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“As designers, we underestimate how powerful we are” — Branding Jury President Brian Collins

The co-founder of COLLINS on where he finds creative inspiration and why he thinks creative people must stop undervaluing themselves

Image from the Yellow Pencil-winning Robinhood Brand Identity by COLLINS for Robinhood

Brian Collins is the co-founder of the transformation consultancy COLLINS, based in San Francisco and New York City. The company started with two laptops, four desks and an idea: "Design is not what we make. Design is what we make possible." Before launching COLLINS with Leland Maschmeyer in 2008, Collins led the design and brand innovation division at Ogilvy Worldwide for over a decade. Here, the D&AD Branding Jury President for 2024 tells us what he tells the creatives on his team in order to create award-winning work. 

What does creative excellence look like to you in Branding?

I have no good way to answer that question. Creative excellence is ineffable. When you see something that resonates, you’ll know  —  it will hold a mysterious, irrational power over you. That's as close to a definition as I can get: Something that moves me. It can come from anywhere; a weird combination of words, a stupid joke, the bright sound of a French horn, the way a piece of wood typography leaves a colourful streak on a page, a bouncing, animated ball on an elegant interface. Often without warning, and usually without any consistent, telltale signs. Suddenly, you just sniff it. And then you see: Look, there it is. My second try at a definition is that experiencing excellence  —  in whatever form  —  makes you feel more alive.

What’s your philosophy at COLLINS?

We have many. One idea we try to embrace, though, is to thoroughly absorb the puzzle our clients are trying to sort out. We make their problem, our problem. What that does not mean is cozying up or pandering to their likes or to many of their current aesthetic sensibilities. Our imagination, our talents, are what we bring to the equation — it’s what we’re trusted for. Our unique points of view, backgrounds and experiences shape whatever it is we’ve been asked to transform.

Always, the more the whole team — including our clients – can bring their varied histories, interests, quirks and personal curiosities into the work, the better it will be. I mean, who knew a few years ago that when we did (the Yellow Pencil-winning brand identity with) Robinhood that we'd be inspired by late 1940s French science fiction comic books? Most importantly, though, form does not follow function at COLLINS. That’s a cliche from the 19th century. Here, form follows fantasy. Every good idea comes from a spark of imagination, not pragmatism. Facts are important. But, the way we see it, only possibility creates new futures.

Image from the Yellow Pencil-winning Robinhood Brand Identity by COLLINS for Robinhood

The designer on the Robinhood project is a comic book fan?

Ben Crick? Oh dear. Ben is a serious science fiction fan, as were all the members of my team in San Francisco on this work. As were our clients. As am I. In long conference calls, Ben and I would text each other obscure Star Trek references. Well, Star Trek: The Next Generation references.

When we wanted to imagine the inviting, optimistic future Robinhood was aiming to build for their customers, we looked to futuristic comic books as potent references. Then, we teamed up with our friends at Pixar to run story workshops to fully imagine and build out the year 2087. If the members of our team and the Robinhood crew hadn’t brought their unique interests and influences, that project never would have happened in the original way it did.  Keep in mind, though, that the creative leaders at Robinhood have uncommon imagination and taste. Good clients create good work. T'was ever thus.

Where do you find creative inspiration?

There are two places. First? My brain. It's...weird. I have something called hyperphantasia. The brain draws on multiple regions to form mental images. Mine uses them all constantly —  generating hyper-vivid images in a never ending stream. It renders fictions, objects and ranges of imaginary scenes with incredible realism. So, quite literally, inspiration is everywhere.

I wanted to be a designer from the moment our architect neighbour first explained the word to me. I was 10 or 11. I’ve been carrying around a collection of images in my head like an enormous card catalogue ever since. Today, I won't remember where the hell I put my glasses, but I can recall anything visual — the light tan border on a poster by Ludwig Hohlwein, moonlight on a spire at a church in Bath in 1988, or what a retail store of the future might look like from six different angles. When I was young, it could be hard. I, for example, was not very good at big dinner parties. When they got boring, and they always got boring, I would go quiet and just visit the places my brain made up until it was all over. Radical daydreaming. But I was lucky. I found other people like this and we turned it into our company. 

The second place I find inspiration is right here in our San Francisco and New York offices. The people who walk through our front doors every day. Like my colleague Tammrat Amaize, our Chief Strategy Officer, who always opens up the top of my head. When we opened COLLINS, Leland and I were hellbent on hiring the kind of gifted people that clients would never let into their buildings. To this day we seek ambition, we hire for character, and we work to support and train talented people. Then, we give them insane influence. We clear the runway. We provide sandwiches. And then we stand back. It works.

Image from the Yellow Pencil-winning Robinhood Brand Identity by COLLINS for Robinhood

What is a challenge the creative industry currently faces?

Designers underestimate how powerful we are. When we help clients transform themselves for the new futures they desire, we are a combination of engineer, artist, business leader, counsellor, steward and strategist. In other words, we're wizards. We can transform something from what is into what should be. We can imagine, plan and build the tomorrows our world needs — then pull them forward into today.

As a profession, we chronically undervalue that ability and the value that adds. And, we continue to behave in ways that perpetuate that condition. I mean, we still refer to agencies and design firms as shops. Seriously? Shops? We sell roses and bon bons? Enough.

Too many in our profession still view design and branding as a fussy, peripheral, end-of-the-line process that only communicates value. So we ‘decorate’ or ‘stylize’ or  deliver ‘look and feel’. We allow ourselves to be turned into exotic menials. As designers, our first job is to articulate the tangible value we bring to every situation. It is not, not, not the clients’ job to try to guess it.

D&AD Awards 2024 is now open for entries. The Branding category celebrates the design of individual brand elements and entire branding schemes, including new identities, brand refreshes, logos and methods of brand expression. Learn more about and enter the Branding category here. 

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