Design Talks with Justin Ahrens: Make Creative Matter


By Caroline Reder


Apr 26, 2016


Watch the Full Interview Now or Read On: 

If you’re at an agency that doesn’t allow you to be authentic, you will never become the type of creative you set out to be. Moreover, even if you have achieved your dream job, there is that constantly looming threat of falling into the daily grind until all of the innovation runs dry.


As designers, our biggest battle is staying engaged. We should strive to cultivate a work life that not only nurtures our passions and creativity, but also connects to the reason we were driven to this business in the first place.


Justin Ahrens, Principal & Creative Director of Rule29 Creative, exemplifies how to stay engaged and authentic in a world that often prioritizes beauty over function and business over philanthropy. Through his strategic creative firm based in Illinois, Justin is making a global impact through design and changing the paradigm of what it means to be a creative in our field.


One of the more animated and engaging speakers in the design industry, Justin gives us an intimate view into his design philosophy and why the intersection of culture and creativity is so important.


Culture Affects Your “Creative”


Web Design Culture


Q. Tell us about your creative journey.


“I started my career in a completely different context. I worked for an in-house organization, and I loved it, but there was something missing. I loved the opportunity to go after clients and to try to find the kind of work that you ultimately wanted to do. So, that’s when I started Rule29 and our whole mantra is to make “creative” matter, so we wanna not only make our work matter to our clients, but ideally do work that also matters to us…and if possible somehow affect the world in a positive way.”


After a few years freelancing and at the beginning of the dot com era, there was a huge market potential but jumping from designer to owner isn’t as easy as one might think.


“One of the things that I realized pretty quickly when I started my

organization was that I was not trained in how to run a business.”


Justin emphasized that most designers fresh out of school know one thing: design. The practical side of business wasn’t intuitive for Justin so he set out to learn how to bridge these two disparate skillsets. The union? Culture.


“And so I really wanted to study culture and how culture affects your “creative” because what I’ve found in different jobs that I’ve had in the past, was that I really excelled in some and didn’t in others. I thought it was because there was something wrong with me. I’m sure there were things I needed to learn and to navigate but really, it came down to the fact that I really excelled in a culture that was most in line with who I was as a person.”


Understanding what type of culture you thrive in and finding agencies or design studios whose values align with these ideals is one of the most important things for leading a happy work life. On the flip side, if you are the one at an agency hiring designers, make sure that you fully understand your own values; when you create a team that is in alignment with what you stand for, you’ll be able to do incredible things together.


We Don’t Just Download A WordPress Template, There’s A Process


Web Design Agency Creative Proccess


Q. How do you communicate your creative process?


“One of the things that we really pride ourselves on at Rule29 is, no matter what sort of technology or design project or whatever you’re using, one of the largest parts of our jobs is to educate our clients on what we do. So they don’t think we just download a WordPress template and put a website together. There’s a process there. We take things into consideration. We do research. We look at their competition. We try to figure out how can you create a brand that’s unique to them.”


Educating clients is an ongoing commitment and collaborative pursuit at Rule29; it never ends, no matter how long the clients have been around. Why does Justin take such a hands-on approach? It all goes back to choosing companies that have an appreciation of design’s role as a competitive advantage.


“We take them through that step by step by asking great questions, by doing research, by providing them with a variety of examples with sound reasoning—and how those things are going to help their clients have a great experience, whether that’s a logo or a website or packaging or whatever. And we’ve had clients for 10, 15 years, and we’re still taking them through certain steps and educating them on what it is that we do.”


A large part of this creative process, and one of the main reasons working relationships spanning decades are able to form, centers around the culture of an organization. 


I think that when we are looking for a job or a place that we want to emulate, we often look at the work that they do. Output is of course important. The pieces that we see in different award magazines, or that we see on stage is really what inspires us and gets us excited about what we do. But often, those things are created in a culture where that culture and the creative are in line.”


Organizations that lack transparency about the type of work they want to do and the culture they represent, will not only have a hard time motivating employees, but also cultivating meaningful, long-term relationships with clients.


