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story.lead_photo.caption University of Arkansas students are shown on the lawn in front of Old Main on the campus in Fayetteville in this file photo. - Photo by David Gottschalk

FAYETTEVILLE -- Ashleigh Axios, a graphic designer and former White House staff member, said explaining how Snapchat worked, essentially as a social media platform with disappearing content, to the prior administration, took a while.

"Everything we did was subject to the Presidential Records Act," she said about her team of digital content strategists under the tenure of President Barack Obama. Under the act, they had to have a clear, documented version of everything they did.

"So disappearing content was like, how do you ... store that and document it?," she said. "The answer is just screen shots."

Axios, a president-elect on the American Institute of Graphic Arts board of directors, worked in the Obama White House for four years after college, serving two years as the first female minority creative director and digital strategist. She was named by Essence magazine in 2015 as one of the most powerful black women in the Obama administration.

She now gives talks about her time there, inspiring other designers and students with stories and tips she gathered along the way. On Thursday afternoon, she spoke at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville at Hillside Auditorium. It was sponsored by the Northwest Arkansas chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

In her role, she led a team of writers, email strategists, content creators, graphic designers and developers that did a number of things, from redesigning the Obama-era website to engaging with the general public on a daily basis through interactive graphics and social media. The team at the time was called the Office of Digital Strategy, and handled merging the separate identities of the historical Executive Office and Barack Obama, the person, into a single brand.

The result was something distinct and unique to administrations that came before and after, Axios said.

Under Obama, the team of designers acted like a startup company within the White House, trying new things quickly and sometimes yielding big results. The project Axios said she was most proud of was when her team lit up the White House in rainbow colors the night of the 2015 Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. In addition to that, they developed a rainbow White House iconography that people could download and use as their profile picture to support the federal legalization.

"Just seeing people reuse it that day and post it on their own channels was really kind of an incredible experience," Axios said.

Leading up to the landmark decision, she said the work weeks were so busy that she didn't have time to work on the rainbow icon during the work day.

"I was like 'I need to do this!'" she said despite not knowing when or if the decision would happen. "I need to finish this piece tonight to have it ready and on standby. So it was kind of one of those passion projects for me."

By comparison, the current administration does not have an Office of Digital Strategy. Axios said they provided operational notes to them such as rapid response protocols, access channels and other guidelines, but those were likely thrown away.

"I believe there's one person who does digital and you can tell when he posts because most of the stuff is @Whitehouse and the tone is very different from the real Donald Trump on twitter," she said.

University of Arkansas alumni Lucie Patton, 27, and Ashley Cane, 30, said they both admired how quickly Axios left college and entered a big role leading a small team.

"I think a lot of her tips were good reminders since we work in the field and work on similar problems and projects," Cane said. "The part that stuck with me was her bit about never stop learning and always challenging your professional growth, because I feel like once you've been out of school for a while it's easy to get caught up and forget that side of it."

Patton said after getting her degree in graphic design and working in Fayetteville she moved to Texas and started working at a nonprofit, where she still does design, but has picked up different job skills along the way and plans to continue challenging herself going forward.

Eric Henderson, 24, a graphic design student in Fayetteville, first met Axios earlier this year at an American Institute of Graphic Arts conference in Pasadena, Calif. They shared a dance circle and Henderson heard rumors that she worked for the Obama administration, but did not know she was a creative director.

"You know, that's big," he said.

Business on 09/21/2019

Print Headline: UA hosts digital strategist


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