EducationSuperHighway white paper
Header Image
Case Study By
Studio Usher

May 2013–December 2013



Project Title

EducationSuperHighway white paper

  • Lead Design Firm: Studio Usher
  • Creative Director: Naomi Usher
  • Photographer: Jonathan Nesteruk
  • Illustrators: Naomi Usher, Bee Murphy
  • Designers: Naomi Usher
  • Copywriters: Naomi Usher, Ron Prince, Evan Marwell, Jim Kohlenberger, Nell Hurley
  • Animators: Naomi Usher, Suzanne Batmanghelichi
  • Website Developers: Alex Reeves: Moonpool, Matt Sanders: Trigger Design Inc.

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2014 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 19 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments below.

Virtually every education reform idea in the U.S. is founded upon digital learning. But digital learning requires robust broadband and today, 72% of our K-12 schools do not have the speed they need. The nonprofit organization EducationSuperHighway sees a solution: the modernization of a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program called E-rate that was created in 1996 to fund the move from dial-up to broadband in schools.

In 2013, Studio Usher was awarded an Ideas that Matter grant to develop print and digital materials for EducationSuperHighway and help them garner support for aggressive E-rate reform from the White House, Congress and FCC commissioners. The impact has been astounding:

  • President Obama announced ConnectED to connect 99% of students to high-speed broadband in five years.
  • EducationSuperHighway secured $9 million from Mark Zuckerberg's foundation Startup:Education and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • Fifty CEOs from companies including American Express, Adobe, Bloomberg, Dell, Dropbox, eBay, Facebook, Google, HP, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley,, Tory Burch and Yahoo submitted a letter to the FCC urging E-rate modernization.
  • The FCC announced a $2 billion initial upgrade in funding for school broadband.
  • In his State of the Union address, President Obama promised to connect 20 million kids to Gigabit broadband within two years.


This animation serves as a call-to-action to visit a microsite URL housing information about modernization. EducationSuperHighway is sending links to the animation via email. They are also presenting it in face-to-face meetings with policy makers in Washington D.C., potential coalition members, school superintendents, school boards, foundations, nonprofit partners and anyone interested in supporting education reforms.


“In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, we should definitely demand it in our schools.” President Barack Obama, Twitter feed (February 4, 2014)

EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit organization with roots in the high-tech industry, was founded to address major weaknesses in the Internet infrastructure in America’s schools. In early 2013, Naomi Usher initiated a meeting with CEO Evan Marwell to explain Sappi Fine Paper’s Ideas that Matter grant program and to explore the possibility of leveraging a grant to advance EducationSuperHighway’s mission.

EducationSuperHighway needed high-impact collateral to tell its story and garner support from a bipartisan coalition of federal and state legislators for aggressive policy reform and the redirection of $7.5 billion in federal spending. The key to success was to put a human face on the issue of Internet infrastructure and education in the U.S. The primary target audience was the Federal Communications Commission, members of Congress, and the White House. The secondary audience was potential coalition members, school superintendents, school boards, foundations and nonprofit partners interested in supporting education reforms. The material needed to have broad appeal—to be sophisticated enough for those with an understanding of the subject, but simple enough for those without in-depth knowledge. It needed to appeal to the technology community, while not alienating teachers and school administrators, constituents who are often initially skeptical about new education reforms.

In June 2013, Studio Usher submitted a proposal to Ideas that Matter and in September was awarded a grant on behalf of EducationSuperHighway.


Virtually every education reform idea in the U.S. is founded upon digital learning. But digital learning requires robust broadband and today, 72% of K-12 schools in the U.S. do not have sufficient Internet infrastructure to implement these education initiatives. In 2012, at the request of the White House, the FCC and the U.S. Department of Education, EducationSuperHighway prepared an analysis to size up the K-12 internet infrastructure gap. The analysis concluded that the U.S. could provide 99% of its public school students with adequate connectivity within seven years for approximately $7.5 billion and pay for the upgrade by modernizing an existing program called E-rate.

The E-rate program was created in 1996 to ensure that low income and rural schools would not be left behind during the Internet revolution. When E-rate was introduced, only 15% of schools had a broadband connection to the Internet. Over the next seven years, E-rate funded the move from dial-up to broadband until 99% of K-12 schools had basic broadband access. Then, in the late 2000’s, as video and other high bandwidth applications emerged, capacity replaced access as the critical bottleneck to digital learning, resulting in a new type of digital divide. By 2012, 40 million students did not have sufficient Internet infrastructure to accommodate true digital learning.


Development budget: Less than $2,500
This project is: An in-house on-going relationship
Production/execution budget: $30,000–$100,000
Source of funding: SAPPI North America’s Ideas that Matter Grant


Studio Usher’s strategy was to bring a sense of intensity to the logical, but dry arguments concerning Internet infrastructure by creating an unexpected collateral piece that went beyond the traditional white paper research document. EducationSuperHighway planned to distribute the material: in meetings with key legislators in Washington, D.C.; to a target list of 100 CEOs to help build a coalition in support of E-rate reform; in response to interest generated during the E-rate reform comment and reply period in late 2013/early 2014; and at Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD) Commission meetings and at six major conferences.


Prior to approaching EducationSuperHighway to offer her services pro-bono, Naomi Usher surveyed existing nonprofits to find the one she felt had a compelling message with a design voice that had yet to be solidified. After agreeing to work together on a grant proposal, an initial step was to research and determine the information and format government officials would expect from a traditional white paper.

While Studio Usher did not do analytical research on behalf of EducationSuperHighway, we gained significant insight about Internet infrastructure from the organization’s ongoing research related to: speed tests they ran nationally to determine the percentage of U.S. schools with adequate connectivity; current and future cost of connectivity; and comparisons of Internet infrastructure in schools worldwide. Studio Usher helped the organization distill this data and analysis into clear language and compelling visuals.


