Willie Baronet’s work has been featured in Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, New York Art Directors, The One Show, Print Casebooks, Annual Report Trends, The Type Directors Club and Annual Report Design: A Historical Retrospective 1510-1990, organized by the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design. And his print and broadcast work has received numerous medals from the Dallas Advertising League’s Tops Show, the Dallas Society of Visual Communications and the Houston Art Directors Club.
Today Willie is in a transition point in his life. he recently sold his design studio, MasonBaronet, to one of his partners and he is in the process of starting new career as a life coach. Willie has a great presepctive on life and work, listen/read the inteveriw to understand what makes someone like him tick.
Listen to the interview with graphic designer Willie Baronet.
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TDc: Hello. Today, we’re talking to Willie Baronet of Mason Baronet. We’re going to talk to him about how things are going in his life, and what he’s doing these days. Since coming into the business in 1982, what was your first break?
Willie Baronet: My first break. That’s a great question. My first break was probably the first job that I took in Dallas which was with a man named Jack Allday. He used to have an agency called Allday and Associates. Jack, for whatever reason, saw something in my South Louisiana portfolio and gave me a chance, and really accredit him with being the trigger that got to me to Dallas. He and I are still close friends. I only stayed with him for about 10 months or so.
Then I got another big break which was the chance to go to work for what was then a very young firm of Sullivan Perkins. After a lot of heart wrenching conversations and trying to figure out if I was being disloyal to Jack, I finally told Jack about it and he encouraged me to take the job and said it would be a great experience. So that was a very quick second break that followed the first break.
TDc: And what made you – after working at Sullivan Perkins for awhile, what made you decide? Did you go out on your own from there?
Willie Baronet: I actually left Sullivan Perkins and took a job as a creative director at a firm called Knape & Knape which is not around any longer but worked there for, I believe, 3 years as a creative director. That was my first chance to step into a management role, and big growing period for me as well. So that was what I did right after Sullivan Perkins.
TDc: How was it taking on a management role? What made that different from just doing the straight creative?
Willie Baronet: Oh gosh. Really, just how much I learned about people and what it was like to manage people, and not really just make sure they do their jobs but understand what motivates them, figure out how best to inspire them to excel and to work as a team; stuff like that, which for me I was the oldest of 8 kids growing up.
Willie Baronet: And I would say that some of that probably came naturally. But other parts of it required some unlearning some old habits. So, it’s really more of the people aspect of it which I really liked.
TDc: Great. Then when you say getting people to – managing them, I guess guiding them, leadership and that type of thing. What is one thing that you could say that is common for all creative people in that respect?
Willie Baronet: Common for all creative people?
TDc: In other words, I guess, kind of thinking about what do people – are they – if you gave them design freedom, does that help them if you tell them this is a challenging deadline, but here’s what you could do to make it succeed; that type of thing. What do you see that motivates creative people the most?
Willie Baronet: I’ll tell you what. I’m going to rephrase that a little bit because I actually believe that my answer really just isn’t about “creative people.”
Willie Baronet: I believe that all people tend to rise to the best of their abilities when they are really listened to, and really understood, and also when they are encouraged. I guess the word compassion is what comes up for me because most people, I believe, tend to not live up to their abilities when they are afraid. And I believe that when a manager can be compassionate and encouraging on a regular basis, I believe that really is a big key to helping people really excel at the level that they can. Does that make sense?
TDc: Yes. So instilling compassion is what an – having people where they felt like they’ve been listened to and then giving them a sounding board, so to speak.
Willie Baronet: Yes. And I would say it applies to creative people. It applies to account executives. It applies to clients. I used to really have certain stereotypes that I applied to different groups like creative people for instance. And the older I get, the less I tend to that these days because I realized that a lot of the things that I used to believe, I find exceptions to every group and I also find that all people really do share a lot of similar things that motivate them.
TDc: Looking at your blog, you post a lot of sketches and things like that. Your sketches are very whimsical. Is that how you would say you approach a design problem?
