Q&A with Ann Willoughby


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 processes.

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.

Fourth, our 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 years.

The final component is how we utilize tools and technology to support our creative team and our clients.

What skill 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.

Increasingly, 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.

What role 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 the future? 

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.

Traditional agencies 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?

Willoughby Design 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.

What’s the 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.

What role will collaboration and/or a multidisciplinary approach play in the studio of 2015?

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 that.

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!”

What should studios do to prepare themselves to address sustainability and an increasingly global context?  

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 sustainability.

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 marketplace.

 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.

What creative 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.