Design leader interview series: Ann Willoughby

For AIGA Women Lead’s first interview series, we sat down with women pioneers at colleges, design studios, agencies, and large companies to share their unique stories: the journey from mentee to mentor, frank assessments of women and the design field today, and how they’ve demonstrated a commitment to gender equity in the workplaces they now lead.


Ann Willoughby has headed Willoughby Design, a firm she founded, for almost forty years. In doing so, she has shaped the career journey of many a designer—and has come across many insights of her own along the way. Willoughby spoke with AIGA executive director Julie Anixter about how to build an agency that lives for decades, what women need to thrive in the workplace today, and the moment that changed her worldview forever.

Tell us about what you do.

Willoughby started out as a graphic design firm in 1978 and today most of our work is  retail brand identity and communications design. We work with organizations large and small in the public and private sectors. Our capabilities include designing new brands, products, services, places/spaces, and interactive experiences.

Currently, our largest client is Panera Bread. We design digital and in-store communications that deliver on Panera’s clean food message; you may have seen our ongoing seasonal photography campaigns and our colorful holiday cups and packaging.

We’ve always maintained ongoing relationships with two or three large retail clients to ensure predictable work flow year-round; this has been our business model since I founded the company. Panera is a good example. We’ve worked with established retail clients, often for decades, including Lee Jeans, Hallmark Cards, Interstate Brands, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Our second business niche is designing new retail concepts with emerging entrepreneurs. Big ideas, small budgets, and accelerated time frames have resulted in some of our most imaginative and successful work. Start-up clients have included Peruvian Connection, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Three Dog Bakery, and Kauffman Founders. We recently worked with long time client, Gail Lozoff, on our fourth collaborative brand concept, Spin! Pizza. We are currently designing a brand campaign with Annie Hurlbut, founder of Peruvian Connection, to celebrate her company’s 40th anniversary.

What are the unique challenges women face in the creative industries ?

I think our culture is unique, and of course I couldn’t see it in the beginning because it just came out of my sense of what a workplace should be. When I started, it was “Mad Men.” I didn’t fit and that’s why I started my business.

What I’ve learned about women is that there is so much wisdom at every age.

We were pioneers and it is hard to imagine the challenges women faced in the 1970’s. In the beginning there were a lot of things to learn because clients weren’t used to a woman running a mostly female design firm. Many clients only wanted to work with firms and agencies that were led by men. That’s changed a lot over time. Part of the reason it changed for us is that we started talking about designing from a woman’s perspective. Our female way of seeing the world became our calling card and we have been getting work based on this perspective for a long time.

One of the challenges in almost every business is when women choose to have a family and want to continue to work, they need extra support—the ability to go to their kid’s games and plays, and to care for their children when they are ill. Instinctively, we’ve created a workplace where women and men can integrate their life and work more easily. It became core to our culture and has helped us attract and retain talent. At Willoughby everybody covers for everybody so all the work gets done without a lot of drama. I strongly believe that there are certain moments in life that parents just can’t miss out on.

The other thing I learned about maintaining a creative culture is that people’s needs change throughout the arc of their careers. Before starting a family, many young people are almost workaholics. They just want to work, to design, and to learn. They’re like sponges. But the moment they start a family, their priorities change overnight. As we have grown and aged as a company, we have learned to understand and respect the needs of individuals in each generation. Our current team spans six generations.

Another change—not just at Willoughby—is that elder care is really becoming a reality as parents live longer. My parents passed away around 2000 and it was a real challenge. Now our designers are dealing with aging parents and family situations that require more attention. It’s something that we discuss a lot at Willoughby—to allow time and space for people explore life and care for others, and continue to work.

How do you go from being a three-person agency that’s in its fourth or fifth year to a 20-person agency that thrives for 40+ years? How does an agency grow successfully?

My life and work have been an integrative process of design and constant reinvention. Iterative design for sure! We just announced the new ownership team that began leading Willoughby in October, 2016. I have always believed that our longevity is partially due to continually reinventing ourselves. The constant influx of talented interns and graduates right out of college—the brightest and the best from the region—have kept our minds and work fresh. One of the things that has helped us stay fresh is my learning to let go.

Don’t try to control everything from the top down. Agencies were originally structured as male hierarchies. I naturally didn’t think this way. We allow our young people, right out of school, to have their own projects and we help them grow.

I believe our model helps young designers develop their own voices sooner. Over time our cultural DNA becomes part of the team dynamic, while each new person helps us grow and evolve as a company.

Hiring and retaining key talent made it easier to move to our second generation of ownership. Megan Stephens, Zack Shubkagel, and Nicole Satterwhite, our new owners, have 50 years of combined experience with Willoughby. Tenured leadership has also helped us attract and retain clients and top talent. Our current team of 19 is made up of gifted women and men in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. I am the lone septuagenarian.

You have a story to tell about creating brands and building not just a successful business but a community. What is it like to work at Willoughby?

We’ve evolved over the years because our work style and culture were created intuitively, and we’ve fostered our unique design improvisation since day one.

Willoughby has a clear purpose, vision, and values, and everyone lives it. We’re optimistic. We believe in abundance. We also believe in inclusion and lifestyle flexibility.

Early on, because of my background, I saw so many talented women leave the workforce. Once they were gone for a few years it was hard to get back in—and when they did come back, they often lost their place because firms had moved on. So we’ve experimented with programs to help women integrate back into the workforce, become partners, and support their families.

