005 : Changing Design in Government Spaces with Ashleigh Axios


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Design is defined by the fabric of society that we weave in and out of our public spaces. The power of design to create a positive change in our community and advocate for equality was nothing like what Ashleigh Axios thought it would be 20 years ago. Today, Ashleigh stands as an advocate and international speaker in how design is influencing the way we talk to clients and teach the younger generation. 

This week’s episode of The Culture Design Show, Steve Chaparro is joined by Ashleigh Axios, Chief Experience Officer at &Partners, a company using the power of design to disrupt the status quo through human-centered design and research. Ashleigh talks about her work in the government sector and the strength of design to simplify their systems. She dives and gives her advice on how we, as a society and design industry, can diversify our ideas and our clients. 

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn: 

  • Being a design advocate is one part demonstration and one part dedication. 
  • Ashleigh describes the ability of design to change how we solve problems. 
  • What are some ways the government can embrace design?
  • Ashleigh expounds on ways to scale design to fit different firms and cultures. 
  • Ashleigh shares her thoughts about the future of the design community.
  • She talks about choosing to stay in DC and further educate others on design’s capability to create positive change in public spaces.
  • How do you think this experience of COVID-19 of working from home is going to change the design community from here on out?
  • The importance of reading the room in a new era of design. 
  • How can you be vulnerable with your work to improve your ability to design? 
  • Changing the culture of the colonization of design and recognition. 
  • How to become a facilitator of design in a changing world.

Resources Mentioned in this episode:

About the Guest:

Ashleigh Axios is the Chief Experience Officer of &Partners as well as president-elect of AIGA Design. She is an international speaker and an advocate for design’s direct capability to break barriers and transform creative spaces on a political and cultural stage. Her work at &Partners allows her to blend technology and design to create a world of equality and improved environments. She has been featured in Essence, Print, How, and many more publications, as well as recognized for her work as a creative director and digital strategist for the Obama White House.

Sponsor for this episode:

This episode is brought to you by the Culture Design Studio, a consulting firm that helps people and cultural leaders who feel constrained in their ability to engage their employees to become champions for their people through a series of facilitated workshops. They provide a practical and collaborative process to transform the culture within your creative organization.

Culture Design Studio has worked with organizations like Duarte Design, Design Thinkers Group, Red Bull, USAID, Bacardi, and the Office of Civic Innovation

If you’re looking for more than just a consultant and want someone who can facilitate your organization through a structured conversation to transform your culture, Culture Design Studio is the one for you.

Contact them today to learn more about what they can do for you and your company.

Full Transcript: Powered by Otter.ai

Announcer Welcome to The Culture Design Show where we feature conversations with leaders and thinkers who are passionate about culture and design. Now, let’s get started with the show.

Steve Chaparro Steve Chaparro, here. I am the host of The Culture Design Show, a podcast where I feature leaders and thinkers at some of the top creative firms in the world including architecture, design, technology and marketing. What’s the one thing they all have in common? They all believe in the power of culture and design.

This podcast is brought to you by Culture Design Studio. We help people and cultural leaders who feel constrained in their ability to engage their talent to become champions for their people. Through a series of facilitated workshops, we provide a practical and collaborative process to transform the culture within your creative organization. We’ve worked with organizations like Duarte Design, DesignThinkers Group Red Bull, USAid, Bacardi and the Office of Civic Innovation. If you’re looking for more than just a consultant, but someone who can facilitate your organization through a structured conversation to transform your culture, reach out to us at culturedesignstudio.com.

Ashleigh Axios is a powerful voice in the world of design. Currently, she is the Chief Experience Officer at &Partners, a product design and development studio that uses a human centered approach to solving problems that have social impact. She is also the president elect of AIGA, the professional association for design, and in the past, she was at Automatiic where she established The Studio, Automatiic’s fully remote in-house creative agency for marketing, communications and brand identity solutions. Maybe most notably, she also served as a creative director and digital strategist in the Obama administration. Ashley, welcome to The Culture Design Show.

Ashleigh Axios Thanks for having me.

Steve Chaparro It’s an absolute honor for me to have this conversation as a member of the design community, as well as a member of AIGA, thank you so much for your leadership throughout these last years and continuing moving forward now that you’re very soon going to act as president of the association.

Ashleigh Axios Thanks. I’m so excited. I can’t I can’t wait. We’ve been doing a lot but it’s it’s thanks in part to members like yourself in the community that were able to really shift the organization for the future. And I think everybody’s gonna be excited about where we’re headed next.

