How do you create remarkable design work? Work that’s so great that it makes a real impact and solves real problems? In this inspiring interview, Ian interviews Brian Collins to discover how he and his team are able to do this, by ‘finding the hidden dragon’ to uncover the real problems that need solving.
Brian is Chief Creative Officer and Co-founder of COLLINS, an independent strategy and brand experience design company who have won every major creative award, with clients including Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Facebook, The Ford Motor Company, Giorgio Armani, IBM, Jaguar Cars, Instagram, Levi Strauss & Co., Mattel, Microsoft, Nike, Spotify, Target, Unilever and The Walt Disney Co.
Books & Resources Mentioned
- Collins website.
- Collins on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Spotify.
- Forbes Interview with Brian Collins.
- Beowulf By Michael Morpurgo – Buy on Amazon UK | Amazon US
- The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton – Buy on Amazon UK | Amazon US
- Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse – Buy on Amazon UK | Amazon US
- Pioneers of Modern Typography – Buy on Amazon UK | Amazon US
- Layout by Allen Hurlburt – Buy on Amazon UK | Amazon US
- Logo Package Express (Use promo-code LogoGeek to get 20% off)
Ian Paget: I understand that Collins, the agency that you founded, is a strategy and brand experience design company. Would you be willing to share with us some of the behind the scenes of how you guys work with clients?
Brian Collins: Everyone’s curious about how other people do their work, right? And particularly if they like something or they go how do that? How did that get created? Where the hell did that come from? When we do our work, we always want the outcome to be a little startling in some way. Because if something isn’t provocative, then it’s invisible.
I used to say that brands are made up of two things. Primarily there are two questions that have to be asked to create a successful brand. And one’s an internally facing question, which is, who are you? which is about authenticity and who you really are and what you stand for. And then there’s an outwardly facing question. That’s the second question, which is, where are you going? Which is how are you relevant and congruent, to the larger world, to your audience, to your community, to the marketplace.
So one’s about authenticity and one’s about relevance. I don’t believe that anymore. I think you still have to be deeply authentic and understand exactly who you are. What role do you want to play in the world, what do you believe, what do you believe the future should be like and, and what can you do to build that? Those are all internally facing questions, but I don’t think relevance is relevant any more. I think you have to be extraordinary.
There’s a survey, a fairly robust one. It was done by a global agency. Then they did a global survey and they said if 90% of the world’s brands disappeared, no one would really care.
So there’s a sense of indifference to most of what it is that designers do. So if you’re not somehow provocative or interesting or sexy or curious, the kind of work that you create doesn’t provoke people or inspire them or delight them in some uncommon way, then you’re invisible.
So the way we look at it now, a brand has to be both authentic and true to who it is, but it has to be insanely inspiring, insanely interesting and remarkable. So if you’re not remarkable, you’re ignored. And so what we try to do with all of our clients is create something that’s remarkable.
Ian Paget: So what do you do to work in that way? You know, to make sure that something is remarkable. That’s obviously incredibly challenging. What are you doing to encourage your team to do really incredible work like that?
Brian Collins: Here’s what you do to start a design firm like this. You hire Nick Ace. You hire Tom Wilder. You hire Karin Soukup, you hire Ben Crick. When I started out, you make someone like Leland Maschmeyer your partner. You hire Emily Morris, who’s our director of client services here. You hire Victoria Lewis who runs our finance.
You just gotta hire incredibly good people and you get the hell out of the way. I mean, it’s that simple. You just make sure you hire incredible people.
Ian Paget: Sure. So it was a case of finding the right people?
Brian Collins: Yeah. Talent goes to where it’s needed and stays where it’s well treated. So you have to find the most incredible people and then you have to create a place that they feel they can thrive, grow, learn, and are always in the frontier of something new.
Whether it’s their own talents, their own abilities, their own leadership skills, new technologies, new kinds of clients, new kinds of problems to solve, bigger problems, more challenging problems. So really good people are really curious people. They’re really ambitious people and they tend to be diligent and incredibly hardworking people. We’ve tried to create a community and a culture that would attract those kinds of people. There are things that we do to make sure that we attract those kinds of people. I think we’ve been pretty good at that actually.
Our creative people tend to stay here. When they get amazing opportunities, whether it’s to go to work for the client side or lead a company, then that’s just the kind of opportunity they can’t get here, then I encourage them to take that. In many cases they have, and in many cases people come back. We have three employees that just returned in the last year who worked here two or three years ago and we’ve come back. So, boomerangers are always nice, but it has to do with creating a place that people feel like they belong, a place where they can grow and a place where they’re always learning. And that is what we’ve tried to create here at our company.
Ian Paget: Could I dig into that a little bit more? I’m really curious what it is you are actually doing to attract and keep the best people, because you guys are now one of the best agencies in the world. And…
Brian Collins: Well, I don’t know about that, but I’m grateful for the sentiment.
Ian Paget: You’re definitely attracting some of the very best talent in the world, so in order to nurture them and keep them, what is it you’re actually doing?
Brian Collins: I wanted to create the place that I didn’t have when I was in my twenties and my thirties. I just didn’t have a place where there was someone who had a lot of knowledge, who did a lot of work and is willing to unlock all the secrets of how you do work. So here we do three things at Collins that we teach because we see ourselves as a postgraduate school, a hacker lab, a liberal arts college, a design company and an insane sort of clubhouse.
