Brian Collins is an American designer and educator who was named “Master of Design” by Fast Company. His work has been featured by The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Business Week and The Wall Street Journal. He has worked with a long list of globally acclaimed companies during his tenures at Duffy & Partners; Foote, Cone & Belding; Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, and the company he founded, COLLINS. He is also a professor at The School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Collins recently attended the 8th iteration of Bangladesh Brand Forum seminar as a keynote speaker. During his visit, Brian sat for an exclusive interview with Bangladesh Brand Forum and shared insights on creativity, design, and the advertising industry.
Bangladesh Brand Forum: How is your first visit to Bangladesh coming along so far?
Brian Collins: It’s been a dream come true. My entire imagination has been oxygenated by everything I’ve seen here. I toured the National Parliament Building which, as a designer, was a transfiguring experience for me. Its architect, Louis Kahn, made two of my favorite places in the United States – the Salk Institute in California and the Roosevelt Memorial in New York City. But his work on your Parliament Building is otherworldly. It’s hope carved into marble, stone and light. It falls outside of time.
But traversing the frontiers of time is the domain of extraordinary creative people. I think Kahn saw the history of Bangladesh as a continual one, not fragmented into some simplistic “now and then, today and yesterday” story, but architecture as living history in itself. It feels both ancient and forever.
It was undoubtedly Kahn’s magnum opus and one of the world’s most cherished pieces of civic design. What a gift to visit it in person.
From your experience during your time at Ogilvy, is there anything interesting that you would like to share?
I was lucky to have met David Ogilvy when I was 22. He was on a book tour in Boston. He was explosively charming and still deeply engaged in his daily work–research, marketing and writing. He was probably in his mid 70s by then. That kind of non-stop energy was exhilarating to witness as a kid just starting out.
If I took any lessons from Ogilvy, it was these two:
1) Think bigger. And then, think bigger still.
2) Take every chance while you can. Grab them. And go all in. You never know if they’ll ever come again.
In your opinion, how has the design industry changed over the years?
Design had been technologically stagnant for generations. Then, suddenly, digital systems emerged. The web, specifically, kicked us all into high gear. You could’ve gone to a design school in the 1940s and still had a workable career through the 1980s with touching few new pieces of tech. Well, maybe a fax machine. When I bought my first Macintosh computer in 1984, designers thought it was the fringe. Weird. They didn’t see it as the equivalent of the Model T. But that’s exactly what it was. And I wanted to learn to drive it. Even if it was all on silly discs.
However, in the last 15 years with the explosion of new digital interfaces, new channels of distribution and new creative tools, the profession transfigured itself. And it’s changing, still. It’s forced designers to reimagine everything we do. And the rapid changes from here on out are only going to get faster, more complex. But more interesting, too. As people who thrive on the new, it’s reinvigorating to us here at COLLINS. It’s allowed us to push into film, animation, environments, product design. I mean, what’s more exciting to constantly imagine what might happen next?
What are some of the trends in the design and advertising industry now?
I’m disinterested in fads and much more interested in constancy. What remains central and timeless?
That may sound like a contradiction coming from someone who likes to explore frontiers. But industry tropes can be shiny, dangerous distractions. We should be focusing on timeless, long-standing values that can be enjoyed well into the future–like the kind we can find in a transcendent painting or literature written centuries ago. In any creative discipline, a lasting work contains two components. First, a meaningful story or a powerful drama. Two, it’s executed with extraordinary craft.
Look, we’re still enthralled by century-old films by Charlie Chaplin or surrealist photo essays by Marcel Duchamp. 19th century poems by Emily Dickinson or 15th century ones by Kabir. Plays by Aeschylus. Joan Miró’s tiny stained-glass church in Nice. Or even the Book of Kells made in the 9th century Ireland. And we’re enthralled because of the extraordinary storytelling and mind-bending craft each one of these examples perfected.
Sure, it’s certainly important to know what trends are unfolding around us so we can avoid them or, maybe, embrace them and turn them to our advantage. But beyond trends, it’s important for us to always seek out a kind of timeless beauty in all of our efforts that might come close to being, say…soulful. Lasting.
Aim high. At least you won’t always end up with a handful of muck.
Oscar Wilde said it best. “We’re all in the gutter. But some of us are looking at the stars.”
How can brands make an impact on the issue of sustainability and how important is it for brands to do so?