The final design solution was close to the proposal Studio Usher presented to Sappi, but represented a complete departure for EducationSuperHighway’s marketing.


The first step was to capture images of the beneficiaries of EducationSuperHighway’s work through photographs of K-12 students. With the cooperation of the New Jersey Department of Education and several education nonprofits in New York, Studio Usher organized six days of photo shoots. We set up a small photo studio at each location and spent three minutes per student to capture the personalities of children with digital access and those without. In tandem, Studio Usher designed an informational micro-site for schools, prospective students and their families. This site also worked as a vehicle to collect model release forms from parents.

Print Collateral

To create impact and evoke a sense of urgency and newsworthiness, Studio Usher designed the printed collateral as an oversize broadsheet (10.5" x 16"). Using the “check mark” and “X”—among the most basic of school test marks—Studio Usher set up a structure to convey clearly, cleanly and forcefully that we are “x-ing” out a large percentage of our nation’s children by denying them access to opportunities that a robust internet infrastructure allows.

In the collateral, the photography portrays the vast scope of the issue. There are two full spreads containing 144 photos of students. Also included are eight life-size portraits that give an identity to a few of the 40 million children left behind.

The messaging is succinct and clear and the data, analysis and charts speak simply, yet powerfully to the issue of technology and infrastructure gaps. The white paper ends with an explicit call to action for legislators to join the bipartisan coalition to upgrade America’s K-12 Internet infrastructure and support the FCC and E-rate reform.


Trigger Design developed to work in tandem with the printed broadsheet. This micro-site houses an animation on the subject and a PDF of the printed piece. It also showcases breaking news updates, such as the letter that 50 top CEOs signed in support of E-rate modernization and a similar one written by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.


Studio Usher created an animation to serve as a call-to-action to visit this micro-site. EducationSuperHighway sent links to the animation via email and continues to use it as an introduction to the issue in face-to-face meetings with policy makers in Washington D.C. and potential coalition members.


During the creative development, Studio Usher faced three challenges:

  1. To proceed at all, we needed to obtain funding from Sappi.
  2. The idea to use photography of actual students was an easy one. However, it took time and persistence to convince over-burdened school principals to allow their students to take time out from learning and participate in the photo shoots.
  3. We needed to gain the trust of the parents so that they would allow EducationSuperHighway to use their children’s imagery in pursuit of the cause.


The message and materials have been extremely well received:

  •  In June 2013, President Obama announced the ConnectED initiative, to connect 99% of students to high-speed broadband in five years.
  • In December 2013, EducationSuperHighway secured $9 million from Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation Startup:Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • In January 2014, 50 CEOs from companies including American Express, Adobe, Bloomberg, Dell, Dropbox, eBay, Facebook, Google, HP, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley,, Tory Burch and Yahoo submitted a letter to the FCC urging E-rate modernization.
  • In his January 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama promised to connect 20 million kids to gigabit broadband within two years.
  • In February 2014,the FCC doubled funding for school broadband.
  • In March 2014, the Conference of Mayors sent a letter to the FCC urging swift action to modernize E-rate.
  • Major news coverage has been generated for the issue including coverage in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Forbes, Politico, Education Week, edSurge, The Hill, ABC News, Bloomberg Television, EdSource, Slate and Stanford Business Center for Social Innovation.

Additional Information

None of this material would have been possible without Sappi’s Ideas that Matter grant program. Naomi Usher is proud of the feedback from Sappi about her proposal:

“In 2013, five judges read through 140 entries for our Ideas that Matter grant program. EducationSuperHighway was the project that moved from one round to the next very quickly every time (there are four to six rounds of judging to find the perfect fit for spreading the financial allotment for the year). In this process the judges for 2013—Bill Drenttel, Michael LeJeune, Alissa Walker, Jennifer Kinon and Erin Huizenga—commented on this proposal as follows:”

“Love the visual impact this piece has, it makes the cause human.”

“The idea of creating a better vessel to reach legislators is appealing and impactful. This project is very future-thinking—and with the government stamp—a winner.”

“Love the cause.”

“Love this nonprofit, its name, its vision and this work. I’m inspired.”

Juror Comments

“This non-profit program demonstrates how bold and cost-effective design can be when articulated the right way. The message is also elevated because the designer understood how to balance impact without compromising meaning.” —Dana Arnett

“A white paper is all too often exactly what it sounds like. This team saw the opportunity for design to take the messaging to the next level. In creating a large format paper that feels personal and informative, the designer helped gain this paper enough attention to obtain funding and push its agenda forward. More projects in this realm should be approached in this manner.” —Kate Aronowitz

“I appreciated how the design team took it upon themselves to secure the funding to focus on an effort that can change the education system. This project shows the power of design in supporting our children’s future.” —Cameron Campbell

“EducationSuperHighway created change. The campaign delivered information to the White House, Congress and FCC, which all took action to address school broadband. Print pieces can be very passive. The design and photography made the EducationSuperHighway print piece very active.” —Jennifer Kinon

“The project takes a complex problem and through strong narrative development makes the solution seem achievable, and even inevitable. ESWP had remarkable impact for a print piece and further demonstrates how message-centric design can significantly increase the success of a key program.” —Jeremy Mende

“Believe it or not, this is a whitepaper. What’s typically a dry, dense and dreary experience is transformed through design into a narrative, emotional and ultimately much more memorable one. The achievement of this solution lies not in the specifics of the typography, photography, layout or other formal elements (all of which are solid), but in the fact that they exist at all. What could have been an easy punt is instead a compelling example of how design, as a craft, can connect people with ideas.” —Christopher Simmons

Tags Case study Justified DesignEd K12