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

By: Erin McCaul

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

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

How kayaking is better than a pumpkin-spice latte

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

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

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

Old-fashioned authenticity is today’s digital <i>Darling</i>

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.


Guy Schoonmaker, talented at helping talented people succeed

By: Ryan Boudinot

Guy Schoonmaker, talented at helping talented people succeed

Interstate 90 spans the 3,020 miles from Boston to the stadiums of Seattle, binding the sites of America’s founding to the hometown of the Mariners. 2A Consultant Guy Schoonmaker now makes his home in this rainy city that gave birth to the cloud. Certain of his formative experiences, however, took place in that city at the other end of that ribbon of interstate.

While an undergrad at Northeastern, Guy lined up an internship at the university’s sports information department, which led to a position with the Red Sox Foundation. This was a bigtime break for a committed Red Sox fan like Guy—he even worked out of an office at Fenway Park.

“I grew up a die-hard Red Sox fan, so landing an internship there was, as cliché as it sounds, a dream come true. Funny enough, what I think about most from my time there isn’t meeting players or watching games at Fenway Park. It’s the people I got to work with, and the community we served that really stands out,” Guy says.

Serving the charitable arm of the Red Sox organization meant spending time with kids, tutoring, chaperoning field trips, and setting a positive example. In the shadow of the Green Monster, Guy got hooked on improving lives.

“Helping talented people succeed is a thread throughout my career,” Guy continues, going on to describe a life-changing year teaching English in Thailand. From an early age, his parents instilled in him a spirit of service and wanderlust, so finding himself in Southeast Asia to teach children grammar and vocabulary seemed like a natural fit. Along the way, he discovered that communication requires more than facility with language.

“Thailand taught me you don’t always need words to communicate,” says Guy, “I didn’t speak a lick of Thai when I got there, and likewise my students didn’t have much of a foundation in English. I had to get creative fast, whether it was drawing, playing charades, or making up games on the fly. I learned that words are only one small part of communication.”

When his year teaching contract came to a close, Guy returned to the states and started thinking about how he could turn his attention back to his interest in writing. He’d earned a journalism degree at Northeastern before taking a turn toward the nonprofit world, and he wanted to put these skills to work.

Which brings Guy’s circuitous career to 2A. As a consultant, he applies his writing skills when working with clients—developing their stories with empathy—while considering the world through the eyes of someone committed to making lives better.

Incidentally, Guy was an undergrad in Boston when the Red Sox broke their infamous curse and won the World Series. In a city full of Mariners fans, he’s learned to downplay his loyalty to his team, but we don’t hold his fandom against him. We may not root for the Red Sox around here, but we’re big fans of Guy.


Elevating Stories #1: Rick Moody

By: Ryan Boudinot

Elevating Stories #1: Rick Moody

Rick Moody has storytelling down to a science. Over the course of a publishing career that is nearing its third decade, Moody has written novels (The Ice Storm, The Four Fingers of Death), collections of stories (Demonology, The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven), music criticism (On Celestial Music) and memoirs, including the award-winning The Black Veil and his latest book, The Long Accomplishment: A Memoir of Struggle and Hope in Matrimony.

Moody was in town to promote his new memoir with a reading at Elliott Bay Book Company, conveniently located across the street from 2A’s offices. Knowing that he was coming to Seattle and that he probably had time to kill before his reading, we invited him to share his insights about the art of storytelling with our team. 2A specializes in storytelling for business and we figured we could learn something from this master storyteller, who has also sustained a long teaching career, currently at Brown University.

Moody didn’t disappoint, to say the least. He opened our conversation with the classic diagram you spot on whiteboards in many a writing workshop, sometimes referred to as Freytag’s triangle, which charts the passage of narrative tension, climax, and denouement over time:

Freytag's Triangle

Pretty basic stuff so far. Then Moody challenged this model, which, he noted, served a nineteenth century understanding of the novel. Jane Austen, the Brontës, Charles Dickens, Thackeray et al wrote works that all, more or less, conformed to the readerly expectations set forth in this model. Conflicts are introduced, complications arise, a false climax is followed by a reversal, the real climax happens, and then the novel gracefully concludes with order restored.

In the early twentieth century, the rise of modernism in works from James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, et al, introduced narrative subjectivity to storytelling. Writers became more concerned with the vagaries of individual conscious minds. And once writers began to perceive the pattern of conflict, rising action, climax, and denouement, they started considering it formulaic and contrived, and so sought a new engagement with literature.

Moody also noted that the Freytag’s triangle model of storytelling conveyed an excessively male vision of how the world works, at which moment the white board Moody was writing on collapsed, in what can only be described as exquisite timing.

According to Moody, the evolution of storytelling took a turn with the works of Russian writer Anton Chekhov, whose literary innovation was the “slice of life.” These were stories that didn’t deliver climactic scenes or tidy resolutions; instead they gave us glimpses into the everyday lives of characters.

