her and encourage her. So I want to tell a story about her scenario, about what she is feeling about going blind and being such a visual person.  When I interviewed her the first time she said, “I don’t know. Look what these boys did. They walked for eight months, and risked their lives. And look at me. I’m going blind. It’s not a big deal.” And I just thought that was beautiful, because I know I could not say that.

stated: That’s incredible. That’s powerful. Perspective-altering situations in life send people down these paths. I guess it takes that. Can I ask you how important is faith, religious belief, to the type of work you choose to do?

JUSTIN AHRENS: It’s important to me personally. I believe that all of us should believe in something bigger than ourselves. I’m not dictating what that is, or who that is, or whatever. But, I think that as creatives we all get that feeling that there is something more, beyond us. We tap into our creativity all the time, and we have an unfair advantage having that feeling. And for me, part of the culture fit is that we work with companies that have the same outlook as we do. I’m not saying we work with only Christian companies. In fact, that would be the extreme minority of our clients. I probably wouldn’t work for Playboy, for example. I don’t know, that’s just not something from a values perspective that I’d want to align with Rule29. I think there are other things that we should be doing that are more important. These kinds of comments always get you in trouble. But that’s just who we are. And I don’t’ think we want to be everything to everyone, and we want to work for organizations that we feel good about; that are ideally helping make this world a better place. So it’s important to me, but it’s by no means a requirement.

stated: Did you grow up in a creative family?

JUSTIN AHRENS: I grew up with a single mom, and we moved around a ton. I think I went to like eight or nine middle schools in three states—Arizona, California and Illinois. What was cool about my mom is that she always encouraged me. I’m pretty extroverted now, but I was introverted as a kid. I don’t know when that transition happened, but she always encouraged me to draw and use my imagination. What’s funny is that she probably did that because we had no money, but it’s really formed who I am now. I found a box when my mom was moving of my old sketch-books, and I was cracking up because it took me right back to that place. The day I drew that and what was going on, and so I guess I grew up in a creative house in the sense that my mom supported it. And it was kind of weird, because some of my older guy relatives thought that I should be out playing baseball and football, which I did, but they did not quite relate to me as well with the creative side of things.

Justin Ahrens on Stated Magazine Justin Ahrens on Stated Magazine

stated: Did you go to the same high school all four years?

JUSTIN AHRENS: I did. That was my first steady educational experience.

stated: So for a time you were always the new kid, so you know how to make conversation with anyone, but you perhaps came to never really expect anything too lasting?

JUSTIN AHRENS: Yeah, it doesn’t go to deep. I think it’s funny, I used to be bummed out about it, but I think it’s given me some advantages socially. At least I see it that way.

stated: Oh, definitely. You can probably parachute into any situation and be comfortable, and you are clearly not afraid to move around, if need be, or go on adventures, like Africa.

Did you study design in college? Did you go to design school?

JUSTIN AHRENS: You know, I went to a small liberal arts college in Bloomington, IL called Illinois Wesleyan. And man I loved it. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know what graphic design was at all. I went there because they gave me the best deal for football, and said I could play basketball.

stated: So you played college basketball and football?

JUSTIN AHRENS: I tried to. I blew my knee out the second day of practice and that kind of ended that career. At least I was smart enough to pick the school from the ones that I visited that I felt had the best art department. I remember I picked up an Intro to Graphic Design class because I had extra hours after I could no longer go to practice, and man I just fell in love with it. Graphic design just clicked. I remember I found my first Communication Arts in the library. Also, I was a huge Michael Jordan fan, and that’s when Nike was really blowing up with Mars Blackmon and Michael Jordan, and that whole thing and I got really familiar with the West Coast ad agencies like Wieden + Kennedy and began thinking about what the difference was between design and advertising. I was studying in this environment where design was not the priority. What I loved about that in hindsight is that when I graduated with a BFA with a design emphasis, even though I did not have a very solid design foundation, I did have a very eclectic education from a liberal arts college.

stated: When did you graduate from college?

JUSTIN AHRENS: ‘94. And I moved out to Phoenix, AZ. I’d fallen in love and my wife was going to ASU. It was a smaller market but it was the land of opportunity man, I tell you what. There was a lot of really great design going on. My first job was a small design firm that was in the back of a print shop. When I got out of school, people were still doing boards, and I helped this company go from boards to computer, but I still really had no idea what I was doing. At lunch, I would go and watch press checks, and talk to pressman, and learn this craft that you don’t get to do anymore. I was just tired of sitting in my little cubicle, so it was great.

Justin Ahrens on Stated Magazine

stated: You were a production designer?

JUSTIN AHRENS: Well, I was the designer. I kind of did everything. In fact, it was a two-person shop. It trained me in everything. I would print up invoices, make calls for billables and receivables and do boards.