There’s three things that we do here. One, we teach people how to listen and really, really listen. Cause most people don’t listen. They listen long enough, or they’re quiet long enough until it can get their own sentence in.
And listening means, usually listening for the things that people aren’t saying. The stuff that’s happening in the room that’s not being discussed is often the thing that is actually the thing that needs to be discussed. Important things like to hide. Imagination likes to hide. Imagination likes to be in the places that don’t want to be disturbed. And so our experience has been you have to identify the things in the room that aren’t being discussed that will shape a project. And you do that by really, really listening. We call really listening “finding the hidden dragon”. There’s always a dragon behind the dragon that you think you’re fighting.
I have my strategy people read Beowulf, and Beowulf was a really interesting story because it has to do with this Nordic village that’s being attacked by this terrible monster Grendel, that comes up out of the dark inky lake and eats the townspeople and kills them at night and then goes back and into lake. And then they ask Beowulf the hero to come, and he slays Grendel and he’s pronounced the champion, and the story’s done. Or so you think… Then something worse comes out of the lake and it’s Grendel’s mother and she’s really pissed. And then Beowulf of course has to go on vanquish that dragon.
There’s always a problem underneath the problem that people don’t want to discuss, or you don’t want to identify or they don’t know where it’s hiding. And so we’ve become pretty good at identifying the hidden dragon. And when you can identify that and you pull that out of its cave, sometimes it needs to be slaughtered, and sometimes it needs to be vanquished. Sometimes it just wants to sit down and have a conversation and say, no one’s paying attention to me. And you tame it. And sometimes you make it your friend, but you don’t identify the other dragon that’s at the bottom of the lake.
The first dragon you try to slay or the way they present the problem won’t work. Your work will vanish anywhere from three months to a year later because you end up solving the problem that they’d given you, which is not really the problem. There’s usually a darker, or more complex one that has to be solved. So we’re really good at working with people to identify the bigger puzzle they have to solve.
The second thing. We craft. Craft is really important here, and in the light of all of this design thinking and all these people who think they’re designers but don’t know how to make anything, it’s shocking to me that the craft conversations sort fall off the table.
So we have people who can code like hell, can write strategy like hell, are brilliant copywriters, are incredible typographers, amazing animators, incredible colourists, great graphic designers, amazing illustrators. They’re passionate about their craft. The craft is how much you care about something, and you can see something when something’s beautifully crafted.
When we did the MailChimp logo the members of my team turned to typography, and we used ink traps in the giant letters to give them a certain kind of character. As it turns out, it also makes the logo type incredibly readable at very small sizes. So craft is the second core component of what we are passionate about.
So listening, incredible craft… real attention to craft. And the third thing is, and this is a horrible word as designers don’t like it… selling and persuasion.
Clients want a solution, they want an answer, but what you present to them might be a little shocking. And so it’s our job to get them to make that leap into the future with us. So selling, which is how do you persuade someone to take a leap of faith with you. And so selling an idea, we have to make sure that it’s deeply related to the strategy. Strategy comes out of listening. The strategies perfectly crafted in the in the craft phase. And then it’s strategies then is used again to build a bridge to that future.
So listening, crafting and selling. Because people look at our work and I go, how do you get these incredible clients? I would argue we have the exact same clients you do, but what we’re trying to do is push them further into the future. And in order to do that, that’s about building a bridge and that bridges related to strategy, but more importantly, it’s related to trust. So those are the things that we teach here at collins. Listening, crafting and and selling.
Ian Paget: This is really great. I love the idea of finding the hidden dragon to reveal the problem that needs solving. What are you doing to help identify what that is? Is it simply a case of asking questions, and digging deeper into the responses?
Brian Collins: You have to be in a room with people and really listen to them. It’s done conversation like this, and it’s usually a one on one conversation with senior executives about what their biggest hope is for the company that they’re working on. You know, the biggest difference that brand or that company can make in the world. Also track the history of the company, its origins, where it began, how it started, some of the struggles that it faces as it moves into the future. And mapping that out. I’ve done that a lot now.
I remember when I worked with Jaguar when I was at Coventry at their headquarters years ago, and I was always there once a month for almost a year helping them map their future, and found all sorts of things, and uncover all sorts of interesting stories about by Jaguar that they didn’t even necessarily know about. But then we put them together and they became quite a compelling story when we launched some of their new cars. So it has to do with a deep curiosity, and the ability to really ask interesting questions, and then the ability to really listen to what comes out of them.
Ian Paget: Yeah, sure. And on those three areas, the third one about selling or persuading your client to go down that route, I can imagine that is something that a lot of listeners will struggle with. You can come up with an idea and one person can sell it successfully because they’re good at persuading and another person can go in and come away with a long list of changes. Do you have any advice on that side of things in terms of presenting your work to clients so that you can persuade them that what you’ve done is the most effective solution for them?
Brian Collins: I hear this from some creative companies, and they say “they didn’t choose the one we wanted, or they didn’t choose the best idea”. And I say, well why the hell did you put a bad idea in front of them? You’re in the driver’s seat. You made that bet. So we show nothing to a client that we don’t think answered the strategy or isn’t extraordinary ever. Nothing. Unfortunately that means an extraordinary amount of work on our side. It’s hard enough to come up with one idea. It’s nine times as hard to come up with three really good ideas, but we will not go into a meeting without something that we’re like… I always ask my staff if we choose any of these, will you be proud of it? Is it extraordinary? Do you think is the best you can possibly do? Have you left anything on the field? And they’ll say no, then okay then we’ll go in.