Willie Baronet: Wow. The blog first of all is really, and you use the word sketches, which is really what it is. It is a collection of – for me, just a lot of pouring out whatever is inside on a sketchbook. In some ways, it’s more like journalling than sketching. In some ways, I guess, I did approach design in the same way. In some ways, humor was one of the things that tended to really come to the top for me. I loved ideas that were funny. But in other ways, I feel like the sketching stuff that I do in journals and so forth is really very personal and very – it’s not about solving a problem so to speak. And that’s a really big difference between my experience doing design and advertising. That was always about solving a problem.
And while some of the solutions might be whimsical, the truth is that the problem solving piece was really important.
TDc: How has the internet changed the design business?
Willie Baronet: Wow. A lot of ways. One of the ways – and some of these may seem really obvious. But one of the ways is speed. That it has enabled us all to communicate so quickly, share files and solutions quickly that expectations have also quickened. And I believe that the speed at which problems get solved is one of the big impacts the internet’s had.
Another impact is that because of the internet, we have this new delivery mechanism which is online, and since a lot of solutions are literally designed to be viewed online and in no other ways that there is a quality change that became, I think, a big deal as we all did more and more stuff that was destined only for the web.
TDc: Right, and not for print.
Willie Baronet: And where we used to spend a lot of time and energy in the high resolution stuff that might have been printed that now we can get away with things that are of a lesser quality resolution-wise.
A third piece that comes to mind is that motion – the fact that the web delivery mechanism involves motion of different kinds whether it’s Flash pieces or whatever, that all of a sudden a lot of guys – a lot of designers who were primarily print-driven now have to think in terms that involved motion and sound, where in the past we were really more one-dimensional.
TDc: Right. Getting back up to the expectations and the speed of everything and how the internet has done that, do you see that that has hurt people in that there’s no time for ideas to gel, there’s always this rapid pace that you have to adhere to, or has that in some way motivated people to get – to respond quickly?
Willie Baronet: Both, probably.
I think it has definitely made those who can think more quickly – it has given them an edge. In other cases, I think, it probably has hampered some marketing solutions that probably would have benefited by having more time to germinate and be flushed out a little more. And in some cases, there are pluses and minuses around that. But I’d say both.
TDc: Okay. And when you’re talking about where online delivery on the web and there is that quality, do you see that quality – or let’s say, lack of high resolution spilling over into printed material these days?
Willie Baronet: Yes. In some cases, it has changed the expectations across the board. And I have seen a lesser quality, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the quality of the thinking or the ideas has gone down because some of the online marketing and web stuff is brilliant and just as strong as any print stuff.
But yes, it definitely has had an impact on some – there are lots of low resolution print stuff these days.
TDc: Yeah. What kind of tips can you give somebody to have a balanced work life and family life, or outside of work life?
Willie Baronet: You’re asking a recovering workaholic. I would say, first and foremost, I believe that it’s critical that people understand what really matters to them. Perhaps another way of saying that is that they understand what their purpose is, and until a person understands that, I think it’s really difficult to even know whether you’re living a balanced life.
There are a lot of great tools out there that, I believe, people can access that can help them get in touch with those things. But to me, first and foremost, is really understanding what matters. And then you can go about figuring out how to live a life that reflects that.
TDc: Right. And that just comes with knowing yourself.
Willie Baronet: Yes. Exactly.
TDc: What common mistakes do you see designers make?
Willie Baronet: Probably the most common one is that I believe they often approach a situation or an assignment with too narrow a perspective. And they don’t take the time to really try to put themselves in their client’s shoes, put themselves in the end customer’s shoes.
I know that for me as a designer, I wanted to get to the fun part. I wanted to come up with the idea and execute it, and figure out the cool paper to use, and make it creatively satisfy me. The truth is that I’m much more effective whenever I take the time to look at the perspectives and really understand the nature of the problem. So part of it is really just about having a broader perspective and trying to see things from different view points.
TDc: But do you think sometimes our industry awards design for design and not how effective it is. You can look at it and you can see the creative – how it was solved but you can see how – maybe how they approached the marketing problem, but in the end, you don’t really know how effective it is. Do you think we, maybe, award prices for the wrong thing?
