There are No Rules: How Rule 29 has been Making Creative Matter for 20 Years
A Conversation with Justin Ahrens
Justin Ahrens founded and has been the leader of design agency Rule29 for nearly 20 years. At the heart of the success of Justin and his team is their belief in Making Creative Matter. Justin delivers on this message through client and by advising nonprofits Lifewater, Life In Abundance and EPIC (Engaging Philanthropy, Inspiring Creatives).
In 2017, Fast Company recognized the impact of his project Wheels4Water by inviting Justin to the White House for President Obama’s inaugural SXSL. The same year GD:USA named him as one of the “Responsible Designers To Watch.”
[ The sixth annual Wheels4Water ride benefiting villages in Africa is September 9-12 and donations are being accepted now. Donate. ]
He is a National Board Member of AIGA, and speaks or leads workshops at conferences including AIGA Design Conference, Design Thinkers, Adobe Max, Creative Mornings, HOW Live, Brand New, HOW Interactive, TEDx, and many others.
He is the author of books including Life Kerning(Wiley), and has several Lynda.com courses available on Lynda.com about running your business and creative career.
We asked Justin about the evolution of Rule29, what has made it not only sustainable but successful and — perhaps most importantly — impactful.
(s)peakeasy: Hello Justin. I’ve read your book Life Kerning so — spoiler alert — I know that Rule 29 is, “There are no rules.”
Can you give us some color around your rules, how they came about, if they are evolving, and what it takes to make an amendment?
[ Justin ] One of the concepts behind the name was for people to ask us what Rule29 meant, something a little extra to keep us in people's minds and to give us a chance to tell a story others don’t get a chance to. So for the first five years I would document what people guessed what Rule29 was and/or what they thought the other rules were.
At our five year anniversary I put a collection together and called it Rules 1-28….it was one of our best promotions ever. I think what it highlighted to me — even while writing Life Kerning — was that people are hungry for guidance, help, inspiration, direction…
When we updated our site a little over a year ago we decided to update the Rules based on our updated culture and business. We are approaching our 20th anniversary in 2020 - I see some updates coming :)
If you were to make a Rule 30, what would it be?
If there was a Rule 30, it would either be reread Rule29 or Honesty Saves Everyone Time.
Rule 29’s slogan is, “A creative agency who believes in Making Creative Matter.” How does this principal manifest itself in the client selection and creative choices you make as an agency?
This is really our mantra and the lens we use on the structure of our culture, how we approach our work, serve our clients and decide on what to do and not do. This takes form in how we design our processes, on the people we decide to call back and to research who we want to work with.
We like to parachute into people’s Instagram and ask for the story behind an image.
Here you are with the legendary Chip Kidd at How Design Live in 2019. What brought you and Chip together and how was the event?
I’ve had the privilege to speak at many large events over the years and to be deeply involved with AIGA, and when you have the chance to do that you get to run into some wonderfully amazing people like Chip. Chip has always been very gracious and had time to talk to me. When he was coming by our Wheels4Water activation he came on over and learned about it and helped share it. I’m a big fan of the person...and his work is pretty good too.
At How Design Live you led a workshop called Path to Impact. Can you elaborate on this workshop a bit? Is this an element of the Design for Good movement of AIGA?
This was a workshop that was created out of the group of leaders from Design for Good task force.
We co-created this approach and the formation of this methodology and approach.We have created a group from this that will be continuing to lead workshops - called Impactologie.
The Path to Impact™ is a workbook/workshops and other tools conceived to guide organizations, communities, and individuals through the process of designing measurable and sustainable impact projects.
The group consists of brilliant do-gooders:
Gage Mitchell, Seattle, WA
Modern Species, principal & creative director
AIGA, Presidents Council Chair
AIGA Seattle, president emeritus
Lennie Gray Mowris, Atlanta, GA
lenspeace, magically disgruntled manifestor
AIGA Atlanta, Design for Good director
Laurel Webster, Hedgesville, WV
AIGA Blue Ridge, president emeritus
Laetitia Wolff, New York, NY
AIGA, strategic initiatives director
You also held a presentation titled, Self-Promotion for Business (And your Soul), during which you outlined an approach to company culture-aligned self promotions.
Can you share examples of such promotions, whether they be ones you have done for Rule29, for clients, or seen executed by other businesses?
One of the things I love about HOW, is that the team and I will come up with ideas and experiment with them, test them out, or do other projects to highlight our points and share our results and best practices at the conference. This presentation highlighted a variety of self promotional ideas that we have been working on and created for this conference. They included some of the following:
How to Give: Wheels4Water
How to Tell Stories: Design of Podcast
How to Share Kindness: Love Each Other
How to Just Make: Simply Bourbon
You are transparent about how you approach your client work, which you break down into phases labelled Ask, Think, and Create.
Rule 29 started nearly 20 years ago. Does a less mature agency with a smaller or no team need to make quick work of the “Ask” and “Think” phases and get on with the “Create?”
