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Ashleigh Axios: How Selfish Design Can Save the World

About this talk

After breaking ground in government as the creative director for the Obama White House, Ashleigh Axios is now working to democratize publishing at Automattic, the parent company of WordPress. In this passionate talk on the role of design in social change, Axios asks creatives to embrace the good feeling that comes from helping others, even if chasing that feeling can seem self-centered. Her primer to doing good with a creative skillset includes:

  • Why the problems that keep you up at night are your best motivators
  • How to scale your vision for a better world
  • And how the Obama White House empowered social change with impactful design

Full Transcript

Hey Everyone. I’m Ashleigh Axios. And I’d like to start by sharing a little bit about myself. And then I’ll share a couple stories. And then, my tip or my advice for getting you to challenge the world with your work. So, to get started, here’s a photo of me and my mom. I already told you I was gonna tell you about myself. It’s her birthday today. Happy birthday mom. A little about me. I’m an introvert, a woman, I’m mixed ethnicity, I’m black, white, Native American, more than that, raised by a single mother, named by Essence magazine as one of the 29 most powerful black women in the Obama White House. First female, the youngest White House creative director, and the longest serving designer of the Obama White House. And as an introvert, I’m terrified of being up here. So there’s some things about me.

So why do I mention all of that, and why do I put this in virtually every talk that I do? And I feel this way every time. I do these because I want to see diversity in our professions. I want to see folks like me and folks like you represented on all of our stages. Getting up here and showing my perspective, my hopes, my fears, my accomplishments, is my way of encouraging all of you to share yours, and encouraging others to kind of step up into this space even if it’s terrifying. Here’s me and my husband Nathaniel. It’s also his birthday. I’m not lying. It’s just how that worked out. I’m going to share a quick story. So when my husband and I got engaged, we did what a lot of couples do. We talked about our values, what we wanted our lives to be together, the impact we wanted to make with our work, and with our relationship on others, those around us. And we also talked about our name. That challenge of what do you do? Combine names? Do a weird hybrid thing? What’s the modern thing to do? And both being designers, we ended up turning it into a branding challenge just really naturally, like values, and brief, and okay, like we’ve got this. We can figure this out. So the last name Axios is actually a name that we both chose. It was neither of our names before. And it means worthy or having weighted value. It’s an aspirational term for us and a way for us to remember what we’re trying to do in the world, which is to make a social impact and to have a positive effect on others.

So obviously, making an impact is something that’s important in my life and the life of my husband. And it started for me pretty early on. So, I’m going to go back even further. One of my earliest memories of helping someone else happened where I live now in Washington DC. As I remember it, it was a late fall or early winter day when I was around five years old. I had gone with my mom, my brother, and some folks from my mom’s church to DC to feed the homeless. We brought huge things of chili, and had bowls, and served it out of the back of this van. I was just five years old but it left such a deep impression on me, the numbers of people, the sheer numbers of people that came up for food, how warm and gracious they were, the connections that were made even if really brief and fleeting. And I know that’s a really small thing. We didn’t change anybody’s life with that. It was a small fix. And it was kind of a small effort on our part. But that was the first moment for me where I realized, “Hey, we can have an impact. We can make a change with collective action. We can make an impact on others.” So, it’s been many, many years, and still to this day, if the temperature drops suddenly, I think of that day. I think of those relationships, the people that we met. Have any of you had those types of moments that just kind of last, they’ve stuck with you over time? A few people. So ask somebody who you think is really generous why they give, why they put their time out there. And it’s likely that you’ll hear a somewhat selfish answer. And I actually think that’s okay. It’s okay if they say, “Well, I give because it feels good to give.”

Here’s a quote that I like. A bit of an obligatory quote. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service of others.” I think there are a few reasons that helping others and getting that selfish feeling out of it is actually a good thing for us, and something that we need to embrace. So I’m gonna outline some basic things. Hopefully, they’re pretty standard for you all. But the more we empathize, I think we actually find ourselves feeling like we’re almost helping ourselves when we’re helping somebody else. It feels great. There’s often this perception that we’re paying it back. Have you ever had the moment where you are primed with an opportunity to support somebody else, and it reminds you exactly of a time that somebody else helped you. It just felt like karma: I’ve gotta do this thing. It’s coming back around.

There’s also this idea that we can pay it forward. I’ve had moments where I see somebody and I’m like, “If I can just help them.” Because I can see myself potentially being there, some point in the future or some distant reality. I think it’s also natural to kind of crave the feeling of having made an impact at all, that feeling of having made the smallest impact on somebody else in a world that we know kind of turns with or without us at the end of the day. So, you know, there’s nothing wrong with doing things for others for a little bit of a selfish gain in the end. But I think there are two other really big reasons that tend to forget, that selfishness is actually kind of a good thing when it comes to helping others.

