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Digital Style Guide

V 1.1
January 2013
Digital Communications Division

Digital Style Guide Outline



  1. Web Standards
  2. Application
  3. Social Media Standards


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1) Web Standards

a. Federal Laws and Regulations

USDA, along with all other executive departments and agencies, must adhere to all applicable laws and regulations when building and maintaining websites.

A comprehensive list of all applicable Federal laws and regulations have been compiled and posted to including OMB policies and guidance. Please refer to this online library as they are updated regularly with the latest resources:

In addition to Federal laws and regulations, there are a number of policies and directives in place that address USDA websites and usage specifically. These include:

i. .gov Reform

The .gov reform effort began in 2011 as part of President Obama's Campaign to Cut Waste, identifying unnecessary websites that can be consolidated into other websites to reduce costs and improve the quality of service to the American public. The reform effort led to the development of a federal web strategy, which was merged with the federal mobility strategy to create the Digital Government Strategy. This broader initiative focuses not only on website consolidation, but also on innovating with less and delivering better quality content and information to the public across multiple platforms and devices.

ii. Federal Web Strategy

The White House released its Digital Government Strategy, entitled Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People, on May 23, 2012. You can also download the Digital Government Strategy as a PDF (PDF, 660 KB) (download Adobe Reader).

The strategy is a plan for delivering better online service to the American people, with three main objectives:

  • Enable citizens and an increasingly mobile workforce to access high-quality digital government information and services anywhere, anytime, on any device.
  • Ensure that as the government adjusts to this new digital world, we seize the opportunity to procure and manage devices, applications, and data in smart, secure and affordable ways.
  • Unlock the power of government data to spur innovation across our Nation and improve the quality of services for the American people.

The Digital Government Strategy was created from a broad range of input across government: the Mobility Strategy and Web Reform Task Forces, the Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Administration, Federal CIOs, new media directors, and web managers. The Strategy also draws on research from the State of the Federal Web Report (PDF | download Adobe Reader) and public input from the National Dialogue for Improving Federal Websites and the National Dialogue on the Federal Mobility Strategy.


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b. Clearance

When a new website is developed, proper clearance must be obtained before that website can be published to the public domain.

i. Domain Names

There is currently a freeze on creating any new .gov domains in the federal executive branch. GSA will approve domains only for those requests that have received a written waiver from the Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) after receiving approval from USDA Office of Communications. Should agencies need to establish new web content during the freeze, they should leverage existing .gov sites and infrastructure.

All new sub-domain (for example: requests submitted for external facing websites must be approved by the Office of Communications.  All requests will be reviewed and only approved after close consideration. Exceptions will only be made after no other viable options are available.

ii. Look and Feel

All public-facing USDA websites must conform to the common look and feel established by the Office of Communications. Websites should follow the guidelines outlined in the USDA Web Standards and Style Guide. Websites must also follow direction provided in the Visual Standards Guide (PDF, 1.4 MB).

Prior to redesigning a website, initiative or program web page or creating a new one, clearance should be approved on initial designs by the Office of Communications and once again prior to launch. This approval process allows for the assurance that the extra complexities of Agency branding and identity adhere to the common look and feel. WCD will work with the appropriate Communications Coordinator to ensure the content and scope is appropriate given broader communication objectives.

For clearance of a new website or redesign, you can reach out to the following people:

Peter Rhee - Director of Digital Communications


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c. Governance

Web governance is the structure of people, positions, authorities, roles, responsibilities, relationships, and rules involved in managing an agency's website(s). The governance structure defines who can make what decisions, who is accountable for which efforts, and how each of the players must work together to operate a website and web management process effectively.

USDA's governance structure includes people in defined positions that are involved in creating and managing content, developing and supporting technology, marketing the products, and-most of all-achieving USDA's mission.

USDA's agency's web governance structure or model includes the person who has the authority to create the governance structure and approve the overall policies that define the governance structure. Within the governance structure, individuals are designated to develop and recommend policies, create procedures to implement the policies, determine and operate management controls, and develop and use performance measures. Everyone in the governance structure uses these tools to manage the websites and administer all the activities associated with the websites (consulting, marketing, reporting, budgeting, managing technology, etc.).

USDA's web policies document the governance structure, including the functions, roles, and authorities of each person (position) in the structure and the rules that each member of the structure must follow to work together.

For Federal-wide governance resources:


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d. Usability

In general, usability refers to how well users can learn and use a product to achieve their goals and how satisfied they are with that process. Usability, as it relates to the web, is the measure of the quality of a customer's experience when they interact with your website.

It is important to realize that usability is not a single, one-dimensional property of a user interface. Usability is a combination of factors including:

  • Ease of learning - How fast can a user who has never seen the user interface before learn it sufficiently well to accomplish basic tasks?
  • Efficiency of use - Once an experienced user has learned to use the system, how fast can he or she accomplish tasks?
  • Memorability - If a user has used the system before, can he or she remember enough to use it effectively the next time or does the user have to start over again learning everything?
  • Error frequency and severity - How often do users make errors while using the system, how serious are these errors, and how do users recover from these errors?
  • Subjective satisfaction - How much does the user like using the system?

