Elevating Stories #3: Heather Hansman

By: Melanie Hodgman

When the central character in your story is a 730-mile river, that means swimming at sea level, flying at 10,000 feet, and zooming out across states to capture all perspectives. In our third installment of Elevating Stories, we followed Heather Hansman down a natural storytelling path where she explained the secret to weaving together many points of view.

As part of the research for her book, Down River: Into the Future of Water in the West, Heather paddled 700 miles of the Green River in a solo pack raft from source to confluence, getting a firsthand look at the ongoing fight over water rights on the largest tributary of the Colorado River. Along the way she interviewed stakeholders such as ranchers, farmers, conservationists, and city officials while learning about the river itself at water level. Her book expertly bridges science, adventure, and conservationism, bringing together information from different camps to enlighten the reader.

Heather makes it look easy to build multiple perspectives and storylines into one narrative. Here are three tips we learned for making sure the big picture captures it all and keeps your audience engaged:

  • Take a journalistic approach. Do extensive background research to understand the subject matter and build a comprehensive story. Once you speak the language of a topic you can write accurately and authentically.
  • Don’t act like an expert if you’re not one. You need a solid foundation to ask the right questions, but then let the experts do the talking. This allows you to listen and discern the most salient points.
  • Make your narrative action oriented. Weaving in some adventure keeps the audience hooked. The tricky part is to stay true to your thesis and main points.

Heather reminded us that solid storytelling starts with asking the right questions and a having willingness to go on a journey to learn more.


Meet Li, the model modeler who magnifies marketing

By: Annie Wegrich

Ahh, high school. The years when we knew everything and were gracious enough to share our insurmountable knowledge with anyone, without prompt. Guangyi Li, or Li, was a typical high schooler in many ways. He knew everything, doodled the day away, and loved a good video game.

Temporary introvert

However, unlike the teen you probably were, Li kept his knowledge to himself. In fact, he kept almost entirely to himself. As a recent immigrant from China, Li didn’t share a common language with his midwestern classmates. Although wise beyond his years, he barely spoke outside of his family until he went to college, lived in the dorms, and met a roommate worth talking to.

Rewarded risker

That reserved high schooler is not the Li we now know at 2A. The Li we know taught himself how to tackle big challenges, like learning English in college, and how to take on big risks, like moving to Seattle without a job or a place to live.

Marketing asset

The Li we know is brilliantly artistic and laugh-out-loud funny. We’re so glad he sought 2A to advance his skills by working across industries and media, because really, we were seeking Li. With a design aesthetic that balances the playful with the professional and comedic timing that charms every meeting, Li elevates our team.

Role model-modeler

Li’s dynamic commitment to design enables him to quickly shift gears and tackle projects with precision—like overhauling 20 PowerPoint decks in less than a week or diving deep to refine every element and effect on a robust website. But at home, Li prefers the still and small, zooming in to create tiny scale models with impeccable detail. We’re talking a 7-inch greenhouse with teeny-tiny, climate-appropriate plants and a coffee house with a detailed espresso machine that screams $5 12oz. Big or small, Li applies the same methodical approach and commitment to each pixel, PowerPoint, and plant.


A 2020 vision for presentations

By: Thad Allen

At 2A, a lot of our design efforts go into shaping presentations to tell a great story. We’re constantly pushing the limits of what’s doable in PowerPoint, striving to make presentations interesting and engaging rather than a bland slog through bullet points. Making them sing requires staying on the pulse of the latest trends. With a new year upon us, here are some hot design tips to make sure your presentations aren’t trapped in the past.

Sanding off the edges: removing the details from illustrations and icons

Screens are becoming capable of higher definition all the time—from Apple’s Retina to Microsoft’s ClearType to 4K TVs. But rather than cramming details into every pixel available, the savvy designer takes a simpler approach to the crisp clarity provided by high-res screens. Here’s what’s hot:

  • Illustrations are headed toward one of two minimalistic paths: solid block colors or open outlines.
  • Icons are becoming more abstracted rather than finely detailed.
  • Similar graphic styles are used to communicate information; for instance, infographics are replacing charts, visualizations are superseding text.

Our advice? Embrace those designs. Viewers can only take in so much visual information, especially when it’s accompanied by a speaker. Cutting graphics down to the bare minimum will make sure audiences take notice of what you want to emphasize. Gain a little pop by combining text and minimalistic graphics to concisely communicate information.