Steve Chaparro Yeah, well, I’m definitely excited. And you know, with everything that’s been going on recently, we know that the the conference was postponed to a later in the year, and we were going to talk there but through the power of technology, we’re having this conversation here and I’ve I’ve just had been really fascinated with your career and your work and your leadership and I, I thought maybe we could go back to beginning of your career, I know that you went to RISD at the Rhode Island School of Design. I’d love to just maybe hear how you started on this path in the world of design.

Ashleigh Axios Yeah, so I mean, I’m not sure my path is like the most interesting. I’ve heard some really interesting ones. But like, I was always a creative kid, I think I, in a weird way was lucky enough to be born into a creative family that didn’t always just have the opportunity to utilize or to dive into that as a career option fully. So for example, my mom got accepted into I believe it was Parsons and she didn’t end up going. She couldn’t go and but she was really talented. So having a daughter that was always drawing and painting and creating things, every opportunity. I had I think she just knew to kind of push me and encourage and support me in that and was much more open and flexible to most and me pursuing that she actually had me job shadow with one of her first cousins I almost I don’t even know what to call that level of family member honestly. So I changed how I call refer to it every other time. But he had worked at one of the first like minority owned minority focused advertising agencies, you know, world group out of New York and so she connected us when I was in middle school and I had a chance to job shadow him doing really cool work for Pepsi and Burger King and I knew that I wanted to, you know, use design use creativity for good and ended up gravitating towards design, essentially have an entry point or, you know, an initial vehicle to kind of learn and then embrace all aspects of design.

And so that’s what I majored in at RISD. I went to Rhode Island School design, as you mentioned, but I think I was the odd person out and that I knew graphic design was one component of what I wanted to do. But then again, that it was just one one aspects. And at the time, there weren’t really least that I was aware of. No service design, designed for good, like conversations really happening. So that kind of got built up over time as I went, I’m just reinforcing my understanding of designs capabilities. So that’s another short version. I’m not going through my whole career there but just kind of how I got to read it in the first place. And kind of my, my thinking on design early on.

Steve Chaparro Yeah, no, I love it. And I can definitely resonate with, you know some of my career as I started in architecture. But once I saw the power of design and its ability to transform different things in different ways, I definitely sought to apply those design principles to other areas. Speaking of which, you mentioned on your profile, that you are an advocate for designs, ability to break barriers, and create positive and positive social and cultural change. What does that mean for you?

Ashleigh Axios So, I think people can’t, they can do things but they they’re not going to gravitate towards big challenges and they’re not going to really jump into the hard, wicked problems that are out there unless they see folks like themselves unless they see others doing that sort of work. So, for me being an advocate is in part, demonstrating telling my story sharing the things that I’ve done. In particular, those areas where design is working on extremely complex problems. And working with the direct cope impacts, to really like change a community, and I’m going to be doesn’t have to be huge. I tend to want to scale up to the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge possible, but sometimes it’s changing one individual’s life. Right. And, you know, that’s what design is, for me.

It’s looking at things really, you know, honestly, realistically as they are today, seeing the problems, the weaknesses of them, and then really looking forward and seeing what’s possible in an optimistic and visionary way and charting the path from where we are to where we want to go. And thinking a bit about design like that. It seems so obvious to me that of course, it can break barriers, of course, it can create positive social and cultural change, right? You’re taking something from an imperfect state where there are biases and problems. systemic problems are one off problems and moving them into a more streamlined way. And so that, you know, it seems obvious but I think connecting that getting people to really have those case studies use cases and examples of the ways that can be done in government and private sector. And the the ways that it can happen on a local community level and for people with with different backgrounds. In different resources, who might not otherwise see themselves as like the biggest design champion and then on their own.

That’s kind of what I mean by being an advocate for it. It’s partially about even as a sometimes painful introvert, putting myself out there and sharing the stories that I know of that I’ve seen so that others can follow challenge and like, frankly, exceed them in the work that they do moving forward.

Steve Chaparro You mentioned your the area of government, you know, you’ve worked obviously, with the Obama administration, and I’ve had the opportunity to do some work with in civic innovation at the local city hall level. And it’s been interesting to hear how the the methodology methodologies and principles of design what are some different ways that governments can embrace those things, and sometimes it’s very hard. What are some of the things that you’ve seen in the past and your experience of how can we design those methodologies and those mindsets of design to help bring about governmental change.

