Ann Willoughby: From Aspen to TED, via sketchbook

[Ann Willoughby] One day in June in the early ’70s, at the Aspen Design Conference, I met Milton Glaser for the first time. What I remember most is he carried a small student-grade sketchbook with him everywhere. During presentations in the legendary Aspen white tent, Milton sketched while each speaker took his or her turn on stage (it was mostly “his turn” back then).

The Aspen Design conference in those days was in its prime and drew the best of the best architects, writers, scientists, designers, directors, musicians, etc. You can imagine the fantastic drawings and notes in Milton’s sketchbook. The likes of Jonas Salk, Betty Friedan, Tom Wolfe, Buckminster Fuller and Bernardo Bertolucci filled every page.

I was inspired to start my own sketchbook. More than anything, I wanted to hold on to the people and ideas … but it would be another few years before I began keeping sketchbooks on a regular basis. Today I use sketchbooks for travel and for work.

It is fascinating to look back through my early sketchbooks and see how my perceptions have changed and evolved. It is like an older me looking back at a younger me. I can see that the seeds of my current worldview were planted in that often-windswept tent in Aspen from 1973 until 1986. For example, I was first exposed to new ideas in literature and culture by Tom Wolfe at Aspen, just as he was becoming famous for New Journalism through his best seller The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. (Wolfe coined the term the “me generation” to describe life in the 1970s). Another seminal figure at Aspen was the late Jivan Tabibian, an urban planner and educator.

I particularly remember one lengthy debate about design, intention and morality one evening over dinner. Those early conversations helped shape my ideas and responsibilities as a designer.

Above is an example of sketches from TED in February 2000. The stage was artfully arranged with stacked, luminescent glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly. The glass globes were lit and rearranged for every session, creating a TED moment every time we walked into the auditorium. One of my favorite speakers that year was the late Art Buchwald. He and Ricky Wurman, the founder of TED, are sketched below.

Another important influence in my life has been Robert Wright, seen in the next sketch below. Wright, a philosopher and award-winning author, wrote one of my favorite books, Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny. I first met Robert in the early part of 2000 and invited him to speak at the AIGA Business conference in New York that I chaired in 2004. Here is a sketch of Robert at TED explaining game theory and how the arc of human history is moving toward good.

Next is a sketch is of Al Gore at TED after he found his voice and created his new road show. TED may have been one of the first presentations of his passionate debut. What I remember most is Gore’s comment, “Climate change and poverty are design issues.” It was hard to believe he had used the big D word, so I asked him about it later. It appears Brian Collins may have inspired Gore’s rhetoric.

The last sketch is in the form of a short time-lapse video made from Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous TED talk in 2009 (she wrote the best seller Eat Pray Love). The video illustrates how I draw while writing down key ideas, switching back and forth during a 15- to 20-minute presentation.

Those of you of a certain age will remember that Aspen was the only design conference at one time. Because Aspen was interdisciplinary, it allowed me to see a more holistic view of how design fit in the larger context of life and business. As the AIGA and other professional organizations started sponsoring their own conferences, Aspen began to fade. Today there are multiple conferences for every discipline, and the only interdisciplinary gathering with design in its name is TED. What I love about TED is that, like Aspen, it’s interdisciplinary; personally, I find life beyond the design world very refreshing. Although TED is very expensive, the content is free, so anyone interested in absorbing the content can do so online.

Ann Willoughby is the principal of Willoughby Design, which she founded in 1978. She is an AIGA Fellow and has served on its National Board of Directors, where she helped launch the Design Leadership program at Harvard Business School. She is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, which might be where she learned the finer arts of humor and storytelling. And she has a crazy-great barn.

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Comments (2)

  1. Posted by Lisa Mikulski on 05.1.10 at 8:52 am

    What a wonderful post. I do so envy those who draw well.

    Ann, your journals will serve as documents to your life for years to come and thank you for sharing with us. I too have kept journals and notebooks mostly for note taking, idea generation and writing. You have inspired me to include drawing within those pages now … who knows what might come of it.

  2. Posted by Lee Moody on 05.3.10 at 12:11 pm

    Hi Ann…I can’t WAIT TO SEE YOU !!!
    I hope everyone who lives with in driving distance of RI is coming tonight !
    Lee Moody

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