Brian started off this interview by asking me if I knew the song “Danny’s All-Star Joint”. He explained to me that, in his opinion, the original version by Rickie Lee Jones is the epitome of soulfulness. It’s replete with emotion and authenticity, an honest portrayal of the meaning behind the lyrics.
That same song, however, was later covered by Lynda Carter, the American actress best known for being Wonder Woman in the TV series of the same name. As you might imagine, it’s simply not the same—a result that Brian sets parallel to what happens when “corporate” gets in the way of creation.
Listening to the two versions one after the other, I can’t help but agree with him.
Brian Collins is a designer, creative director, educator, and co-founder of COLLINS, a brand and experience design firm known for its active role in shaping the future of brand building.
Throughout the rest of our conversation, Brian shared his perspective on the power of language in all facets of our world, from religious architecture to brand discovery, and illustrated his view of design as “hope made visible”. He pushes us to acknowledge the inadequacy of 20th century language, with all its stale analogies, clichés, and war metaphors. It’s up to us, he says, to invent a more poetic, imaginative lexicon for this century, and to design the future we want within a rapidly changing world.
Brandingmag: Tell me a little bit about how you got into design. Was there a specific moment when you realized you wanted or could have an entirely creative career?
Brian Collins: When did I first get into design? I don’t think I‘ve ever been out of it.
When you grow up Irish Catholic, as I did, you’re brought into design from the minute you enter the world. You’re baptized in design. You get your first communion in an exquisitely designed ceremony. You get confirmed the same way.
Even the most modest note you hear—the ringing of a tiny bell at a sacred moment during a Mass—brings the story to life. And that story—that the transcendent is all around us if we keep our hearts open—lives at the center with all these surrounding actions to help you absorb it. When you enter any church, there are massive, colorful stained glass windows along the nave (that long, center aisle). This is right out of the Middle Ages. The congregations then were illiterate, so the images had the burden of carrying the whole story. No wonder people made pilgrimages across Europe to experience those dazzling basilicas and cathedrals. They were designed to be visually breathtaking.
Inside, all the priests, nuns, and clergy were dressed differently from lay people. Incense filled the air, so it even smelled different. Then add all of the extraordinary architecture and music and the choirs. The overwhelming beauty of this experience was all crafted to kick you into a place above the everyday. One that was hopefully spiritual and uplifting.
Joseph Campbell once said that “the aesthetic experience is a simple beholding of the object…you experience a radiance. You are held in aesthetic arrest.”
I was born into aesthetic arrest.
Bm: Sounds like we’re touching a little bit on the classic, “are brands religions, are religions brands” question.
BC: Maybe. Parables, songs, choirs, prayers, vestments, soaring spires—even drinking wine. The stories, symbols, and the system—all aligned to bring you and keep you in that community, in that story.
20 years ago, I visited the church in Ireland where my grandfather grew up. The very last thing he told me he did before he left for the United States was to stop by that church, see his family priest, and take Mass before his Atlantic crossing in 1919. That’s deep, you might say…brand loyalty. My grandfather, of course, would believe that to be sacrilegious, however. Too reductive.
The way I see it, a brand—a really successful brand—relies on three key ideas working together: a powerful story, meaningful symbols, and what we call a responsive system—all of the things you touch and sense and feel and use and actually, tangibly experience.
If I were to answer your question more deliberately, I would say the first time I was introduced to “design,” design was when a neighbor of mine, who worked with Walter Gropius at The Architects’ Collaborative, invited me into his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their office did not look like my dad’s office. I remember walking into it when I was 11 or so. I saw my first Luxo lamp, my first Eames chair, my first Marimekko prints, surrounded by sketches for architectural projects all around the world. That was my first introduction to “design,” design.
Bm: While describing the space and imagery in your religious example, you mentioned this idea of escaping the current reality for the people that were there.
BC: Not escaping—more like being aware of realities beyond this one that we’re in.
Bm: Beyond the one that we’re in, yes. It reminds me of something I’ve heard you say multiple times, “Design is hope made visible.” This idea that hope is a synonym for an optimistic look towards the future, and that hope is made visible through design. I tend to focus more on the present, you focus a lot on the future; but does the present, or the past for that matter, really play no role?
