Brian Collins on Optimism, Talent & Doing Great Work

Brian Collins has built a new kind of creative agency: one that recognizes that consumers, not companies, “own” brands and that the old single-channel ways of communicating no longer work. The firm he co-founded, COLLINS, works across categories (from tech to nonprofit) and across scale (from huge global brands to startups).

At HOW Design Live, he’ll be taking the keynote stage on opening night. Later in the conference, he’ll present alongside Target creative director (and COLLINS client) David Hartman to talk about how the work and relationships of design studios and their clients are blurring — with some killer results.

We recently chatted with Collins about what he’s doing and seeing right now.

What are you currently working on that has you super excited?
Both our New York and San Francisco offices are currently working with The Museum of Moving Image to design The Jim Henson Exhibition. It combines everything we love about everything we love. Design. Stories. Movies. Insane collaboration. Also puppets, fantasy, mythology, interaction design and architecture—not to mention Sesame Street, the Muppets, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth

A writer once described Jim Henson as having “an imagination that flows like lava from a psychedelic volcano.” What creative person wouldn’t want that as a brief?

You also take on pro-bono work. Why?
We take on a pro-bono projects because 1) we think something good needs to get done and might not get done, otherwise. 2) we admire the people who lead the organization and 3) because our own voice, or the voice of a member of our team, might make a tangible difference.
 We are beyond selective in doing that work. It can swallow way too much time if you don’t manage it tightly.

Brian, I love following you on Facebook and Twitter—your posts are smart and eclectic and always worth a read. You recently shared spots by Coca-Cola and Budweiser that resonated in our current political climate.
Oh dear. Politics. And I thought we were doing so well, Bryn.

In the world we’re living in, do you think design and advertising have a role in shaping a saner, more respectful dialog?
In short, yes.

I’m spooked that we’re all backing up into our own corners. Identity politics is eroding too many of the social bonds we share, bonds that unite us as a people, a culture and a nation.

What’s unfolding right now appears reminiscent of the theory of “punctuated equilibrium” in biological evolution.

Since the close of WWII, we’ve had a pretty stable economy and culture in the U.S. And a mostly stable global one, too. The arrival of erratic, angry political forces in Washington may pose tough challenges for some of us, but this suddenly new and sort of unstable environment also appears to be unlocking previously untapped sources of imagination, energy and action. Our political system, it seems, is holding. A lot of people woke up. That’s a good thing.

But I’m an optimist. A designer has to be.

Look, the way I see it, a powerful challenge demands a powerful response. So our response here at COLLINS is to offset negativity with something positive. In the end, every creative choice we make can be reduced to two ambitions: You either feed grievance or create hope. It’s sort of that simple. 

I like Werner Herzog’s thought: “Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.”

We all have to make sure the ice ain’t gonna crack.

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Global brand renovation, Coca-Cola: Brian Collins, Thomas Wilder, Ogilvy & Mather, Wieden + Kennedy

I’ve asked other HOW Design Live speakers about this as well: Creative people seem to long to deploy their time and talents on projects that they believe in—not just on projects that sell widgets. (Not that there’s anything wrong with selling widgets.) Are you seeing that in the industry around you?
I see that as a false paradox. Why can’t you believe in widgets? I believe the world needs the best widgets we can design.

The hope and roots of modern design were to mix commerce with good. Look at design schools around the world. The nature of the one to two-year foundation programs—introducing young students to art and design principles—is built on entirely on Bauhaus principles. And that comes out of a 19th century ambition of design and manufacturing being a force for good, for making the world a better place. A better place for everyone.

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2014 AIGA Medalist commemorative book: Brian Collins, Thomas Wilder

I see great honor in doing great work for great businesses. I see no honor in the Robin Hood model: doing fast, lousy work for large companies only so you can afford to do work for dance festivals. That’s insane. Businesses and dance companies both deserve your best.

Over the last 20 years design has become increasingly aligned with greater and greater business success and power. We used to have to storm the gates to get attention. Now we lead some of the kingdoms. Companies better understand its power. Everyone wants to be Apple. Even McKinsey, the management consultancy, now has over 450 designers working for them. That’s a big shift. Mostly, I think, a good one. 

But now that we have a real place at the table, it’s more important than ever for designers to reassert the original modernist intent of benevolence into all that we do. We should never leave that ambition behind.

Your team hosts a monthly playlist on Spotify of the tunes you’re currently listening to in the office. How does music spark creative energy for you and your crew?
Music inspires visuality. The rhythms of an idea, an interface, an environment can all be informed and altered—instantly—by the music we choose. That said, we play no music here that everyone is forced to listen to. No one should have to listen to Mumford & Sons unwillingly.

Yesterday was an great music day for me. I hopped into Union Square station and suddenly saw our design system for Spotify all over the city’s subway platforms for the new Prince campaign. So I cranked up Prince on my headphones. What was extra sweet was that and I had worked with Prince twenty years ago on his Diamonds & Pearls tour book when I worked for Joe Duffy.

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Spotify brand reboot: Lee Maschmeyer, Ben Crick, Christian Widlic

What’s the coolest thing you’ve experienced in the last month?
The coolest thing this: A year ago a young strategist on our team wasn’t so confident in her skills. She didn’t really understand how good she was. So I put her in front of a board of directors of a major corporation and asked her to set up the strategy for the creative work we were showing that morning. And she proceeded to crush it. Later, the CEO came up to me and she said, “That was extraordinary.” And it was all her.

That’s the most rewarding thing: what I seek to find in people, and what they come to see in themselves what I see in them. I try—and I think we all try here—to get our people to realize their potential ahead of schedule.

I really only have two superpowers: one is that I can see badly kerned typography from 50 feet, at night, in the dark, through a rainy windshield and going 50 miles an hour; and the other is that I’m pretty good at finding talent. I know this is not a popular thought, but talent is like rhythm. You can build on it, make it stronger, more expansive. But you either have it or you don’t.

Talent is the ability to see new patterns in the same information—but ones that most people can’t see—and then having the courage to take those patterns and risk making something new. Something better. Going somewhere new.

When we began COLLINS, we all went on a retreat with Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön in upstate New York. She said, “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.”

Almost 10 years later, I think that sums up what our crew and I are, hopefully, all about. Every morning we should be seeking new places to discover, lift anchor, set sail and, you know … go.

Catch Collins’s keynote presentation at HOW Design Live, then hear him and Hartman onstage together for their session (presented by The Dieline) Hypercollaboration: Blurring Line Between Agency, Client, & Customer. Register by March 21 for the best rate, and check out all the different registration options — including a sweet new VIP pass. You can add this concierge-level, all-access pass to HOW Design Live, even if you’ve already registered for a 3-Day Pass or Big Ticket.

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