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This Q&A is part of “Defining the Studio of 2015,” an initiative by AIGA and Adobe that seeks the insights of visionary design thought leaders who are poised for the future. In this series, these leaders share an inside look at their plans, predictions and aspirations for the studio of 2015 and beyond.
Tell us a
little bit about your studio and your role.
I founded my
company, Willoughby Design,
in 1978—35 years ago, believe it or not. And the reason I founded the company
was because I couldn’t find a place in Kansas City that I really wanted to
work. In those days, there were advertising agencies and commercial art
studios. These workplaces were successful but they tended to be male-centric,
not unlike the “Mad Men” television model.
I wanted to work in
a place that supported my values and lifestyle. In a flash, I realized that there
was a rare opportunity. Something that would actually be a new model—one
designed to accommodate women with children. That may sound odd, but back then
there was really no childcare to speak of. If you had a baby, you just had to
stop working or your mother lived with you. So even though we didn’t have some
of the terminology that we have now—like “design thinking”—I think I was
intuitively doing that in terms of the kind of organization we created, the type
of people we hired, the kind of culture that we cultivated and our methods and
When I began working
in the 1970s and 1980s, I met an extraordinary man named Gordon MacKenzie who
worked at Hallmark Cards. In 1995 and 1996, we designed a book for him titled Orbiting
the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace. It was a 17-month process from initial concept through printing. And that’s when everything came together for me spiritually and mentally. I was
able to articulate what we were doing. I still refer to that book when I talk about the organization of Willoughby Design.
Gordon believed that a creative organization
ought to look more like a plum tree than a pyramid, which operates
from the top down with command and control delegation. In a plum
tree culture, designers and creatives are on top and the
leadership function as the roots, nourishing the tree and letting sunlight and
fresh air inspire creativity and innovation.
Let me briefly
outline the philosophy I’ve developed over the years. Then and now and in the
future, I believe that any company or organization that aspires to innovate should
take into account five key practices.
Diversity is number
one. Finding a diverse group of creative people who have different points of
view is most important.
The second component
is organizational structure. Because we are a small company, we do not have departments;
we’re holistic; we’re not “command and control.” We have a much more flexible
kind of organization where there is cross-pollination.
The third component
is culture. Because we have always had a lot of people with children, our
culture is based around the family and respect for the individual’s time. We seek to create an environment in which individuals have the freedom to do their best
work and grow. We just behave this way—it’s ingrained in our culture.
processes and methods are closely related to this philosophy, and they’re
understood and utilized by everyone in the organization. Collectively, we know
that our processes work because we’ve been fine-tuning them for the past 35
The final component is
how we utilize tools and technology to support our creative team
and our clients.
sets will be required of the studio of 2015? And what competencies should a
studio develop now in order to remain competitive for the future?
We tend to work with
people who are really smart, curious and have a sense of humility. If you can’t
fit in our culture, you’re probably not going to be successful. So we look for
people who know how to write. We look for people who are big picture thinkers with
special skills in one or more discipline—digital, identity, brand strategy and environments.
specialists will be important. We might need to bring someone in from the
outside or we might have someone in our company who’s a specialist and handles
specific aspects of a multidisciplinary project. This isn’t a new idea, but
what you really want is someone who can see the big picture but also has very
specialized skills—programming, space design, etc. We look for people with
competencies that will meet our clients’ needs.
will technology will play in the studio of 2015? What technologies must a
studio master to remain competitive in the future?
Someone once said
that technology is whatever doesn’t quite work yet. The automobile is an
example from a century ago. The automobile was about mobility and freedom, not about
how to change a tire. The same is true for today and tomorrow. Technology
continues to free people, provide flexibility and convenience, and reduce time.
It is more important to understanding how technology alters peoples’ perceptions
and behavior than knowing how to code or use a specific program. Within the
studio we will collaborate with colleagues, clients and their customers on
multiple platforms from anywhere.
In terms of
business development, what steps should a studio take to position itself for
At Willoughby, we
are positioning ourselves to companies that sell at least 75 percent of their products and services to women.
By that we mean designing brand experiences that appeal to women both emotionally
and personally. This is something
that we talked about for many years and then a few years ago we finally just
said, “We’ve got to do this.” And we never looked back.
have a male bias and men have designed for women for the last 100 years. We are
really trying to turn that on its head. So moving toward the future, we seek to
cultivate a workforce that has a depth of design and life skills.
For example, one must
understand how women might think or choose or make decisions at different stages
of life. Our team represents all different ages, and that gives us a leg up
when we work. This doesn’t mean we don’t design for men. And it doesn’t mean
that we aren’t looking at more diverse audiences. We’re just seeking to take
the needs of women into consideration when it’s appropriate. Which, by the way,
is most of the time!
How will the
studio team be structured in 2015, and what steps should studios take now to
begin building the ideal team?
is flat, so I am no more important than anyone else when it comes to ideas.