Ashleigh Axios The big thing I think is, like embedding deeply, sometimes designers who want to make the change, but we want to do it as like a really distant consultant, who’s like, who’s respected there different ways to consult, right but like that person who keeps an arm’s length and just wants to like, pitch the ideas and see others change and on the other side, that in my experience does not work very well and in like government spaces, whether local or federal, right. They’re complex, often bureaucracies are a lot of interdependencies and you’re dealing with with individuals who usually not in it for the pay, right? So they’re working really hard. They’re trying, like their best to get something to work and the failures aren’t for lack of trying or lack of insight, it’s usually more to do with a lack of funding or being stretched then across a myriad of priorities and issues that they’re working on.

So I think designers can really teach the most by like embedding, working directly going really close with the partners and clients internal within government and utilizing the language that they use. Yeah, that’s important. I’m not trying to teach them like design thinking terminology and getting them to get their like, you know, their free PhD in design, but applying all the things that we know from our design education’s and from being design practitioners directly into the work And helping them by drawing parallels to their policy work their technology where they’re, you know, civic coordination, drawing the parallels to the work that they do consistently and working within the processes and the restraints that they have. Actually think that that designers thrive in that, right. We’re used to constraints where we were used to working cross functionally, we rely on it right? Not, some designers can do all of the writing and coding and, you know, there’s that like 10 x joke that was going around for the longest time on social media, like there’s, there are a few designers that could do like just about everything, but most of us rely and we work best when we’re actually working deeply in conjunction with subject matter experts in different disciplines and and trusting them and adapting to their language and their resources and I think in the ways that they work. And I think that’s a chameleon like skill that we have that enables us to go into some really complex bureaucracies and change the way that the whole group thinks and works to be more agile, fluid, modern and to get changes done and steady intervals again from that like messy, imperfect today to that imagine future that for the most part, everybody tends to be on board with in government and just not know necessarily how to get there and need a little extra support to get there.

Steve Chaparro Yeah, I think that’s something that I’ve seen when we are trying to embrace some do some culture of design led thinking. I think many times we who are practitioners or creatives or you know, crafts people in the world of design, I know at least in architecture in architecture, I came out of architecture school with a such a different lexicon and I was using words that were very Very well embraced in our circle of thinking. We’re just thinking like, Oh my god, what language are you talking about? I don’t understand juxtaposition and you know, all these different words that we were using and, and they were looking at us like we’re from a different world. And I think that those of us who are also in the world of design in general, you know, whether we’re talking about design thinking or just design principles about branding and things like that, I think we can definitely nerd out and actually get people off by using these words. And I think your point about embracing the existing language but maybe adapted in a different way. And rather than talking about harping on methodology, talk about desired outcomes. And so that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as well.

Ashleigh Axios Yeah, it’s great, and I think a lot of that language can change. If you really know it. Well. You can find 10 other ones. To say the same thing, and that only reinforces our skills as designers. It doesn’t, you know, I think some are afraid that they’re dumbing themselves down or something like no, that’s you’re even sharper if you can go in and have the flexibility to explain something to a technologist, a policymaker, you know, accessibility advocate and you can adapt your language and you can explain the same thing to different audiences using totally different terms. That’s like genius level, you’re, you’re like upping your game is going to be able to succeed in almost any environment. So it’s a it’s a great skill to have, but it does take a while to practice and it takes being really uncomfortable because a lot of the times you’re not going to know what works you have to try it in real time with people and if it doesn’t click try it another trigger. You’re on the spot. It’s a little bit more improvisational.

Steve Chaparro Well speaking to that new skill of upping your game, I was talking to a creative director at a large firm in Silicon Valley. And she was saying that the expectations of their clients are beginning to change. And even some of the expectations within the firm meaning the talent, they’re changing as well. And, and so some of these clients are saying, Hey, we were fine before with you being the creative you doing the work for us, but now, we want you to do the work with us. And so, she was mentioning that, that there is this triple threat design leader that the need for that is starting to emerge and that is one who is not only the creative or the subject matter expert, and then to being the CO creative which has been almost like a facilitator to co create with the clients but then also as a coach because once the project needs to be implemented, the you know, the the creative can only be there for a certain short while but you know, the ability to coach clients as well as to coaches employees. What are your thoughts about that? Whether expectations are changing? And if so, are they requiring a new set of skills?

Ashleigh Axios That’s great. I mean, I love that framework. I’d say that that resonates really strongly with me and what I have seen. I do think there are those that have always done that, but it is becoming much more an expectation on the client side that you know, ethical question of services, they’ll know how to almost like you would for a technology that’s implemented, they’ll know how to maintain something and carry it forward. And so that’s, that is, I think, starting to flow into their skill sets and expectations for designers overall in the skills that get offered. As far as like how designers now adapt and prepare for that sort of change. You know, I’m mindset that the only way you do is just putting yourself out there and doing it. It’s like..