Outdated vs Modern icon styles

CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW‽ Typography is getting bold with all caps

Maxi typography, which uses all caps and often dominates the page, is a growing trend in design. Look for:

  • Bold, all-caps, sans-serif fonts that serve as the hero and emphasize titles and text.
  • Full bleed layouts as the backdrop for maxi typography, making the text jump off the page and immerse the viewer.
  • Larger text means that photographs and texture can be placed inside typography to draw the eye.

Regular text vs Maxi text

As we like to say, “less is more work.” Like streamlined icons, just because something is simplified does not necessarily make it easier! Careful planning will go a long way toward helping your text make its greatest impact. Get ready for some louder typography in 2020—your words are going to make a statement.

It’s morphin’ time: PowerPoint threads the story with motion

First introduced several years ago, PowerPoint’s Morph transition is gaining a foothold as presenters realize its full potential. You’ll see more of Morph in 2020 because it provides an incredibly easy way to add elegant visual transitions. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Instead of spending hours assembling complex animations, Morph allows you to naturally and easily revise motion as you design in PowerPoint.
  • Morph or Fade can work wonders to flow content between slides, smoothly guiding viewers through your story.
  • Animation and transitions in PowerPoint are extra effective when combined with the graphic and text treatments discussed above.


As we move into a new decade, it’s exciting to see how presentation methods continue to grow and evolve. Let’s leave the days of “death by PowerPoint” behind and forge dynamic new presentations!


2A’s favorite albums of 2019

By: Kyle Luikart + the 2A Team

At 2A we’re used to hearing about how disruptive technological innovation can be good for business and sometimes down-right necessary. It’s interesting to look back 20 years and remember how the early days of MP3s and file sharing began to “destroy the music industry”. Platforms like Napster meant leaked albums spread like wildfire and bands like Metallica (or more so, their record labels) were losing out on millions of dollars. As a result, the RIAA waged all-out war on consumers under the guise of protecting artists, which alienated fans.

It was a digital transformation that none of the involved businesses wanted to take place and fought hard to prevent. However, two decades after a couple of college kids had a questionable use case for peer-to-peer software, we have a revolutionized, stable industry that flourishes in ways previously unimagined. Services like Apple Music, Spotify, and Amazon Music allow their end users to explore and consume music on a scale like nothing before. The walls have fallen on both sides too; artists enjoy significantly reduced barriers to reaching a global audience. And even more, this revolution has rippled throughout all things media (see Netflix, Hulu, and Disney Plus), and even influenced software platform models, à la software as a service.

It begs the question – when it comes to technology, when do we switch from worrying about what will be lost and start exploring what can be gained? This is one of many concepts in digital transformation we tackle when we develop marketing strategy for our enterprise tech clients. While you ponder the future of disruptive tech in entertainment, why not queue up some of the albums the 2A team found on heavy rotations this year, ‘coz hey—after all that’s changed, people are still making music.

  • Nilüfer Yanya – Miss Universe (Indie rock/soul) “On her debut album, Nilüfer Yanya creates jazz-infused, scrappy pop that bounces back and forth between soulful slow-burners and hooky, guitar-driven jams. I saw her live this year and she rocked.” – Nick Dwyer
  • Sault – 5 (Funk/neo soul) “Propulsive, mysterious and a little rough, Sault’s 2019 album caught me by surprise and I can’t stop listening.” – Abby Breckenridge
  • Ezra Furman – Twelve Nudes (Rock/art pop) “This album is a queer and trans refuge to hide inside when overwhelmed by the world and the constant weight of the news. It’s got a punk edge that is much more visceral and raw than his previous works.” – Annie Unruh
  • The Strumbellas – Rattlesnake (Indie rock/alt country) “Their second album really shows how they’ve grown with their families and as a group. Plus, they’re Canadian.” – Don Selkirk
  • Blanco Brown – Honeysuckle & Lightning Bugs (Country/hip hop) “Blanco Brown’s debut album sits comfortably at the cross roads of hip hop and country music, exploring the soul that underpins both genres with heartwarming charm. Plus, my kid LOVES The Git Up!” – Drue Stewart
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated (Synth-pop/dance) “A bright and danceable album, with a lovelorn tinge of melancholy infused among the polished synthpop tracks.” – Thad Allen
  • Octo Octa – Resonant Body (House/breakbeat)“Octo Octa’s work dances around iconic rave textures, vocals samples, and drum loops to create a hazy 90s warehouse party vibe that hits the spot anytime of the day. It’s 3am somewhere!” – Kyle Luikart
  • Maggie Rogers – Heard it in a Past Life (Pop/folk pop) “There’s something entrancing about Maggie’s voice that makes all the millennial girls close their eyes and sway their arms in the air.” – Rachel Sacks
  • Kate Tempest – The Book of Traps and Lessons (Spoken word/hip hop) “Kate’s lyrical talents and emotionally charged delivery call out the realities of racism, self-destructive habits, social media, climate change and Brexit-era complications while resolving on a theme of love and the necessity of connection.” – Melanie Hodgman
  • Rhye – Spirit (R&B/downtempo) “I saw them open for Leon Bridges at The Hollywood Bowl July 5th this year. They use all sorts of string instruments to generate def beats.” – Julie Lowy
  • Burna Boy – African Giant (Reggae/dancehall) “My buddy Dre Skull did a song with Burna Boy on this beautiful and generous album.” – Daniel Schmeichler


