About Willie Baronet

Willie Baronet was the owner and creative director of his own advertising design firm (formerly GroupBaronet, now MasonBaronet) from 1992-2006. His 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. He and his company have won numerous medals from the DSVC, the Houston Art Director’s Show, and the Dallas Ad League (now AAF Dallas). In 2013 he was given the AIGA Fellow award, the highest honor an AIGA chapter can bestow upon one of its members.

Interview by
Bryan Grudowski
June 26th, 2016

You’ve been a creative force in the industry for some time. Tell me a little bit about yourself and the journey that led you to founding your own agency.

I went to college at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Back then it was the University of Southwestern Louisiana, and I was very inspired by really the only professor that was managing the advertising program. His name was Dutch Kepler. He is retired but he’s still down in South Louisiana. A bunch of us moved to Dallas after graduating primarily because he encouraged us to do that. He would take us on field trips to Houston and Dallas. Dutch was a one-man show, but what he did was light a fire in all of us. He told us what CA [Communication Arts] was, and he got us in the habit of looking at good work.

I went to work at a small agency in Lafayette after graduating, but in 1983 a couple of my friends moved here. It was really those guys that said,"Get your ass up here." In late 1983 I basically came to Dallas with my portfolio and interviewed at I bet twenty-five or thirty different studios and agencies. I think at the time, if I could have chosen the top three places I wanted to work, it would have been The Richards Group, Richards Sullivan Brock & Associates, or Woody Pirtle. Those were the hit list for me, but I had a list of a bunch of other places.

I ended up getting a job with Jack Allday at an agency called Allday & Associates. I worked there for ten months, then got a call from Ron Sullivan who had left Richards Sullivan Brock & Associates and started Sullivan Perkins with Mark Perkins. I ended up being their second employee back when they began, and that was right at 1985. . . I worked there for four years, then took a creative director position at Knape & Knape, which was an agency that no longer exists, and that was my first creative director job.

About three years into that, the agency wasn’t doing well, and at that point I had begun talking to Steve Gibbs about forming a company, and we started GibbsBaronet in February of '92.

It’s about good ideas and compelling work. Willie Baronet

Was that in the White Swan building?

Yes. Steve already had an office in the White Swan building. He and I, we grew pretty quickly and so we moved down to the main floor of the White Swan building. Steve left in '95 or '96, something like that, and then I changed the name to GroupBaronet. . . The late '90s were boom years. I had some great clients and continued to grow. Then we weathered the bubble bursting, we weathered 9/11. That was a day we’ll never forget. We were actually in our staff meeting when the first plane hit.

Meta Newhouse, who now teaches in Montana, was our Creative Director at the time. She was maybe at a photo shoot or something, but she called and told us that this had happened and our staff meeting got interrupted. In fact, the week after that we had scheduled a company retreat, and so we went to a retreat the week after 9/11. One of our account planners, our head strategy person, was in route back from Europe and got diverted to Canada because of 9/11. She barely made it back to town in time for our retreat. We were all in tears. I don’t know if you recall. Everybody was a mess at that time. We weathered all of that. . .

That must have been, in some ways, thankful to be able to have everyone together so soon after that event, but it also must have been that much more emotional and difficult to have the space to process things.

Yeah. I think for me in particular, I was trying to figure out from a leadership standpoint, how do I help everybody during this? It was tough, and I didn’t really know. I’d never navigated anything like that before.

Designers today don’t know much of White Swan building’s legacy or even that it existed. Today we know it as the The House of Blues. What drew you to that building?

It was really a great haven for creative companies. I know at one point, before I got there, Sibley Peteet was in that building. Peterson & Company was in that building. There were typesetters in that building. People like Alan Lidji, Jon Flaming, and John Evans. Megan Reinhardt worked for Alan Lidji. She now has her own studio. Jim Good. Oh man, there were so many...

There was something about it. I think when I first came to Dallas and interviewed, Robert A. Wilson & Associates was officing in the White Swan building. He was I think one of the first people to have an office there. He’s Owen Wilson’s dad. He had a really successful... DJ Stout was working for him at the time. DJ and I became friends in the early years. Of course DJ now runs Pentagram in Austin.