So our meanings tend to be full of energy cause we’re really proud of everything we’re showing. We never do a fake work to sell in the one we wanted to ever, ever. Because it’s, I’ve always seen it. You bring in something that you don’t like. The clients sometimes will feel it and they’ll navigate toward that because they don’t want to be pressured. But if you present something, you present everything that you’re proud of, no matter where they land, it will be good. So that’s the first thing, you know.
The second thing, if the client is shocked in some way, freaked out by what they’ve seen instead of surprised or delighted, then you’ve somehow failed along the way. Cause it’s your job to make them understand what you’re doing. It’s not their job to try to understand what you do. They’re not designers. They haven’t gone to art school. They’re not writers. They aren’t creative directors.
If they’re an executive, they’ve come up through finance, they’ve come up through management, they’ve come up through operations. They haven’t come up through creativity and design, so that’s our obligation. If they don’t understand what we were doing, we failed.
People go “they didn’t get it”. Well my friend, it’s your job to make them understand that. It’s not their job to try to understand you. And you can always hear it from a bad designer when the client said they don’t get it. I would argue that you haven’t done your job of helping them get it, because that’s why they hired you. If they knew how to do it, they would do it themselves, but they don’t. So they trusted that you would solve the problem for them. So solve it. Stop whining. We have conversations all the time that are about finding other ways to a problem, but generally we’ve been very effective at presenting only work that we’re insanely proud of. So no matter where they land it’s good.
Ian Paget: Absolutely. One thing that you said then that I found interesting is that you implied that you present more than one solution. On the podcast I’ve had different conversations with people. Some people present multiple solutions, some people present just the one. And since you are really strategy focused and you are finding that hidden dragons, out of curiosity, how many options would you present a client in terms a brand identity or logo design?
Brian Collins: Minimally, two. Maximally, three directions. Because we’re not just doing logo designs here. We are actually trying to present three different journeys into the future for a company. Your company’s gonna be about generosity. Your company’s going lead on bravery here. We’re going to lead on imagination and whimsy. And so the expression of the company is related to the strategy that you’re trying to deliver on. But the desire to show a number of ideas comes out of this. It’s always better to give a client the option between doing something and doing something else, rather than between doing something and doing nothing.
When I was a kid, my first job I worked at this electronic supply company, which was a version of Radio Shack in my hometown in Massachusetts. It was getting close to Christmas time. And Mr. Mullen, the guy who owned the store had bought thousands of D, C and AA batteries to sell between Thanksgiving and Christmas for people buying toys because he had all sorts of windup and mechanical toys and electronic toys. They made a fortune selling this stuff, but he couldn’t move the batteries because the people thought the batteries were less expensive at the discount places. So his batteries tend to be a little bit more expensive, but he made good margin on them. But no one was buying them.
He would be at the cash register and you’d go, “would you like some batteries?” And the customers always say, “no, thank you, I don’t want any”. So I did a checkout, and said they’re not buying batteries. So he he’d stepped out and, there were two kinds of batteries. He had a 12 pack and he had a two pack, and I would save the customer… “Thank you for buying that, we have two sets of batteries. Would you like to 12 pack or would you like the two pack? The 12 packs a really good bargain.” And they’d say, I’ll take the 12 pack, thank you very much. I sold tons of batteries. What you don’t present them is a third option.
You say do you want to do this or do you want to do that? And people go, okay, I’ll do that. And so I sold all the batteries by presenting people with this option. So when you have a client and you’re only presenting one idea, they may hate it and then they can’t go to something else. The benefit of presenting three ideas is that people really then decide that that’s the future that they want to build. That’s where they want to go. That’s the right personality, that’s the right system. That’s the right expression. That brings our promise to life better than the other two. So when you have three ideas, they actually deeply commit to what they choose because it’s been a choice. It hasn’t been a default. It’s very conscious.
And when people choose something and they decide to invest in that future, then it becomes something that they own. And our experience has been if you can get clients to own it with you, then they’ll not protect it. I take a look at the work we do with Spotify now, which is five years old and it’s only gotten better over the last five years because of the way we work our clients in Stockholm. We really built that thing together. We gave them three different options, and they were in absolute agreement that the direction we chose was the absolute right way to go as turned out to be true. And I think the program’s only gotten better over the last five years.
Ian Paget: I think thats an absolutely fantastic argument for presenting more than one solution. I did an interview recently about one option, and they had some really strong arguments for presenting one option, but you’ve given some really strong counter punches back at that. I’ve not heard anything like that, so thank you for answering in that way.
Brian Collins: But Ian, remember that’s how ‘we’ work. There might be a designer whose vision is so precise and so particular that that’s the way he works. That’s the way Paul Rand worked. He said, you give me a problem, there’s your solution. And he was very good about how he arrived at the solution. In fact, what you saw was his thinking along the way, so by the time you got to the end logo, there was a sense of a inevitable trajectory of creativity that said, this could only be the way. He was a very compelling salesman.
We could have taken that tack, but our experience has been for the big projects that we’re working on, whether it’s Spotify, AirBnB, work with Nike, or work with MailChimp, Dropbox or Microsoft. Those are big clients and they have a lot at stake. And because of the scale of those projects, those clients have a lot riding on the success of these projects. And we take it really seriously.