Digital accessibility puts people first

By: Erin McCaul & Rachel Sacks

Imagine climbing a mountain with only one arm. In the documentary Stumped, Maureen Beck does just that. “We don’t climb to be special, we don’t climb to win some silly awards,” she says in the film. “We climb because we love climbing just like everybody else.”

When we think of disabilities it’s easy to think of the physical challenges people like Maureen face. But in today’s modern world, where many of our public spaces have been changed to support those with disabilities, it’s our digital spaces that lag behind. When design is approached from a human-centered perspective with disabilities in mind, everyone can benefit from more accessible products.

Who hasn’t appreciated closed captioning at a noisy event, an elevator instead of stairs, or audio books? Additionally, by making these accessibility features out in the open and available to all, they become less stigmatized and individuals are empowered to select interaction methods that work best for them—regardless of ability.

Here at 2A, we’re putting people front and center in every step of our web development process. Our design team is constantly checking for contrast and font sizes to help people with low vision read more clearly. We design our sites with alt text and tab stops to help people who are navigating with a screen reader. And our development team tests our websites in staging environments before anything goes live to make sure we’ve incorporated accessibility measures.

Do your part

Ready to start doing your part to make the web more accessible? Here are some places to start:

  • Read up on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to understand how websites can become more accessible. WCAG measures website content and accessibility by four criteria: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.
  • Install the Chrome extension Accessibility Insights for Web. This tool allows you to run quick automated tests that can catch 30-40% of the most common WCAG issues such as low contrast text, missing alt text, and tabbing.
  • Involve people with disabilities in your user testing to accurately uncover usability issues. Having them test your primary workflows with tools they already use is a great way to pressure test your digital experiences for accessibility. Be sure to offer compensation for their time (everyone loves gift cards)!

Small steps toward a send

In climbing the term “send” means to climb a route without falling. When climbing a difficult route, it’s common to try multiple times before sending. Failing forward is just a part of the process. Designing for accessibility is kind of like sending—it’s not going to happen right away, but with enough small steps we can achieve big changes to make the web more accessible for everyone.


Elevating Stories #2: Malaka Gharib

By: Nick Dwyer

Malaka Gharib makes sense of a complicated world by making art. As a journalist, zine-maker, and graphic novelist, Malaka is in her element writing and illustrating her unique perspective of the world around her. We had the pleasure of learning about her creative approach to storytelling in the latest edition of Elevating Stories–a series of talks with authors, experts, and creators held at 2A.

Malaka traveled to Seattle from her home of Washington, D.C. to present at the Short Run Comix and Arts Festival, the city’s preeminent convention on alternative comics and handmade books of all kinds. In addition to the festival and speaking at 2A, she also used her trip to promote her new graphic memoir about growing up as a first-generation Egyptian-Filipino American, I Was Their American Dream. In an authentic conversation, Malaka revealed these lessons she’s learned from finding her creative identity and professionally publishing her first book.

You can’t always depend on your day job to be a creative outlet

After graduating from college as a magazine journalism major during the 2008 financial crisis, Malaka realized that she couldn’t rely on her 9-to-5 job for creative expression. So she figured out how to do it in her free time. By carving out time to write and draw on her own accord, she made zines and art that truly satisfied her own personal agenda.

Making art helps us persevere

As the child of Egyptian and Filipino immigrants, Malaka struggled to make sense of her personal identity growing up. She learned as a teenager that following creative pursuits could help her understand and celebrate her uncommon background. After Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric helped him become president, Malaka knew she had to write a book about her upbringing that served a counter argument. Self-expression enables catharsis, and Malaka was able to cope with the state of the world by taking on the biggest creative project of her life.

Zines can be storytelling building blocks

Zines are self-published magazines that don’t follow print conventions, which makes them flexible tools for storytelling especially suited to people tight on time like Malaka. To quickly get her creative energy out, Malaka’s made a habit of creating mini comic zines from a single sheet of paper during idle moments. When she faced the daunting task of creating a 160-page graphic novel, Malaka structured it as a compilation of eight zines. By breaking the novel into familiar subcomponents, she was able to control her focus and organization.