Reasonable work hours—we think this so important to people and families. We’ve offered flexible work hours, health care, and maternity leave and extensions since the beginning. We make time for celebrations—“fun days”, holidays, barn parties, and lunch and learns. All these activities help keep our spirits up and help us retain the best talent, and in doing so we retain the great clients.

Willoughby has been actively involved with civic and community projects since our founding. About 20% of our work is pro-bono and we focus on opportunities that support women and children.

Would you be willing to share the purpose or the values you mentioned?

I think the best way to do that is to tell you a little bit about myself. I believe that values have to be real, they have to be communicated, and they have to be lived. We are all human and we all make mistakes that teach us important lessons if we pay attention.

There are life-defining moments. In these moments, we muster the courage to tap into something deep inside, and move in a new direction.

I’ll give you an example of that. The 1960’s were a very creative and tumultuous time in American culture. There were life-changing moments, with the Freedom Summer of 1964 and the violence in Mississippi, the multiple assassinations of our leaders, and the Vietnam War protests. When I was 17, three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney were brutally murdered. The public, local law-enforcement, and even some in my family, agreed that the three young men deserved to die because they were outsiders interfering in our elections.

At that moment my worldview changed forever. I knew deep inside that kindness, decency, and equal opportunity were human rights that people of all races, genders, and faiths deserved. This was not the world I had grown up in. So, in a moment of clarity, I knew that promoting talented women while designing a better world would be central to my life’s work.

I have tried to integrate this vision into our culture at Willoughby. We like to hire people who share our values but also challenge us with diverse interests and perspectives. We look for self-starters who strive for excellence—people who take their work seriously but not themselves. Humor and humility go a long way here and we shun unruly egos. People who see the big picture, value learning, and have an environmental or social passion for sustainability are encouraged to lead initiatives. Remembering and practicing respect, kindness, candor, and tolerance makes us a better design firm.

AIGA is an organization that represents generations of designers who are extraordinarily generous. Your name came up in conjunction with designer Deborah Adler and how she got to Target. Would you be willing to share that story?

Deb worked for Milton Glaser and Milton asked me if I would sit down with her and look at her thesis. She had developed this new kind of medicine bottle, because her grandparents had taken the wrong medicine and they couldn’t read the labels, so her project was to redesign it.

I was so impressed with what she did. What a great design idea because, as you know, medication labels are so hard to read that even I get them mixed up sometimes. We were doing some work with Minda Gralnek at Target so I called her and said, “There’s something you just have to see. I think it would be a great project for Target.” And so I introduced Deb to Minda. Milton got involved and, as a result, they redesigned all of Target’s pharmacy and medication packaging. What was really great was that it shed light on AIGA and on Deb, and it was showing exactly what design should do.

During Women’s history month, AIGA is launching the Gender Equity Toolkit, a cardgame and tool to address gender biases and encourage empathy in the workplace. We asked Willoughby to answer a question from the “Building Connections” section of the kit: What is the one big professional thing you struggle with?

I worry that diversity and women’s voices and perspectives are lacking in design disciplines, technology, and advertising. A good example of someone who is changing the tech culture is Reshma Saujani, founder, and CEO of Girls Who Code. She said, “We feel that in addition to teaching girls to code, we need to change the culture. We really wanted to spark a conversation about what we could do to create a more inclusive, well-rounded image of what a programmer is.”

What have you learned from your mentors?

To have the courage to reinvent or to go in a new direction. Milton Glaser was my first mentor but I knew he was an icon and part of the New York design culture that was unique to his generation. Boy, it was hard for me to see a path for myself. I love Milton and his work but I needed to find my own voice and I wanted to create a legacy that extended beyond Ann Willoughby.

Milton taught me so many things, including one of the great lessons of running a good company: “Only work with people you like, and avoid toxic people.” I cannot stress how unhealthy it is to work with toxic people. It took me a while to learn this lesson, but anyone, client or employee, that brings toxic energy to Willoughby is not around long. A joyful office can do twice the work of an unhappy firm.

There’s a very interesting book called “The Living Company” by Arie de Geus. He asked some people to research the characteristics of companies that lived to be over 100 years old. The characteristics were that they completely changed their lines of business at least once, i.e., they were willing to let go; they truly valued human beings, not just paying lip service; and they valued cash in hand. Those were the characteristics and I think you embody all of them.

I haven’t mentioned money at all, but there were some lean years in the beginning. I have never stressed money over design excellence and client service with our staff. It is demoralizing. We try to cultivate creativity and instill a strong work ethic so economic growth comes naturally and individuals prosper.

You and your partners have clearly broken the code. You created a great company, a great culture,  great design, and you’ve left a great legacy.

About Ann Willoughby

AnnWilloughby headshotAnn Willoughby has been a leading voice in graphic design beginning in the late 1960’s. She has taught, written and spoken about designing from a female perspective. Ann founded Willoughby Design in 1978 and became one of the first design firms to address business, gender, and family issues in the workplace. Ann is an AIGA medalist and has served on the AIGA national board of directors. Willoughby works with civic, cultural, and retail clients including the Kauffman Foundation, The Omidyar Group, RideKC, Panera Bread and Spin! Pizza. Visit Willoughby Design to see the portfolio and learn more about the offices in Kansas City, San Francisco, and the Willoughby Design Barn.

Design impacts every experience, system, and institution that humans encounter. Imagine what the world would look like if at least half of our experiences were designed by women?”