Designing for Obama: Q&A with the creative director of the White House
Imagine designing for an audience of 314 million (i.e., every single American). And imagine your boss lives in a big, white house on Pennsylvania Avenue. No pressure, right? For Ashleigh Axios, vice president of AIGA’s Washington, D.C., chapter, it’s just another day at the office.
Working in the White House is quite a gig. How did you land it?
I met the then creative director, Kodiak Starr, at an AIGA DC happy hour. We talked casually and later connected on LinkedIn. A few months later, I was surprised to hear that they were hiring an art director on the then two-person design team. I thought the responsible thing to do—as an AIGA DC board member and Obama supporter—was to contact experienced designers I thought would be a great fit for the position, which I did. It took me a good deal of consideration and encouragement to apply for the position myself, but I did and obviously it went well enough.
Can you describe your role and the setup of your department and coworkers?
I’m the creative director in the Office of Digital Strategy (ODS), a small office located in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building that’s responsible for everything digital for the White House, and then some. ODS has executive leadership, an analytics director, and several three-person groups, including outreach and engagement, content, video, design and development.
ODS is engaged on a range of key issues for the Obama Administration, from WhiteHouse.gov and the “We the People” petitions platform to all White House social media presences. Everyone on the team wears multiple hats, contributes big and small ideas to the digital strategy behind the Obama Administration, executes in hyper speed and has a lot of fun.
And for the record, Healthcare.gov wasn’t us.
The White House must produce a lot of design-related products. What slice of the pie is yours? Can you provide some examples of your work?
It’s mostly us. Occasionally, individual offices will contract out a project and there’s a design service group that uses templates we create to help with things like report layout, internal signs, intranet touts and the like. There’s also a calligraphy office that does place cards and invitations with the historical White House flair, but mostly it’s us.
Our group prioritizes tasks that amplify the messages of President Obama and the administration, but we have fun, initiate new projects, and aren’t afraid to take risks.
Here’s a sampling of our work:
White House budget covers
WhiteHouse.gov/share videos and infographics (see example below)
We The Geeks , ConnectED Initiative, Youth Jobs+ logos
The State of the Union Enhanced Slides
The State of the Union Page
The Student Film Festival
Animated Immigration & Health Care Whiteboards
Climate Change Interactive Page
Preventing Gun Violence Issue Page
Taxpayer Receipt Tool
Would I Qualify for Refinancing Tool
Middle-Class Tax Cuts Infographic
Talk a little about the broader world of government design, and the challenges and areas for innovation, which is a topic you care about deeply.
Some think of government sites as dry and ineffective. I’m aware of this and it keeps me motivated. It gives me a sense of urgency.
This idea, however is one that I want to see turned on its head, and I’m excited to see government designers, developers and strategists going beyond mediocre design and performance to meet the rising expectation from the public on how government ought to look, serve and engage with them.
There are some challenges that we’re facing. Government budgets are shrinking while public expectations are increasing. There are challenges in communicating, collaborating and sharing resources throughout government. We’re a divided group that sometimes can’t even discuss our work, let alone collaborate.
But there’s a movement to fix that and I’m excited to see a diverse community led by creatives that’s stepping up to the challenge. We have a bright future ahead of us. One with better evidence-guided decision-making, better public engagement and thoughtful investment in skills and tools that allow for growth and closer collaboration.
Most designers are tasked with taking complicated or dry topics and turning them into compelling messages, and I would imagine this is magnified ten-fold in the world of politics, where nothing is simple. Can you describe one or two projects that were particularly challenging, and your solution?
Taking complicated topics and turning them into understandable and compelling stories is a big part of the job and is often the challenge we’re solving. It’s one of the biggest challenges we have each year because of the condensed timeline, parallel work being done, and the enormous amount of information we’re trying to convey. It’s high stress work to say the least, but it’s also exhilarating and provides a wonderful return on investment each year.
For example, each year President Obama continues the long tradition of addressing the nation on the state of our union. For a few years now we’ve enhanced the State of the Union broadcast by pairing it with custom charts, graphs, and images that help explain the various policies and issues touched upon in the speech (pictured above). We have the distinct task of making these complex topics more compelling and relatable.
We always work right up until the last moment possible and then through the speech, but we do prepare in advance what little we can, such as the brand, colors, fonts, site design and build, and technical details for livecasting the event. Most everything else, we rough out with the first draft of the speech. We iterate quickly and involve others to check our work. Luckily, we work on a variety of topics all the time, so we’re all pretty familiar with most of the subject matter and we have the policy writers and advisors on-call to answer questions and guide us in our attempts to balance plain language and accuracy.
Spill the beans: What's it like having President Obama as a client?
Are you kidding? It’s fantastic! Who wouldn’t love doing work that means something to them, is part of and is relevant to their country—here and now?
I also get to work with talented and fun people—including the President—and walk onto the complex looking at that beautiful and historic building most mornings. People take pictures outside my office and there are tours every day talk about what happens inside our buildings. It’s a truly amazing experience.
Content by David Hudson and Design by Jillian Maryonovich
Follow Axios @AshleighAxios.
About the Author: <blockquote id="x_x_x_ext-gen2078"> <div id="x_x_x_ext-gen2085"><span id="x_x_x_ext-gen2084">Scott Kirkwood is a freelance copywriter and creative director in Denver, CO, with a focus on the outdoors, nonprofits and "do-gooder" companies. He is also a frequent contributor to HOW Magazine and AIGA design blogs. </span></div> </blockquote>