I was over my skis man, I had no idea what was going on. But you learn fast. So I was there for a year. There were five firms that I wanted to work for and I finally got into one of them, The M. Group, and it was a great experience.  I remember going into that firm for the first time and thought, man, this is boring. Don’t I have to do all the other stuff that goes with it, like clean the office and do invoices and estimates? But at the same time it was great, because I really got to focus on work, and this is when the second phase of my design education began.

Basically, to make a long story short, I was really getting killed by a lot of the young designers that were coming out of ASU, U of A and UCLA. They were coming to Phoenix to interview because they knew the computer really well and I didn’t. So while my wife was still at ASU, we bought a new computer and I started freelancing. I felt like I was getting crap projects because I was a little behind. And all of a sudden 18 months goes by and I’m doing a ton of work on the side. The Creative Director at the design firm I was working at was my brother-in-law, and he wanted to leave because he’d been there 10 years. And I said hey, why don’t we go on our own and just try it? My wife’s about to graduate, I had nothing to lose. So we went on our own.

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I remember the last day at the agency I told one of our clients, who was an independent marketing guy I loved,  “I want to let you know that we are leaving and I really loved working with you and you taught me a lot.” A couple of weeks later and he was sitting in my office in my house. So me and him and my bother-in-law started together and right when we thought we were going to have to close our doors we landed a couple of big projects and we took off like a rocket. And so for three years we were doing that and it was awesome. We were just getting into web design and the dot-com thing was just starting to get rolling and we were working with a couple of dot-com companies and things kind of fell apart. I was actually starting to get recruited, which was nice, and I was looking at places to move to take the next step in my career. My wife really wanted to come home. I did not want to work in downtown Chicago at a big agency at the time because as a partner at this place I was working 60, 70, 80 hours a week. I wanted to relax, so, I actually got a job at a publishing company in the suburbs of Chicago and I jumped on it, moved home, and took a huge pay cut doing that. Some of my clients from Arizona wanted to keep working with me, which was nice, and about two years later I decided I could not do both any more, so in 2000 I started Rule 29.

And we’ve been cranking along ever since.

Justin Ahrens on Stated Magazine Justin Ahrens on Stated Magazine

stated: Your Rule29 office looks like a home.

JUSTIN AHRENS: In fact, someone was telling me, “I thought you lived here.” Really, I have four kids?! Geneva is a really cool little artsy town. It’s got great stuff to do, great restaurants, and it’s known for it’s historical homes. We found one that’s in pretty good shape and we bought it and renovated it and now it’s the home of Rule29.

stated: It’s beautiful. How far outside of the city is it?

JUSTIN AHRENS: it’s about 40 miles west.

stated: It seems like you have a great team there. I watched some of the short videos that you share on your site.

JUSTIN AHRENS: Was I being an idiot?

stated: Well, I learned that you run around with a sword occasionally… 

You designed a couple of other smaller sites—Spec This and Designer Sobriety. Can you talk about those two briefly? 

JUSTIN AHRENS: Bob, my strategist, would be loving that question about now because he’s always asking the same thing. Well, regarding Designer Sobriety, I gave a talk at the HOW Conference a couple of years ago and it was basically 12 things you need to know about running your company. And I had a really great response to it, and I kept getting emails for weeks later from people who wanted more and asked if any of that information was available. I thought well, maybe I know something about running your business, so I started this blog. I really liked it, but it started to get really tiring to do it and more recently I switched the topic and started writing a book I’ve titled Life Kerning (Wiley) and it’s about kerning the little things in your life to try to bring things into balance. And I’m excited that that book is actually coming out in the Fall.

stated: When do you have time for all of this?

JUSTIN AHRENS: Well, we now have three authors here, other than myself. One’s my senior designer, one is the second tenured designer and the third is our new business partner. We put up a post a week just to see what traffic is like and work out some of the concepts we are considering internally and with our clients. So that’s been fun.

Regarding Spec This, I realized that I have a lot of print knowledge and that I sit down with my interns every year and give them the paper and printing seminar. I thought we could create a tool internally to help people spec paper. Then I was talking to one of our coding partners and thought we should just put this online and give it away for free to help people spec paper. It’s in the first phase of development. We just wanted to create something that people could use to spec jobs.

I read Jason Freid’s book, Rework, and he talks about creating things just for the sake of creating. And that’s what that was. Hey, maybe someone will want to buy it or sponsor it, but if they don’t, it will help younger designers spec print, and how can that be a bad thing?

Justin Ahrens on Stated Magazine

stated: Part of the reason we have contacted you is our interest in design, but also your agency Rule29’s passion for caring beyond the bottom line. And stated is not just about design, design agencies, art, music, or creative pursuits. stated is about people with passion. And those people, we feel, are the people who are the most “successful” because they tend to build a culture that others believe in and are loyal to. And we see that at Rule29.

