Ashleigh Axios is an international speaker, strategic creative, and an advocate for design's ability to break barriers and create positive social change. She leads the creative studio at Automattic, a company with the mission to democratize publishing and commerce. She is also an executive board member for AIGA, the professional association of design, and an editorial board member for Design Observer. Ashleigh served as the creative director and a digital strategist for the Obama White House, from within the first-ever Office of Digital Strategy. She is also the president emeritus of AIGA Washington D.C., where she formed DotGovDesign, an initiative and conference connecting and empowering government designers.
Tell me about your early years and where you come from.
I was born in northern Virginia. At age seven when my parents separated, my mom, older brother, and I moved to New Jersey to live with my maternal grandparents and try to get established on our own. My mom sought work and my brother and I were mostly latchkey kids who kept ourselves occupied; him with music and me with art. “It was the best of times it was the worst of times.”
How did you first get interested in design?
I designed little things without knowing: no-smoking signs, business cards, little books, earrings. I always just considered this art until I had the opportunity as a middle schooler to job shadow for my mom’s cousin and saw the way strategy and psychology could interplay with art. I knew I didn’t want to be in advertising, but there was a new world for me to explore. I outgrew my high school art program and started traveling to another school for ‘visual communications’ my junior year. During this shared time, Mrs. Sobko taught me all of the design basics and encouraged me to apply to top design colleges. By the time I arrived at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for my foundation year, I was already confident I would declare design as my major at the end of the year.
Tell me about the work you've done?
I designed touch-screen interactive experiences at the Driving America permanent exhibit at The Henry Ford Museum and the Museum of Tolerance. I led the responsive redesign of WhiteHouse.gov during the Obama White House — still accessible through ObamaWhiteHouse.gov — and made the rainbow White House iconography celebrating the historic Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage across the US. I enhanced multiple State of the Union addresses with hundreds of supporting visuals and a highly interactive livestream page. I digitized President Obama’s presidential record for the archives. I created punch lines for multiple White House Correspondents Dinner speeches by President Obama. I open-sourced the US Budget on GitHub and for a few years, ensured Americans a digital method to visualize exactly where their taxes went. I art directed photo shoots with First Lady Michelle Obama and branded the White House Maker Faire.
While doing these things, I co-founded DotGovDesign, a group connecting and empowering government designers in the US, and initiated and chaired two conferences. I was on the board of AIGA Washington DC, the DC area’s chapter for the professional association for design, cultivating the regional design scene. And I gave the local design community and some visitors damn good White House and West Wing tours.
Since, I’ve also chaired two large online events, Racial Justice by Design, and Design Exclusion, and event bringing design, tech, and academic leaders together to discuss how our industries exclude people and the ways to improve.
What are your proudest accomplishments of your career?
Serving the American people as part of the Obama administration was the best so far and is a hard thing to beat. We did a lot as an administration, office, and team that I’m proud of. A momentous occasion for me was being able to bring my husband, mom, brother, sister-in-law, and grandmother to the Oval Office for a greeting and photo with President Obama. I had worked at the White House for more than four years, but having them all in the same room, that room, made it real and paid my heritage back just the tiniest bit for their part in raising me up to that level against all odds.
What have been your biggest struggles of your career?
As odd as it may sound, it’s hard for me to just enjoy a win. I’ve worked for a long time and grew up watching a hard-working single mom work to make ends meet. After an intensive education and tackling a high-stress design job in the Executive Office of the President of the United States, I've partially normalized to this active, high-pressure state. I’m calm just about always, but I don’t easily relax or celebrate.
What else? Like anyone, I don’t enjoy being underestimated or harassed — which from my experience, go hand-in-hand. Those who think their words have power to shift reality in their favor have something coming. But the truth is, it sometimes works out for them. The systems, most systems, weren’t built for me.
What are you doing that's special that sets you apart from your peers?
I try to focus on the work that will make the biggest impact. Not necessarily the most money, notoriety, or opportunity to show off the nuance of my tactical design craft, but the work that will positively affect communities and cultures.
What have your experience been as a person of color in the design industry?
I’ll start with a point: I had to see someone like myself in design to envision myself here professionally. This, and the desire to see our field become more diverse, have prompted me to be available to support design students and underrepresented communities. It’s a joy, but it’s still work. The result is that I do the actual work and take on the emotional labor and additional costs of mentoring. In this way, being a person of color in the design industry is especially busy.
What are your biggest motivators?
Progress and happiness.
How do your friends and family feel about the work you've done?
What do you love most about working in design?
It’s a gateway to everything.
Our books, clothes, buildings, and even governments are designed. It’s a space with endless opportunities for impact and is all about improving the human experience, hopefully with increasing awareness of design’s impact on communities and the environment.
What would you like to see changed about the design field?
I'd like to see this mega field be representative of the broader community. With design representing so many diverse individuals and communities, designers should also come from every background and experience. When we lack this representation, we lack perspective. When the few curate the experiences of the many, they’re more likely to expose and pass their biases on to others. We need to shift away from that model.
How can design be more accommodating to underrepresented populations of people?
It can allow for more nuanced celebrations of successful design. Design should first be measured by how it improves the human experience and place a secondary judgement on aesthetics, which has already been highly influenced by colonization and western standards. It’s only by shifting our standards of measurement to something more meaningful that we can adjust the visual design canon and begin removing biases that exist against non-western design. By shifting the measurement of design we can recognize more of its breadth and also create more space for designers of different experiences and backgrounds to seed and thrive.
What are you working on right now, either for work or for yourself?
I’m growing Automattic’s in-house communication design team, helping grow WordPress.com’s brand, building a pillar of our design language so that our products and WordPress — which currently powers 30% of the Internet — can be an inclusive experience for all, updating AIGA’s standards for professional practice for clarity and ease of use, and chairing the 2019 AIGA Design Conference. On the side, I travel, sketch, tend my window garden, and make new cocktails.
Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? Do you think you'll stay in design?
I’ll be designing something. Maybe it will be a business model or piece of policy, but I’ll stay in design.
What advice would you give to folks from similar backgrounds who are in design or hoping to get into it?
Listen to everything, but don’t take everything said to heart. Find the truth in the words of your teachers, mentors, and bosses and let the rest go.
People will naturally categorize you, placing you in a mental box based on intuition, initial impression, or sometimes flat judgements. These boxes projected onto you aren’t areas you have to confine yourself to or settle in. In this same vein, taking a role, just like taking a class, is not a commitment to be that thing. You can try things. You can decide, change your mind, and decide anew. You can explore beyond the known boundaries.
Your dimensionality is what makes you real and human. Dimensionality is also the thing that can make your career really yours.
It’s your job to define your space in design — narrow or wide. To explore, learn, and draw lines. To take boundaries as suggestions. It’s nobody else’s role, it’s yours.