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.