Still, Moody was unsatisfied with the slice of life model of storytelling. So he developed an equation that he believes distills the art of storytelling to its essence. It looks like this:

S = t(B) ÷ Cn

Stories (S) equal time (t) acting on bodies (B) divided by consciousness, which can be multiplied by an infinite number.

Let’s break that down a bit further. Stories are about change, which necessarily involves the passage of time. Time only passes in relation to subjects (bodies). This process is governed by consciousness, which is the narrator. Adding multiple narrators or points of view slows time down.

We steered the conversation toward marketing narratives, asking what from literary storytelling we can apply to our work crafting narratives for businesses. Moody asserted that whether delivering the narrative in the form of a novel or an ad campaign, the same guidelines apply. Stories are about the transformation of people over time, filtered through a particular consciousness or set of conscious perspectives, and we perceive narratives in the realm of marketing campaigns this way, too.


Moody’s visit marked the first of a planned series of author and artist talks at 2A, where we seek to broaden our understanding of storytelling and grow as storytellers. Our office used to be a car dealership and features a comically voluminous freight elevator with the capacity to lift 6000 pounds. We chose this as the setting for the first of a series of artist portraits to commemorate this series. As for a name, we’re calling it 2A’s Elevating Stories series, in a nod to both this fun feature of our building and for the manner by which our visitors raise the bar on storytelling craft.

Our thanks to Mr. Moody for the enlightening and generous conversation. Be sure to check out his newest, The Long Accomplishment: A Memoir of Struggle and Hope in Matrimony, available at Elliott Bay Book Company and everywhere books are sold.


Stories as Emotional Algorithms

By: Ryan Boudinot

Stories as Emotional Algorithms

Algorithms are sets of step-by-step instructions that computers use to perform a series of functions, resulting in a particular outcome. Stories are sets of step-by-step instructions that provide your brain with instructions on what to think and feel.

Since each brain is unique, molded and influenced by myriad experiential factors, a storyteller can never have full control over the way an audience’s diverse brains process the algorithm. But we do have some inklings about how brains operate in general, and we can be mindful of these tendencies as we go about crafting stories.

Brains enjoy noticing patterns. Even more, they get excited when they notice disruptions to patterns. Storytellers from Homer on down have taken advantage of this feature of the mind, establishing what’s normal for a particular set of characters, then introducing a disruption or aberration.

There’s no reason for a story to exist unless it demonstrates some sort of exception to the norm. A funny bit from Sesame Street illustrates this counterfactually. Bert is sitting in an armchair reading a book titled Really Boring Fairy Tales. “Wow” Bert says, engrossed, “The prince just drank a glass of water.”

Folktales operate according to the principle of establishing the norm then disrupting it. First the wolf blows down the house made of straw, then the house made of sticks. Then the pattern is disrupted when he gets to the house made of bricks. In the world of comedy, this is called the Rule of Three. The rule of three is pattern disruption at its essence; our brains tell us, things are the same… la-de-dah… things are the same… oh hey, wait, this thing is different.

While exceptions and disruptions can be novel, they can also be scary. History is full of examples of art works that were so forward looking that they were derided or reviled in their time only to later be considered masterpieces. When Maya Lin unveiled her design for the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., 27 congressmen wrote a letter to President Reagan to protest. Now, this innovative monument is widely considered one of the most moving tributes to the fallen ever erected. 

So how does one make creatively disruptive ideas palatable to one’s intended audience? Industrial designer Raymond Loewy figured out a recipe for disrupting the norm when he developed his MAYA theory, which stands for “Most Advanced Yet Accessible.” Essentially the idea is that you have to wrap novelty inside the already known in order for it to be accepted.

If you start looking around, you notice the MAYA principle at work everywhere. Game of Thrones has all the fantasy tropes we’ve become familiar with—dragons, warriors, zombies—with the added novelty of emotional realism. Or maybe it has all the plot scheming we’re used to from watching realist dramas, with the added novelty of dragons, warriors, and zombies.

Pattern disruption, the rule of three, and MAYA are like subroutines you can plug into the emotional algorithm of a story. Word by word and step by step, we process stories much like a computer processes an algorithm, with one crucial difference—algorithms don’t have the power change computers.


A round (the world) applause for our full-stack developer, Aradhana Elisa

By: Kelly Schermer

A round (the world) applause for our full-stack developer, Aradhana Elisa

Packing up and moving to the other side of the world, sights unseen, might seem impetuous for some, but for Aradhana Elisa it was the exact opposite. Listening to her talk about the experiences that led her from Chandigarh, India to Southern California to Seattle, make it clear she’s a persistent, passionate person open to new perspectives. In her role as a full stack developer at 2A, Aradhana’s winning traits have made her an invaluable piece of the web development team. 