Now there’s a preposterous word. As an idea, “sustainability” is not sustainable. Advancing the idea of “sustainability” simply encourages maintaining existing systems that are quickly collapsing around us. The word masks very real environmental and climate disasters.
We need to be a lot more than “sustainable.” My friend, the brilliant ecologically-driven architect, Bill McDonough says: “sustainable means 100% less bad”. He argues that’s not enough. We now have to work hard–and fast–to reverse the damage human beings have already done to our natural world. And the clock is ticking. For some parts of our world, it may already be too late.
To survive, we need to learn to design like nature. As nature. We must engage in regenerative design and create products and systems that continuously replenish and renew the biological systems around us. And we have to start fixing historically unoptimized systems.
Regeneration is a powerful idea that will make a real, measurable difference. It’s an inspiring, deeply needed idea that can actually take us somewhere better. I can’t do justice to it in our brief conversation today, so check out Bill’s work, especially his book Cradle to Cradle. It’s the best way to understand these ideas.
COLLINS has been named the AdAge Agency of the Year recently. How do you feel about this achievement?
Lucky. Grateful. Especially to our clients and our crews in San Francisco and New York. They got us here in the first place. My partners Karin Soukup, Ben Crick, Nick Ace, Tom Wilder, Vicki Lewis, Leo Porto, Emily Morris, Yocasta Lachapelle and Amir Ouki keep us moving in the right direction.
So yes, we enjoy the honor. But we try to make sure we never ever, ever conflate fame with mastery. Fame vanishes. It’s a beast that demands endless feeding. Mastery, like wisdom, only builds over time. It grows. I want our company to be a place where our people can become masterful at what they do. Extraordinary even. Always doing the best, smartest, strongest work we can do it is paramount for me. For all of us here. We’re sort of obsessed. If that makes us “famous,” great. If not, that’s cool. The people and companies who need us always seem to find us.
The other thing that’s imperative in winning any accolade is recognizing that creativity– the driving value that’s been so important in getting us here–is nothing without another equally important value: trust. Without the uncommon trust clients have placed in us, in some cases for over a decade now, we would have nothing.
In the end, though, the top of one mountain is just the bottom of another. So, we keep climbing. But I’m now the one who usually slips the most. Face down. In the snow. It’s not pretty.
What are your thoughts about the rise and future of in-housing in the advertising industry?
We get to work with truly great in-house teams. Many of them stack up well – if not occasionally better – to outside agencies that specialize in advertising. With the right creative leadership, it’s possible to make an in-house really work. Increasingly, CEOs realize that “brand” and creativity can be most powerful and differentiating asset they have. So, they’re integrating new creative leadership into their executive, business and operational leadership. It’s overdue, frankly. That said, the broad diversity of work and creative focus of outside agencies remains a magnetic combination for many people and clients. So, it’s not an either-or, anymore. It’s both.
Share a few words from your keynote speech at the BBF Seminar 2019.
Allow me to answer with what I discussed right after my talk, instead.
Once I was done, someone asked me how we begin our work. Where do we get our creative inspiration for what we do?
I told her all our work at COLLINS begins in our library, the literal heart and soul of our practice. Over the years our collection has grown to more than 2,500 books covering everything: mythology, faerie tales, history science, art, architecture, archeology, anthropology, philosophy, music, typography, economics, semiotics, biography, design, comic books, religion and, and, and…
Like Dr. Who’s Tardis, our library defies conventional physics, taking up a much larger space than mere size would suggest. It is also built for time travel. Books are stacked floor-to-ceiling in jet black shelves (which makes the colorful spines pop), providing plenty of nooks and crannies for our notable community of puppets, toy elephants, vintage signs, bronze dragons, old cameras, typewriters and, and, and…
The library is a space apart from the urgency of the present, with two doors set off a well-trafficked hallway so our people on their way back and forth from the workshop areas to the conference room can pause, even if just for a moment, to soak in perspective and inspiration.
It is an improbable space brimming with kismet connection. By design.
The library makes it possible for us to do bigger and better work. To be different and delightful. To explore the fantastic and fabulous. To imagine and invent all sorts of futures.
My advice to her was to start her own library. And begin with one book.
If you were to give one message to the creative professionals that are out there, what would it be?
Seek out and associate with people who are most likely to improve you. It works.
But that’s not a message from me. That’s from Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher. What was true in first century Rome turns out to be even more true in the twenty first century Manhattan.
Compiled by Khondker Faraz Shafiq