Steve Chaparro Learning by doing.

Ashleigh Axios Yeah, take taking the risk. And you know, not everybody can, some can. And if you find a great program that’ll teach you how to be a facilitator and a coach, then like more power power to you, but right now, there aren’t a whole whole lot of those. And so for a designer that’s looking to get into it, I’d say the best way is to just start teaching, teaching others, working with friends and peers and getting feedback along the way.

Steve Chaparro Well, in regard to even just upskilling and learning new skills and things like that a lot of a lot of agencies out there are probably pretty small and may not necessarily have a huge l&d budget, you know, like some of the larger firms. What are some ways that you think that that design lead at different scales, because I think you and your your talk last year at the conference, you talked about scaling culture, what are some ways that we can begin to scale abilities, scale culture within our firms, no matter what the size of our firm is?

Ashleigh Axios Absolutely, I think, you know, there’s… working on design at a tactical level, there’s working on solutions at a system level. And I’d say if you’re been working on focus projects as a really small team as their individual freelancer, that might be the first step that I would encourage is you know, bridging into systems thinking, if you offer a one off instruction to a client on how to do something, and you want to be better at facilitating you want to be better at teaching to larger groups. put that together as a system and operate on your yourself. Start with a medium post, break it down, can put it behind a paywall if you needed to support your company moving forward, but don’t look at having that offering for more than that individual audience and and pushing for collaboration and both the creation of the solution and the overall consumption of it

Steve Chaparro Before COVID-19 hit our world, I would imagine that you had a vision, you have a vision of where the design community is today and where it’s going and what we need to equip ourselves in order to get there. So I want to maybe ask you that first before this all happened. What were some of your thoughts about the future of the design community?

Ashleigh Axios That’s a great question. I’ll kind of back up a step and just going to share where my own transition was because it relates to So, in working in the Obama White House, I was like, on site, so many hours every single week, working really collaboratively with writers, developers, you know, policy makers. But I was working in this physical building away from the sunlight like way too frequently like and that’s not how most folks work. But it felt like this deep dive into this like traditional 20th century work scenario where I wasn’t seeing my family that much I was there was tension between work and personal life and a really high extreme. And when I was considering what I wanted to do after I left the White House in 2016, you know, it wasn’t on my radar if somebody put it on my radar, like how many companies were going remote or even fully distributed? And some of the benefits that came with that.

And so I was able to make the jump to automatic which you mentioned, actually fully distributed company with folks across the US became more than like 74 languages I think it is. And really kind of functioning thinking in this global context to because of creating wordpress.com jetpack these products like WordPress powers are like 36% of the internet, right? So you’re working across language and you know, culture and people are just coming to the space with totally different contexts and expectations. And so I was really excited to start there to move one from like, selfishly in some ways, but like, being really traditional on site somewhere to some thing where I could work from home. I can spend more time directly with family and loved ones. I had flexible hours because we’re a global company and I could take a break in the middle of the day I could prioritize working when I am more expedient and high functioning, as opposed to, you know, just the, you know, joking, but like when the man says you got to work

Steve Chaparro Yeah.

Ashleigh Axios So, you know, that was a that was a huge and really beneficial change for me. And of course, that takes a little bit adapting and getting used to. But through that I was able to build an internal team, the studio that you mentioned, working across time zones from Poland to the west coast, us and collaborating with team members who are in Australia and India. etc on different projects, and do so in a way that was respectful and thoughtful and gave people a chance to prioritize what matters to them in their life and their work and have a sense of fulfillment, but also balance.

And so I was lucky because, you know, Automatiic’s not perfect internal culture, and it’s a tech company and their problems, I think, with any us tech companies these days, but I was able to see like, oh, like all these glimmers of like, hope and this, this possibility that I think if I hadn’t been exposed to automatic, I just would have gone with the status quo, not even knowing that I was just so used to the expectation that I was going to be like in office working nine to five hours and we’re creative, so it’s never just nine to five. We’d like at least those nine to five hours. And so coming coming out of all of that, and figuring out what I was going to do post Automatiic. It was really a priority to me to keep pushing in this like distributed workforce sense.

I love that I could have employees that we can have employees who live anywhere who don’t feel like they have to move into a city center in order to work with us that we can recruit some of the best talent across the board, again, that they get all those benefits of good pay, if something changes in our lives, there’s some flexibility to with that kind of remote work setup. So you know, say I’m living in DC and it’s very expensive, but, you know, it’s gonna be a little bit at least before we get, you know, universal health care or whatever in the US, somebody gets sick and my family. I’ve got the flexibility to possibly move somewhere. That’s less expensive, and keep the job that I have today to reduce costs, so just provides more family options for prioritizing things based on me. So I wanted to keep all of that embedded.