So by giving them options they feel like they are deeply involved with the process and then they feel they can take greater ownership of it. So for us, having three options or two options, has inevitably made the work better, made it stronger, and made our clients feel a deeper sense of ownership of it.
Ian Paget: This is a really interesting way to look at this, and great to hear truly valid reasons for working one way vs another. This reminds me of something I read in the interview that you did with Forbes. You said that most people see design as a ‘problem solving process’, and I’m sure a lot of listeners will agree with that statement. But, you said that you guys see design as a ‘problem seeking process’. Can you elaborate on this and tell us more about how you approach working with brands in that way?
Brian Collins: Sure. The world is moving so quickly these days, and the speed at which the future is coming at us right now. If you’re solving problems, there’s so many connected problems behind them that you end up putting tourniquets on things instead of getting the patient healthy. Also problem solving has been such a trope. No one even thinks about it anymore. We’ve all these tropes that have sort of strangled the future of design, and some of them have come out of modernism from the 19th century. Form follows function is from Louis Sullivan, form follows function is what he said. And then ‘less is more’ which comes out of the Bauhaus, and problem solving instead of problem seeking.
So if I can do anything in the next 10 years here with my career at Collins is to banish the idea of design is a problem solving skill, to banish the idea of less is more, which is a very engineering, minimalist approach and reductive approach design. And form follows function. Those are very rational, left brain engineering approaches to design. They’re fine, and they play a role. But we never re-examine them. So when problem solving is one of those things, I think the world is moving so quickly and so fast that if you’re trying to solve problems, then you’re not solving the problem underneath the problem. You aren’t finding the hidden dragon as it were. So problem seeking for us is, how do you solve the problem behind the problem? How do you get ahead of it?
You know, the way we see it is, all the different brands we work with, they’re not really in competition with other brands. We’re all in competition with the future itself because the future’s coming at us so quickly now. So if you see yourself as a problem seeker going on a safari to find what the real opportunities are, then I think the quality and the possibilities expand instead of waiting for them to arrive as problems on your desk, you’re trying to find the larger opportunity to solve, and not just the thing that the client asked you to come and fix.
Ian Paget: This is so fascinating, and it only helps to cement what you spoke about earlier, to find those hidden dragons, so to seek out the real problems that need solving.
Brian Collins: Well look, problem solving is a responsive discipline, or problem solving is responsive, and we don’t want to run a response company, we want to run an anticipatory company. In other words, people will have puzzles that they’ll come to us. But what we try to do is ask the larger question, and try to find the puzzle that’s informing that problem in front of us in a much larger way. So being able to anticipate what might be coming instead of just responding to the problem allows us to think much more broadly.
If you just aim for the moon, you get the moon. If you aim for the stars, you get the moon in the deal. So if you aim really big, we discovered solving huge big complex nightmares, messy, muddy problems takes just as much energy as solving teeny small incremental problems. So if you aim big you end up solving the smaller problems along the way.
I was lucky years ago, I got to meet and have dinner with Steve Jobs at his house and he actually sat across from me and he said, the reason apple exists is to make things that are insanely great. And that’s an inspiring thing. What are you going to do today? Well, lets make something that’s insanely great. Let’s reinvent things. Lets create things that people never seen before. Let’s spark the imaginations. That’s a really big ambition. That idea of insanely great has been replaced by this other word in Silicon Valley called “let’s create a minimal viable product.” You know… How are you today? I’m viable. How’s your relationship? it’s viable. How’s the work today? It’s viable. Minimal viable thinking leads to incrementalism. And I think we need recapture the spirit of insanely great again.
Ian Paget: Based on your thinking and approach I’m not at all surprised have heard that Collins was lucky enough to win the first ever design agency of the year award by Ad Age. I’d love to hear more about this if possible. What do you think it was that lead you to win that award above all of the other agencies that are out there?
Brian Collins: Beside the fact that I took the editorial staff of edge out drinking all night long?
Ian Paget: That’s obviously the reason why!
Brian Collins: Yeah, we all got hammered! You know, it’s interesting. It turns out we were the first design firm to make the Ad Age A-list, and Ad Age for years has been doing this thing called the A-list, which they select the best advertising agencies in the country. And then we were the first design firm to take that list. And then that night it was announced that we won design firm of the year. For me, what I like about that is the… So Ad Age is the Bible of the American marketing community, and what they did in recognising designer as a different discipline, is recognise that it represents a different set of values than advertising.
I am glad that we were selected to do that, because that’s the battle I’ve been fighting, you know, most of my career. The focus of advertising is to get people to like things, whereas designer, I think making things that people like. The fact that Ad Age decided to recognise that was a great honour to me, and to my team. But also it seems to have recognised the argument that we’ve been pushing, which is design is different from advertising. You know, design at the base of it is about generating fame, and I think design is really about, is it usable? How can I be of use? How can I help?
And so I was really proud and very pleased, and the little surprise that Ad Age in the end chose us. But I was deeply honoured as you might imagine. We all were. People from our San Francisco office came out. It was very fancy. It was at Ciprianis, right across from Grand Central Station. It was, it was packed. It was very fancy. All black tie. We had a great night.
Ian Paget: I can imagine, and congratulations again. It’s such an incredible achievement. I think because of that, and the processes that you’ve spoken about so far, Collins has become a dream agency to work for.
Brian Collins: Well, I would argue it’s a dream agency for some people to work for. I think a particular type person succeeds here.
