Justin Ahrens on Bringing Your Team to HOW Design Live

When HOW Design Live happened in Chicago in 2015, one nearby design studio made it possible for its entire team could attend. For Justin Ahrens, principal of Rule 29 in Geneva, IL, it was a big deal to bring his staff—and it had big benefits that lasted long after the conference ended.

Ahrens is a frequent HOW Design Live speaker who will be returning to the program in 2017 (stay tuned for exciting program announcements). We asked him why he invested in sending his team to HOW Design Live and why it mattered to them.

So, Justin, you brought your staff of, like 10 or 12 people, when HOW Design Live landed in Chicago in 2015. Why was it important to you that they had that experience?

For us, one of the benefits of HOW Design Live moving around geographically is for small agencies like mine to have the event in our hometown. There’s no shortage of opportunity in Chicago to see great design and hear speakers pretty much year ‘round. But HOW is a whole different experience, where you have designers come from all over the country coming together in a community, which is awesome.

It’s such an important yearly part of my own appetite for connecting with my community and being inspired. I wanted my team to have the same opportunity. They’ve heard me rave about it and they follow it online but they’ve never had the opportunity to attend.

You’ve spoken at HOW Design Live many times; what was it like to have your staff in the room when you presented?

When I develop our presentations for HOW, I’m not the only person developing them: I work on the content, vet it with my team, and then we develop all the visuals and the assets together. When they all attended in 2015, that was the first time everyone got to see it from conception to presentation. It was the most nerve-wracking presentation I’ve ever given because they were all there!

What was it like as a manager to bring your Rule 29 crew to the event? What were the benefits from a professional development or team-building perspective?

I’ve created my own community at HOW Design Live, and I see that group of friends every year. What’s was really wonderful was walking through the event and seeing my team creating their own connections, which will be great for their careers. It was really rewarding for me to see them have those conversations and engage with their tribe-mates.

One of the neatest things that came out of it—which I’d hoped would happen but it was even better than I thought—was having that group experience, the sharing and camaraderie. As a manager, when you witness that among your team, it’s pretty special. It was a fantastic group experience—we were able to come back and talk about great presentations we’d heard, or new technology or new tools we’d seen. We were all still talking about HOW months afterward.

Justin Ahrens and Wheels4Water

Pretty soon we’ll start talking about how to do it in 2017. We don’t have the capacity to shut the firm down for the whole week, so people will negotiate with each other over which days they want to attend and figure out who will see which speakers.

I see and feel that my team gets incredible value from going to the event, no matter what stage of career they’re in: interns, senior creatives, brand strategist, they all got something out of it.

Ahrens will return to the HOW Design Live stage, with his staff in the audience to cheer him on, when the conference returns to Chicago, May 2–6, 2017. Follow HOW on Twitter and Facebook to be the first to know when the 2017 program is announced.