One of them is that it just feels good. It actually literally feels good to help others. Helping others releases oxytocin in your body, which is a chemical reaction that boosts your mood and counteracts the effects of cortisol, which is a stress hormone. So helping others is actually a biological feel good thing that you can do. I’m going to break that down a little bit more with this next point. One of the books I really liked is this one: Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, written by a social cognitive neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman. And he outlines that the need to connect and support others is actually even more fundamental than our need for basic services, food and water.

So it’s kind of the principle, or the foundational piece that—forget Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs for a moment—it’s that essential thing that everything’s built on. He outlines that, from the very moment that we’re born, we’re immature compared to other mammals. We rely on somebody else to take care of us for extended periods of time, much unlike other mammals in the wild. It takes selfless love for us to even grow up and mature to become adults. So, we each know that feeling of having been cared for and nurtured above most other mammals. On top of that, he shares that our brains are wired to use any and all free time that we have to process social relationships and dynamics, our relationships to other people. So, this book Social argues that our need to reach out to and connect with others is actually the primary driver behind most of our actions and relationships.

So, I feel like that’s pretty good news for us. We’re wired to help people. That’s the case that I’ve made. Doing good feels good. It triggers our biological reward system and makes us feel all happy and warm and fuzzy inside. So yeah, it’s a little selfish to help people but we should do it more. Now I also think this is something that we can apply to our designs, our creative, the things that we output on a day to day basis, not just the occasional thing that we do here or there in our lives. So I’ll share an example from my time at the White House. But before I do that, I’ll give a little bit more background on what I did there.

So for the quick background. I was first the art director, then creative director and digital strategist for the Office of Digital Strategy in the Obama White House, where our mission was to connect people with purpose, or to find meaningful ways to engage the citizens and the administration, given impact of technology on where you all get information and how you connect with one another. Of course, we were also there to help break down the sometimes complex policies of the administration into relatable plain language, simple, easy to understand content, that was also engaging to kind of break through the cynicism of politics, which is even more rough these days.

So, I was extremely lucky to have the opportunity to work for someone who believes that hard work, a growth mindset, and the interest in helping others are really the foundations for societal change. And this aligned with me and my values to such a high degree, it felt incredibly lucky. So anyways, I want to share an example that actually pre-dates me a bit from my time at the White House. Back before I joined the Obama White House in the Office of Digital Strategy: Katelyn Sabochik, Macon Phillips and a few others were in office that was then called the New Media Team and, got a little selfish for the American people. They remembered what it was like before they joined the White House when they were politically active and they spent time putting together, pulling together petitions for the Bush administration to respond to. And they knew that petitioning the White House is actually a First Amendment right of all citizens. But the process that they went through was infuriating. It made them gather reams and reams of paper with signatures, and even mail it in or slide it under the gates of the White House with no promise for getting a response, and really no understanding of the process of what it was going through, or whether it was going anywhere within the offices inside.

So they saw a really unique opportunity to get selfish and to create the thing that they wish they had, knowing that there was a use case for people of all political backgrounds, since they had this use case. So, they put a little time together, and they kind of channeled it on this issue and created We the People, the first digital means to petition the White House on any issue that matters to you, whether it’s a kind of more personal local one, or large federal issue. And your political alignment, your residence, your citizenship didn’t matter at all. It was an opportunity to level the playing field. If you got enough signatures in the platform, you would get a response from the White House and sometimes it actually created policy. It launched in 2011 and what you’re seeing here is a kind of redesigned version that I had an opportunity to work on in 2016.

But my theory is they got selfish in all the right ways when they put this together. They channeled something that was deeply wrong in the previous system. They knew that the system they were working in, the Obama administration, was very different from the Bush administration before it. But they saw the connected tissue, and decided to do something about it. So you better believe it felt good. And they saw it pay off. By the time that I left the White House, this platform got over 5 million views a month, with huge spikes sometimes doubling or tripling that depending on the petitions on the site.

So I’ll show you a very different example. Here’s just an animated gif that we created around the Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage in June 2015. So, this animated gift just happens to be one of our most retweeted from @whitehouse Twitter at the time, and got over 64,000 retweets in no time. This avatar, and of course the White House lit in rainbow colors, and the time lapse video that went with it, all went extremely viral, all gaining more than 7.8 million views in no time at all. And of course we know why, right? This struck deep into something at the heart of American politics and our civil discourse.

But what you might not know is that how this started wasn’t some grand policy discussion inside the White House. It started with people getting just a little bit selfish, thinking, “What are we missing? How can I connect my own passions where I stand as an individual and help make sure that people like me feel represented and feel connected to this administration and each other?” So we decided that we were gonna light the White House up in rainbow colors, change our avatars, do all of this work regardless of which way the decision went in this kind of support fashion. I was lucky enough to be a part of this project. And I got the joy out of being able to support friends, and seeing themselves represented at this huge federal level for the first time.

These are all just staff members. We couldn’t really work while it was lit up. Everybody just came out. And something folks don’t know is, it was lit up all day long, starting in the morning. You just didn’t know. Every time a cloud would go over, we’d run out to see if the press noticed, or it was going to make news yet. And nobody’d noticed. And we’d go back in. They must have thought like, “They are so weird.” We were really weird. But we’re like, “Oh, I’ll just keep going out and taking photos.”

