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Recognized for her inquiring design mind, sustained leadership and influence in the design community, social responsibility and for championing the role of women in the profession.
When Ann Willoughby enters a room, you can feel it. She is engaging and charming and has a way of making everyone around her feel welcome. Her gentle
Southern accent belies the fact that she is a trailblazing, fearless entrepreneur with more than 45 years of design experience under her belt.
Born and raised in rural Mississippi, she learned at a young age from her great grandmother how the world worked. “We had our own garden, cows, chickens,”
Willoughby recalls. “Everything that she did taught me how to see the world as a system. Nothing was ever wasted.” It was a turbulent time in America, with
racial tensions at an all-time high. Even as a young Southern girl, Willoughby recognized injustice: She wanted to redefine culture in a place where most
people around her wanted to preserve the past.
Willoughby attended the University of Southern Mississippi and got her first “design” job at Waldorf Department Store creating the storefront displays. She
was soon put in charge of visual merchandising and fashion illustration. Upon moving to Kansas City, Missouri, she landed an art director position at an
insurance company—she refers to the culture there as “Mad Men on steroids”—but left after six months for a fashion illustration job at Macy’s. Her
work was winning awards and gaining national attention, but she felt pigeonholed and wasn’t fulfilled professionally.
In 1972 she attended the Aspen Design Conference and it changed her life. There, she met her mentor, Milton Glaser. At the time, she was juggling a career
and raising two small children, and it was taking its toll. She confided to Glaser that she was thinking about quitting, and he strongly advised her to
stick with it. She did, and in 1974 she started a small business in her garage that allowed her to do the kind of work she wanted to do and tend to her
family. Willoughby’s business model attracted other talented women who were looking for the same kind of support, which was unheard of at the time. “I
hired the best and brightest women, and they stayed because I provided them flexibility. In turn, I got the best work,” she explains.
Glaser says, “Through intelligence and perseverance, she reinvented her professional designation. Ann realized she could make her life what she wanted it
to be, which is a significant accomplishment.”
In 1978, Ann Willoughby & Associates (now Willoughby Design) was officially founded in Kansas City. Over the years, the firm has built long-term client
relationships with Lee Jeans, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Hallmark Cards and many other companies. Her iterative approach to brand identity development and her
ability to identify gaps in the market to help her clients maximize their potential have earned her recognition.
Most importantly, Willoughby consistently strives to create positive change through design.She built a new kind of design firm and
generously supports aspiring female designers. She has been a pioneer in every new design initiative, including sustainable design, experience design,
social innovation and demonstrating the value of design to business. In 2007, she created a campaign for the United Nations called Deliver Now for Women and Children, which aims to reduce child
mortality and improve maternal health worldwide. Her firm even put a new face on public transportation in Kansas City, which launched in 2003, contributing
to a dramatic increase in ridership. They are currently working on a new streetcar and regional transit system that will launch in 2015.
Willoughby has served on AIGA’s board of directors and was a founding board member of the AIGA Center for Sustainable Design. In 2005, she was named Kansas
City’s first AIGA Fellow.
“Ann Willoughby's name contains ‘will’ and ‘will be,’” Glaser says. “Her path reflects those characteristics.” Willoughby is the ultimate example of what
can be achieved through perseverance, talent and determination.
Ann Willoughby will be presented with the AIGA Medal at The AIGA Centennial Gala on April 25, 2014, in New York City.
AIGA’s design community gathered in New York City for “The AIGA Centennial Gala,” a celebration honoring the 2014 AIGA Medalists and supporting national design initiatives.
The distinguished AIGA Medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements in the field of design.
Section: Inspiration -
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Section: Inspiration -
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