BC: Well, I don’t think the future exists. There’s no such thing as the future. The only thing that exists are the futures, plural. A variety of futures all in competition with each other, all at the same time, right now. There’s a future that Joe Biden wants. There’s a future that Donald Trump wants. There’s a future that Georgia Meloni, the prime minister of Italy and leader of the emerging right in Europe, wants. There’s the future Martin Luther King wanted.
There are many different futures—all colliding and bumping and competing with each other. And the thing about that is you have to spend your time wisely investing in the possible future that you not only envision, but one you are eager to work for. Design is the ability to create intentional change, to create and fight for the futures we want.
I think design is always a transforming, future-making activity.
Everyone has a vision of what a good future might be, either in politics or religion, or society, in business, in architecture, in art, whatever it is. Design is the discipline that allows us to rehearse and build those futures. It offers us the mindset, skillset, and toolset necessary to bring those different futures to life.
Bm: Design is definitely more than just something visual then. The role that aesthetics play in society is much larger than what people assume design to be from a visual standpoint.
BC: Exactly. When I started COLLINS with my partner Leland Maschmeyer, we had four desks, two laptops, one client and an idea: Design is not what we make. Design is what we make possible.
That turned out to be a really important thing for us. It placed an emphasis not on the artifacts…“Oh, a new typeface! Great! We love new typefaces! Oh, a new logo! Great! Oh, a new interface design! Or a new product design! Great! Great!” Fine. That’s our output. And that’s all terribly important. We love it. But design also has to be done in context. What’s the biggest, best possible outcome we really want here? To what end are we doing this?
People have spent a lot of time lately talking about stakeholder capital. Stakeholders are really important and we have to make sure all stakeholders are involved in big decisions. But that is not enough anymore. We can no longer only worry about the stakeholders. We now have to worry about the stakes themselves.
Bm: If we don’t worry about the stakeholders, isn’t the outcome unilateral? Isn’t it just what we think the outcome should be, rather than involving everybody in the process of deciding that outcome?
BC: No. Sure, it’s the stakeholders who are important. But now, we have to look at larger and larger stakes. We have to look 10, 15, 20 years ahead. What’s really at risk beyond immediate gain? These are conversations about environmentalism, regeneration, sustainability, governance, diversity. These are longer-term issues with complex solutions. And the stakes all around us are high.
Bm: Many people believe that involving stakeholders in the creative process is what leads to great, human-centered design. Is that not what we all want?
BC: Really? Human-centered design? I want to be able to go anywhere, and I want to be able to drink water anywhere I go? Yay! Plastic! So we design single-use plastic containers? Now there’s a really easy, great, human-centered solution, right? And then we throw those bottles away? Yay!
That human-centered solution has now filled our oceans with more plastic than fish. In fact, a recent global study showed that the amount of micro plastics in us–in our own bodies–is exploding. We’re filling up with plastic. We eat plastics every day. It’s now in our food ecosystems. We can’t get it out.
The idea of being “human-centered” is such a late 20th century, design-firm, new-business marketing thought that it’s beyond me that people even use the term anymore. Human-centered? Please. How about life-centered? How about planet-centered? How about ecologically-centered?
Forget about the water. Forget about animals. Forget about the ecosystem. It’s all about us! Me! It’s human-centered! Some say I am misinterpreting but language matters.
Bm: Okay, I think there are multiple sides to that, but I see where you’re coming from.
BC: I don’t think so. There are no longer multiple sides to it. This language, this idea, is the problem.
Bm: For example, I’ve heard human-centered design being applied to accessibility, which in this case is about making something more accessible via design. Not at the expense of the planet. I can understand why “human-centered” would be the right term in this case. Rather than cutting corners for the sake of money, a company could invest extra resources and make less profit in order to create something more accessible for people who simply don’t use things the same way the majority does. Maybe this is where the idea of human-centered design makes sense?
BC: My grandmother used a wheelchair for the last part of her life. I know the difficulties of getting around in one, everywhere, first-hand. But the ideas and language like Accessibility Design or Inclusive Design do much better jobs of addressing the kinds of challenges she faced.
We’ve learned how to design for the last hundred years completely apart from nature. Now, we have to learn how to design as a part of nature. Human-centered is not an idea that will help us get there.
The idea of “problem solving” doesn’t work anymore. The world is moving too quickly. Designers cannot wait around for problems to show up on our desks. We must become problem seekers, to go out and hunt down emerging challenges before they turn into real problems.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that you cannot enter a world unless you have the language for it. We don’t have the language for this new world. So we end up with stupid stuff like “human-centered” or “future-proofing”.