Following basic usability principles and techniques is a best practice in managing your website.

For a list of usability resources, see below:

Usability Starter Kit

DigitalGov User Experience Resources

User Experience Community of Practice


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e. Accessibility

Web accessibility is ensuring that persons with any disability type-including motor, auditory, cognitive, seizure/neurological, and content visual impairments-are able to use web content, and ensuring that content is "perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust."

In creating an accessible experience, it's essential to understand the needs of each disability type and build government sites accordingly. Doing so provides the opportunity for all citizens to participate in, and contribute to, the web.

To meet the mandates of Section 508, we must endeavor to provide all U.S. citizens with timely, usable access to government information. As agencies have embraced the use of social media, more than ever, it's important that our users have the ability to interact with government at every level.

All USDA websites must undergo 508 testing and assurance that the website is 508 compliant.  In addition to initial testing, maintenance of that website and content (PDFs, Word documents, etc.) must be 508 compliant. has gathered resources to help you make your websites 508 compliant and accessible:

For more information on the Section 508 clearance process, contact:

Bernetta Reese

If you require assistance or wish to report an issue related to the accessibility of any content on the USDA website, please email


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f. Plain Language

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 (PDF, 123 KB) requires that all federal agencies write "clear Government communication that the public can understand and use." We at the Department of Agriculture (USDA) are committed to improving our service to you by writing in plain language. For more information, please visit our Plain Writing page.


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g. Multilingual

Providing appropriate access to people with limited English proficiency is one of the requirements for managing your website. You need to determine how much information you need to provide in other languages, based on an assessment of your website visitors.

For specific OMB requirements and resources on how to implement: Multilingual Community of Practice


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2) Application

a. Branding and Style Guidelines (Look and Feel)

The USDA Web Standards and Style Guide, a separate document, was created to ensure a consistent look and feel across all USDA websites, and provide a seamless online experience for USDA customers who are potentially traveling across multiple USDA Agencies and Offices during their online sessions. Adherence to the Web Standards and Style Guide is a priority for the Secretary's "One USDA" vision, and assists with the objectives for accomplishing that vision."

Every USDA website contributes to the user's perception of the Department. To ensure a unified web presence, all official USDA websites and web pages should appear visually related to help reinforce the USDA's brand identity. As part of a branding strategy, it is expected that all USDA branded websites will adopt the standards and style elements outlined in the document.

The guide should be used as a blueprint for building out your Agency and Office websites. Although consistency is important, the guide recognizes and takes into consideration the fact that USDA Agency and Office websites offer a different customer experience than based on many factors including missions and audiences. The design standards built into were developed in a way to allow flexibility for other USDA websites to incorporate the common look and feel while maintaining individual Agency and Office identity. Although maximum flexibility is given, it is required that all USDA websites undergoing a redesign be vetted through the Office of Communications prior to public launch to ensure adherence to the common look and feel.

Access the official Visual Standards Guide (PDF, 1.4 MB) for guidance regarding the use and application of the USDA symbol and agency or program identification.

i. Exceptions

Currently, internal facing websites and applications are not required to adhere to the common look and feel.  

The common look and feel should be applied to all public-facing websites and applications.  If your website or application is accessible outside of the USDA network, then that website or application must adhere to the guidelines outlined in the USDA Web Standards and Style Guide.

ii. New Website Review Process

When designing or redesigning a USDA website, it is important to allow The Office of Communications to review your design drafts early on in the process so that we can make recommendations or edits prior to your development phase.

Your draft will be reviewed by OC's Web Communications Division and a follow up meeting to go over the drafts will be scheduled. Only after all recommendations have been fulfilled will the website to approved to continue development. Prior to launch, OC's Web Communications Division must do a final review to ensure the website complies with the guidelines for common look and feel.


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b. Domain Names

The freeze on issuing new .gov domains for Executive Branch agencies, implemented on June 13, 2011, was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2011 (see OMB Guidance on Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service [PDF, 2.3 MB, 6 pages, June 2011]). Effective January 1, 2012, the Federal CIO has extended the freeze while OMB reviews plans to issue new guidance related to .gov domain approval that will formalize the “no new .gov domains” policy. Additional guidance will be released soon in consultation with the .gov Reform Task Force.

Per OMB guidelines, the use of non-government domains such as .net, .org, .tv, or .com is prohibited. While the .gov freeze in place, domain requests, including subdomain requests, will be reviewed by the Office of Communications as part of the overall Federal Streamlining Initiative.  Only after approval is given by OC and OCIO's Privacy and Security Office will a domain be eligible for use.

i. Naming Conventions

All USDA domain name requests will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.  USDA websites must follow the proper syntax:

For subdomains such as Agency domain names, the syntax is:


For new initiatives, the following syntax is preferred:


In certain cases, the following syntax may be approved:


ii. Partnerships and Inter-Agency Websites

There are instances where USDA partners with external Federal Agencies to develop a web site that is co-managed by two or more Departments.  All requests for domain names will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.  During the Federal .gov freeze, no new domain name requests will be approved unless a hosting USDA Agency requests a subdomain for the Inter-Agency web site.


