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Poster Backstory: Justin Ahrens — ARTCRANK Chicago 2014

Written by in Profiles


Justin Ahrens Puts a New Lid

On The Great Emancipator

Some people do their best thinking on a bicycle. And when Justin Ahrens rides, he thinks big.

The best idea he’s ever had on a bike ride is Wheels4Water, a 1,000+ mile bike trip that helped raise more than $90,000 to provide access to clean water and sanitation resources for people living in Lira, Uganda — a city of more than 100,000 people, many of them refugees from the countries 20-year civil war.

ARTCRANK® and Neenah Paper

ARTCRANK® is a poster show about bicycles. Since 2007, ARTCRANK has staged more than 50 pop-up art shows featuring handmade, bike-inspired posters created by local artists and graphic designers in the U.S., the U.K. and France.

A longtime sponsor of ARTCRANK, Neenah Paper is teaming up with the show to highlight the work of four poster artists in 10 U.S. cities throughout 2014: Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, New York, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington DC.

Each Poster Backstory feature follows the artist’s creative process as they develop their ideas and print them on a Neenah Paper stock, using craft techniques such as silkscreen and letterpress. Behind-the-scenes poster stories will appear on the ARTCRANK site and here on Against The Grain.

As Principal and Creative Director of Rule29, Justin’s built a business around the idea that design can make a positive impact — not just for his clients, but on the world around him. Wheels4Water represents the intersection of his two great passions: Creativity and cycling.


“Cycling is a freeing experience,” Justin says. “It lets you experience the world in a way that’s different. This freedom and new perspective gives you space for creativity and time with your thoughts. I think people are always looking for new ways to have experiences that inspire creativity – something about the freedom that bikes give you do that.”

For the poster he designed for ARTCRANK’s 2014 Chicago show, Justin focused his inspiration a little closer to home. “In Illinois we’re known as the Land of Lincoln, so I wanted to create a poster that captured that essence. I also wanted something to represent the freedom that I experienced on the bike.”


Taking a subject as weighty as The Great Emancipator entailed its own challenges.  “As I started thing about things related to Lincoln, I knew that I wanted to use the silhouette of his profile because that is such an iconic symbol and to tie in the cycling imagery, I thought it would be funny to show him with a helmet instead of the top hat.”


An iconic historical figure like Abe Lincoln demanded a paper with its own unique character. Justin chose Neenah Paper’s ESSE Papers Cover Pearlized Latte. “The textured paper gave it more character than just a flat finish.” he says.


A longtime fan of Neenah Paper stocks, Justin had worked with this stock before, but never on a project like this. Knowing that it performed consistently on press was a big factor in his decision. After considering a number of potential color combinations, he settled on the two you see here — then opted for a double-hit of color in printing to give the poster a richer feel.


Justin’s homage to Illinois’ most famous resident is a product of combining two passions — his love for cycling and for the state he calls home. Similarly, his work in design brings together two side of his personality and thought process: “It’s the way to combine my creative and analytical sides. Design allows me to use both of the things I am most passionate in one career.”