Really? Insulating yourself from the future? And, I mean “target audience”? What we create is ammunition to aim at and strike unsuspecting consumers? I design to hit a “target”? Seriously?
On one side of our profession sits this language of marketing, which has become thoroughly militarized. Go to any ad agency. There are “war rooms” where they plan and “execute campaigns”. We not only talk about “target audiences” but about videos going “viral”. We say, “Let’s get some boots on the ground.” We plan strategies, engagements, lines of attack, groundwork, delivery, and advancement with chief creative “officers” as if the purpose of building a brand is to engage people like a dangerous enemy.
The way we speak about our clients and customers informs the way we treat them. How the hell did we ever think talking about people like military targets made sense?
The weaponized language of marketing is just one side of the problem. On the other side, we’ve got the pseudo-academic language of design thinking, which is practically Esperanto. Whenever I hear someone use inflated language like “emergent modalities” instead of “new methods,” or “mutable signifiers” instead of “shifting image,” I leave the room to get a cookie.
Bm: This is reminiscent of George Carlin describing how the English language is going downhill, with the usage of too many words that don’t mean anything and the resulting deterioration of the language itself. And I don’t disagree with you, really. I’m a big believer of the slow grow, which may seem a little bit counterproductive for the tech-induced-culture that we live in today. I’m wondering how you communicate this to your clients. A lot of the clients that you work with are in tech, so don’t they expect some immediate growth given the language that they use?
BC: Too many of us love nonsense, pretentious language. “Co-execute, re-platform, complexify, shareability, reoptimize?” I mean, who speaks like this? Twins with some secret, coded language only they can understand? We might think it makes us sound smart, but it really makes us look like pretentious, fussy, exotic menials.
I believe a designer’s first job is to be able to clearly, understandably articulate the tangible value we bring to every situation. It’s not the clients’ job to try to guess it or decipher a verbal mystery.
Five years ago, I was invited to spend a week with the writer David Whyte on the windy, west coast of Ireland. David is a celebrated Irish/English poet. What David did for me in that week–and then hopefully what I’ve done for my team in turn–was to reintroduce us all to the power of language, primarily through the power of poetry.
What I learned on that visit is that a good poem is not a description of an experience, like a novel. A good poem is an experience in itself. And language, when used really well, can be a transfiguring experience. Everyone who works at COLLINS gets a copy of his book Consolations on their first day. I recommend it.
Words create worlds.
I saw Guillermo del Toro’s new movie, Pinocchio. There’s a scene where Pinocchio comes to life and sings this song, “Everything Is New to Me”, which is unbelievably good. He’s now alive and realizes he’s in a completely new world and doesn’t understand any of the stuff around him. So he asks Gepetto, the toymaker who carved him. But Gepetto is freaked out because this puppet, this…toy that he made out of his loneliness is suddenly walking around and talking to him. And Pinocchio keeps asking, “What is this thing? And this? What do you call it, call it?”
He’s discovering words. That’s exactly what each of us has to do all the time, now. Discover our new language. What is this thing? What does it do? How does it work? What do you call it?
I can tell you right now that we do not call it re-optimized shareability.
Part of our jobs as artists is to make the familiar seem completely unfamiliar. The other part of our jobs is to make the completely unfamiliar seem very familiar. And that’s why language plays such an important role in what we do.
Lately, I hear designers say, “Design is about empathy.” If I hear this cliché one more time I’m going to lose my mind.
Empathy means nothing. Empathy means the ability to walk around in somebody else’s shoes. Fine. It doesn’t mean you care. It means the ability to observe. But the world doesn’t need any more observing. What the world needs is compassion. What the world needs are people who give a shit.
That word compassion is good. It means “I so deeply understand what you’re going through that I am moved to do something about it. I am moved to take some action to better the condition that you’re in—or these people, this community, or the world is in. I have no choice but to take action myself.”
Enough with empathy. It’s table stakes.
Bm: So how do you communicate that with clients in terms they understand?
BC: Who doesn’t understand the word compassion?
Bm: But how do you contextualize it in a way that all of them care about? Because they do run businesses at the end of the day.
BC: Are we communicating now?
Bm: We are.
BC: You understand what I’m talking about. What’s so hard?
