Ann Willoughby: Designing a Life and a Career

A leading American voice in design is coming to Omaha. Ann Willoughby has taught, written, and lectured about the importance of women as design leaders in both business and as a social force. Have you heard of the Willoughby Design Barn? It’s awesome. Looking forward to seeing lots of people out for Design Alliance Omaha’s spring lecture. Special thanks to Ervin & Smith for the stellar event poster.

Ann Willoughby
Thursday, May 9, 2019 @ 7 pm
Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha

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How much does an old tree cost?

One of the old trees on our street had a large branch starting to lean on one of the street’s light poles. I’ve noticed it before on dog walks. Seemed like an issue that needed to be dealt with. The branch was cut down yesterday, presumably at the orders of the city. The tree itself has 5 other branches, all extremely tall. At least the entire tree wasn’t removed. I do wonder though if anyone thought to move the light instead. It’s probably cheaper to cut down a single branch on paper. But how many years does it take to make a light pole? Compare that to the 30+ years the tree has been growing. You may say it’s not fair to compare such things. But isn’t that the problem with capitalism?

What happens when no one can make a decision?

The design process can go on forever. So when it comes to working with a designer, after you’ve gone out of your way to hire one, as a client, here’s a bit of advice for you. Designers work with you to realize your vision and execute it visually in the best way possible. If it comes down to the end and you, the client, just can’t make the final decision, then simply defer to the designer. The one with the expertise whom you’ve hired. Do that and things will get done. If you cannot do that, then you need to rethink why you hired a designer in the first place.

And then defer to the designer.

Seriously. That’s the only the design process will end well. Otherwise, the final product will be a cobbled together pile of mush uninspiring to all people who come into contact with said mush.

It is not my job to do what you tell me to do

It is my job to provide expert design on time and on budget. My job is not to bring you joy or delight, though sometimes that happens. It is my job to prevent bad ideas from happening and to make sure good ideas stand the best of chance of succeeding once they’re released into the wild. I do not task rabbit well. I push the buttons I want to push. I do not do what I’m told. I do what is called for by the forces behind whatever it is we happen to be working on. In touch with the universe? Maybe so. Simply a robot there to do your bidding? Definitely not. I’m sure you can find of those on Craig’s List.

Before the craft takes hold

There’s a period in the life of any maker when they’re making but haven’t yet begun to master the craft. Not even close. They’re simply, beginning. Fumbling around in the dark, putting together moments of light because of persistence. But they don’t know really what they’re doing.

There are several bands I grew up listening to where I think this applies. Before they knew how to make music the proper way—with the structure, melodies, or chords deemed acceptable by the masses or the powers that be—they made songs that may not have been considered great songs in any traditional sense, but my god they were glorious to me. They hit in such an unexpected way. As those bands continued to make songs over the years, they got better. They honed their craft. The songs were technically better and more refined. But they lacked something. The rawness. The edge, the imperfection. The fuck-it-all mentality. The old songs sounded like they were simply made and no one ever stopped to consider if what was being made was actually correct. They just created something, come what may.

I feel that way about design sometimes. Some of my early projects I look back on and marvel at. They hit something special. They did something unique. They came together in unexpected ways with unexpected results. Sure, they didn’t have the 10,000+ hours of making put in to elevate them to professional or expert. But they had something some of my work now just doesn’t. Maybe it was heart. Maybe imperfection. (That old work certainly isn’t pixel-perfect.) Whatever it was in those early years, the work I made was well before any sort of craft took hold. I’m a self-taught designer after all. Someone in college taught me how to think and that was all I needed. The craft, that took about a decade to perfect. And I certainly feel I’ve perfected it. This is design, not astrophysics.

I call myself an expert and the work I make shows that. But still, that early work. There’s something about it. Something honest. Something raw. Something wrong. Which is why I still like it so much.

Fake Fake Fake just ain’t a game I play

Thinking back to that first press conference the president-elect gave. The one with the stacks of paper that turned out to all be blank. Just another dog and pony show for the masses.

That press conference gave us the first real sense we were about to go on a terrible ride. It was also the first time he used the term “fake news.” As we all know, fake news is a real thing. It’s a terrible thing we have to deal with on the internet, but for the most part it remained on the fringes or with weirdos on Facebook. But now we have a complete idiot taking the term for himself and using it to attack his enemies in the press. Who he refers to as the “enemies of the people,” which is absolutely disgusting. How there have been no real consequences to the now president for the use of these terms is something that should concern us all.

How is he allowed to get away with all of this? Why is it okay for him to operate in this way? Will there ever be any consequences for the language he uses?

Sadly, we may never know because we’re all too busy bracing ourselves for the next blow. And frankly, we’re all getting exhausted.