Design Revolutionary: Justin Ahrens Redux

Earlier this week, I posted the first part of my extensive interview with Justin Ahrens, the principal of Rule29, author of “Life Kerning,” and speaker at the HOW Design Conference in June. Our conversation touched on how certain incidents and experiences can revolutionize our lives and careers. In the earlier article, Justin talked about how a rough patch his studio hit nearly 10 years ago continues to inform the way he runs his business.

You’ll want to plan to attend Justin’s session at HOW Design Live in Boston; in the meantime, here’s more of our interview.

We began by exploring Rule29’s impactful work with the non-profit organization Life In Abundance International, which serves Africa’s poorest communities. Justin talked about his own ignorance of the poverty issue both at home and abroad … until the son of one of his business advisors became LIA’s director and recruited Rule29 to help with the group’s branding and communication.

When I think of Rule29, I think of the revolutionary work that you’ve done to shine a spotlight on the incredible poverty and the beauty and the power and the tragedy that exists in Africa. Let’s talk about that work: How did you get involved in that effort, and what are you doing currently?

When we started Rule29, “Making Creative Matter” was always going to have some kind of social impact. We started talking [with LIA], and the director said, “You’re never going to understand our strategy until you go and see what’s going on.” A photographer friend (who’s also an advisor) and I spent 10 days exploring Ethiopia and Kenya, and it really tore me to pieces.

We’re now in our fourth year of working together, and it’s changed every aspect of my life. It changes how we work, how we tell our story, how we go after the clients we want to work with, it changes how I interact with my kids. I want them to know that we’re really lucky and that they can’t ever think they’re any better than anyone else.

We’ve shot two documentaries in Africa—one highlighting street kids in the Ethiopian capital [watch the trailer for This is My HOME] and one [watch the trailer for This is My Normal] exploring the extreme poverty in Nairobi. And we’re going in May to explore South Sudan, the world’s newest country, and we’re going to do pre-production on a film that we’re shooting in 2013. We’re looking at, what does 25 years of genocide, civil war and oppression do to a society, and how can we help change that?

We give 20% of our time. We had to cap it, because I would do this forever. What’s interesting is that this work has attracted other paid work from the American Cancer Society, the Red Cross, UNICEF.

As you’ve visited cities and slums throughout Africa, what has been the most beautiful awe-inspiring thing that you’ve seen? What’s been the most challenging or difficult thing you’ve seen?

Time and time again, the stuff that blows me away is when I’m walking in these challenging, awful environments where people live day in and day out, and they have hope and they’re happy. It’s incredibly inspiring and beautiful.

The hardest thing was one night when we were out filming street kids at 2 a.m in a rough part of town. We saw these boys sleeping on the sidewalk, so we went over to wake them and talk to them, and they were scared because they thought we were going to beat them or rob them. One boy looked at me, and he looked just like my son. They were 9 and 11, living on the street and trying to make money for their family. They had no shoes, it was freezing. We started to take off our sweatshirts and coats, and our guide said, “You can’t give those to them.” We could get them killed or hurt because people would rob them. I had to walk away from these kids and leave them no better than when I saw them.

The majority of the aid we do makes things worse. If you buy a pair of Toms shoes because you want to feel good, that’s a short-term fix for a long-term scenario. We have to do something. But let’s explain and talk beyond just the one moment. The movie we made raised a half-million dollars—out of 20,000 street kids, LIA is helping 1,000. Development work like this is really, really tough, because you have to be OK with incremental change.

Kids living in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya

Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about curiosity. Your presentation in Boston is about keeping the wonder and mystery in your work. How does that sense of wonder show up in your life? What do you wonder about?

For the last couple of years I’ve been talking [at design events] about really practical things. But one of the things I’ve been exploring is: Where do ideas come from? Designers see the world differently … why? How do you develop and nourish that extraterrestrial power that we have? People will ask, “How did you come up with that?” We hear that all the time, and we kind of blow it off. But it’s like, “I don’t know, it just popped into my head.”

I want to encourage people that the work we do is wonder-full, and that we have this crazy-cool ability to discover narratives and put them together.

I’m going to use pop culture and music and stories to hopefully show people that this is really special and that we can nourish it. When you go to a conference like HOW, what gets us so excited about typography or a beautiful image? I want to celebrate that.

We don’t realize that it appears in the smallest parts of life and it’s present in the big, obvious moments. It’s in relishing those smaller moments where life becomes more colorful.

Colorful, indeed. Be sure to catch Justin and the rest of the design revolutionaries we’ve mustered for HOW Design Live in Boston beginning on June 21. Register before the end of this month to score the Early Bird discount! Now, catch an exclusive interview with Justin Ahrens.