Hi Ashleigh! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Sure thing. My name is Ashleigh Axios and I’m a designer, strategic creative, and an advocate for designing to break barriers and create positive social change. I’m the Chief Experience Officer and a partner at &Partners, a digital consultancy and design studio that understands that technology, policy, and a critical eye to society’s challenges can help bring about equality and improve ways of life. I also travel and speak, but not because I’m extraverted or think I’m particularly special. I’m mixed-race, introverted, awkward, came up through a single-parent household, struggled through some rough childhood and teenage years, and am a successful creative who’s worked at the highest levels of government, within tech, and some of the most political and competitive environments. These days, I speak about my experiences, successes, and challenges with the hopes that it encourages others to keep pushing, see their own experiences as valuable, and see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I was the first female, the youngest, and the first minority creative director at the White House. I was the longest serving designer (serving as a political appointee) in the Obama administration, working for the American people under the first black president of the United States of America. These are things that are often referenced about me, as are some of the projects I completed while in that role.
I’ve also worked in PR, at a fast-growing start-up, a small design studio, and in-house at an environmental protection and advocacy non-profit. I got involved with AIGA not long after I moved from Rhode Island to DC and have been a board member and volunteer for the organization, at the local level and then the national level, for nearing ten years. I’m currently the president-elect and look forward to making the organization outstanding stewards of its members investments and an organization that advances design by supporting designers in the ways they most need.
I live and work in Washington, DC with my husband, Nathaniel Axios, and our two cats.
How did you get into design? What kept you in design?
I was a fairly typical creative kid, but was lucky enough to be in a household and family where that creativity got encouragement along the way. My mom regretted not pursuing art when she was younger so she nurtured and invested in my artistic skills and interests. I was able to job shadow an uncle—really one of my mom’s cousins—who worked for a black advertising agency in New York City when I was in middle school. Those experiences exposed me to art direction, video, and production. He and my grandmother’s younger sister encouraged me to continue to paint and draw in addition to my casual singing and dancing.
Eventually, when I was too far ahead for my local high school art program, my mom took a bet, did some research, and took me to a local vocational school where I ended up enrolling part time, against the advice of my local high school guidance counselors. There, in the communications program, I was able to begin to appreciate graphic design. My teacher, Mrs. Sobko, had us do paste ups, hand-paint posters from tempera paint, and develop branding and packaging for physical products. For the first time in awhile, I was challenged creatively. And something about making work for a client—even a fake client—felt much more in line with my interest in giving back to society than simply expressing my feelings and point of view as I had done with my art prior to that.
That teacher, Mrs. Sobko, told me I could get into RISD and she was right. I went to RISD knowing I would study graphic design even though I couldn’t declare a major until the end of my freshman year.
What ended up keeping me in design was an instinct that design could be used to do more. I didn’t have a name for it, but I knew that in studying and practicing graphic design, I would learn a lot of the basics that I would need to later to push beyond graphic design. Today, what I was working towards would more easily be called design for social impact. It didn’t really exist at the time, but I’ve been happy to have been able to pave my own way and help set some groundwork for creatives who are coming up after me.
I grew up being a hybrid in so many ways that I didn’t choose, but I choose to stay out of boxes in the ways I practice design. I design organizational structures, communication streams, policy advocacy solutions, healthy team environments, and like that design—at least the way I think about it—goes with everything I might want it to.
Can you tell us about how you have grown as a leader inside and outside of AIGA?
Before I was given much authority in my full-time job, AIGA gave me a cross-functional team, a budget, some autonomy, and encouragement to drive change as a member of my community. The responsibilities afforded to me within AIGA has grown over time, from putting together an event to serve my local community to making strategic decisions in the interest of the national organization. But, even early on, AIGA was able to provide opportunity, support, resources, and a bit of autonomy that allowed me to blossom in ways I wasn’t otherwise given the freedom to professionally. In turn, those experiences helped me stay invigorated and enabled me to advocate for myself professionally.
Everything that I’ve put into my family of designers and creatives through AIGA, I’ve gotten back in another way. Those investments have given me job opportunities, helped me take on meaningful responsibilities in the jobs I’ve had, and have meant that I’ve had a community to lean on when things are hard. I’ve been humbled by the time that design legends and neighbors alike have invested in my growth and have been honored to help invest in my peers and the next generation of designers. It’s really a beautiful ecosystem of growth, where we support local businesses and economies, the profession, and create spaces where we can each better thrive and contribute.
