My Career Journey: Christina Mallon

After being diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease that paralysed her arms, Christina Mallon’s career path shifted dramatically, setting her on a mission to create a world accessible for everyone

In 2010, Christina Mallon’s first step on the professional ladder was as an assistant account manager for Procter & Gamble, working with CoverGirl cosmetics. Her main responsibility was developing and executing creative strategy for the cosmetics brand, and using storytelling to move people. “In the US, the brand had a few spokeswomen (Ellen DeGeneres and Queen Latifah), they were more diverse than the usual, and I was really motivated by that,” Mallon tells CR. “That’s when I was really inspired to focus on representation in advertising.” 

This idea of representation quickly turned into an all-out mission for Mallon. In the first month of her new job, Mallon began to show hand weakness and a lack of movement in her arms. Soon after, she became paralysed in both arms and was diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease. The transition to being disabled was challenging, but it was amplified by people’s assumptions of her situation. 

“Many people would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, when are you quitting your job? When are you going to move back in with your parents?’ – because, obviously, as a disabled person, you couldn’t continue your work,” remembers Mallon. “But that wasn’t true. I was living alone in New York; I was fine. I figured out ways to move in this world that wasn’t accessible for me. When people just assumed my life wouldn’t be happy and joyful, that was very painful.” 

Top: Still from Degree Deodorant campaign, by Wunderman Thompson; Above: From the Tommy Adaptive campaign for Tommy Hilfiger, also by Wunderman Thompson

Though Mallon had her family and friends, she wasn’t given any help with adaptations at work as there was no one else who had hand and arm disabilities. So stepping up to the challenge, Mallon embarked on a journey of hacking the world. 

“At first, it was a lot of googling of how to do things with limited arm function, and buying products and testing them out,” says Mallon. Eventually, she began creating devices herself, such as working with an electrical engineer to design a mouse she could use with her foot, or working with a team to attach her subway card to a necklace so that she could get to work in the morning. “Slowly, I was able to hack things to be able to interact with the world, and that was when I really became a designer, because I knew I had to redesign the world, since it was not designed for me, or others like me,” she says. 

With this drive to make an impact, Mallon went from Procter & Gamble onto roles at Ogilvy & Mather, Arnold Worldwide and Possible. But it was in 2016 that her next significant role emerged as she began to get closer to her goal of making design and marketing more inclusive. “Up until about five or six years ago, I’d been hacking everything alone, but there was one thing I couldn’t hack, which was putting on a coat by myself without the use of my arms, and then someone referred me to Open Style Lab,” she explains. 

I think people have either subconsciously left people out because they don’t share their same experience, or … because they did not see these people as consumers

“They helped me create a coat that I could put on without the use of my arms, and then I realised that this was the part that was missing from my goal.” Mallon wanted to educate people, and encourage designers and engineers to design with the community, and that’s exactly what Open Style Lab was set up to do. “The non-profit takes engineers, fashion designers and occupational therapists and puts them together with a person with a disability to solve problems and create solutions,” says Mallon. “And this is what I needed to deliver on my goal, so I joined as a board member and then became a chief brand officer.” 

In that role, Mallon crafted the messaging and marketing for Open Style Lab, all the while learning more and more about product design from her colleagues. Their methodology was simple: to design inclusively. “Inclusive design or inclusivity in design is really trying to design for as many people as possible. The outcome of that is either designing for the edge cases, so people like me, which means creating a solution that works for everybody, or creating multiple solutions,” Mallon explains. 

It’s an area of design that’s been heavily neglected, and Mallon sees it as a systemic problem of the industry. “The people who are making the decisions on what’s produced, or those who are designing, create things that reflect their own lived experience,” she explains. “Unfortunately, there’s not as many people with disabilities, or people coming from other marginalised groups, in the decision-making or designing positions. I think people have either subconsciously left people out because they don’t share their same experience, or it’s been intentional because they did not see these people as consumers.” 