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c. Required Elements

i. Policy and Notice Postings


ii. Header/Footer Elements

Agencies must identify mandatory links and post (or link to) the following information on their principal website and any known major entry points to their sites: 1) the agency's strategic plan and annual performance plans; 2) descriptions of agency organizational structure, mission and statutory authority; 3) information made available under the Freedom of Information Act; 4); specific website privacy policies; 5); 6) summary statistical data about equal employment opportunity complaints filed with the agency and written notification of "Whistleblower" rights and protections as required by the No Fear Act of 2002; 7) the agency point of contact for small businesses as required by the Small Business Paperwork Relief Act of 2002; and 8) other cross government portals or links required by law or policy. 

iii. Stay Connected Buttons

Agencies must use consistent buttons linking to approved and official digital media channels, as follows:

Blog - or Agency specific category link

Twitter - or Agency specific account

Facebook -

YouTube - or Agency specific channel

Email Subscription - If available

RSS Feed(s) - or Agency specific feeds

The use of social media icons is regulated by the social media outlet and their own terms of use. For example, Twitter does not allow changing of the color of the Twitter bird or the direction the bird is facing. Twitter's terms also require the use of at least 50% space around the bird icon. Facebook has similar terms where the Facebook logo cannot be modified in way that can affect Facebook's trademark rights.

Social media icons must also be current and checked regularly for changes. For the most current version, please go to and download the icons being used.


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d. Links

i. External Linking Guidance

Hyperlinks to a website are allowed only if the website is sponsored, supported, or partnered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; is educational in nature; or is another Government website, including those sites sponsored by State or local governments.

OMB's Information Quality guidelines exclude hyperlinks from the definition of information.  This exclusion does not remove agency responsibility to exercise due diligence when determining whether to link externally. Therefore, when an agency determines external links are necessary for and material to the presentation of agency information or the delivery of services in the proper performance of an agency function, they must take reasonable steps to ensure the presentation is accurate, relevant, timely, and complete.

Agencies must reasonably assure suitable information and service quality, consistent with the level of importance of the information.  Reasonable steps include: 1) clearly identifying the limitations inherent in the information dissemination product (e.g., possibility of errors, degree of reliability, and validity) so users are fully aware of the quality and integrity of the information or service, 2) taking reasonable steps to remove the limitations inherent in the information, and 3) reconsidering linking to the information or services. Agency links to commercial organizations or interest groups present special challenges with respect to maintaining agency objectivity and thus must be used judiciously.


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e. Surveys

The Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 requires that Federal agency information collections employ effective and efficient survey and statistical methodologies appropriate to the purpose for which the information is to be collected.  It further directs the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to develop and oversee the implementation of Government-wide policies, principles, standards, and guidelines concerning statistical collection procedures and methods.

For a complete list of resources on how to collect customer feedback, go to: Customer Experience Community of Practice

i. OMB Directive

Guidance on Agency Survey and Statistical Information Collections can be found via the OMB document here: (PDF, 909 KB)


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f. Contact

Peter Rhee - Director of Web Communications


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3) Social Media Standards

a. Overview

USDA uses social media to reach stakeholders quickly and easily, delivering information through a variety of platforms and formats as part of our integrated communications strategy.

b. New Media Policy

New Media Roles and Responsibilities (DR1495-001) establishes the requirements for the implementation of new media technologies within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Unless otherwise specified, this directive applies to all USDA agencies, employees, contractors, interns, and partners utilizing new media technologies for official USDA purposes.

Agencies must complete the New Media Request Form (AD-3022) (DOC, 202 KB) and submit to the Office of Communications for review and approval prior to use.

c. Approved Tools

USDA and Agencies may only establish a presence on social media channels that have been evaluated by the General Services Administration and whose Terms of Service agreements have been reviewed and approved by USDA's Office of General Counsel.

d. Enterprise vs Agency Social Media Tools

Currently, USDA maintains enterprise channels on Facebook, Flickr and Google+. Agencies are permitted to use the channels to share content and engage with stakeholders in coordination with the Office of Communications.

Agencies may pursue the use of other approved channels only after receiving approval as directed in DR1495-001 and AD-3022.

OC will continue to evaluate new tools and platforms as they become available.

e. Branding (refer to Symbol standards and Branding guidance)

The USDA symbol is the official and sole identifying mark for the Department and all agency programs. USDA's Visual Standards Guide provides direction regarding the use and application of the symbol for all information products regardless of medium in accordance with Departmental Regulation 1430-002, "Use of Logos/Marks at the United States Department of Agriculture."

See also the Visual Standards Guide (PDF, 1.4 MB).