Aradhana approaches decision making with equal parts curiosity and determination. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, she knew she wanted to earn either a master’s in Computer Science or pursue an MBA. Instead of leaping directly into a program, she sought out a position at a software company as a user-interface (UI)/user-experience (UX) developer. In this role, Aradhana learned how to build new websites and software from the ground up versus coding into existing assets. It gave her a new perspective on what an advanced degree would provide, which she used as a springboard into her next phase.


Sprint. Automate. Iterate. Lots of development processes focus on speed, but one of Aradhana’s greatest traits is her persistence—her ability to identify her goal and create a clear succession of steps to get there no matter how long it takes. After Aradhana decided to pursue a master’s in computer science in the United States, she set a year-long goal for herself and broke the monumental task into dozens of small activities logged in Excel sheets with timelines. From sitting for entrance exams to curating a list of target programs to applying to schools and completing Visa paperwork, Aradhana steadily chipped away at her long to-do list after work and on the weekends until her plane finally touched down in Southern California. 


Aradhana leans into her passions to get more out of every project. During her master’s program, she worked as a student assistant in the Office of Institutional Effectiveness for Fresno State, where she taught herself how to build predictive models with Python to answer questions about the student population. While she had always known she liked working with data, she was surprised by how much. Instead of punching out to study the way most students do with university jobs, Aradhana brought her work to school, using it as the basis for her master’s thesis.

Judging by her personal and professional path, you might wonder if there’s anything too big, too complicated, or too tedious for Aradhana to tackle. From our perspective, probably not.


We’re #1488! We’re #1488!

By: The 2A Team

Inc. 5000 ranking #1,488

We couldn’t be more thrilled to once again be included in Inc. magazine’s 5000 most successful private companies of 2019. With revenue growth of 277%, we’re ranked 1488 on the list, in league with such companies as Famous Toastery (#1490), Spiceology (#1475), and Vac2Go (#1491).

In Washington State, Green Grass Foods rocketed into the top 20, at #13, with 11,623% growth. Rad Power Bikes grew 4,442% and landed at #63. Other Seattle companies appearing on the list include TomboyX (#349), Aduro (#3868), and Rain City Capital (#2777).

The number one spot this year belongs to Arizona marketing firm Freestar, reporting 36,689% growth. To which we can only say hot damn.

Appearing on Inc.’s list is an honor in part because we join such alumni as Microsoft, Dell, Domino’s Pizza, Pandora, Timberland, LinkedIn, Yelp, and Zillow. We’re thrilled to be included among such notable, groundbreaking companies.

We wouldn’t have landed on this list if it weren’t for our clients. It’s a privilege to work with the diverse businesses that come to us looking for guidance on telling their stories. Every website we build, every animation we design, every whitepaper we write becomes part of 2A’s story. We feel immense gratitude to share this honor with the clients who entrust us to tell their stories, too.


Mitchell Thompson, at home on the web

By: Ryan Boudinot

Mitchell Thompson, at home on the web

Light bulbs started appearing over Mitchell Thompson’s head the first time he opened a Web browser. It was the mid-nineties, and Mitchell was a self-described “gay nerd from Florida” who’d just discovered AOL. Up til then he’d felt pretty isolated. With the scratchy sound of a dial-up modem as his rallying cry, he immediately grasped the opportunity to connect with other like-minded people from around the world. “The Internet saved my life,” he says.

Fast-forward to right now and you’ll find Mitchell standing at his desk at 2A building websites for our wide variety of clients. Whether it’s a site showcasing artist Juan Manuel Echavarría or promoting The Sports Institute at the University of Washington, Mitchell applies his web prowess with boundless curiosity and a knack for usability.

Mitchell is more than comfortable diving into new subjects at 2A, having enjoyed a wide-ranging career that saw him “loading trucks at a large shipping company, crafting lenses for eye glasses, slinging BBQ in a smokehouse, working in a soul crushing call center, testing for a Japanese video game company, and building maps for a search engine company.”

It was this latter job that gave the web developer direct experience working with software developers, and now there’s no turning back—Mitchell is building parts of the very World Wide Web he fell in love with back in the day.

Says Mitchell, “I wanted to join a small firm because I thought it would give me a chance to work on more interesting projects (turned out true!).”

You can’t get as far from Florida in the contiguous USA as Washington State. This part of Seattle is so dense with tech workers that you can’t toss a thumb drive without hitting a nerd, and the neighborhood is so LGBTQ-embracing that the insignia of the local light rail station is a Pride flag. Here, in addition to finding meaningful work and a milder climate, Mitchell has found an appreciative cohort who depend on his expertise.

If he could go back in time, what would Mitchell tell that gay nerd from Florida? “As hard as it seems right now, keep your head up. It’ll be a journey, but you’ll find your place.”