Ian Paget: But I do think that you’ll be attracting some of the best designers in the world, so I’m curious to ask, since you’re seeing a lot of designers, what is it that make people really stand out for you to actually employ them?
Brian Collins: There are three things that we hire. Character, energy, and talent. So, those are the three things you need to work here. Talent is just a given. You’ve got to somehow be able to look at everything that everyone else sees and see something different than it, right? The ability to look at a pattern, what seems to be chaos, and pull something original out of it that people haven’t seen before. Put it together in new combinations that are original and sort of novel and useful and startling. So that talent is a given.
The two others are about character. What you do when people aren’t looking? So character is a big part of what we do here. And then energy and ambition. We don’t wait. I hire people who don’t wait to be told what to do. I hire self starters, people who want to create their own future and move fast and aren’t waiting around to be given orders. And so ambition, character and talent are the three things that we look for, and that combination is rare. But you need all those, those are the three things that we look for.
Ian Paget: So in terms of spotting that, do you start like looking through their portfolio and there’s certain things that you guys can observe with that, or is it simply a case of inviting people in and having a conversation to see if they’ve got those attributes?
Brian Collins: I think you can. By the time someone gets to me, my staff has met them and they’re very excited about them. So generally I agree with them. We’ll of course our senior hires is something I’m very deeply involved with, but you can usually suss someone out.
The biggest test that we’ve done is this, in our mid level and junior hires, or if someone wants an interview here and we think they’re good, I have them read a book, or someone wants to work here I’m like, sure, here’s a book. I need you to read this book. It could be anywhere from Syd Arther, it could be the Architecture of Happiness, it could be Tim Brown’s book on Design Thinking, which actually quite good. I have them read any number of 15 books that I ask people to read and I’ll tell you 90% of those people drop off. And so we then hire from the remaining 10%. And the remaining 10% didn’t just read the book. This is what they do consistently. They go, “I love that book. Can you give me another?”
So the other quality that I would add to character, ambition and talent is curiosity. And we have people who are like incredibly curious minds. But I’ll tell you, it’s been a great filter, to filter out the people who just want to talk. But the people who are big curiosities and they have big ambitions, they will read and they will read. They’ll ask for more. So if there’s a question about whether or not we want to interview someone, the ones who do the reading, get the next interview because then then we have something to talk about. It isn’t just; what’s this project about? How did you use typography? Where did the ideas from…
All of a sudden we have a whole cargo of possibilities to talk about… Philosophy, worldview, mythology, your personal ambition, your sense of belonging, what your personal views of the world, what you want to do as a creative person in your life. Those are all much more interesting conversations to have. Like, why don’t you choose the topographic arrangement in this way? What are these… oh please? Really? You had the conversation about that? you know with young people who have immense ambitions about their lives, and immense sense of possibility about what they want to become.
You can always have a craft conversation, but your interview, you’re trying to find somebody, particularly young people, you’re trying to help them on their trajectory into their careers . They’re creative people. Creative careers are really difficult, and they’re really hard. We really don’t talk about it that much, and creative people are powerful because they feel like they belong and then they don’t belong. So that you’ve got to create a place where people are seen, where they have a sense of belonging, where their highest ambitions are going to be honoured, and you create a place where they can possibly experiment and explore their biggest ambitions about their lives and their creative careers.
And if you just reduce it to “what was the brief and the assignment”, “what was the strategy that you used to get to the solution?” Fine. It’s not a terribly interesting conversation. I want to have a conversation that changes. I want to have a conversation that inspires me, so when I give them these books I learn a lot in that conversation as well. You know, I want to see what kind of intellect they have. Then it’s a bigger conversation about what their first steps into their career will be, or the second step, or their 3rd if they’re mid level or they’re very senior steps, so those are very different conversations. I’m being very long winded, I’m sorry.
Ian Paget: No, it’s good. I’m really fascinated and excited that you do recommend books cause obviously you must have read a lot in your career. I’d love to know from you if there are any books that you would recommend me to read, or the the listeners to go and check out. Especially if they want to learn more about branding or graphic design in some way. What would you recommend?
Brian Collins: I am not going to give one book about branding. I’m not going to give one book about graphic design, because theres scores of them. Michael Bieruts book just came out two years ago. Spectacular. There are an endless, bottomless well of graphic design books, and that’s an important conversation but it’s a tactic conversation. The other conversations that you should be really having is conversations about philosophy, mythology, history. It’s amazing to me that graphic designers don’t know their history. They don’t know how design began particularly going into the 20th century. The foundation of the Bauhaus, The Ulm School, The Black Mountain College of Art, all the things that have shaped the world that we’re now working in. And too many designers are looking over their shoulders about what’s going on right now.
They’re not looking forward, trying to anticipate what the future should be. And they’re not looking way backward into the past. So we have a library here in the middle of our offices with about 2,500 books, philosophy, history, painting, architecture, mythology, comic books.
Ian Paget: Have you read all of them?
Brian Collins: Yes, all of them. Every one of them. I have two more libraries. A small one at my house in Cape Cod and another one at my home on 62nd street. But those books are like rockets. And we use them at the beginning of every project. We sit in a room, we have library books out. We’ve usually done research and we have a giant library table in the middle, and we put all these books out and we have a conversation about what we’re finding.