And so I’d say that’s already a really long answer to your question. But I’m already like kind of where my mind is that and it’s like future of not just work but like education and really moving into a more 21st century way of like, living and growing professionally. There were conversations when I was in the Obama White House about MOOCs, these like Massive Open Online Courses then were like the early thinking on education and this distributed fashion. And, you know, that’s like head fits in stops and like certainly has not been solved for. And I think in part because a lot of things we just don’t prioritize not even as a design culture, but when our broader culture doesn’t prioritize it makes it difficult. So I’m trying not to go in the policy rabbit hole.

But like we had, we had initiatives and efforts in the Obama White House to focus on making sure people had especially schools and more remote locations, but access to like really strong digital broadband internet, because it’s really hard to get remote education or a remote job if you don’t even have the basic like signal or connectivity to support that, you know, and that had support and then note support Congress and just have that priority at this library. Roger level within, you know, being us centric here for now, but within the US economy in the US political space to get the support it needed to really go as far as it could have. And now, I think we’re feeling that now in this like time of crisis, for sure. Because suddenly students are forced to work from home. You know, hundreds of thousands of people are, you know, I don’t know the total numbers right now, but I’m pretty sure a good number are being forced to work from home or at least everybody’s being encouraged to work from home. And the tools and infrastructure isn’t totally in place to support that.

Steve Chaparro Yeah. Yeah, I know that my sons, they’re 11 or 14 here in the city of Long Beach, California. And we’re one of the largest districts here in California. But yeah, they were schools closed two weeks ago, and the kids were finally given access. Chromebooks, at least for those going across the across the city, and but there was also this question of access to Wi Fi, these, you know, they mentioned that 12% of our students don’t have access to Wi Fi so that digital equity has been a really large conversation here in the city anyways, outside of even the students, but this whole period of basically working from home, learning from home, whatever the case may be, has exposed some of our inefficiencies or inadequacies in our in our systems, that we maybe weren’t quite as ready as we thought we were. And it seems to me that your experience at automatic definitely prepared you maybe for you know, and gave you a perspective of what the future may look like. And then you brought that into and partners. So the next question is, how do you think this experience of COVID-19 of working from home is going to change the design community from here on out Will we ever go back to the way it was completely or whether it be some change as as, as the rubber band snaps back.

Ashleigh Axios I think there are still a lot of questions about how we respond in the coming weeks that will help determine that. Because if you’re forced into having a work from home, and it’s a terrible, terrible experience for you, right, because if you’ve got no training, you’re like working out of your kitchen and they’re like 10 other people in your house and like, all of these things that people are dealing with now. And there’s no steady process to go to work through the problems on solutions. And if you never get the training and the support and start to see that situation improve, even if we start to fix the digital infrastructure and you know. We saw the access to computer problems and workplaces now implement new policies saying everybody can work from home. Even though they’re really against it, you know, so many of them were really against it before for kind of unknown reasons. Your employee or student reaction is probably going to be a bit of a trauma reaction of like, like, No, I just, I don’t want to work from home like, okay, it works, but it’s not for me, right?

Because, you know, you didn’t have the support and on top of that, it’s just a generally hard emotional time for us across the US, like, we’re thinking about the health and safety of people hopefully, right but and, and that’s like an additional layer of like adding tiredness and stress to people’s daily routine. So I think if we’re not careful and how we support one another and deal with things right now. We might have a really hard negative backlash to working remotely or creating that sort of flexibility. And people might not be open to it and might totally miss all the benefits, right? Because that is, especially if you’re stuck in that your house, you’re not seeing the benefits of being able to like, spend more time with your kids. You’re like, Oh, my God, I need.

Steve Chaparro Yeah, that’s an interesting perspective. Yeah, I guess the optimist in me has always his only thought of what are the beautiful things that can come out of this, but I hadn’t I hadn’t thought about it like, Okay, what is the potential backlash? of saying, no, that experience was so horrible whether it was my physical environment or my access to technology, or the ability or inability to shut off the distractions within the home was zero percent openness to work from home moving forward. I hadn’t thought about that. That’s an interesting perspective, though. That, that could come out of this because I know my kids, again 1114 they’re such digital natives that they’ve actually not missed a beat. It’s just really interesting how different generations of people can respond. But even even to my, you know, my, my Boomer parents and parents in law they’ve been they’ve embraced this, you know, it’s a it’s been difficult and, you know, I’ve got my dad with, you know, we’re trying to do a FaceTime call and he’s, you know, got just the his he’s only his eyes above that are. So it’s just funny to hear and see different people respond to this environment.