We’re also very collaborative. We have 15 people and I’d say two-thirds of them
are women. And many of these women have children. And no one organizes their
time. They organize themselves around their professional and family needs.
There’s flexibility, so if someone wants to go see their child in a play—no
problem. They work it out with each other, and no one has to come to me—or
anyone else—and say, “I’d like to go see my child’s play today.” You just work
it out responsibly. And this breeds total trust. I think that is a really
important part of our culture.
ideal physical layout of the studio of the future? How should workspaces be
designed to accommodate the way you’ll work in 2015 and beyond?
We tried to loosen
things up about eight years ago, and we have a pretty open space now. What we
really need in the future is a mix of open space and smaller shared private spaces.
These small private spaces are not offices. They’re just a place to go when
sharp focus and concentration are needed.
Conference rooms are
empty a lot of the time, so we are looking for better ways to utilize these
spaces. We’re also gradually reconfiguring how we work together, because we’re
on two floors. And we discovered that people don’t want or need to be tied to
the office anymore. They may need a desk, but often they come with their laptop
in a backpack. So sometimes we’ll all grab our computers and work in the
conference room together. Or maybe some people go downstairs and shut the door.
Or people can work at home. We’re always seeking different ways to accommodate
the way people work.
will collaboration and/or a multidisciplinary approach play in the studio of
One of the first things
that we tell our clients when we engage with them for the first time is that we
are collaborative. We acknowledge that they probably know more about their
business than we’ll ever know about it, but we say, “Here’s where we can help
you, and here’s how we can support what you’re already doing. We offer an
outside perspective and help you see alternative possibilities.” Clients love
Currently we have a
lot of sessions where we actually go and work with our clients or they come to
our office. They come here a lot. It’s just the way we do things. Sometimes we
will literally be working with them while we’re testing things. Or we’ll talk
through things that we need to prototype. We’ll say, “How does this look? Let’s
go test this.” It’s very collaborative in that way. In general, we will have
less and less of the dog and pony show where we go in with something fully
formed and say, “Ta-dah!”
studios do to prepare themselves to address sustainability and an increasingly
The meaning of sustainability
has continued to evolve. There is economic, environmental and social sustainability
and they all are interconnected. I’ll talk about environmental
There are two
aspects of this issue. One is the client and the other is our behavior here in
the studio. In terms of the company, we’ve been considering sustainability
issues for at least 10 to 15 years. We’ve brought our building up to standard
as much as possible and we’re very mindful of resources we use and seeking suppliers
with sustainable supply chains as much as possible.
We have a client in
San Francisco that makes sustainable toys for pets. We’ve got another client
who recycles and repurposes mobile phones all over the world. I could go on and
on. I’d say that as of this moment, more than half of our clients are working
on a platform based on sustainability and responsibility—with their products
and with their employees. Through our work, we increasingly help our clients
adopt sustainability standards.
What are some
of the biggest challenges design studios will face in 2015? And what steps
should studios begin taking to prepare for the challenges that lie ahead?
The future is only
speculation! We will continue to serve and partner with our clients by
providing a combination of services they can’t get in any other place. I think that firms will
attract and retain the best and brightest by providing a culture, environment
and client mix that is stimulating and satisfying.
So how do we make people’s
lives better within our company? How do we make our community better? We do a
lot of training; we pay for our employees’ classes; we offer massages; and we
offer insurance, stock options and profit sharing. We work hard to
accommodate our employees so that we are considered a great place to work. And we
do this not only to retain workers but also to attract them.
Another challenge is
that technology has enabled a lot of companies to assume they can do things
that maybe they don’t do that well. There’s the mentality of “we’ll just do
that in-house.” In adopting this mentality, I think companies are not
communicating or protecting their brands in the way they need to. And they
would probably be more successful if they understand just how some of their
behaviors and the communications they’re using are not helping them win in the
Design services are evolving as
technology enables anyone to create visual communications. In particular, some
of the most urgent challenges are not coming to design firms. We need to evolve
our firms and skills to meet these needs. And we must continue
to talk to clients about the value of design. I think this is particularly hard
for some smaller firms that are generalists. Most firms that are successful find a way to offer services
and deep skills that are unique.
possibilities do you think the future holds for your studio and the design
field as a whole?
If we want to
attract the best employees and the best workforce and the smartest people, we
can’t do it with outdated environments and technology.
That’s why a lot of companies are talking about innovation now, which is
exciting. The studio of 2015 must be holistic.
I think one of the
most important possibilities in the future will be helping people understand
the value of design and making that value more apparent to clients and potential
clients. Demonstrating how powerful design can be—we’re all over that.
Today, designers are designing to
enhance understanding when form and content are conditioned by context and
impact over time. “Defining the Studio of 2015” seeks the perspectives of visionary design thought leaders
who have organized their studios—physically, technologically and
culturally—with an eye toward the future.
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