And we often find in conversation, we find things that we didn’t know that we were going to say. So books make a big difference in the way we think of that stuff. The one book that I recommend to everyone who’s a designer is The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton who’s a great writer. And the other book that I recommended reading is Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Those are two books that should open up the top of your head. They’re really good. One’s more around design, one’s more around how you navigate your life in a world of complexity and tragedy. But those are two really good books. And if you read those books, they’ll lead you to other kinds of books. But I’m not going to recommend ‘how to create a 2 colour logo for a technology guy’. Who cares? Really. Those are easy. You can swing a dead cat and hit one on Amazon or your local design book store.
Ian Paget: I haven’t read either those say I’m definitely going to check those out and read them. Especially if you read that entire library and you’re recommending those, any listeners that haven’t read that, I’m going to say just based on your advice, you’ve got to read them. So I’m gonna make sure I buy those after this conversation and read through them.
Brian Collins: They’re good. Now the other books that I’d recommend would be, in terms of design books would be Pioneers of Modern Typography, which is a classic book. I’d recommend the book Layout by Allen Hurlburt for design. Those are two really good books to wrap your brain around. It’s like basics. Those are like design basics. Everyone should have those books in their library.
Ian Paget: Sure. So for listeners, what I will do is link to those books in the show notes for this episode just to save anyone from having to quickly scramble around for a piece of paper to write down.
We’ve been chatting for nearly 50 minutes now already, so we’re near the end of our time. But before I close off the interview, there is one question on my list that I want to make sure to ask, and it’s around idea generation. Do do you carry out any interesting exercises to help come up with new and exciting ideas?
Brian Collins: Here’s a puzzle I’m having. In this whole conversation we’ve had. So here’s the question I’m gonna ask you. When was the last time you had a really great conversation with someone, like a really great conversation where you were changed in the conversation, where you didn’t know where the conversation was going to go? You didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. You found yourself saying things you were completely surprised by. And it lived with you for for days afterwards. When was the last time you had a conversation like that?
Ian Paget: Off the top of my head, nothing specific comes to mind. I know some of the interviews I’ve done on the podcast have really got me thinking. But that’s been more focused on my work rather than anything else. What’s the reason why you asked that question?
Brian Collins: Because great ideas happen in conversation? That’s where stuff happens. I worked briefly with Steve Jobs and when I left to go back to Ogilvy, I would say, do you ever see Steve Jobs around? I said, yeah, we see Steve all the time. I said, where is he? He’s always in the cafeteria talking with Johnny Ive. And if you go back and you take a look at the history of creativity into working business, you’ll find that that’s true of almost anyone who had a tangible, measurable impact, as a designer, on the trajectory of company or a brand. That’s the same with Dieter Rams and the Bronze, same thing with Florence Knoll, she end up marrying the guy who owned the company. The future is created in conversation.
And rather than answering your list of very interesting questions, I think this would have been more interesting had we just see where the conversation went. Because then you’re unburdened from either our expectations “oh, I have to answer these questions because my audiences wants an answer”, or a regret that you didn’t get through to other curious questions. For me it’s more interesting just to see where stuff goes.
Mark Twain said he had conversations with his friends, cause he would not know what he was thinking. So if you enter these interviews with “How does Collin’s do this?” How does Collins do that?” That’s kind of a litany of how to’s, and they’re interesting questions, but they’re not as, they’re not as interesting as where this conversation might go, you know.
So, for example, I looked at your history, you’d worked as a designer, you worked on brands like Barclaycard and you’ve done some really interesting work. And then somewhere along the line you more fascinated by these kinds of conversations, or as equally fascinated by learning about these conversations then you were doing your own work. How did that happen? Like why did you start doing this podcast?
Ian Paget: Sure, I’m happy to share that if you want?
Brian Collins: Like why am I here talking to you today?
Ian Paget: Well, the reason why I actually started my podcast is because I discovered that I had social anxiety disorder, and I went to a therapist and I got some support on that side and they spoke to me about a type of therapy called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy where, I can’t remember the exact associations, but basically you need to expose yourself to certain things. And my greatest fear has always been public speaking. I’ve never been good at having conversations. It’s always been my weakness and my absolute fear.
If I know that I got a public speech or something coming up, I would have sleepless nights for weeks because I know that that’s there. So I went to a therapist for help with that and a couple of other things, and that’s the reason why I started my podcast primarily. But the more I’ve been doing it, I’ve been getting comfortable with it. I’ve got a lot out of that personally. I’ve learned a lot from having these conversations. So that is the main reason why I started this podcast.
Brian Collins: Have you talked about that before?
Ian Paget: I’ve spoken about it on a couple of podcasts interviews, but I haven’t gone into in depth on my show. I mean if people do listen to all of them I have mentioned a couple of times, because growing up I didn’t know I had a problem and if there was other people that was to speak about it, then I would have recognised, okay, I probably need to go and look into this…
Brian Collins: How did it manifest itself? Did you have anxiety before?
Ian Paget: I would say it started from a young age. I actually remember the exact moment. It was when I was about seven or eight, I needed to do a school play and I had to stand up and say one line and I would keep swallowing and swallowing, and I had the driest mouth. And the first time my voice went weird. And then the next time I was just so scared about my voice going funny and it just manifested. It wasn’t until I was around 25 that I realised, hang on, I have a string of issues that are all interlinked.
And that is the main reason why I’m doing this, to work to overcome that. I’ve been going to speaking classes, lots of different things. But to be honest, personally, that’s the reason why I’m doing this. I know I built up an audience, and I have really interesting conversations and I’m learning a lot from this, but the absolute main reason is to continue working towards a goal that I set myself to do a Ted talk one day, and being comfortable to do that. So this is my way of working towards that.
