Our Q&A with Justin Ahrens

I hosted a lively Q&A today with Justin Ahrens, the principal of Geneva, IL-based Rule29 design, founder of the Design Sobriety blog and upcoming HOW Conference speaker. Justin is presenting the session, Life Kerning: Where Life & Creativity Meet in Denver. Here’s the text of our conversation.
First, tell us a bit about you: work you do, where you’re located, # of staff …
I’m the principal and creative director of Rule29 a strategic creative firm outside of Chicago in Geneva, IL. We are a team of 8ish making creative matter™ for a variety of companies small and large who love to collaborate. We don’t specialize but tend to do a lot of branding, book and unique promotional projects. We enjoy great music, walks on the beach, tasty cookies, cold beer, tom foolery, & changing the world – not in that order

I gotta ask: What’s the significance of the name? Are there Rules 1–28?
I wanted a name that would get people to ask what it meant – then I would get into our story. I have made rules 1-28 just because

Love the title of your session in Denver: Life Kerning. What inspired that?
Starting Rule29 I looked for info on how to balance life, work, family, etc. because it was tough for me – I worked a ton. The best thing I found was meeting fellow designers at conferences, AIGA, etc. and learning from them. And over time I have tried different things, kept notes, shared ideas, & continually strive to find better ways of doing things. I have found that often we need to simply make small adjustments in a couple areas for things to fall in place better. This reminded of me of the art of kerning—paying attention and refining the small things, to make the whole that much better.

You’ve got a big family with young kids; your wife works with you. How do you keep it all together?
Hahaha, it’s a lot of work. But great communication, vodka, iCal and 15 years of working things out with my wife has helped. I also strive to integrate my career and life in a way that supports and develops both. My kids come with me to the office, we do projects together, I have them do photo shoots with me at times too.

Design isn’t a career; it’s more of a lifestyle. Creative ppl have a hard time getting out of work mode. Do you?
I do … Because we pour so much of our energy, emotion, and brains into what we do. It’s hard to not let it overwhelm your thoughts . After the Boston HOWConference Rule29 started a blog to help talk biz & life. Check it out at designersobriety.com.

It’s something that David Baker talks a lot about … designers need 2 find creative outlets OUTSIDE of their work.
I agree we need to get away from work, but I think those activities, whatever they are can make you a better creative.

So, the trick is letting your outside interests cross-pollinate your design work. What do you do 4 inspiration?
It has changed over the years. The things my kids say tend to make me think —they see the world so simply. Great lessons there. Movies are a huge inspiration—I love great stories. Music always has to be on. My fellow designers of course and reading.

What are you reading right now?
Just finished Linchpin by Seth Godin and Don Miller’s latest book – A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I’m also reading with my daughter Percy Jackson and the Olympians series…I think I enjoy it more than she does.

Tell us about your project for Life In Abundance … it’s so cool what your firm has been doing to spotlight the plight of poor kids in Africa.
One of our missions at Rule29 is to be involved in our community. Both locally and globally when possible. Through a crazy chain of events I felt like Africa was somewhere we should go, and before I knew it I was visiting the slums. When I met LIA I fell in love with their model. They work to change communities with a sustainable holistic approach. They work in 7 of the poorest countries in the world and are helping with Aids, water, education, microfinance, vulnerable kids. We have picked them as one of our pro bono projects where we give several years of strategy, design and help to. Last year we made our first film which has raised close to 300k to help the street children in Ethiopia for the next several years. We are going back in April, to try to do the same in Kenya. The film will be about microfinance in the largest slum in Africa. We have an author going with who is trying to raise the money we need to get there, another example of fun collaboration. All in all it has changed the way we look at the world and has shown us design can be a powerful game changer.

So your involvement isn’t just a one-off project but more a longer-term an engagement?
Yeah, once we saw we could make such an impact we were committed. Of course you could do the same in the States.

What’s the single most important thing a designer can do 2 achieve that balance, that perfectly kerned life?
One secret has less to do with mnging ur time effectively & evrything to do w maintaining a laser-like focus on 1 thing at a time.