Design Agency Insider: Polygraph Washington, DC

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Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the HOW Fall 2017 Marketing and Promotion issue. This is part 1 of the 4-part series Design Agency Insider featuring firms from Washington, DC. Grab your copy of the magazine today!


Washington, DC, may not have a reputation for creativity. Its street grid was borrowed from the French. Its monumental architecture was stolen from the Greeks. And its countless beige office buildings are generally occupied by lawyers, government bureaucrats, lobbyists and, yes—even more lawyers.

But anyone who has lived here for any span of time knows that it’s a city full of creative people who put their passion to work from 9-to-5 … or 6 … or 7. Big-name agencies in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York are known for selling things. DC’s creative community sells ideas. Ideas that power nonprofits, political parties, foundations and  tech startups. “I’m so sick of hearing that DC isn’t a creative city just because we’re not San Francisco or New York,” says William Colgrove, one of the founders of Threespot, an agency that creates websites for dozens of nonprofits and government agencies.“Duke Ellington was born here. Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat helped launch the punk scene from DC. And Chuck Brown and Go-go started here. But a lot of that creativity gets overshadowed by the government presence.”

design agency polygraph

Environmental design for Cava Grill


Jason Mannix and his wife Lindsay attended design school at Virginia’s James Madison University, about two hours west of Washington, DC. But they didn’t know a lot about the city before launching Polygraph in 2010, with friend and fellow alum Gavin Wade, who had worked for a government contractor on the other side of the Potomac. Which is why they spent the first few months working at the kitchen table, networking at AIGA events and initiating their own creative projects to get some attention. Like many freshly minted agencies, their early clients included smaller associations like the local chapter of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association, one of hundreds of trade organizations that call the city home. Early on, while their client roster was small, a self-assigned poster for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival led to paying work with the Smithsonian Institution, including advertisements and the design of Archives of American Art, a scholarly journal. The trio has since graduated to even bigger names including the U.S. Green Building Council (which oversees LEED certification standards), The Global Fund for Children and the Air and Space Museum.

Although they’ve worked for many of DC’s stalwart institutions, Polygraph prides itself on branding and identity for restaurants, resorts, fitness studios and other establishments that cater directly to consumers. “Coming from a bigger New York agency that produced a lot of annual reports and marketing materials, I love editorial work, and a lot of DC’s cultural institutions still rely on that kind of work,” says Mannix. “But the three of us have really different backgrounds from industrial design to branding and illustration, so we’re not really intimidated by any project that comes through the door.”

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Case in point: When the owners of Cava Mezze, just a few doors down from Polygraph, decided to launch a fast-casual version of their Mediterranean restaurant dubbed CAVA, they turned to Polygraph for help with their branding, menu, wall art, signage and more; Lindsay Mannix even leveraged her industrial design skills to create a unique melamine bowl to serve the salads and grains that have helped the franchise spread to California and New York. Polygraph has also been working to create the brand and identity for Pineapple & Pearls, the second restaurant from local chef Aaron Silverman, whose first effort, Rose’s Luxury, was named best new restaurant in America by Bon Appétit just a few years ago. 

design agency polygraph

Print design for the Royal Embassy of Norway

But like many designers, Mannix admits he’ll always have a soft spot for print. “Our office is less than a 10-minute walk from one of the original vellum Gutenberg Bibles over at the Library of Congress—it’s sort of a requirement for all interns to go see it,” says Mannix. “If we’re doing research for a magazine, we’ll go through the amazing archives of periodicals, sit in the immaculate reading room and look over old editions of design annuals and issues of Esquire from the 1970s. It’s an amazing design resource, just a few blocks away.”

Design Agency Website:

design agency polygraph

Identity design for The Paper and Packaging Board

design agency polygraph

Stars Forever postage stamp design for USPS

design agency polygraph

Branding for Cut Seven

design agency polygraph

Print & digital assets for The American Institute of Architects


Scott Kirkwood spent 20 years in DC as a writer and editor with the Humane Society of the United States and the National Parks Conservation Association. He’s now a freelance writer living in Denver.