Mallon still works with Open Style Lab today, though she’s now in a managing partner role, which involves her overseeing the creation of inclusive clothing and product design solutions using AR and 3D printing. In 2017, Mallon was keen to take her experience at Open Style Lab to Wunderman Thompson, where she became its global head of inclusive design and digital accessibility. The New York-based agency works with brands across communications, commerce and consulting to help them grow in all senses of the word.

“My role is to ensure the work that we’re creating for our clients isn’t ableist, racist, or has any gender bias in it. How I do that is by spending most of my time with our top 30 clients and looking at the ads and the websites we create, while also pitching projects I think they need,” says Mallon. 

I love seeing that these brands care about these communities, because currently that’s not reflected in their work. They just need the help

One of the first big projects that encapsulates this approach was helping Tommy Hilfiger to launch its disability-friendly clothing line, Tommy Adaptive, in 2018. The line included items with adjustable hems, one-handed zippers, Velcro, magnetic buttons and much more. An ad for the brand featured an array of people from the disabled community talking about their experiences, and it highlighted why a move towards top fashion brands creating accessible clothing is vital.

“When you link disability and fashion together, and do it in a way that’s co-collaborating with the community, all the while with beautiful design, it makes me very proud,” says Mallon of the project. “A lot of the time, when it comes to underfunded, marginalised groups, the focus is on education and healthcare, which are very much needed, but I want other things like fashion and beauty to care about inclusion as well.” 

Another example of this has been Wunderman Thompson’s recent project for Unilever with Degree Deodorant, “the world’s first adaptive deodorant built with a diverse disability community”. “Brands have such a strong opportunity to play in these fields. They want to increase their penetration, and they have ways they can fix their product to be more inclusive, in addition to their advertising,” says Mallon. “We can help them with that.”

Other clients Mallon has worked with include Microsoft, GSK and Amazon, and part of the reason she’s drawn to helping big brands is because she believes they do want to make a difference. “I love seeing that these brands care about these communities, because currently that’s not reflected in their work. They just need the help to connect with the community and to execute the design and the advertising,” says Mallon. “Everyone is watching these brands, so they have a real power to make change in culture.” 

Wunderman Thompson’s Tommy Adaptive campaign for Tommy Hilfiger

An important focus in Mallon’s work has not only been creating products to help people, but also ensuring the communications, advertising and marketing are just as inclusive. “When I became paralysed, I would say the hardest part was not that I couldn’t open a door or put makeup on because the products weren’t accessible, but it was the preconceived notions that people had around disability and how I lived my life as a disabled person,” Mallon explains. 

“Communications create culture, and that’s key to changing those biases. If advertising doesn’t show people with disabilities living happy, active and diverse lives, then people aren’t going to think of those customers as a part of society or customers with money – and that’s wrong.” 

When asked about the pressure of being a representative for the community, Mallon is realistic about the limitations that come with that. “Here’s the thing, I don’t know everything about disability; I only know one lived experience, and that’s as a white upper-class woman with a disability. I cannot represent people who have a different lived experience than me. So I definitely feel the pressure to ensure I am doing what is right for the larger community, which is why my whole life is immersed in disability,” she says. “I try to spend as much time as possible with diverse people with disabilities. It’s super important with all of my work that I co-collaborate with additional people in the community so that it is not just my voice.” 

Success is everyone seeing themselves in the advertising and being able to use the products – that’s when I think I could retire

With several major projects under her belt now, for Mallon this is simply the start and she’s already looking ahead to what’s next. “I want to be able to create an inclusive product and advertising in every major vertical. That’s the main goal, just because I think we need a North Star for each category to know what good looks like,” she says. “I also want the advertising and design industry to have inclusive design as their only methodology of design – that’s my moonshot goal.” 

In an ideal world, Mallon says her services wouldn’t be needed anymore if everyone designed that way. “Success is everyone seeing themselves in the advertising and being able to use the products – that’s when I think I could retire,” she says. Until that time, though, Mallon will be spending her time pushing brands and the people with the power to think about diverse consumers. “I want to make the world a better place … and I will continue to do that for the rest of my life.” 

Christina Mallon will be speaking at the Festival of Marketing on 18-21 October. Attend the virtual event for four days of unrivalled learning, including a day of content curated by Creative Review;