Ashleigh Axios Yeah, I think like there are, there’s a lot that could come out of it. And I would encourage people on the positive side, I would encourage people who have worked successfully in a remote fashion before and have seen the benefits to help You know, not all of them apply right now obviously, if you’re quarantine in your house, you’re not going to get some of the benefits, but to help break those down, and not in a preachy way, but like provide resources and support those who are thrown into it really hard right now, and I think that’ll make a pretty big difference. But it’s also about allowing people a chance to opt in. Because I’ve seen I have seen a lot of tech companies being like, Well, let me tell you why this is the best. Like, I think you’re a little you’re not reading the room.

Steve Chaparro That’s true. Reading the room. Speaking to that. I know that you we mentioned before that sometimes there are a lot of leaders that are well versed in this, maybe this triple threat way of doing things. But there are also like, I come from the architectural world and I and I learned that there even in that field. There’s a lot of people who are very task oriented and hey, I just need to figure out what is the brief what is the requirements of the process. And I’m just gonna put my head down and just do the work. But not being able to read the room. How important is it to read the room, especially now that we’re kind of have this digital interface, at least for the foreseeable future? Yeah. How important is that? And how can we develop those skills?

Ashleigh Axios  That’s a great question. I mean, I think we’re, we’re human. And so it’s, we’re inherently social. And we can’t turn that off. And so we’ve got to be really intentional, especially when we’re using digital means to communicate with one another, especially when it’s, you know, text based communication over slack or email or social media to ensure that we’re thinking about tone that we’re clear how somebody is doing first, I’m guilty, frankly, of jumping in Monday morning on slack and be like, Hey, have you done x and like, if that wouldn’t be my first interaction if I ran into a co worker in the hallway in a physical office, right, I would say, hey, how was your weekend? How are you? Like, we’d have a little bit of a human exchange I’ve maybe read the fact that they look a little tired and like, you know, approach them slightly different than if they were looking really peppy and and, like going full force.

And so I think that’s stuff that we have to be a little bit more thoughtful when we’re using digital means of connecting with one another, because it gets a lot of us more easily. And I think that’s where, hopefully folks I’m experiencing this too much, but there’s some backlash like person meant this the tone was read at something entirely different and now we’re having this you know, tense discussion with one another because we just misaligned on tone and how that person doing.

Steve Chaparro Yeah.

Ashleigh Axios Also, like encourage every leader in this time, whether they’re managing people or not to just like encourage over communication rather than under, like under communicating. It’s hard to read the room if the room is pretty silent. Especially online so practices like stand ups and and really being vulnerable as a leader yourself can allow other people to be a little bit more vulnerable because we’re not gonna communicate well, if nobody’s comfortable saying like, wow, I’m having a really shitty day. And I’m having a hard time even focusing today and just feeling it I’m more upset and like, that’s a huge part of how somebody shows up in the workplace. That says a lot about what they need from their co workers and how much should be on their plate. Manager just peer wants to know and wants to support. But we can’t do that unless we’re a little bit vulnerable and let ourselves go there. So yeah, I think part of it is about, like being the example for that so that others can follow and feel like it’s a safe environment to bring themselves a little bit more fully.

Steve Chaparro Yeah, I have a sense that there in this time, there’s probably an even greater need for empathy and compassion. Because I think we’re all experiencing this, this new normal, at least for the next a little bit. And, you know, for those that can adequately share, you know, their their struggles, their stress, their anxiety, or even, you know, just being mad at themselves for not being as productive as they’d want to be. I think that vulnerability is so important, even more so. In today’s climate, that’s my guess.

Ashleigh Axios I totally I totally agree. I think it’s a It takes practice and it’s uncomfortable and, but it’s, it’s also valuable for getting the good work done. And I know I feel like I have a better time with my co workers and my friends I like to when we’re just real with one another. We let ourselves get a bit more vulnerable.

Steve Chaparro You know, it almost appears to me like, you know, our interface right now is through the screen. So we have this window, and that we’re much more intentional with conversations with whether meetings or with friends or family, I think sometimes even slack so i think i think i don’t know if you’ve experienced it, but it seems to me like even as we’re adapting to this new technology as our sole means of communication. It seems like we have to be extra intentional in order to make this work. But the extra intentionality also is extra exhausting. If you found that to be true?