There was so many people that were in the White Swan building in those early years. Tim Chumley, who co-directed our documentary Signs of Humanity, had a company called JiffyMouse at the time. He did computer production. He was also in the White Swan building. Back in the day, the people at his company and ours, we had these little guns that shot little plastic discs, and we would have huge battles, where we would chase each other around the building. It was just a blast to be there. It was a really fun time.

Willie’s DSVC Event Poster

Printed on
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Willie Baronet & Josh Ege

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Vice President Sales

Paper by
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9207 Ambassador Row
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view event on DSVC

That’s amazing. Outside of the White Swan building itself, how has living in Dallas influenced your work?

I think one of the reasons that I wanted to come to Dallas certainly had to do with Woody Pirtle, Stan Richards, Ron Sullivan, Sibley Peteet, Chuck Johnson, Ken Koester, Alan Lidji, Zarah Lout, and all of those firms that were around when I came here. I was looking through CA [Communication Arts], and I was looking at all their work. . . All those guys were people whose work that I saw, and wanted to be able to do work at that level.

Dallas’ work shaped me a great deal. It was in the early 80’s where the work coming out of Dallas was on par with anywhere in the country. They were certainly influenced a lot by the Push Pin guys in New York in the 60’s and 70’s. A lot of that style permeated through the work.

Other than that, I would say it’s about the clients that are in Dallas. Our agency did work for the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, St Paul Hospital, The Dallas Community Colleges. All of those clients helped shape who we were.

Very nice. You’ve had a storied agency career: from GibbsBaronet, to GroupBaronet, to MasonBaronet, to today where you’re outside of the day-to-day operations. Tell me a little bit about that journey and what it was like to ultimately step away from it.

There was a time in the course of the agency where we got too busy for me to continue as creative director, and at that point I promoted Meta Newhouse to Creative Director, who did an amazing job. She went on to get her MFA and is now teaching in Montana. That single event probably, in some ways, was a foreshadowing of me realizing that I didn’t have the time to do the creative myself anymore or be that involved. . . I think that was probably, in some ways, the beginning of the end because I realized at some point I needed to be doing the creative. That’s why I got into this in the first place. Even though I enjoyed running the company, there came a time where I was feeling a bit unfulfilled creatively.

Holly Mason worked for me for many years, and in 2003 my mom passed away. I believe that that also reminded me I don’t have forever, it helped me figure out that I really was ready to do something else. I wasn’t sure what, but I knew it was time, and the House of Blues was in the process of trying to buy the White Swan building. Once that became imminent, I thought, “This is the perfect time to make this transition.” I was going to sell the agency. I thought I’d sell it to a bigger agency and just step away, but I was talking to a consultant who asked me some good questions. I realized what I really cared about was the culture of the company staying strong, and Holly was really the only employee that I thought might have the desire and the ability to do that. I approached her and we were able to work that out. Truthfully, we were never really partners because as soon as I sold the company to her, I left.

So it was more of a passing of the torch so to speak?

It was. I did come back. Our creative director at the time was Paul Jerde, past DSVC president. Paul, shortly after this, had a very serious accident and was hit by a truck. He’s been essentially in a wheelchair since then. That was a huge event for Holly. There was a period of time I came back and helped her with creative direction while she was trying to find a new creative director. Holly will always be a dear friend of mine, so we’re in touch a lot.

Holly Mason
President & Owner, MasonBaronet

Wille Baronet
We Are All Homeless

While in school, did the idea that eventually became Signs of Humanity happen then, or did that occur afterwards?

It happened before, during and after. I was buying signs since 1993, literally in the early White Swan days I had homeless signs in my office. It was just a thing I was doing and I didn’t know why. I did paint on a few of the signs in the early years and ruined them, unfortunately. I wasn’t clear what was going to happen with the signs.

Before I even started grad school, I was talking with one of my professors at UTD, and he asked me, "What kind of work do you want to do?" I told him I was painting, but was also collecting homeless signs. That excited him way more than the painting did. He encouraged me. He was like, "You ought to do something with this," and so from day one in grad school I was working on what was I going to do with these signs, and how was I going to turn that into something? It really happened during grad school.

