Drew Davies joined the Civic Nebraska Board of Directors in June. He is the owner and design director of Oxide Design Co., an Omaha-based branding and design firm he founded in 2001. A Nebraska native, Drew is a familiar face at Civic Nebraska, having previously served on our Board of Advisers and, most notably, leading the creation of Civic Nebraska’s brand identity. We sat down with Drew at his Oxide office recently to learn more about him and his work.
Civic Nebraska: Drew, we’re really glad to have you as a new member of the Civic Nebraska Board of Directors. You’ve been a great supporter of and adviser to our organization, and we know we’ll benefit from your leadership. Not to mention your passion for protecting voting rights. How did that develop?
Drew Davies: It has to do with my design philosophy. From Day One, that philosophy has been about building design with depth and having the capacity to solve problems. At Oxide we try to avoid the pitfall of just aesthetically improving something. That’s a short-term solution if it’s a solution at all. Problem-solving is really infused into our process here – we gather as much data as possible, distill that into the clearest statement possible, and then leverage that statement to build design that is fundamentally useful.
We have two main areas of focus. First, we have a collection of work primarily in the craft food and beverage industry. That involves branding and packaging for retail, typically packaged-goods endeavors. The other half is what we call community and civic design, which allows us to work with nonprofits and community foundations in Nebraska that we believe are making our state a better place to be. Part of that involves our civic and election design work.
I was hoping you’d mention that. Oxide is known for creating elegant, easy to navigate ballots. When did you realize this was a need?
Not long after the 2000 election. That’s really when the American public became aware that design could play a big factor in the success or failure of a ballot – and as we saw in Florida, it could play a consequential factor in a national election. After that, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission was established (as part of the 2002 Help America Vote Act). The Commission reached out to AIGA, the professional association for design, about using the design firepower of its 70,000-plus members to solve ballot design problems. (Former Nebraska Secretary of State) John Gale was at a presentation where this idea was presented, and he volunteered our state to pilot some best practices. I was the president of the local chapter and so AIGA reached out and asked if I knew anyone in Nebraska who would want to help out on this project. I said, without hesitation, yes I do – I don’t even need to make a phone call!
Talk about being the right person in the right place at the right time.
Definitely. First, we designed the ballots used in the 2006 midterms in Colfax and Cedar counties. Then we joined the national team designing best practices. By 2007, Oxide was one of a few of the remaining original partners still actively working on the project, and the executive director of AIGA asked me to lead an initiative called Design for Democracy. We’ve traveled around the country to help establish improved design standards. We’ve talked with a lot of people, then we’ve helped them develop and implement materials and processes for the best results on Election Day.
So it’s fair to say that you and your team have made elections more modern and accessible?
We think so. One of the great things about the ballot project, which is still ongoing, has been to strip away the flawed notion of just “prettying” something up and trying to convince someone that it’s a solution. There’s not much “prettying” to do to a ballot; they’re very utilitarian. You can’t use visuals as a crutch. It’s been particularly satisfying to see the results, because we do a great deal of usability testing as well. You get this almost real-time feedback watching people work through the thing that you’ve designed, and you’re able to see if you’ve solved a usability problem, or if there is still work to do.
What kind of reaction do you get when you work with a local election office?
Election officials are in tricky spots – they’re generally underfunded, and many of them have a number of other jobs beyond putting on elections. So, you can’t blame them if their M.O. is “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” If there haven’t been any complaints or any ballots that went awry that resulted in legal action, they’re inclined to leave well enough alone. We often hear support for the project, and rarely if ever come up against opposition. It’s just that many election officials don’t have the bandwidth, resources, or urgent reasons to make a change, even if it might be necessary at some point.
But ballot failures aren’t going away. And so, ten years since the initiative began, we’re starting to see a shift of sorts. As more people shine a light on the process of elections, and how important each of these pieces is in our elections, there’s more impetus for everyone to step up their game. People are starting to say, “I want to reform this process now before we have a catastrophic failure that gets us on the news.” There is a much more forward-thinking mentality today than in the past, and that’s a good thing.
Is your ballot work how you first connected with Civic Nebraska?
We’d done some of this election and ballot work by the time Civic Nebraska, then known as Nebraskans for Civic Reform, came about. By virtue of the work we’d done around elections, (Executive Director and Founder) Adam (Morfeld) found us in those earliest days of what is now Civic Nebraska. He essentially said, “I’m building this organization and we’re focused on the same concepts; there’s overlap with the work Oxide is doing. But … I see you also do branding.” So, long story short, we ended up building the original brand for Nebraskans for Civic Reform.
Yes, Oxide is the creator of our famous logo and our famous bee mascot!
In doing our research, we try to capture identity, and we came to the democratic work of the state insect, the honeybee. They make collective decisions in their society, as you know. That’s where that part of the identity originated. We’ve been a partner ever since. We’ve always been happy to work with Civic Nebraska because, as Adam said, our missions certainly intersect.
It’s obvious why you’re a great fit for a leadership role with Civic Nebraska.
Thanks. I’m most excited about protecting voting rights and moving those things forward in Nebraska. But honestly, I’m excited about the whole slate of things the organization now does. It amazes me, actually, just how much Civic Nebraska does. So it’s important to have a variety of board members with different experiences, expertise, and viewpoints. I’ve been paying close attention to the organization for 10 years, but other new members have just as valuable insights because they haven’t been paying close attention for 10 years. It’s a really good mix of good people, and I’m eager to see where it leads.