In 1847, the Commission on the Health of Children in London was founded. Given the horrific living conditions of the poor in England, they wanted a thorough, fact-filled report about children who were being forced into workhouses and coal mines at the ages of 8, 9, and 10. Young kids were being used in industries and factories all around the country. So the Commission hired a local writer to document all these horrible things—to show how many children were dying, how many children were getting sick, how many children were not going to school and all of that.
They asked him, “Would you go visit and examine these places? We need people to see and understand so we can treat these children better. So please present us with what’s going on. Get the facts.”
So this writer goes out, travels to where these children are across England, and sees just how brutal and grinding their lives are. He had no idea. And he became heartbroken over all of it.
“The grim facts here are overwhelming, but they are not going to help us,” he believed. So he went back and wrote something else. He wrote a story, instead. A Christmas Carol.
Charles Dickens knew that people weren’t moved by facts alone. People were moved by stories. People understood the power of stories and Dickens understood the power of language to create one that would generate compassion.
A Christmas Carol has been turned into 97 different films. It was the first time-travel story, I think. If you don’t understand that story, then you aren’t going to understand anything. And Scrooge, over 150 years later, remains an iconic, powerful warning of the dangers of blind greed.
Scrooge, in the end, was not transformed by keen observation or empathy. He was transformed by compassion, both for the sick child Tiny Tim, and, in the end, for himself.
Scrooge didn’t hold data-driven, best-practices, future-proofing, empathy-oriented, human-centered, Post-It fiestas. He took action.
Bm: So, does data play any role in your creative process?
BC: Yes. Huge, actually. Because if we can’t measure, it’s very hard to make an argument. Data informs, and helps us anticipate, but it doesn’t guide. The future-facing story guides.
Bm: We agree. At Bm, we also think of them as quite complementary. We just had an interesting article come out about how data asks the right questions and creativity answers.
BC: Data doesn’t always answer why. Also, data is retrograde. So if you only look at data, you’re driving with the rear-view mirror. Remember, all data comes from the very same place: yesterday. What’s already happened. What was. A trailing indicator. We need to know the past, sure– and what patterns are emerging. But, in the end, design is not, not, not about what was, or even what is.
Design is about what could be. Design anticipates.
Sure, predictive analytics can be useful. But add one unplanned, random variable into your tight, precise, data-driven forecast and your perfectly-crafted model will slip into havoc.
Bm: If it’s not a matter of knowing for sure that the future you see is the right one, how can you confidently push forward? Can you ever say to your clients that you’re sure this is the right story for them, and that it will be successful and authentic?
BC: Oddly enough, almost always. It’s because we do the heavy lifting, the research, the planning, and the work closely with our clients. We do that together. And it succeeds. I hope our track record speaks to that.
Bm: I’m just wondering how you know it’s right though if it’s such a leap, and if it’s just one of many possible futures.
BC: If you’re an artist, you sense it. Sure, it’s about getting it right. And we do many things to do that. Including research.
As I get older, the importance of beauty and what beauty does has grown exponentially for me. Sadly, the world ‘beauty,’ which can be such a profound, eternal value, gets conflated with glamor, which is fleeting. Superficial. So it’s dismissed.
Do you remember when you saw somebody for the very first time and your heart almost jumped out of your body? Do you remember the first time you heard a piece of music and was all, “What the hell was that? Who made that? How did they ever make that?” Or when you saw a painting or a performer and asked, “How is this even possible?”
What great art, what great writing, great design, or great beauty does, I think, is to make us feel more alive.
This radiance, this instant, dazzling perception of beauty that I saw, as I said, in my hometown church, I see as a communication of a hidden, higher power behind the world we see every day. It shined through for me at first as a child in those ceremonies.
I’ve always loved this idea of “aesthetic arrest”. It comes straight out of James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce believed that when we are in the presence of great beauty, our minds go absolutely, completely still. I think we feel more alive in those moments. That’s a pretty radical and inspiring notion for designers. To make someone feel more alive.
It’s very hard to put that into words. Or into some reproducible arithmetic. What ends up happening with a lot of design these days is that we try to box it all in. And we try to turn it all into some connect-the-dots, step-and-repeat equation. But you cannot find the square root of a sonnet. You have to learn how to make a leap without all the data.
Our client, Equinox, called us in November last year and said that one of their biggest, most important days of the year for new members to join is January 1st. “We want people to sign up, but we don’t want to make all of the horrible, empty promises and use the same gimmicks that really bad fitness brands use to trick you into signing up. They say, ‘It’s a new year! It’s a new you! Sign up for 20% off!’”