Did your background as a creative director and business owner influence how you approached the project?

Totally. I can’t divorce myself from my love of typography and messaging. One of the many things I love about these as artifacts is they are all individual. This is the ultimate hand lettering project ever. I’ve got over eleven hundred signs, so I have all these examples of lettering. I love the typography. I love the fact that words are occasionally misspelled, and the messages that they choose to write because, in a sense, this is a very crude and up-front form of marketing. If I'm trying to get someone to stop and give me some money, what am I going to write that's going to make that happen?

We could talk about this for a long time because we could talk about the authenticity of the messages, or whether they are trying to be entertaining and funny, or are they trying to be serious, or whether they’re being truthful which is something that I don’t always know the answer to. There are clearly people out there who put a lot of work into their signs. I’ve got signs that are six or eight feet tall, they’re huge, and are filled with words and lettering. . .

My background totally impacted my love for the signs. When I do a poster for an art exhibit of course, then I get to dive in for just a moment back into designing. I hardly ever design anything, but last year I designed two posters, and they both got in the DSVC [Dallas Show], and one won a medal. I got this little tiny revisiting [of] my past. . . I was out of town, so I wasn’t able to be at the show. But just being a part of that still warms my heart.

I’d say the last piece is that, and it’s really hard to explain this, but the leadership part of running an agency and managing people and the emotional intelligence that comes with all of that also contributes. While I was in grad school, I organized what I’ll call “performances,” where thirty or forty of us would stand at a busy intersection all holding signs. Just knowing the process of putting that together and managing a bunch of people in situations like that is important... I had the benefit of having run a business, and there’s a lot that comes with that, as you know. It’s a whole new level of education, and it’s a whole new kind of learning that is not about design. It’s about humans and contracts and business principles – all of that stuff. . .

I’m just curious if you have any advice to creatives who are looking to pursue some form of social good or activism, but who are trying to reconcile that with a demanding career.

I think that’s a huge question. That’s a life question. "What am I going to spend my time doing, and how can I feel good about my choices around that?" When we were still running the firm, I loved doing work for the Dallas Community Colleges and St Paul, and AIDS Arms. We did tons of pro-bono work, but we also did work for non-profits like the American Heart Association. We would get paid for that, but at some level I felt like that was actually meaningful work.

I also did a lot of work that didn’t satisfy me from that standpoint, that was not meaningful to me. It might have been creative and it might have been profitable but it wasn’t satisfying me in the sense of if I’m making the world a better place.

These days I think most people have a side hustle. Everybody’s doing stuff in addition to their day job, it seems like. I would say to people,

“Find what you’re passionate about and do it. If you can find a way to weave that into your day job, great. If you can’t, find a way to do it anyway.”

If you had told me twenty years ago that this weird thing I’m doing of collecting these homeless signs was going to turn into what it’s turned into, I would have thought you were insane. There’s no way to know. I really do believe that when people are passionate about this stuff, that you just never know how you’re going to help somebody, or what difference you might make, and so forth. All I would say is, “Do it.” I’m shortening Nike’s “Just do it” to “Do it.” (laughs)

I want to say one other thing too. . . I’ve really never thought about myself as an activist. You may have remembered in the movie, when I was asked that question, that was really the first time somebody had asked me that, and it stopped me. I didn’t really think of this as activism. Now I get it, but it’s not something that I said, “I’m going to be an activist.” I think that was accidental. I knew I wanted to do this, but I just never thought of it in those terms, for whatever that’s worth.

Willie Baronet displays some of the signs he has purchased from homeless people as part of his "We Are All Homeless" project.
Credit: Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal

Much of the focus right now has been on your recent film, Signs of Humanity, but for years before that you’ve presented the project as We Are All Homeless. What’s the difference between those and what does the expression “We are all homeless” mean to you?

The project is called We Are All Homeless, and the movie is a subset of that.

