Ash Huang, 28
Lives: San Francisco, USA
Nominated by: Cat Noone
Ash Huang is a designer, writer and illustrator based in San Francisco. She has worked for Pinterest, Twitter and Dropbox and loves to barrack for the underdog.
Ash recently decided to begin working for herself, and with this decision came a whole new perspective on creativity and the work that she really wants to make. Read on for Ash’s story on not fitting in, the upside of being emotional and who she’d be if she could do it all again.
To kick off I thought you could tell me about what your life is like right now.
My life right now is much more simple in terms of pacing, but in terms of what’s going on in my head there’s a lot of complexity. In going to freelance, and having a bit more space around me, it has changed my ideas about creativity as well.
How has how you think about creativity changed since you’ve started working for yourself?
It’s almost like working full-time I was in a valley (literally!), and once I was freelance I got this elevation where I could see across things that I hadn’t seen before. I had more time to look at what the world was doing.
It’s as though you have all the choice in the world as long as it’s these three options!
To come back to simplicity and complexity, have you ever struggled to keep your life simple?
I’ve definitely struggled. What I do now versus what I used to do is create rules for myself. And I don’t use rules that other people have created for me. All our lives we’re presented with a bouquet of options that are disguised as choice, but it’s not actually choice. It’s as though you have all the choice in the world as long as it’s these three options!
I’m also trying not to do everything myself by outsourcing doing receipts and finance to a virtual assistant. Obviously there will be the Monday slog of cleaning out all your emails, but that’s the guiding principle because I’ve realised that what makes me happy is making stuff.
I’ve been reading some of your writing lately and one of the articles that stuck out to me was a piece on otherness and rooting for the underdog. What makes you root for the underdog?
I think I’ve always been attracted to the idea that there are times where people don’t have a voice for reasons that have nothing to do with their validity in having a voice—whether it’s what they look like, or where they were born or how they were educated.
Raised as a woman, I had this desire to please. I’d try to make people happy versus doing the thing that’s right.
There’s also a perspective that comes when you feel you don’t fit in. A lot of my friends are also people who feel like they have at some point in their life not fitted in. It makes you value community. You also become more active in finding your people and figuring out what you need to thrive.
Part of you obviously thrives being an introvert. What has the solitude that comes with being an introvert taught you?
Raised as a woman, I had this desire to please. I’d try to make people happy versus doing the thing that’s right. I noticed pretty early on that a lot of the designers I admired would just do what seemed right.
It goes back to the idea of simple and complicated. A lot of the things they do are simple to them. For me, it felt so complicated. I realised while working alone that the choices become very simple.
We’re taught to steel ourselves against ourselves. It’s like betting against your own brain.
As a 20-something writer, thinker and maker, what kind of things do you notice about the world that you feel should be given more attention?
I wish we’d talk about mental state a lot more. I just feels like there’s this, ‘Oh it’s all in your head.’ mentality. It’s true, but it’s also used as a dismissive phrase, as though because it’s all in your head it doesn’t matter.
It makes it more painful, right? That no one else can see it.
Right, we’re taught to steel ourselves against ourselves. It’s like betting against your own brain. I can’t help but think how much better we’d be if we used our own minds to our advantage. Everything starts there, after all.
For instance, there’s also a lot of power in intention. If you really are serious about making your intention known to the universe I think it changes how you act. By saying, ‘I am going to be a writer,’ I walk on the street and I start looking at the world like a writer.
Some people say that actions count more than thoughts, but where you do think actions come from?
In a recent interview you mentioned that as someone in your late 20s you now see a lot more of the dirt in the world but still feel optimistic. What makes you feel optimistic about the world?
I think there was a time where I thought, Oh yeah, if you’re wrongly accused of murder, you’ll be fine. The facts will come out. But these systems are set up for keeping everything afloat; they’re not set up for right and wrong.
Now I see with things like Twitter that there is increased visibility into these problems. People are making demands that justice be met and realising that diversity is important.
You have to wonder what effect it has on a young girl to only see people who look like her doing nails or being a geek who speaks broken English…
How does that work for you on a personal level? What kind of a difference do you want to make?
When I started off in my design career I thought that I could give people voices that don’t have voices. I also started noticing that a lot of effect was coming from media. There was one ad for Crystal Light and the girl says, ‘I only ate half my sandwich. What a success!’
