How a White House creative director made political design accessible

In January 2012, when Ashleigh Axios started working at the White House as an art director, the Obama administration’s online network was little more than a website and a singular presence on Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, and YouTube. When she wrapped up her final days as creative director a few months ago, her team of 18 designers, writers, and videographers was reaching millions of Americans via Instagram, Medium, Reddit, Snapchat, Storify, Tumblr, and 120 Twitter accounts linked to staffers’ official roles—a spectacular feat when you consider that a mere four years ago, security concerns had blocked White House employees from even accessing most social media. 

Axios and her colleagues successfully lobbied to change that, shifting the department from a stepchild of the PR office into a pivotal part of the administration.

“In the beginning, everything seemed to be coming from the president or the ‘institution’ itself, so we didn’t have the engaging personal approach that our whole team was aiming for,” says Axios. “We wanted to create accounts for our experts in economics, health and human services, technology, all of it... to really connect people to the White House.” Axios knew that people in the tech industry weren’t inclined to follow every update coming from the White House, but many of them were interested in what the chief technology officer had to share. Allowing the community to follow that one individual, rather than one massive feed, enabled the team to reach more of its constituents.

“In my time at the White House, we saw an increased awareness of what design can bring to the table across government,” says Axios. “Staffers in Congress would come to us and say, ‘We’re trying to address some of the same problems you are, and we’re having such a hard time. How are you able to get things distilled into social graphics so that people can understand the issues and be more activated around our work?’ And the answer isn’t just visual design—it’s creative strategy, clear content, and plain language.”

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Before Axios, most White House staffers couldn’t even access most social media at work.

In the past, politicians could deliver their messages to the media and leave reporters to translate their jargon into a comprehensible statement. Now social media allows politicians to talk directly to the public, and many are still learning the new language. “One of my most basic pieces of advice is this: The title of your content should be the actual message you want people to take away,” says Axios. “It’s a rule that works for social graphics, white papers, blog posts, and new web content. But we’d often see White House staff create graphics with the title, ‘Fourth quartile women in XYZ market aged 24-37,’ and you’d have to read the different axes of the chart to figure it out; instead just say, ‘More women are getting college degrees than men.’” 

Since becoming chair of AIGA’s Racial Justice by Design efforts in June, Axios has spent a lot of time exploring the role of diversity in the design industry. “Diversity and inclusion are obviously pressing issues for our country, and something that tech and other industries are struggling with,” she says.

“When the term ‘diversity’ comes up everyone automatically goes to race or ethnicity, but I see two factors: inherent diversity, which includes things like race, ethnicity, and gender—things you’re born with. Another category is acquired diversity, things like picking up a second or third language, traveling, or doing research on a class of people or subject matter that might be rare—things you pick up based on your interests.” Axios leveraged some of that thinking when lobbying for updates to WhiteHouse.gov. The site was in need of a visual overhaul and lacked a responsive design, but some staffers argued that it wasn’t entirely broken, so the site languished.

Although nearly 50 percent of visitors were accessing the site via mobile devices, that fact alone wasn’t enough to prompt change, until Axios uncovered data revealing that an enormous number of people from economically impoverished areas had no choice but to use a smartphone to access the web. Axios got approval to make changes to the site, a section at a time, with a focus on audiences with limited access. Now 85 percent of the most trafficked sites, including those with vital information, feature a new and responsive design. 

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The WhiteHouse.gov homepage, after the redesign.

As Axios leaves her position to the capable hands of Jason Goldman, she has left her footprint on the most visually dynamic political organization in history, surely paving the way for a new era of graphic design—not just for the in-house designers, but for the community whom it serves. 

About the Author:

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.