For me, “we are all homeless” means we are all the same – we’re all human beings, we all ask for help sometimes, we all fuck up sometimes, make bad choices, we all share at our core what it means to be a human being, the existential questions, etc. I also believe that there is a piece of me, and I said this when I talked to The Bridge in November of this past year. . . I said, “There’s a piece of me that was homeless when I grew up.” And that for me happened to be about safety and some stuff about my relationship with my father.

What I’ve come to believe is that most people, when I ask them that question, “Is there a part of you that is homeless, or has been homeless?,” most people can find a way to connect to that. It may be about a loss of a place, a loss of a house, a loss of a parent, something that leaves a wound or an empty place.

What I’m saying essentially is we’re all human, and hey, why don’t we maybe not judge each other so quickly based on the box that it’s easy to put us in? “Oh, he’s a homeless person. He must be lazy or addicted or whatever.” That’s what that means.

Another example is. . . Michael Moore, after Trump made his Muslim comments, posted a picture of himself online that said, “We are all Muslim.” The “we are all” thing I’ve noticed popping up a lot lately. I bought this URL probably in 2008 or 2009, weareallhomeless.org, and that’s when I started referring to this project as such. You see “we are all African.” There are other movements out there that utilize that phrase, and I think they’re all saying the same thing. We’re all in this together, people, let’s quit dividing [ourselves].

It’s a powerful message. Transitioning to the film that came from this project, Signs of Humanity, what is it about and where did that idea come from?

The idea for the trip across the country originated in a TEDx talk in 2012. I realized, “Oh my God, that’s on the Internet, I probably ought to do what I said that I wanted to do.” (spoken in jest) In 2013 I began to plan to do that, and immediately called my friend Tim Chumley. He and I essentially planned this trip, and one of the things in the beginning that we talked about was that we obviously want to document this. Our plan in the beginning was to maybe do a little short twenty minute, “Hey, here’s our trip across the country.”

Fear usually tells me there’s a good idea happening. When I get afraid I’m like, “Okay. I’m at my edge now. I want to see the challenge that’s going to be presented.”

In the process of raising money for the trip through Indiegogo, an old friend of mine who I was in an entrepreneurial group with. . . contacted me through Facebook and said, "I want to complete your fundraising efforts, and I want you to do a feature length documentary," so he ended up contributing fifty thousand dollars to us, and became our first executive producer.

He said, "I’m in this for you to do a feature length documentary." That’s what shifted us from, "Hey, we’re just going to document ourselves going across the country," to, "Okay, we’ve got to take this seriously." That’s why we got two more filmmakers involved, two cars instead of one, and there were cameras everywhere for thirty-one days basically. His name, by the way, is David Kiger.

I give him props. He’s the reason, and he scared me. Fear is a huge piece of creativity for me. I don’t often get scared creatively. It’s not scary to go buy signs anymore for me. When he said, "I want you to do a feature length documentary," puckering happened, and there was fear, and that was when I knew this was a good idea. Fear usually tells me there’s a good idea happening. When I get afraid I’m like, "Okay. I’m at my edge now. I want to see the challenge that’s going to be presented," and my gosh, there were a lot.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the Signs of Humanity at this year’s Dallas International Film Festival. I was just blown away at the depth of the people and stories, touching stories, shown throughout the film. Are there any stories that weren’t able to make it into the film, or happened before the film, that really stick out that you would share?

The first thing is that I want to apologize for all the stories I will forget, because there’s so many. There are a bunch that we filmed that did not make it into the movie, and there were many, many stories from before the trip ever happened: people in Dallas, in Austin, a guy in Canada whose sign I bought where I just remembered the interaction, etc. There’s a woman in Austin with one leg, whose sign said, "On my last leg." She and I talked probably for ten or twenty minutes, and she was hilarious. It’s one of those interactions that I won’t ever forget.

I’ve had people cry when they sold me their sign. There was a woman in Dallas who after I bought her sign told me that her deceased husband had made that sign. I offered to give it back to her, and she said, "No, he would be very happy that it was part of an art project," but she was crying. I’ll never forget her.

I could go on and on. There’s so many stories, both from the trip and before, and even since. I had a couple of conversations in New York last week when I bought signs. One guy was really funny. I bought a sign yesterday, day before yesterday in Dallas, and the guy was just unbelievably thankful. He said, "I’m going to pray for you tonight, and thank you so much." I just posted his sign on Instagram. His name was Nate.