I just thought, A woman can’t even have a full sandwich! It made me so angry. So if I could do it all again I would be an Asian-American actress and just take on really normal roles. Our brains—especially our young brains—are plastic and influenced by what we see. You have to wonder what effect it has on a young girl to only see people who look like her doing nails or being a geek who only speaks broken English, while all the heroines are tall, willowy white models with not a care in the world.
In lieu of that, I’m trying to create content that asks the question, ‘What do human problems look like when it’s not necessarily an issue of one person totally owning another?’ For example, what if the things that kids are reading are gender equal? What does that look like?
Why shouldn’t a woman read that other women are awesome and deserve to be heard?
A lot of your writing is quite personal, something your readers really respond to. What makes you willing to share your personal experiences on things like mental health, rather than keep it in?
When I was young there were a lot of things I wish I had read. So now I think, Why shouldn’t a woman read that other women are awesome and deserve to be heard? Why shouldn’t you see a weird person like me, doing things that no one told me to do? It’s for that younger version of me.
Why do you think of yourself as weird?
Oh, I’m pretty weird!
What does weird mean to you?
I think it means uncommon or doesn’t necessarily fit with a standard. I don’t belong to any tribe specifically. I grew up Asian-American but I’m definitely not Chinese. I went to China and thought, Nope, definitely American. And here I think, Maybe I’m not American. Even with my job, people say, ‘What do you do? Who do you work for?’ I get all awkward but I don’t think ‘weird’ is a dirty word!
As you go on trying out new ideas, what are you most afraid of?
I think I’m most afraid of staying completely still. And that’s on a lot of levels. I have nightmares where we accept the things that are bad with the world. That’s my biggest fear.
It’s actually fine to be emotional. That’s the thing that isn’t necessarily rewarded in society.
What do you think is the antidote to that kind of passiveness?
I think it’s caring about things. I don’t know if this is still true, but in my teens I wanted to be as cool as a cucumber. There’s this idea of unflappability, that nothing can get you down, but it’s actually fine to be emotional. That’s the thing that isn’t necessarily rewarded in society.
How can we reward the emotional side of people more, do you think?
We spend a lot of time suppressing emotion in favor of logic. It’s like refusing to eat because you’re thirsty. The two are best used together and don’t live in spite of each other. Logic isn’t as foolproof as we think. It’s seen as more reliable than emotion, but honestly, there are plenty of occasions where over-logic-ing has led us to dark or stupid paths.
I also have real beef with the ‘good vibes only’ movement. It feels good to feel good, but as a whole we aren’t in touch enough with our emotions to realize that sometimes ‘feeling good’ is actually a desire to feel nothing. Sometimes it’s appropriate to feel sad. Sometimes it even feels good, because it’s recognition that what you’re mourning meant something. Having emotion means accepting things and dealing with them. Even if you deny the hunger, it’s still there.
Sometimes it’s appropriate to feel sad. Sometimes it even feels good, because it’s recognition that what you’re mourning meant something.
Has there ever been a point along the way where you doubted that you should be doing this?
Oh absolutely. Less now, but especially when I started off [as a freelancer].
How do you work through that kind of self-doubt?
I have to just go with my gut–which is a very hard thing for me to do. I’m used to taking problems and just being like, Okay, let’s break it down into little parts and conquer it. I’ve learnt that you can’t really do that with questions of the heart and the mind.
You have to feel it in your body. Is this the right thing to do? When I think of going back to work full-time in an open space office I want to shrivel up and run away. Your body just knows.
So what would you say to someone who is working full-time, and doesn’t think it’s for them, but doesn’t necessarily have the experience to go and do their own thing.
Start off slow, and make sure that it is actually what you want. If you don’t know what you want to do then that requires time alone and searching. It’s the hardest part because no one can tell you that.
If you really love movies, for example, maybe you make movies about how movies are made and post them on YouTube. Whenever somebody has said, just follow your passion, I’m like ‘Okay, wait! There’s more to it than that.’ But it is a very powerful way of sniffing out what you should be doing.
With all this experience under your belt, what would you say to your teen self?
I would say, ‘If it feels wrong don’t do it.’ Not to be confused with if it feels hard don’t do it. It should just be that simple.
And I guess that’s how you live your life now, right?
Yeah! So far. [Laughs]
Thank you, Ash!
Want to know about Ash’s latest project? Head on over here to read the first chapters of her novel and support her Kickstarter campaign!