If you are introducing Rule29 to prospective clients for the first time, what do you say?

JUSTIN AHRENS: Rule29 is all about making creative matter. We are firm that believes design is a powerful business tool—that with great strategy and great aesthetic we can really do amazing things for your company. But part of that is also a culture. We believe very strongly that we are not the right fit for everybody. We look for companies that support and thrive in the same sort of culture values that we support. 

stated: What are some of the culture values that you share with a prospect? Or would you try to solicit what theirs are in that early conversation?

JUSTIN AHRENS: We try to deal with people who are interested in creating a great experience for their end user. Everyone IS selling something to a certain extent, and we don’t work exclusively for non-profits or humanitarian organizations where the culture fit is much more obvious in some ways. For example, we love about out client Allstate is that they very much want to create a great product for their clients, and they are concerned about how they impact the world around them. That is something that is very endearing to us— it gets us inspired to work for them. And it’s great for a big organization like that—whether it started as a marketing or PR thing or not—there are a lot of people who work for companies like Allstate who are very passionate about issues like drunk driving or domestic violence. But we also seek a corporate culture passionate about strategic design as a powerful addition to their business. And when those two things come together there are certain conversations you don’t have to have. We are immediately talking about the future, their dreams, their story and how can we help make that even more powerful.

stated: You organize your projects around a process. Image, Identify, Information. Can you share a little bit about the logic behind that process?

JUSTIN AHRENS:  Our process enables one step to build off another so that, together, we can really rock whatever project we are working on. We have some clients that aren’t very experienced at all with using creative firms, so we use our process to illustrate what we are going to do. The end goal being to create a solution that really is going to blow people away.

So we split it up into those three bit-sized pieces just so we can focus on those conversations. And it also brings value to what we do. Instead of me saying, “Hey, I’ll see you in two weeks with some logo designs,” we are engaging them into the process because no one is going to know our client’s business better than them. Over time you may get to know some aspects better than them, but initially, unless you are in a vertical market and you really specialize, you want to tap into their knowledge as much as possible, and have them engaged. We are interested in making relationships. I don’t want to have 500 clients. I want to have a few very solid clients with whom there is mutual respect. And that, of course, comes with time.

stated: So with this process, if you deliver logo designs that are supported by your process, you can defend why you made certain choices, but you also have the foundation for other projects moving forward. It’s obvious that you understand their business, because you’ve documented that understanding.

JUSTIN AHRENS: Exactly, you hit it on the head. So when we walk our clients through the process they appreciate the fact that we are thinking through the strategy for them and we are becoming much more than just a vendor, you know? We’ve become a business partner. I know you’ve probably heard this stuff before, but it’s legitimate.

stated: Absolutely. Having run a design agency as well, a strong process is about defending your work and building a relationship. But you do come across cynical clients who say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…let’s get past this discovery phase already. I like blue and I want the logo big and with a hat on it. I assume that would be an example of a cultural fit that’s not good.


stated: Earlier I asked you a question about culture, and that’s a difficult question to answer. It’s really all of these things we’ve discussed. The reason we are talking right now is because of your involvement with Life in Abundance.  And I think that’s amazing. You guys are obviously accomplished and talented designers, and you’ve built a good team and do good work. And I think that’s proof enough that the culture of an organization is what makes relationships last. Not just quality work. And it’s another reason to do philanthropic things. Things that make you feel good. The right thing. And that does come back around.

JUSTIN AHRENS: It’s funny you should say that. Because I have a couple of advisors and I require that we meet face-to-face once a year, and then I give them updates quarterly. Or go to them when I have a big decision to make, whether it’s a hiring decision or a client decision, whatever it is…any big business thing. And that’s the one thing that they have to keep me in check with. The things that we are most passionate about are ideally the things we should be doing the majority of the time, right? And I’m not saying we are going in that direction, but we are doing more and more work for organizations that are trying to change the world. And I hope we keep going that way, but we’re also really good at the corporate brand work that we do, and we love that too. So, I don’t know the future, but I really just want to keep evolving.

It’s a great day to be a designer when you talk to someone and they tell you that the work that we’ve done has helped them support a program that is saving kids’ lives. That’s pretty awesome. I used to joke around with the designers when a client did not like their design and I’d say, “It’s not like we’re saving lives.” And now, we have that opportunity. It’s a cool thing to be able to say.

stated: You are speaking about the evolution of your company, and you can literally NOT put that down on paper. It’s natural. It just happens. It follows the hearts of the people you’ve hired and yours. And it’s leading in fascinating directions. We look forward to following your work.

JUSTIN AHRENS: Well, thank you. Amen to all of that.



Visit Justin at: 

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