What are you looking to focus on in your most recent leadership role in AIGA?
Right now I’m the president-elect to Dana Arnett’s presidency, which puts me in the position of being a bit of a VP. Together, and with the support of the rest of the national board of directors, we’re still working hard to stabilize AIGA’s finances, change how the organization operates—aligning it with our collective values, and find the next executive director of the organization to be our staff partner in the road ahead. We’re working to set the foundation to make AIGA more modern and better in line with the interest of our communities, including our 75 chapters, design educators, and student groups.
By the time my presidency begins (July 1 of 2020 — my next birthday, by the way), I aim to have the organization in a position where we are community led, play an important role in design advocacy, and begin to grow to support more designers who today don’t yet feel at home as a part of AIGA. It’s essential to me that the designers of our nation who are increasingly working in complex environments on essential local and national issues have the support they need to do their job well, make ends meet, get fulfillment, and be in community. My story is one example of this and my aim is to make sure that everyone who invests in the community in some way sees the return on their investment, getting the support they need.
What does it mean to be a leader?
I believe everyone is a leader to some degree. We often conflate leadership with management, but everyone who has someone looking to them as a role model or example of “what could be” is a leader. In my case, I was a leader from a very young age because I have younger cousins who have looked to me for examples of what’s possible. I’ve always respected the responsibility that comes with being an example to others.
Some of the leaders I most admire also lead from their values, putting their whole selves behind what they believe is right, never expecting someone else to do the hard work necessary for the change they want to see in the world.
With that, I’ve been inspired by the examples of folks like Representative John Lewis who has spent his life serving and putting his body and career behind his beliefs, from marching in Selma Alabama to telling his story in comics so that it reaches new generations and from conducting sit ins to serving in Congress, where he helps enact policy to change lives in his district and across the US. I’m inspired by Nelson Mandela, who went to prison for his beliefs and came out ready to lead a new era for South Africa. By Josephine Baker who used her position as an entertainer, which granted her access and a platform, to participate as an agent in the French Resistance.
We often need to see a hint of ourselves in others to imagine what we could be capable of. So many of my favorite examples of leaders are people of color who overcame great obstacles and systematic oppression in order to do their part to make the world a little better.
Besides, soberly seeing the world as it is and then imagining and helping craft a better future is exactly what design is to me.
You, along with Dian Holton, have had a very strong hand in helping embed DEI initiatives inside the AIGA DC community. Why is it important to include equity in this conversation?
As humans, we have an innate instinct for some level of fairness. Society often tells us over time to suppress that. That life isn’t fair. That some have and some have not. That some thrive while others suffer. Theses narratives look and sound a bit different depending on the family, culture, and beliefs of varied groups. Still, across our differences, some of us never fully believed the varied messaging that we should strive for fairness some places – for instance, in court — while disregarding it in other foundational areas of life, like who gets housing, food, medical care, or who can choose a design career. While representation or access can be a good start towards fairness, ultimately what makes a community fair and just, is work towards equity.
I love that we started to include equity in conversations that were centered around diversity and inclusion because we’re not checking boxes on who’s in the room and we’re not giving people an opportunity out of a sense of obligation. Instead, we’re striving to make our community equitable or fair, and that takes thoughtful consideration and dialogue above and beyond diversity and inclusion.
My background has put me in a position where I have had to think about these things from a very early age. However, I’ve learned over time how to consider equity from other vantage points and starting points. We are all learning and growing from different experiences and with different exposure to the topic. This is a personally rewarding part of my leadership journey because I continue to learn and grow, I get to collaborate on solutions with others, and because it’s something we’re involved in solving as a collective.
Thank you so much for your time with us, Ashleigh! Do you have any last thoughts you’d like to share?
Careers and life is full of lessons, realizations, and transitions. If we have any hope of doing good throughout of careers and encounters with others, we’ll each need to embrace a beginners- or growth-mindset at some stage(s) so we can continually learn and involve. So, if you’re new to design or transitioning into or within design, I hope you’ll see this stage as an opportunity. I want to see you own this stage of personal and professional growth and development as a strength. Lead others by being an example of how fruitful it can be to stay open, try new things, put in effort, and evolve. <3