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, Massachusetts, diving through the muck with panicked expressions on their faces as a SteriPEN ever-so-slowly drifted out of sight. It's an unusual way for a designer and photographer to spend their day. But Ahrens and MacDonald are a little different.
The two of them were riding their bikes 1,200 miles from Boston to Chicago to raise funds for LifeWater International, a client that 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 were looking 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 save the day, and appeared close to hypothermia when his colleagues fished him out of the soup, empty-handed. Fortunately, ride sponsor CVM was able to purchase a new SteriPEN and get it to the team the next day.
“Looking back now, it’s funny,” Ahrens recalls, “but back then we were 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 tying to serve.”
By the end of the ride, Ahrens and MacDonald had raised more than $100,000 for LifeWater—enough to provide a lifetime of clean water for 2,500 Ugandans.
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 all of the Wheels4Water expeditions.
In 2014, Ahrens and MacDonald were visiting Uganda to see Lifewater’s work firsthand, in advance of a rebrand, when they saw how bikes transform people’s lives through small businesses like taxi services and simply hauling 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, taking their relationship with the client much deeper than they’d ever expected.
Last year, the pair rode 450 miles through Northern California to LifeWater’s headquarters in San Francisco, raising another $60,000. This year, in response to request 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 October 8; you can also pledge any amount you’d like and ride in your own city. (Learn more at wheels4water.org.)
In spite of all the miles spent pedaling for Lifewater, Ahrens and Rule 29 do most of their social-change work sitting behind a desk. It’s a subject Ahrens will discuss at HOW Live in Atlanta in May, where he’ll encourage more designers to do the same. (See sidebar, page XX.)
“Working on social change has always been part of the DNA of the design world,” says Ahrens. “An agency might support a charity dinner or a one-off campaign, possibly for free. At Rule 29, 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.”
“I think everybody should have some sort of commitment to social change, no matter what their job title is,” says MacDonald. “Not everybody can visit Africa or take two weeks off work and ride their bikes hallway across the country, but if you’re in 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, whereas the still photography and video production work he’s done for World Relief 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.”
In 1995, Ahrens started working with Alice Cooper’s Solid Rock Teen Center, which was working to provide an outlet for kids living in underserved neighborhoods in Phoenix. The agency’s work helped Cooper raise the funds to construct a teen center, illustrating how quickly strategic creative could create a tangible response.
“Life in Abundance was the first client that led us to visit Africa, and it shifted my whole life,” says Ahrens. Until I was there, I never reallyunderstood 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,” says Ahrens. 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,” says Ahrens. “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.”
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.
Start small. “A lot of designers tell me, sheepishly, that they don’t have a strong interest in Africa or global poverty, but that they just want to support their local community, and I tell them, ‘That’s great—we do local work, too. Just start with something you’re passionate about and go from there.’”
Be professional and be human at the same time. “If you’re not emotional about some of these subjects, then you’re really not really reading the brief,” says Ahrens. “Although we’re very process- and strategy-driven, if you try to remove the human element you’re removing some of the beauty of what we can do as creatives. We’re built to understand story, and that’s an important thing to focus on when your client starts relying too much on statistics.”
Focus on value more than money. “As creatives, we don’t generally want to be giving our work away,” says MacDonald. If a nonprofit can provide some kind of budget, I always try to work with it; other times, I’ll decide I’m going pro bono. I’ve been in business 25 years, so I have more flexibility than a younger photographer. But if you’re younger, odds are you’re not busy every day of the week, so you might volunteer your skills to add something to your portfolio and do some networking. It’s a great way to hone your craft, and the satisfaction of helping people out is a form of payment, too.”