This is an example I think of designers being selfish in some of the right ways, of policy makers being selfish in some of the right ways to help change culture and to help enforce the changes that are happening in culture to bolster them forward. This was kind of built on the work that was done by the human rights campaign, by activists, by folks at ACLU that were able to make this kind of positive change. So I would challenge you—obviously, you’re not going to light the White House up in any colors right now—but to change culture and to recognize that we have a place in that. And I’m actually not just flattering you, this idea that designers, that creatives have an opportunity to change culture. I’m rallying you or attempting to rally you through my nervousness.

Is it working? Smile, actually. But I’m calling on you to dig deep into the things that bother you. Dig deep into who you are, the things that keep you up at night. Your hurt about racial inequity, to use that. The fact that you were picked on in your childhood, dig into those types of things. Your fear about being found out for being a little bit queer, your trouble with your family, not being able to see them across the border, the experiences that you have just being homeless or hungry, the struggles that you have, the hopes, to use them.

Every frustration, every fear, every hurt, hope that you’ve buried really deep down inside thinking, “There’s no way, there’s no opportunity for this to change into something positive,” I want us to pull that stuff back up and actually use it to create positive change, to get a little bit selfish. I don’t think now is the time politically or socially to just coast on what’s normal and what’s expected. We need to push the boundaries. And it means going someplace that is a little uncomfortable and vulnerable. I mean, you all see the world right now, see some of the things that are happening out there. We need to get some solutions going. I think the more you can identify and pull up an underlying thing that feels like it doesn’t relate at all to your job as a designer, content strategist, marketer, coder, the more you can pull those types of things up and relate it back to your work, kind of consider it a part of what you’re doing and address it, the better we’ll all off be in the end.

I’m really tired of designers being selfish in all the wrong ways. I feel like I should definitely clarify that. I’m tired of designers making apps just to remind people to tie their shoes—that kind of thing—tired of designers connecting salt shakers and condoms to the fucking Internet of Things. It’s like pretty terrible. I think those are examples of designers being selfish and creative people being selfish in all the wrong ways, focusing in way too narrowly on things that are right in front of us, things that it’s like, “Oh, I could make that better.” The more we can dig in really, really deep, and find these core things that bother us, the type of thing that you still think about a decade or two later, the better off we’re gonna be.

So pull deep. Pull from what drives you and pull from what challenges you. And don’t just be selfish. Be selfish and scale it. I’ll read the whole quote here. “If you’d like to be selfish, you should do it in a very intelligent way. The stupid way to be selfish is the way we have always worked, seeking happiness for ourselves alone. And in the process of becoming more and more miserable. The intelligent way to be selfish is to work for the welfare of others, because doing so is intrinsically pleasurable.”

This idea that we get joy out of helping other people. So why can’t we put it into play in our work on a daily basis? Of course, consider whether the things that you’re making, the things that you’re digging deep into and pulling up, have the opportunity to hurt people. Don’t create those things. I recommend reading Sarah Wachter-Boettcher’s book Technically Wrong, if you haven’t already. It’s got wonderful tips on how to avoid exclusionary practices in tech spaces. And of course, talk to your customers, your constituents, hear from them. And try to consider every hope and fear that they have with as much importance as you consider your own.

So this is just the 101 creative education talk that I feel like everybody should have been given, and I’m not sure that we were. It should be really simple, straight forward, and something that feels basic. If that’s how it feels, then I’m actually very, very glad. It’s not that complex. It’s not that hard. It’s just that we need to take a minute to talk about it, and to go back to it, and to focus on the real issues that matter, the things that matter to us really deeply and the ways that we can make impact for others. I’m really proud to currently work at Automattic, the tech company that—well it does a lot—but in this instance rebuilt It Gets Better for free to help build a world where LGBTQ individuals are free to live equally and know how valuable and worthy they are in society.

I’m really thankful to work for a company where our software powers over 30 percent of the internet, but we manage that WordPress, and do it very democratically with the entire global community, anybody who wants to contribute. Somewhere that builds products to empower people to have financial freedom and to tell their own story their own way. We really try to do things differently, pay attention to where social networks, media platforms, and employees are failing, and to learn from their mistakes and make changes that can scale for a better future.

And who knows if it’s going to work out at the end. But one of the things that I learned in the Obama White House that I’m trying to put into practice now is that you have to focus all of your efforts on what you’re doing right now. Focus on the here and now and where you can make change. Of course, the White House successors are doing their own thing. I’m not sure they’re making the positive change that I would have them do. But I still believe that there is hope for us to dig in and make positive change. So, let’s go out there and give everything we can to changing the world for the better, to challenging our perceptions. Let’s allow ourselves to kind of feel good for helping others and helping ourselves. And as President Obama wrote, “Let’s start the work right now.” Thank you all very much.

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