Brian Collins: What a worthwhile… You know, when we started our company, when we began, I took the five of us and we went up to a Buddhist retreat in upstate New York and we spent the weekend with Pema Chodron, which by the way, I’m going to do with my assistant coach in about two weeks. And it’s a three week… She is America’s leading Buddhist nun. And one of the things that she said, I love is, the only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they triggered confusion in us. So you don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with it. She’s agreed that we look clearly, passionately at ourselves. We feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes. So it’s the idea that we’d become comfortable with ourselves and be able to go to speak, in that level of comfort, you can find the ability to be comfortable by talking with anyone, you know.
Now for me that’s a much more interesting conversation to have than about what are the three things that Collins does in order to sell a logo? At the end of the day that, you know, it’s fine, but these other kinds of things where you develop a sense of compassion, and then you start to hear how other people overcome struggles and challenges. That’s an infinitely more interesting conversation to me, and probably much more so to your listeners than six steps on how to sell an identity program. In my experience, real fear is just a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth. So when you get really scared, when you’re really terrified, that’s something you should pay really close attention to, and you’re really terrified. You’re getting closer to something that’s very true about you.
I’ve known that and starting Collins and one of the reasons I began Collins, and I’ve mentioned this once earlier, was that a place like this didn’t exist when I was young. A place where people could learn, grow and a combination of a graduate school and a bootcamp and a design company, and a graduate program, so that people would learn all these things that no one taught me. I had to figure them out on my own. So this was a place that came out of my fear when I was a kid, that there was no place like this. So we created the place that didn’t exist and that was kind of scary. But now we have two offices, one a booming office in San Francisco and a really cool office here in New York at 10,000 square feet with skylights and beautiful office here in Greenwich Village. But that came out of fear from when I was in my twenties. I didn’t have a place that was like this. So we, we created that place.
Ian Paget: I know one thing that I would say, personally working towards overcoming my fears, obviously it’s very hard, but when you get through that, the way that you feel and the personal benefits to that is far beyond anything than you can ever buy. Because I’ve really pushed and I’m still working on it, but because I pushed through my fears and I’m working through the other end, I probably have a lot more drive than other people because I know that I still got this area that I want to go to.
One of the other reasons why I do push like this is because my mum, she had vascular dementia and she passed away a few years ago and I spent some time in a home with her, and you see people at the end of their lives, and I’ve always had the feeling from that, that I don’t want to regret, I don’t want to regret never facing those fears. So, anyone listening, you absolutely need to work through those because you do not want to get to 80 years old and think… I never did anything about it. What if? What if? The way that I see it, we’ve all got one shot at this… One shot at life. I don’t believe the afterlife or anything like that. I just believe that we got one go at this, and you just got one chance, so I’ve got to the point now where I don’t really care what anyone thinks, and working through that is absolutely essential, and if you go wrong, if you mess up on anything, it doesn’t really matter.
Brian Collins: So you had an epiphany. How old were you when you had this time with your mother? How old were you?
Ian Paget: That was only a few years ago. It’s about three years ago. So in my early thirties, so I’m 35 now, so it was about 32.
Brian Collins: Yeah. Well congratulations. A lot of people don’t have that until much later. Some people have earlier, but it’s important to say, oh, you know, our time here isn’t limitless, and you become very aware of the clock. I’m at the point in my life where there’s less time ahead of me than there is behind me. So I’m very aware of the passing of time. I’m a very aware of the choices I have, and how I’m going to spend my time. And so, you’re right. What you don’t want to do is get toward end of it and go, what the hell did I do? And I meet a lot of people whose lives had been burdened by other people’s choices, other people’s expectations.
I have a confession. I don’t talk about this very often because I want this story to be about my company and what we’ve done and the team that I’m building and not the borrowed interest from Steve Jobs. But Steve hired me to become Design Director. I was partner to Jony for a nanosecond. And I made a decision when I was at apple, I was there for about a month, and I’d left or Ogilvy, and then about a month into it Ogilvy called me back and said, we’d like you to come back. And I did.
But one of the reasons that I left was because Steve Jobs was so compelling, with an amazing vision. And he’s charismatic, and he was brilliant. And I loved him. One on one, he was an incredible guy. But when I began to realise that what my vision was, was to give up my vision of my career when I was making, and we were working… we were building the Hershey chocolate factory in times square, we was also working on the Dove Campaign for real beauty, and I was working on Motorola and Jaguar and I was going to give all of up what was my team’s agenda, for Steve’s.
And basically when you went to work at Apple, you worked for Steve’s vision, and it was your entire life was then manifesting Steve’s vision of the future. And a lot of people like that, Steve’s vision of the future changed the world, and who wouldn’t want to have a career like that, you know? and have all the benefits that come from associate being associated with that. But I was in the middle of that for about a month and I realised that my job was now entirely to second guess Steve Jobs. That was the job.
And I went “am I going to want to be here in 10 years from now?” and by the way, I found it very addictive. I found myself loving it. And I’m like, “do I want this journey to be about somebody else’s vision? Is that what I want?” And I found myself really ambivalent about that. And then the Ogilvy called me and said, we want you to come back. And they restructured the design team I was building, and we realigned that and create something that several years later became its own thing. And then we ended up invited to speak at the World Economic Forum and travel on the world. We were at the cover of Fast Company and whatnot.
