Few people in the design industry have a résumé like Ashleigh Axios.
The former design director for the White House under President Barack Obama, Axios has advocated for using design for social change her entire career. In her government role, she developed the visual language to support infographic campaigns on complex issues like economic inequality, climate change, and immigration. “I had the opportunity in the White House to work with some of the most brilliant and thoughtful people in their fields, from economists to climate scientists,” she says. “Being in a group like that really gives you the opportunity to grow.”
She is also the mastermind behind the iconography for the historic #LoveWins campaign, celebrating the historic 2015 Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage.
Today, Axios is settling into her new role as the recently elected president of the AIGA, the country’s largest professional membership organization for design. “A big part of the work is making sure that the national organization is focused on supporting chapters and group members in a way that is really tailored to the community and the needs,” she says. “That’s really hard to do with 26,000-plus members, but is much easier to do on the local side.” In her new role, she’ll be figuring out a structure to guarantee that local chapters are heard.
Designer, strategist, advocate — for Axios, no two days are the same. “Things are continuously shifting,” she says, providing endless ways to partner on projects based on their impact and values.
I grab my coffee, granola bar, sit at my desk, review my calendar for the day and make adjustments to account for any needed meeting preparation or to shift priorities if necessary. It takes me a while to fully warm up for the day, so, recently, if I need an extra boost of rage fuel, I’ll skim the news for a few minutes. That’s usually enough to get my heart rate up a bit. At the end of the day, I’ve found that planning to attend something in the evening, like a yoga class, helps me keep my work from creeping into my time for other priorities and acts as a transition out of work. This is especially helpful since I typically work from my home office and the lines between work and life can sometimes blur.
If I need an extra boost of rage fuel, I’ll skim the news for a few minutes.
When I start a new project, I typically challenge it to make sure I’m clear on the stakeholders, goal(s), timeline, challenges, and opportunities that exist. I might share some things — like possibilities — about the project that excite me to test if my early instincts are aligned with the stakeholders and we’re indeed pointing to the same end goals and generally aligned on the amount of collaboration that will be necessary to get there. Alternatively, I’ll echo back what I’ve heard to make sure I haven’t misunderstood or misinterpreted any of the core information.
From there, I’m usually a part of forming the team and process to get to work, so I dig a bit into how we should conduct next steps, who should be involved, when, and schedule a quick debrief and more formal project kickoff so the team can align on the insights, plan, and begin next steps. When I’m lucky, I have a project manager or operations staff member to support with the logistics — from recommendations to operational follow through — so I can focus on ensuring the team is inspired, motivated, and supported to deliver their best solutions.
When I was managing a fully remote team, we would do a synchronous daily stand-up to check in on what we’re working on and had a system of checking in with one another to do reviews and look at works in progress. It was about creating a habitual place.
Design with a purpose
I think designers sometimes create separation and suspend their understanding of the implications of their work, and I’d like to rethink that. We’re a meme culture, and there might be a sense that a project you’re getting paid for is a blank slate rather than an actual commitment that you’re making to a client and a sense of alignment with their values and their intent.
Designing calls to action
As the White House design team, we would often be the ones to help break information down into smaller audiences, but once we’d understand the overall message, we could say, “OK, here’s what we recommend for communicating this in a way that’s going to resonate or get a group into action,” like talking to their congressperson. We could identify, say, five groups that we think will be most interested in this and we think can be ambassadors for this information and might carry it up on to other groups over time. Being a designer by trade, but also a digital strategist, I have to think about channels and modes of communication as much as the messages and the delivery of that communication.
Ask the silly questions
When meeting with experts, I would get to have these conversations where I’d ask questions almost like “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” I know in these cases I was the young one in the room. I don’t have the context. I’m probably going to be asking the silliest questions. But this is how I get to understand the work, so that I can disseminate it to groups that need different styles of communication, from visual folks to folks that are just looking for the most simple condensed written version of this so that they can understand it and get involved with the work that we’re doing.
When I was working at Automattic, I created a set of inclusive design cardsthat covers things that designers can do on a personal level to get more familiar with inclusive design. They talk about things like breaking out of habits, expanding social networks, refreshing advisers, traveling to new places, and reading new sources. They can actually be used by employers in welcome packages for new designers to jumpstart thinking about diversity.