Ashleigh Axios Yeah, like, people can overthink things too easily as well. And I think that may be what you’re communicating there, right where, like I want to say something my coworker but I also know people are tense right now. And so I’m going to spend a whole five minutes on this sentence trying to think through like, what is the best way to phrase it, and then you’re, you’re more exhausted and and it’s still less clear on how it’s going to be read by them, right, because it’s totally subjective. Yeah, I think that is a bit of a risk. And I, I’ve seen some individuals and companies do a really good job of experimenting to break that up. And our team has been doing some virtual kind of happy hours with one another. And that’s one way to remind them that zoom doesn’t mean presentation or this like technology. Doesn’t have to suddenly be synonymous for like business casual or something like that we can use it to share socially and just to talk about what’s going on in our lives or cheers one another celebrate a moment. And that sort of thing I think helps break it down a little bit and get us out of the rut of. Yeah, just like one way of thinking about these pieces, but even that takes work. So somebody has got to somebody is going to do the work to bridge the gap encourages people to share new ideas, like offer it up as like a design challenge internally within the company culture within the group culture to give people the space and freedom flexibility to, like challenge the notions of how the tools are used.

Steve Chaparro Right. We mentioned culture there and the name of the podcast. This is the Culture Design Show and we kind of look at it in a couple of ways. One, it’s the culture of design. And then the reverse of that. It’s the design of culture. When you think of culture of design, what comes to mind for you?

Ashleigh Axios Um, honestly, some negative things like the, you know, colonization of design and you know, thoughts on like, who, who gets to make the cannon the design cannon who gets to invent who the top people are deciding who gets celebrated, which is historically not so great. And also some things like hustle culture, right. As for a really long time, then really embedded in design culture, and then some more positive things like I think design culture. They’re embedded things like critique and continual evolution and change, which are really positive. And there are other notions that I would say are pretty deeply embedded and more inherently positive as well.

Steve Chaparro Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I’m on board with you in terms of all the beautiful aspects, beautiful people, brilliantly, you know, brilliant thinkers, brilliant crafts people in terms of what they do. You know, being the strategist that I am, I tend to look for problems in order to try to solve them. And so I tend to look at what are the things that we can improve? And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is, is there are principles and methodologies that many times we will use in terms of when we’re client facing in terms of empathy in terms of emotional intelligence, and I think that sometimes though, we fail to implement those in our own teams. Is that is that something that you’ve seen and if so, how can we How can we resolve that in terms of practicing what we’re preaching?

Ashleigh Axios Well, one is thinking if you’re a business owner, you know, like, I’m able to be right now like having the perspective that if you’re offering something as a service, externally making sure that you have the same thought internally. So I’m the chief experience officer, which we talked about and partner we’re really small company so it’s like, not as fancy as it sounds. But for for where we are right now as a company in size and and how we’re thinking about it that broaches what I think a lot of people think about with experience, which is customer experience and client experience that external, but we’re also very intentional to make sure that under you know, my purview is employee experience. Yeah. And that is baked in it is as important that the recruiting and onboarding that the the resources, the the tools that our codes of conduct are as thoughtful internally as they are for when we’re doing workshops and engaging with clients and building tools and products for end customers externally. So I think like foundationally, that’s really important because there has to be somebody who’s ultimately accountable. And then everybody can have a sense of shared responsibility and helping make that happen and provide feedback. But, you know, like we used to advocate for designed to get a seat at the head of the table. And so a lot of those conversations happening. You know, if it’s not represented at the top, it’s probably not that value.

So making sure that there’s somebody who’s ultimately accountable, who’s going to help make sure that there’s growth over time that over every quarter, and that’s been thought of consistently, as consistently as thinking about those external experiences. That’s pretty essential, I’d say. And then I think even for the individual designer somewhere, it’s like, well, I can’t change my company structure. So I don’t know what that does for me, Ashleigh.

I think some big things for you know, building internal culture are, you know, when you’re applying to a job, setting the expectation, just like we do as individuals and managing expectations with clients, like, say, as early on as possible, like, this is important to me. I’m going to be providing feedback on it because I care about the culture that I’m in, and then do it like, just give Write, give that feedback share the areas that you believe there’s room for improvement. And then some of the best internal projects just as an individual contributor that I had a chance to do or just things that I pitched on my own. So, like, you might pitch an external projects. I think most designers would be pleasantly surprised by just how receptive large and small companies are to a designer being like, hey, I want to take you know, two hours this week to collaborate with HR on this like experience problem they have that like I think could be improved really quickly, and it’ll make our onboarding experience or whatever it is a whole lot better for everybody. That’s huge. Yeah, why Why not? That’s a service that’s a an offering sometimes as a direct product that can be worked on. So part is just I think, Looking for those opportunities and feeling like, while you might have been hired for the more client facing work, there is still a chance for you to kind of pitch and get involved and do things that directly design or improve the internal processes.

