Born in Lansing, Michigan, Johnson studied landscape architecture at Michigan State University, graduating in 1953. Following his military service, Johnson completed an M.L.A. at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). While in Cambridge he worked for Hideo Sasaki and was an instructor at the GSD.
Returning to the Midwest to practice, Johnson formed Johnson, Johnson and Roy (JJR) in 1961, a partnership with his brother Carl and Clarence Roy. A master plan for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor established the firm’s approach of integrated planning and analysis. The search for fitness, harmony, and community involvement became William Johnson’s core design philosophy and a trademark of JJR’s work.
Throughout his career Johnson blended practice, at JJR (1961-1975) and as William J. Johnson Associates (1980-1992), with his commitment to education. A professor of landscape architecture from 1958, he became Dean of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan (1975-83) and Professor Emeritus in 1988.
Johnson’s practice focused on campus, resort, and community planning and parks and recreation projects. He formed a partnership with Peter Walker in 1992 which led to many national and international commissions. He was named a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1973 and awarded the ASLA Medal in 1986.