Collaborate, but don’t compromise your vision

Writing and illustrating your first novel is inherently a learning process. And for someone used to the DIY nature of zines, working with dozens of book agents, publishers, designers, and editors made for a dizzying experience. More than 60 people contributed to the creation of her book, and their guidance was sometimes in conflict. At one point, her work-in-progress novel was a problem she just wanted to throw money at to fix. But after taking command of her vision, she put the right stakeholders in place to get the best version of her book across the finish line.


To the uninformed, writing a book sounds romantic. However, Malaka’s uncensored depiction of writing and drawing a graphic memoir took us behind the curtain to understand how messy the creative process can be. She candidly shared obstacles in her journey as a storyteller, but also proved that creating something that beautifully captures your perspective is worth the struggle.


When the stories to tell are paintings by Colombian ex-combatants

By: Erin McCaul

In college, I got a C in art history. I thought I appreciated art, but after that grade I told myself I was incapable of understanding it. That changed when I was introduced to the work of Juan Manuel Echavarría.

Echavarría and his team have created a significant body of work focused on Colombia’s long-running, armed conflict. His art explores how decades of war has impacted rural communities and normalized violence.

Recently, 2A created an online gallery for La Guerra Que No Hemos Visto (The War We Have Not Seen). From 2007-2009, Echavarría, Fernando Grisalez, and Noel Palacios—as part of the Fundación Puntos de Encuentro—organized painting workshops for former combatants. Armed with wooden panels, vinyl paints, brushes, pencils and erasers—these ex-combatants painted their truths. The goal was not to teach them how to paint, but to give them a medium to share their war stories. The project includes 480 paintings from former members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP), and the Colombian Army.

Our aim for the website was to ensure the technology behind it melted into the background, and the design differentiated it from a colder, Chelsea-level gallery site by surfacing the humanity. And the artist-driven, cross-continental, complex nature of the endeavor presented some meaty challenges.

We worked with Echavarría and his team to select close to 100 paintings for the site, then wrangled names, bios, and painting synopses in both Spanish and English. We workshopped UX challenges—how do you handle navigation for a multi-lingual site? how can we best connect related works? how do we let viewers zoom in close enough to see the finest painting details on mobile? We wrestled with the site structure, landing on an experience that let artists, curators, academics, students, writers, and regular old C-in-art-history folks like me find a way in to the work.

The result is a site that invites us to look darkness, terror, and unimaginable loss in the eye. The stories had me in tears more than once, feeling absolutely gutted. But the work documents memories that shouldn’t be forgotten, giving voice to those who have been silenced. As a team of storytellers, we’re honored to help Echavarría share it with the world.


How kayaking is better than a pumpkin-spice latte

By: Melanie Hodgman

Every fall, I long to slow down from the summer pace of doing-all-the-things-because-it’s-light-until 10pm. I’m comforted by familiar habits like hibernating in a favorite sweater rediscovered in the back of my closet. And while the well-defined patterns of my work week can be reassuring, they can also lead to a lack of creativity as I get too comfortable. Fortunately, last week I was able to shake things up. After joining teammates and Puget Soundkeeper staff on their weekly Lake Union kayak patrol, I walked away refreshed with renewed creative energy to bring to my role at 2A.

Every Wednesday morning, Puget Soundkeeper wrangles volunteers to paddle the edge of the lake collecting trash before it flows into the Puget Sound. Last week our team removed 85 lbs of mostly plastic in under two hours. By getting this trash out of the water before it breaks down into smaller particles called microplastics, we are protecting our waterways and the wildlife who depend on them to survive (including humans)!

Paddling around Lake Union may not sound like storytelling for business, but it certainly sounds like 2A. Our Giving program encourages the team to be part of the community both through activities like the kayak cleanup and by matching donations. It’s also a great way to shake up the routine which was just what I needed last week—even more effective than a pumpkin spice latte.


Birthday advice for the middle-aged: Don’t attempt the math

By: Kelly Schermer

Some years, birthdays are all about the numbers. Like this year. I drove 8 hours across 3 states with one 6-year-old and watched 2 feet wiggle during the 9 hours I was trying to sleep, in order to hear 3 stories told by 1 stranger on behalf of 47 newly naturalized citizens…. It added up to the kind of experience that left me energized and exhausted.