Steve Chaparro Yeah. And I love that. I think that’s the flip side of my original question is what the original question was more about culture of design. And I think the design of culture using those design principles and methodologies to actually design the culture of the organization. And I love what you’re citing those examples of people who are maybe have to start with a culture of one like just by themselves and then hopefully gain two or three other recruits within their team or their team leader. Although I have had some conversations with, say, talent, leaders at creative firms who have said, Okay, we have different generations in our firm. We have the you know, folks that are of the boomer generation, the Gen X and the millennials. And there’s this struggle because we’re moving towards a new way that designed culture needs to look like moving forward. But then maybe the leaders of that firm have say, hey, we’ve, we’ve gotten success because of the way we’ve done it before. But it’s causing, in some cases, some problems, because maybe there is been that very charismatic single leader who has been the architect of that culture in the past. Do you think that there is some need for leaders rather than to be architects of culture, but to be facilitators of culture?

Ashleigh Axios I think everybody also needs to take on a growth mindset. Like if you’re not growing and evolving over time, then you’ve got to accept that some of your ideas and ways of working are going to become outdated. That’s the same if you’re you know, designing a PDF booklet, right? Like the tools you use over time changed on that even just the past 10 years, it is for somebody who’s a leader at the very top of an organization. And so, look, you know, similarly internally when building culture, the person who is ultimately responsible needs to listen to their users, like the people who are a part of the culture. And really take in the feedback and look to like, adjust and change methodologies and adjust principles like over time, usually, like the values aren’t the things that need to change. And so that is where I think the like the leader should hold firm and fast and maybe, you know, does diners can help them lock in on those, Oh, you think maybe it’s that we need to work really long hours and have hustle culture because that’s what you did for so many years. But what I’m hearing and understanding and all that is that you value like, hard work, and like, excellence and results and like that those values probably shouldn’t change, but like, how you get there can totally change and should totally change over time, yeah.

Steve Chaparro It’s that we are in alignment in terms of the desired outcomes. And we have an idea of what that looks like we both agree. But if you would allow us to determine for ourselves what’s the best way to get I mean, that was one lesson I had to learn even in architecture, in that is we would, you know, draw our plans out and then we would give them over to the contractors, but we could actually not tell the contractors, the Ways and Means in which they actually executed. We just needed to make sure that the outcome was exactly what we want. So it was an interesting dynamic that I think, I think that’s what’s so what’s so wonderful about co creation and culture is that that mix of CO creation and culture is, is the leaders can say, Hey, this is where we want to go in terms of direction. But I need you to come on board to help me determine what that looks like. It’s almost like adding flesh to the spirit of those values.

Ashleigh Axios Yeah.

Steve Chaparro And I think that’s, that’s something that’s really powerful.

Ashleigh Axios I love that I completely agree. And I would even say that I think culture is much more democratic than we like to give it credit for. It happens organically, it changes over time. And so sometimes, you know, individuals think that they’re setting the culture because they’re in a position of power. But if you’re one in 800, or whatever it is, like you could just be the rotten apple in a culture that’s really thriving and beautiful because you’re outnumbered everybody’s their own entity. Together, they’re creating this really vibrant thing that’s changing over time. So controlling cultures, like does not work well, I think on any level, like it’s just much more organic and free for, like language, like our like music are. These are things that we make together our tastes change over time. The ways that like subcultures connect with one another will adapt things. So in a workplace environment that’s like you have somebody coming in, but they worked in a technology company or in house in a corporate environment or in a small design studio. Those are all like, you get the influences of all these other subcultures that don’t change the culture that you’re in over time and help adapt it. So I think that’s a beautiful thing, but it is like you know designers, we do like to to control things.

Steve Chaparro Yeah, for sure. I mean, part of my, I did some graduate work at Parsons for strategic design management. And my thesis was around transforming creative cultures. And I thought that maybe because of my own background in creative agencies that there was a special nuance about creative cultures and there might be in some cases, but it’s actually a very human thing. It’s a very human centered, centered problem, if you will, and thing to focus on. We could talk on culture all day, but we are at the end of our time, folks, we’ve been talking to Ashleigh Axios. And actually is there if someone wants to reach out to you folks that don’t already know you and see you all over the inter internet? Where can people find you?

Ashleigh Axios You can find me at AshleighAxios.com and there’s a contact form a way to reach out to me directly there. You can find me on Twitter, you know, wherever. I’m around.

Steve Chaparro All right, Ashleigh, thank you so much. Thanks for being on the show.

Ashleigh Axios Thank you.

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