Justin Ahrens and a few friends with Wheels4Water use their design skills—and a whole lot more—to help clients working for social change.
On a cool spring day in 2014, graphic designer Justin Ahrens and photographer Brian MacDonald found themselves clad in Spandex, knee-deep in a muddy pond outside of Sturbridge, MA, diving through the muck in a panic as a SteriPEN ever-so-slowly drifted out of sight. It was an unusual way for a designer and photographer to spend their day. But Ahrens and MacDonald are a little different.
The two were riding their bikes 1,200 miles from Boston to Chicago to raise funds for Lifewater International, which provides safe drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people throughout Africa. They dubbed the effort Wheels4Water.
As a show of solidarity with those they sought to help, they had decided to filter all of their own drinking water along the route. That’s how they landed in muddy water on the outskirts of Sturbridge on the second day of their journey. MacDonald dove in to rescue the SteriPEN—a hand-held, UV-powered water purifier—and appeared close to hypothermia when his colleagues fished him out of the soup empty-handed.
Fortunately, ride sponsor CVM, Inc., was able to purchase a new SteriPEN and get it to the team the next day.
“Looking back now, it’s funny,” Ahrens recalls. “Back then we weren’t laughing. But no matter how hard it was for us to filter water on that trip, it was a lot easier than it was for the people we were trying to serve.” By the end of their first ride, Ahrens and MacDonald had raised more than $100,000 for Lifewater—enough to provide a lifetime of clean water to 2,500 Ugandans.
GETTING READY TO RIDE
Ahrens is founder and leader of Rule29, a design firm located just outside of Chicago, and MacDonald has spent more than a decade collaborating with Ahrens on ad campaigns and creative projects for big companies and nonprofits alike at the helm of Wonderkind Studios. Converse engineer Ryan Connary and Tony Narducci of O’Neil Printing supported logistics for the Wheels4Water expeditions.
In 2013, Ahrens and MacDonald were visiting Uganda to see Lifewater’s work firsthand, in advance of a rebrand for the organization, when they saw how bikes can literally change people’s lives there by improving access to safe water, facilitating small businesses like taxi services and simply enabling people to haul items from place to place. There they learned that for $40, Lifewater can provide one person with safe water, sanitation and hygiene education for life. Shortly after, they decided to raise money for the cause, cycling across the U.S. to raise awareness and rally communities to support them via donations at $40 per mile—and taking their relationship with the client much deeper than they’d ever expected.
Last year, the pair did a second ride 450 miles through Northern California to Lifewater’s headquarters in San Luis Obsipo, raising another $60,000. This year, in response to requests from graphic designers and social media connections, they’re opening up rides to anyone who’s willing and able to pedal 50 or 100 miles in Chicago July 9, or 80 miles in Phoenix Oct. 8; you can also pledge any amount you’d like and ride in your own city. (Learn how at www.wheels4water.org.)
In spite of all the miles spent pedaling for Lifewater, Ahrens and Rule29 do most of their social change work sitting behind a desk. It’s a subject Ahrens discussed in May 2016 at HOW Design Live in Atlanta, where he encouraged more designers to do the same.
“Working on social change has always been part of the DNA of the design world,” Ahrens says. “An agency might support a charity dinner or a one-off campaign, possibly for free. At Rule29, we wanted to see if we could do more. We wanted to use our day-to-day to make an impact outside of selling golf clubs or insurance or whatever our other clients were selling.”
Ahrens is quick to point out how much he loves his for-profit clients, but he’s drawn to the ways that mission-driven organizations can use story to persuade people to take action. “Design is the perfect vehicle for telling stories in their simplest form,” he says, “and with nonprofits, the impact is almost immediate.”
MacDonald adds, “I think everybody should have some sort of commitment to social change, no matter what their job title is. Not everybody can visit Africa or take two weeks off work and ride their bikes halfway across the country, but if you’re in a creative field and you have messaging skills, there’s always someone who needs design help.”
MacDonald jokes that he spends most of his time “shooting for a trash can,” because so much of his print work lands there, creating a relatively minor impact. However, the still photography and video production work he’s done for World Relief, a humanitarian organization that offers assistance to victims of poverty, tells the stories of refugees, which linger in viewer’s minds. “If you’re trying to help a company sell fried chicken, it’s not very easy to make that story engaging,” he says, “but with most nonprofits, it’s possible to craft a really compelling narrative, and I get a lot of satisfaction from that process.”
Becoming a Do-Gooder
If you’ve never worked closely with a nonprofit, it might seem intimidating. Ahrens and MacDonald have a few suggestions for creatives looking to give back.
In 1995, Ahrens started collaborating with Alice Cooper’s Solid Rock Teen Center, which was working to provide an outlet for kids living in low-income neighborhoods in Phoenix. The agency’s work helped Cooper raise funds to construct a teen center, showing how quickly creatives could prompt tangible change.
“Life in Abundance was the first client that led us to visit Africa, and it shifted my whole life,” Ahrens says. Life in Abundance is a religious group that helps provide economic and educational resources to marginalized communities. “Until I was there, I never really understood this concept of extreme poverty, and that’s because I was born in America. Once I was able to travel to Africa and see the impact of our work, I realized that hundreds of kids were going to be in better shape because of the work we’d done.” Rule29 rebranded Life in Abundance, a step that took the group from a few hundred thousand dollars in donations to more than $3 million annually.
“Working like this shifts your whole team in a really wonderful way,” Ahrens says. “I used to make fun of some of my team, and say, ‘Why are you so upset that the client doesn’t like PMS 186? It’s not like we’re saving lives here.’ And then I found myself sitting in a meeting in the middle of Ethiopia where our client told us a program had just been funded, in part, due to our creative work, and I realized, ‘Wow, we really are saving lives.’
“People often ask me ‘How do you do this work?’ which always surprises me. Yes, there are nuances in understanding how to activate a donor versus getting someone to buy a particular product, but whether I’m designing for Nike or UNICEF, it’s just design—it’s just great storytelling. If we’re helping someone give food to someone who needs it versus helping a shareholder make more money on their investment, the end result is different, but we have to stop looking at design for good as so alien to everything else we do. And the idea that there’s no money in nonprofit work is a farce—there are a lot of good organizations out there with healthy budgets and a story that needs to be told, and they’re doing things to make the world a better place.”