Willoughby Aims to Change the Way You Experience the Working World

Though it boasts an enviable portfolio of national clients, Willoughby’s greatest passion comes from bolstering the KC community through its own innovative vision.

Story by Maggie Young

Willoughby is not just a local brand innovation and design firm, but a place where curiosity about the world is treasured. Here, it’s about designing with purpose, meaning and beauty. “So core to our culture is that we believe design should be part of everyday life and that it can really change the way you experience the world,” according to Megan Stephens, president and partner at Willoughby.

Ann Willoughby, founder and chief creative officer of brand communications of the design firm, received an AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) Medal, the design industry’s highest honor.

Founded in 1978 by Ann Willoughby, the company has grown and thrived as a woman-owned firm. Willoughby set out to create a work environment that would reflect her values and lifestyle, which happen to revolve around family and embracing working mothers.

In the ’70s, the work culture was much different for women after they had children. It wasn’t encouraged for them to work, and job flexibility wasn’t offered. As a mother herself, Willoughby wanted to develop a place where mothers (and women in general) could thrive and offer the female perspective to the design field.

With that being said, Willoughby believes in a gender balance and understanding and incorporating both perspectives. This can be a bit of a balancing act, but it’s something Willoughby has perfected over the years.

The design studio is focused on the core values of humanity. “We have a thing we call ‘be kind and candid,’ which is be kind to each other, but be honest with each other because that’s really important in the design world,” Stephens explains. “You can’t critique each other if you aren’t candid, but be kind about it.”

Along with collaboration and humility, Willoughby strives to promote curiosity, passion, sustainability, health, attention to detail and excellence in work service. The core values of a company never change, so Willoughby looks for what remains constant in its clients and creates a vision and brand around those qualities.

When a client comes to Willoughby, it partakes in a vision workshop to discover what really makes the company tick. This is the passion behind the company that Willoughby uses to create a design that is both a business solution and an extension of the passion that runs deeply behind its brand.

The Design Barn

Most businesses have a symbol that represents their all-encompassing purpose and mission. For Willoughby, this is the Design Barn nestled within the rolling fields of Weston, Mo. It was created as an event and retreat place that fosters a more intuitive approach to building experiences and interactions. The barn’s simplicity makes it the ideal getaway to brainstorm and develop creatively.

The Design Barn was completed in 2001 and is used for design workshops, branding boot camps, office parties and client workshops. People from all over the world have visited the barn, and it leaves a lasting impression on not only their businesses, but also their perspectives on life, which translates into their work.

One of the events hosted at the barn was a vision session with about 20 entrepreneurs through the Kauffman Foundation. The goal was to build each of their ideas into brands by taking visions and transforming them into realities.

“During the workshop, a huge thunderstorm had come across the plain, rain was pounding down on the barn, lightning was touching down outside on the fields, and a lot of the people attending the workshop were in awe because they had never seen a Midwestern storm,” Stephens recalls. “That’s the kind of experience that gets you in touch with the world and inspires you.”

Such experiences touch upon the true purpose of the barn and the service it provides Willoughby’s designers and clients, she adds.


The Clients

Willoughby works with nationally recognized brands such as Lee Jeans, The Hershey Company, Hostess Brands and Panera Bread, as well as local brands like Hallmark Cards, Tivol, SPIN! Neapolitan Pizza, Sheridan’s Frozen Custard and Feng.

Some of the most rewarding work that Willoughby does is in Kansas City because contributing to the community and making a positive impact is important to the firm.

Willoughby guided and grew the brand vision and identity design for Kansas City’s MAX (Metro Area Express) bus, the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association’s “Visit KC” brand, the KC Chamber brand and the new LiveBlue retail store by Blue Cross & Blue Shield in Kansas City.

In large part, Willoughby is helping to change the vocabulary of Kansas City to “KC” after doing research and finding that most parts of the country recognize the initials. Working to promote the prominence of the KC brand is something that Willoughby is passionate about as the city continues to grow and prosper.

Willoughby has many exciting projects on the horizon. For instance, in partnership with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, the firm is creating an umbrella transportation brand for the transportation system in the greater Kansas City area. In addition, Willoughby is working with the KC Streetcar Authority to create a brand strategy and campaign as well as name branding, the look of the streetcar, digital advertising and a route map.


The Future

Ann Willoughby’s goal from the beginning was to foster a business where humanity was valued. This mission is infused into every facet of the company from the employees to the Design Barn, and ultimately, to their clients and community. All of this has happened throughout Willoughby’s work innovation, and the company will continue to provide brand experiences that delight and inspire everyday life.

“In addition to doing great work for great clients, it’s our goal to share more of our thinking in the marketplace about design and how it can positively impact inclusivity, sustainability and humanity,” Stephens says.