Justin Ahrens on Building a Great Workplace Culture

For the past several years, design firm principal Justin Ahrens has brought his particular brand of inspiration to HOW Design Live. Like many presenters, he’s shared his work and his experience—but he’s also done a remarkable job gathering insights and knowledge from other practitioners and weaving additional words of wisdom into his sessions.

Ahrens hadn’t planned to throw his name in the hat as a speaker for 2015—but then he discovered a topic that he wanted to explore. Ahrens says that speaking at conferences forces him to clarify his own thinking about certain issues, as he formulates a presentation designed to teach others. In 2014, studio culture emerged as an important topic for Ahrens and his Geneva, IL-based studio, Rule 29. Given the firm’s work on social justice issues like bringing fresh water to poor communities in Africa (for which Ahrens did a 1,000-mile fundraising bike ride in 2014), finding staffers with the right cultural fit is key.

He explains: “Years ago, when I started to grow, I hired a bunch of people who were all the same age. And then in 2014, several of them left at the same time. Some of them wanted to see what else was out there after working with me for awhile, and some of them wanted to start families. It wasn’t a bad thing, but it was challenging. So I wanted to sit down and figure out how to relate to all these new people. And the issue of culture became a real focus for me.”

Ahrens will speak about culture in his HOW Design Live session, “Why Can Culture Be More Important than Your Creative?” We recently asked him to elaborate on the idea.

First, tell us what you’re up to as 2015 kicks off. What’s on your project list these days?

We’re really excited to be working on a spectrum of things: We’re working with a spirit company that makes whiskey and gin, and we’re also working on some really fun social media and video for a new office client. And of course, we’re doing some work for Lifewater International, so we’re going to do another Wheels4Water cycling event with them in California to bring sanitation and water to school kids in the Congo. (Ahrens organized Wheels4Water in 2014 to raise money for fresh water and sanitation initiatives in Africa.) I hope to go to Uganda in the spring to visit the project we funded last year with our Wheels4Water ride.

We’re also doing a couple of design venture capital projects where we invest in the project and are part owners. we’re launching one called Inkdot.com in a couple of weeks—it’s the evolution of a project that we had called InstaThis, where you could take your Instagram or Facebook images and print them on pillows, totes, iPhone cases, whatever.

Your session at HOW Design Live hits on a topic that’s kind of hard to define: agency culture. These days, design firms aren’t pitching to prospective clients so much on their talents—that’s a given—but on how well they fit culturally. How would you describe the culture of Rule 29?

That’s a really interesting question. There are two parts of culture: one that you can define, and another that’s perceived, felt and expressed outwardly. And you hope those are in alignment, right?

Our culture is one where we’re a mission-driven agency that creates work that matters. And in the process of doing that, we’re a close-knit, family oriented, serious but fun-loving group of creative. We do everything from working together to serving together—both using our creative powers and in other ways. We’re involved in our local community and in the design community. We create the space in our day to explore things like wonder and service and how we see the world.

Hop into the Wayback Machine with me and think back to your first HOW Design Conference experience as an attendee. What was that like for you?

It was in New Orleans in 2003. The reason why it was a big deal is that I always wanted to go to the HOW conference, and we won a competition sponsored by Neenah [the winner received a trip to the HOW Design Conference], and I got to go for free. and that’s where I met Tom Wright from Neenah and started that friendship. I was blown away and super intimidated. I remember seeing a really inspirational speaker, and then someone else I didn’t agree with but was really interesting.

I didn’t know anyone when I first got there, and I remember the big party on the opening night, and everyone was mingling around. HOW is the only conference I’ve been to where you’re not a fly on the wall for long. You start conversations right away. It was great to talk about nerdy designer stuff. And it was both inspiring and intimidating because there was all that great work on display there. It inspired me to try to do the kind of work that I saw from the speakers.

Since that NO trip, I have missed only one or two. it’s part of my yearly routine. i can’t imagine not going.

Looking forward to Chicago, what are you most excited about? What’s YOUR HOW Design Live?

I can’t wait to meet Simon Sinek—we show his TED talk in meetings all the time. I want to hug Aaron Draplin. And of course, I can’t wait to see Von, Stefan and Sam [that would be Glitschka, Mumaw and Harrison].

Join Justin Ahrens in Chicago—and create YOUR own version of HOW Design Live. Browse the conference agenda, design your program and register before February 3 for the year’s best savings.

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