One Of Those Good, Old-Fashioned Experiences


Web Design Vintage Inspiration


Q. Where do you find inspiration?


“I find inspiration for what I do in a lot of different places. I love the power of stories, so I see any and every movie that I possibly can. It’s still one of those good, old-fashioned experiences where you can sort of get transported somewhere else or pretend you’re in this world that doesn’t exist, I really love that, but I’m really inspired by work that is helping to impact the world in some way, shape or form.


Justin’s philanthropic spirit is well-know in the design world and beyond. Rule29’s is involved in numerous social causes, including substantial support for grassroot initiatives in Africa. It’s no surprise that he enjoys hearing about others chipping in...


“I love reading about designers who are making a difference in their local communities, their national communities, their global communities, and how they use their everyday super powers to really make a difference. Those kind of projects really get me excited.” 


The Target Pill Bottle Design Saves People’s Lives.


Web Design Philanthropy


Q. Do you think design is crucial for the survival of humanity?


“I can say without question that the answer is ‘yes.’ And if you’re out there watching us and don’t think that’s possible—then come see one of my talks, number one, or check out the stuff that we write about, but think about what we can do as creatives. We have the power to shift people’s perspective.”


Shifting perspective can also happen on the individual scale. Want an example? How about a common design that’s saved countless lives:


“Let’s talk about the design of the Target pill bottle. That literally saves people’s lives. If you take the right medicine—because it’s very easy to read and you don’t take something else that you’re allergic to or whatever else—life saved!”


As the Web Gets Smaller, Design Will Lead the Way



Web Design as a Creative Medium


Q. Do you see the web as a creative medium? 


“I think the more and more technology gets more available and simpler and into billions of hands, the concept of web and design doing a beautiful dance together is more and more important than ever.”


We live in an era where a designer is no longer creating in a static, or even for one dimensional experience. There is a depth of technologies and mediums over which designers reach may be felt and it’s no longer strictly limited to to web.


“I think today, design has just as much an ability to make an impact in the web arena as it does in any other arena. If I could tell someone what the future of the web was going to be, I’d probably be a billionaire.


Parallel to the proliferation of design on multiple platforms of all sizes, there is the rising question of accessibility.


“I think my desires and experiences are going to become more available to me from a mobile device, from a watch or whatever the new technology and I think that as the web gets smaller, design is going to have to lead the way to make sure that experience is something that is easy to user, wonderful and a great experience, otherwise those products aren't going to sell.”


Being a Famous Designer Is Like Being a Famous Dentist.


Empowering Web Designers


Q. What can empower designers?


A. “Right now is one of the best times to be a designer… than I can remember, at least when I read history before I was around. I think, more than ever, design is recognized more than it ever has.”


Justin’s point is that designers, today more than ever, are not only recognized for their work but in association with high-level projects raising the profile of the design industry at large.


“Look at those creatives who are doing ‘design for good’ projects when there’s disaster relief. I think that people understand that design is there; they love the feel of great design or look of great design and I think that just design is probably more recognized now than ever.”


Still, it is a challenge for prominent designers to be recognized outside of the immediate industry.


“I heard a quote...‘Being a famous designer is like being a famous dentist.’ I think that we’re still kind of in that category. I think there’s some great ones like Aaron Draplin, Stefan Sagmeister, the gang at Pentagram and Jessica Hische—all those guys are great. I don’t know who knows them outside our design world because I’m in it, but I think they’re pretty close to rock stars, so it’s a great time to be a designer.”


Justin Ahrens is the founder of Rule29 Creative, a creative strategic firm whose approach is built on collaboration, commitment and caring, making “creative” matter. Follow Justin on Twitter for daily inspiration and musings on life.


All images in the article may be found and downloaded on Rule29.

Caroline Reder. Full-time Content Manger at Webydo, communications professional and news junkie. Part-time surfer. Follow her on Twitter

Caroline Reder

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