In case it wasn’t clear, I spent the day at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh watching my sister-in-law, Masha, become a U.S. citizen. Families and friends sat shoulder to shoulder on one side of the courtroom, the newly naturalized citizens on the other, Girl Scout troupe 414* filled the jury box, and a self-proclaimed short judge sat in a very tall chair behind the towering bench. We all surrounded a podium on the floor.

Immigration has never been an easy topic, especially when it strays to the gray areas of the law. But, as with all issues that have the potential to irrevocably change lives, it demands compassion first. Compassion is a gaping black hole in our current government, which over the past term has created a black hole in many of our hearts. The speech I heard on behalf of the citizens sparked the first genuine feeling of hope I’ve felt for our country in a long time. It wasn’t just the stories that got through to me, either—it was also how they were told, which was another gift all its own.

I didn’t catch the speaker’s name. She was a middle-aged, professional woman who seemed competent although not charismatic. She started off by saying, “I’m going to share three stories with you,” and I cringed. The structure made me think of Goldilocks and the 3 Little Pigs—stories that teach there’s one right way to do things. I couldn’t fathom what lesson she would surmise from three stories that would be true and respectful of the different paths that led all 47 newly naturalized citizens here.

The first story was about her dad, eager to explore the world outside India; the second was about her mom, a homebody subjected to an arranged marriage; and the third was about herself as an 11-year-old, Canadian girl forced to move to America.

Instead of tying them together with a one-size-fits-all moral the way I expected, she reflected them back on the audience to say that whatever experience had brought us from where we started to where we were today, that experience was valid. For some like her dad, it might be the pursuit of a dream. For others like her mom, it could be the fulfillment of a larger obligation. And for those like herself, it might be something entirely out of their control. But all of them can be true.

That twist really hooked me. It got me thinking about how between the lines of her speech, she was actually saying one-size doesn’t fit all in the US.  Between the personalities in her family she was creating space where others could find themselves.  Between her intro and her conclusion, she was demonstrating that stories don’t have to tell the audience what they should see, they can also tell the audience how much they’ll never see.

While the past four years have been a cold, dark stretch in our country’s history as a safe harbor for immigrants, the message I heard on my birthday helped me realize that I don’t know how this story will end no matter how much I think I might. And between all the possibilities that exist, there’s always a way to make room in the story for hope. Short of a new back and a full night of sleep, I can’t think of a better way to feel young again.


*The troupe number has been changed to protect the identities of minors. 😉 And because I can’t remember (please reference the note about getting old).


Old-fashioned authenticity is today’s digital Darling

By: Kaily Serralta

The inside cover of Darling magazine read, “None of the women in these photos have been retouched.” This rare message in a women’s lifestyle magazine made Darling stand out from other glossy options, and as it turns out, the sentiment was more than skin deep. But when Darling announced its transition away from print last fall, I anticipated an identity crisis. I worried that the move into digital would mean abandoning their countercultural stance and a surrender to Photoshop. But so far, I have been pleasantly surprised.

Over the past few seasons, the Darling team has turned me into a digital devotee by maintaining what I’ve always loved about the brand. And I’ve learned that authentic interactions with customers still reign supreme. Here’s how they made the leap from all print to mostly digital without losing their soul.

Kept customers at the forefront of the transition

In a letter that read like a note from a friend, Darling founder Sarah Dubbeldam noted Darling’s evolution into “a media company with a digital platform.” She took care to explain the reasoning behind the decision noting that the print industry struggles with rising production costs and downward readership. Darling was taking steps to reinvent itself to stay competitive, remain relevant to its audience, and above all, provide meaningful content. With this thoughtful message, the Darling team made me feel like an insider.

Delivered more of what customers loved on digital

Darling went hard on digital from day one, and it worked. They sent weekly emails filled with social-ready quotes, behind-the-scenes videos of photoshoots, and growcabulary—one new word to learn. By leaning into the best of digital, Darling enriched its print stories with new media. The long-format features turned into a click away from in-person interviews, in-depth podcasts, and all the digital goodies I’ve come to expect.

Continued to use print selectively

Darling is committed to making form factor choices based on the content instead of taking the one-screen-fits-all approach. While digital is today’s darling, print remains well-loved. For the right brands, both forms play integral roles in storytelling. While Darling no longer produces a print magazine, it plans to publish thought-leadership mini books. As Dubbeldam mentioned in her letter, this new vision for print will maintain the same aesthetic, style, and heart, but be more focused by topic.

Regardless of how a brand delivers content, authenticity is still queen. When brands engage and share their direction with customers, they reinforce a connection as genuine as untouched photos—something Darling knows a lot about.