When I’m driving down the road and I see a sign, I stop and buy it. There’s an interaction that happens. These days I post them all on Instagram, so that I won’t forget their names. Really, about halfway through the trip, I started posting everything on Instagram, so there’s a bunch there. They all move me in their own way too

A photo posted by Willie (@williebaronet) on

A photo posted by Willie (@williebaronet) on

A photo posted by Willie (@williebaronet) on

A photo posted by Willie (@williebaronet) on

A photo posted by Willie (@williebaronet) on

A photo posted by Willie (@williebaronet) on

You’ve said before that the reason you started buying signs from the homeless was a way to bridge the gap, or to start a conversation. Why do you think that’s so hard for many people? When it comes to other needs, like helping those with cancer, we have no problem helping, but when we see someone in need without a home on the street struggling, we do. Why do you think that is?

You used the example of someone having cancer. That’s typically somebody that I know and I’m invested in and I immediately want to help, because they may be a friend or a family member. When it’s a complete stranger that I see on the street, I may be wrestling with some feelings of guilt in that moment. A lot of people I think struggle with, "Gosh, I’ve got so much, I should help," and the word "should" is usually a good trigger word.

I think when people start to have that conversation internally it can cause them to try to rationalize whatever they choose to do, and sometimes that is, “I’m not going to help this person.” Maybe one way that I feel better about that is to make up a story that they don’t really need it, or maybe they’re just going to use it to drink or whatever.

I totally understand that human compulsion. What I think is harder is to really be open to what’s the truth of that person’s story. Are they using drugs and alcohol because they can’t afford healthcare and they may need psych meds that they can’t get, and so drugs and alcohol is the closest thing they have to a coping mechanism? Maybe some tragedies happened. It’s not that I think everybody needs to stop and find out everybody’s story because that’s just not practical. But if I will see that person, I let him see me, and I wave and smile. That’s already shifting the dynamic a little bit.

I think it’s a human thing to struggle with those kinds of questions. I also want to say, I know a ton of people who do amazing volunteer work, and are giving away way more than I give away: money, time, effort, services, etc. I’ve got this Facebook group, We Are All Homeless, and people post articles about homelessness there almost every day. People are donating haircuts, people have a mobile shower van, people are giving away every form of food. Sometimes they have fancy dinners and invite the homeless to those types of things. They’re teaching them, and they’re mentoring them. All of those things are happening. That gives me a lot of hope too.

There’s a little tiny houses project in Austin right now that Mobile Loaves & Fishes started. It’s a tremendous project, and it’s providing little miniature houses. That’s happening around the country.

Willie Baronet at TEDxSMU

One thing I noticed about the film is you didn’t end with the typical, “take action” message in the way that a lot of documentaries do. There was no clear next step for us, the viewer. You leave us with a lot of open questions and emotions, and I personally found that to be very profound and unsettling. Was that your intention?

I guess I’d say it’s intentional in the sense that I don’t fucking know. I don’t know what to tell any one person to do. I know that this problem is so complicated and layered that it involves education and healthcare and veterans’ issues, PTSD, mental illness, addiction, family counseling, and a host of other things. It’s way too complicated for my brain to figure out. What I do know is that everybody can do something, and that may just simply be to make eye contact and smile. It’s not my business to tell you, "Hey, go volunteer and make food for somebody, or give away power bars from your car, or go get a full time job at The Bridge."What I do hope is that the questions do cause people to examine how they want to be in the world. If that creates a shift, then maybe they do smile and wave. Maybe they do a small act of kindness. Maybe they give away a water bottle to somebody. Maybe they simply reach out, shake their hands, and introduce themselves.

. . .I’m not recommending that people do that with abandon. You’ve got to also make sure you take care of yourself. I say that to some of my students, some of my young students, who are out there buying signs for me. I urge them, "Please take care of yourself and be careful too." I’ve never felt scared or threatened ever. I’ve been doing this for twenty-three years. The questions are intentional in a sense, because I don’t know the answers.