Willie Baronet: That’s a great question. There’s no doubt to me that we sometimes do award things based on the wrong reasons, and I do believe that award shows are unnecessary evil. While they’re imperfect, I do believe they encourage the individuals and companies to strive to do stronger work. Some of them, when the judges are chosen well, I believe do give – you get a fairly decent level of judging that does take those things into account.
But it’s a great question and one that’s been argued for a long time.
TDc: And probably always will.
Willie Baronet: Yes. Probably always will. There are organizations that have award shows like the EFFIE, which is supposedly based on effectiveness. The problem is that there really can’t be effective policing of that sort of thing. So, a lot of the time, the entries can be skewed such that – I’m not sure that’s a whole lot better.
TDc: Okay. If you were lecturing to a group of students about to graduate from a design program, what would be the single most important aspect of design would you recommend for them to concentrate on?
Willie Baronet: I’d recommend that they really think about not only solving problems in a memorable way, which is at the end of the day, I think, what they’re asked to do, but also their own ability to communicate and convince about their solutions whether it’s with a creative director internally or whether it’s directly to a client. But it’s more around the topic of emotional intelligence.
I would urge – I touched on it a little while ago when I was talking about people knowing themselves. I would urge design students to really spend time understanding their own motivations and their own communication styles, and learn to be better convincers because a lot of times, great ideas die because the art director doesn’t know how to get over his own frustrations and sell that idea.
TDc: I think that’s one thing that students don’t understand is that you can have a great idea but getting out there and selling that and convincing somebody else to buy into it is really difficult.
Willie Baronet: Yes. Really difficult.
TDc: And it always amazes me how there are things that – get out there and always equate this with a movie is that you have all these people working on this movie and it comes out where it’s not quite what you think it could be or should be, yet somewhere along way somebody didn’t sell it right.
Willie Baronet: Exactly.
TDc: What are your design inspirations?
Willie Baronet: Design inspirations. Wow. When I was first moving to Dallas, I was really inspired by the guys in Dallas doing work at that time. People like Ron Sullivan, Jack Summerford, Woody Pirtle and all of the guys that had worked for Stan Richards. There are just tons of them that whose work I was inspired by.
Then as I think was exposed to more of it, I also say that they were people in the industry like Tibor Kalman, who is deceased now and who is one of the people that I was very, very inspired by.
Then I got a lot of inspiration outside of design as well from just great art figures and people like Picasso and Matisse, and the people that I’ve seen in lots of modern art museums around the world. I love being inspired by that kind of thinking.
I’m also inspired by people like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela who just simply have a courageous approach to life and to purpose. For me, that’s also really inspiring. And a lot of regular old people that I just think takes lots of chances in their lives and go out and live from a deep sense of their own purpose. I’m inspired by lots of just everyday people I come across to.
TDc: You’ve sold your business, and you’re kind of a in a transitional period right now. What are you wanting to move into and how is it going?
Willie Baronet: Yes. I sold the company to a long-term employee and am still affiliated with the company as a contract employee myself, and I occasionally will participate in things for the company if they need my help.
But I am in a big transition, and to answer the question: How is it going? It is downright uncomfortable a lot of the time. I’m in a – this transition for me is – a huge change in my life. For so long, I identified myself as this person who ran this company and was in this certain profession.
And now that’s changed, and I’m just doing a lot of introspection and trying to figure out who I am beyond that.
In terms of what I’m hoping to do, I’m actually in the process of developing a life coaching practice. I’ve started doing some coaching but am deliberately doing that very slowly. I’m trying to force myself to sit and simmer in this uncomfortable spot.
The other big piece is that I really do want to spend more time and energy doing personal art projects. And that’s probably the biggest scariest arena for me because I’m not quite sure yet what that means.
And it’s a big challenge for me, and one that I want to face.
TDc: Well great. I appreciate your time today. I look forward to seeing what you come up with next with your life coaching and that type of thing. Thank you very much.
Willie Baronet: You’re welcome. Thanks for talking with me.