It’s all bullshit because we all know those places quickly abandon you. Those gyms’ financial models depend entirely on you NEVER, EVER, EVER showing up. So, we asked Equinox, why not throw a giant wrench into all of that nonsense? Shut off your membership applications and your website on January 1. Tell people they can’t sign up unless they’re serious. Say, “Come back tomorrow.”
So we ran an ad in The New York Times that said, “We don’t speak January.” And they did not allow people to buy new memberships that day.
The resulting controversy exploded and opened up a conversation that sat at the very heart of what Equinox stands for. Their mission, to themselves and the community they support, was clear: Gain new, committed members by exposing the wellness industry’s baloney. Call out the tricks and scams that most traditional gyms play to get you to buy a membership on the very first day of the new year, when many people are at their most vulnerable.
Some people called it a gimmick. But we thought January itself had become the gimmick. And a lucrative one for most of that industry. But plenty of old school marketing people admonished us, as an agency, for “alienating” customers. Some even attacked us on social media for not being “more inclusive”.
But then the numbers started coming in. And Equinox had their biggest signup in January, ever.
Bm: An example of designing for the future they want, I suppose. Can you think of any more examples that showcase this idea?
BC: Yes, easy. I live in New York City, so I always think about the audacity it took to carve out Central Park in some of the most prime real estate in the world. Frederick Law Olmsted created Central Park in 1858, in the middle of the most affluent, booming city in North America. He was shaping something new for our city’s future. He designed Central Park not for himself to enjoy the following year, but for a generation to live in 150 years in the future. Some people say that a way to judge a civilization is to ask: Are there old men who plant trees whose shade they will never experience? That’s what Frederick Law Olmsted did.
If you’ve ever been to Central Park, you know it looks like it’s been there forever. All those massive stones, all those ponds, all those trees? That was all staged by Olmsted. It’s all theater. All of it. But it now appears eternal.
He designed it to be a park for everyone—from the wealthy to families who had nothing. One, that great generosity gives people hope. And two, that’s design as future–making at its best. That’s what design does. It imagines, it crystallizes, and it presents us with the ability to rehearse a future so we can examine it in advance, and then choose accordingly.
Which of these futures do we want to build? What future will make the world a better place for the communities our clients serve? Those are the questions we ask every day.
Bm: Have you moved away from designing or are you still very much in the weeds doing the actual design work? I often hear this from creative folks (e.g., copywriters) that have reached, let’s say, managerial roles and now feel like they’re out of tune with doing the actual work—the work they fell in love with from the beginning. They’re now leading teams or entire organizations, instead.
BC: Good question. For me, all of it is design. We have an organization of about 65 people, so my design puzzle is now different, but just as important: how do you lead an organization so people can do good work while enjoying themselves? That’s our mantra: The best people having the best time doing the best work for the best clients. But how do you design a company and culture that does that? It’s a high bar. We don’t always hit it, but we try.
Bm: It is a high bar, but culture has a higher bar too in terms of how people receive or judge things—people are obnoxiously unforgiving. Do you feel that pressure to be perfect?
BC: I have no idea what’s going on right now, but I do think people are kind of looking for things to hate for some reason. What’s interesting about our Equinox work is people either loved it or hated it. And we were attacked for it. This is the most ridiculous thing. But, as I said, Equinox’s membership exploded. We did our job, thank you.
Bm: The ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ that you collaborated on with Dove was very similar in that a lot of people loved it, but there was also a lot of backlash.
BC: Here’s the thing, as a designer, you’re going to be in the arena, okay? You’re going to go on the field. If you want a career on the field, there will be times when you’re winning and times when you’re losing. You have to play a long game to understand how it all works. And, frankly, if you pay attention, you can learn more from losing than from winning.
If you don’t like that and don’t want to be on the field, go to the sidelines. Become a critic. Or, even better, become a teacher and prepare students for the field. But everyone here is driven to be on the field every day. We’re willing to fall down. But every morning it’s a new day. So we get up, brush ourselves off, and try it all over again to see if we can do it even better this time.
Bm: With a new language.
BC: Hopefully so. The design clichés of the 20th century are not large enough for us any more, or appropriate for the future we’re entering. It’s a new world. We need a new language, and new stories for it.