When I started in 2000 I had started a few different firms/agencies and had worked at a small and midsize agency with internal teams. I knew I had to start with a bedrock, true, and authentic name and vision.
So it’s always been about making things that matter to our clients, to ourselves and working in a way that we believe others should be treated. In other words, live and work in the way we believe.
We believe great design is based on sound strategy, process, understanding, empathy and solutions that honor and support that. So we have always approached work like this...any firm should work the way they believe. If you want to stay around you need to evolve, of course but you also need to be you, be authentic and be true … may sound corny but I believe it with all of me. We even have rules for when times are tough to make sure we don’t compromise. But don’t get me wrong, you have to do what you have to do at times and money is needed to keep the lights on.
Fast-forward to today. What about the client who says, “We’ve done the asking and thinking and will share that with you. Let’s get on with the creating.”?
That works for us, we just ask for access to it and the chance to dig in more if needed. Actually, it’s super fun that way too.
Your sixth annual Wheel’s For Water ride raising money to provide water to villages in Africa is September 9-12, 2019. Can you share some details about the history of Wheel’s for Water and what the process has been like growing the effort?
We have always been doing design for good work, that’s another dimension to what Making Creative Matter means. It did get more accelerated after my first trip to Africa in 2006. That lead us to making a couple documentaries in the slums of Ethiopia and Kenya, helping start a shoe concept in Africa and several other projects.
We worked with Kent State and created work that we tested in Sudan and then in 2013 we wanted to take it a step bigger and we wanted to actually BE the people to fund a huge project.
We began working with Lifewater and believed in their approach, work and results so adopted a village of a 1,000 Ugandans and needed to figure out how to raise the $40,000 needed to help them. So Wheels was the idea - it takes $40 per person to give a Ugandan water for life so the team, my good friend from Wonderking Studios and myself thought we could create an event, share the story and spread the word through what we were best at...telling stories.
At the end of the event we did not raise 40k to help 1,000, we raised over 100k and helped 2,500! Since then we have expanded the event and have to date raised over $800,000 and helped over 20,000 Africans get safe water, hygiene and sanitation training. At the start of 2020, we are gifting the event to Lifewater to hopefully impact thousands more.
The success of Wheels for Water brings to mind your Rule 22 -- “Believe in something bigger than you.”
Do you seek altruistic ideas on behalf of your clients? In other words, during the “Ask” and “Think” phases of your process have you discovered the passions or cultures of your clients and foregrounded them in the Create phase?
Yes this is something we look for in those stages in the process, but even before we have a chance to meet. We do our homework and try to see what makes them tick to look for a culture match. We also explore for opportunities for our clients to bring this out even more whenever we can.
In your podcast, “Design Of,” you interview inspirational people who largely seem to live by Rule 22. There seems to be a thread of humility, altruism and ambition among your guests. Any particular moments where you were particularly moved or inspired?
They all have had special moments. One of my favorite from a recent show is Kristen Ellison speaking about what it means to be a good shipmate. Or Marty Neumiers story of failure that led him to write Brand Gap or sitting at Pixar and listening to Pete Docter talk about Wonder and how that is a vital element in their storytelling.
If you were to give a business an assignment that they need to move through before, for example, rushing into ad spend or throwing resources at a content strategy, what would that assignment be?
We have a couple: One we go to often is 3 years from now what is the headline and the story that you want people to read about your company.
What education path have you taken?
I went to a small school in central Illinois, was an art major and a football player. I thought I was going to be an art teacher and coach. I blew my knee out the first days of practice and that is when I discovered design by picking up that class. Since then I have taken a variety of courses and certifications. The most recent was Storybrand and graduating Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses. And I just joined a CEO group and have a business coach to work with as well as my advisory team.
What trends have you seen develop in design strategy during your time with R29? Have you seen any design strategy trends flame out?
The biggest “trend” is the on again and off again use of design thinking and its various impacts. I think design thinking is a valuable tool and parts of it are present in all of our work, and it helps you think through strategy, sustainability and measurement.
Are there any online or IRL resources / courses / people who you recommend for those seeking to expand their talents as small owners of a creative agency?
Well I have some LinkedIn learning courses :):
Your favorite instagram and/or Twitter accounts or blogs.
I often explore dribbble and explore hashtags on instagram. But accounts I go to a lot are:
AIGA Eye On Design
The best new work by the world’s most exciting designers—and the issues they care about, from AIGA. (American Institute of Graphic Arts)
The Big Picture
The Big Picture is a photo blog created by the photo editors of Boston Globe.
FastCompany’s business and design Twitter account.
Art, design, photography, and visual culture.
Vlog with videos that aspire to change the world from a with a kid’s perspective.
Sleeping At Last
Musical project led by singer-songwriter Ryan O'Neal.
GoPro’s Twitter account.
Accidentally Wes Anderson
An instagram that curates by submission images taken by anyone and that are inspired by the visual style of filmmaker Wes Anderson.
Humans of New York
Photography site/blog/book/account of photographer Brandon Stanton who primarily takes street portraits and short but often emotional interviews.
NYC artist and illustrator.