And so because of the kind of work that we were doing on our own. And so that was a real peak moment in trying to decide, do I stay at Apple? or do I return to Ogilvy? And so the decision to return to Ogilvy was a decision to try to see my own vision about what I wanted to create with people I liked, rather than signing up for Steve Jobs very particular and very powerful, but very singular vision and which I would have very little voice.
So that was the decision that I had made in my very early forties, and the thing about that is that I don’t regret that decision. Every now and then I think “what would that have been like”? and I salute that ship as it sails off into the horizon. But I think what you don’t want to do is end up at the end of your life saying, what should I have done? At the end of my life I want to say I knocked the hell out of it. I squeezed every little thing out of it that I possibly could. Over the last two weeks, I was in Beijing, Shenzen, Singapore and DACA in Bangladesh.
I spoke in the course of about two weeks and I was exhausted. And then I was talking to my assistant and I had a fly through Istanbul and I needed to get back to New York. I said Katya, I’d never been to Istanbul. And she said, Brian, you’ve got to come back to New York. We need you in New York. And you know what, it’s my birthday. So I want to do a layover in Istanbul and I’ll just stay in Istanbul for a day. I’ve never been. So he stayed and got there late at night, got up early in the morning, had breakfast seven o’clock, out the door at seven fifteen, and I spent the whole day in this temple taking pictures, just going for my birthday. Great!
I visited three things in Istanbul I wanted to visit since my twenties. Because I was going to fly to Istanbul.. You know what, let’s just land, check it out. And then if I like it, I’ll come back. But that was that moment I just decided to “let’s just go for it”. I pushed some of my meetings back and I hit Istanbul, cause at the end of the game I don’t wanna leave anything on the field.
Ian Paget: I’m so glad to hear that you did that. Since I realised that there’s only limited time I’ve done so much now. I’ve done loads of traveling. I also relocated so I could start buying a house. It was also the reason why I took the leap to freelance too. I really did a lot and I feel like it’s really changed my life. So, I’m really happy to hear that you made time for yourself, on your birthday to do something that you’ve always wanted to do.
Brian Collins: I really wanted to do that. I think it’s important. I think ultimately we really want to do these things and I think we were burdened by other people’s expectations, so often. Now, I choose to be burdened, certainly my clients expectations, I love, cause I’ve always been a designer. I always loved solving other people’s puzzles and taking a look at how we could create something in partnership with other folks.
A couple of years ago I’d felt I had run out of language because the marketing language in the global marketing language is bankrupt. You know, “connected”, “transfiguring”, “transparency”. It’s empty language, if it’s not militarised, right? “Strategies”, “war rooms”, “insertions”, “viral marketing”. It’s either militarised, weaponised language or this sort of, woo woo design thinking language.
I went to Ireland two and a half years ago now, and I spent a week with a really well known Irish poet named David White, and handful of others just walking up along the west coast of Ireland and really listening to poets and understanding the power of poetry to create meaning. It was a transfiguring moment for me, and there one poem that David White had written, that he read standing on the coast of Galway with the ocean behind him. He read this poem, may I read it?
Ian Paget: Sure, go for it.
Brian Collins: It’s called “Everything is Waiting For You”, by David White.
Your great mistake is the act the drama as if you’re alone, as if life were progressive and cunning crime with no witness to the tiny hidden transgressions.
To feel abandoned, to feel abandoned is to deny the intimacy of your surroundings.
Surely even you at times have felt the grand array, the swelling presence and the chorus crowding out your solo voice.
You must note the way the soap dish enables you, or the way the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things to come.
The doors have always been there to frighten you and invite you.
And the tiny speaker in the phone is your dream ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight, put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation.
The kettle is singing, even pours you a drink.
The cooking pots have left their arrogant aloofness and seen the good in you at last.
And all the birds and the creatures of the world and all the birds and the creature of the world are unutterably themselves.
Everything is waiting for you.
You know, that’s an invitation to participate in the world. And, those are the things that are increasingly important to me. Those are the kinds of things that I think… Good design makes you more alert. Good design makes you feel more alive. Good design should make you feel more present. Good design should make you feel more conscious of what you’re doing, the actions you’re taking, the interfaces that you’re touching, what you’re holding in your hand, what you’re looking at. So in my mind design is something that should make you feel like you belong, and that you’re present and that you’re alert. And so these are the things that are much more interesting to me as conversations.
Ian Paget: Amazing, thank you for sharing that, and what an absolutely fantastic way to close off the interview too. Brian, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you…it’s been a really inspiring conversation, especially the last segment where we went completely off script.
Brian Collins: Well, I’ve got to tell you Ian, that’s the conversation. The only road dude that you know where you’re going, the only road where you know you’re going is a freeway or a highway. And I don’t know anyone who wants to walk along a highway. The roads that are interesting to walk on is a forest path, right? If you’ve ever walked through a forest and you see a path, you kind of lose it and you pick it up again, and you lose it and you pick it up again. That’s really interesting cause you don’t know where you’re going to go.
And so I think conversations where you don’t know where you’re going to go, where you don’t know where you’re going to get up are ultimately more interesting journeys than trying to walk down a highway. That’s uninteresting to me. I want to arrive in interesting places. I want to be surprised. I want to be delighted. And I don’t want an answer presented to me. I don’t want the same answer presented to me that everyone else has. So thank you, Ian. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Ian Paget: You’re welcome Brian. It’s been really amazing to chat with you.