2-29: "The Existentialist" - Brian Collins

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"The Existentialist"

Brian Collins is instantly memorable. He’s a designer by profession, practice and passion. He is an original thinker, and a storyteller. He founded and owns an award winning business. And he’s a man of a thousand voices. You’ll hear what I mean. 

He also asks compelling questions.

This episode is called “The Existentialist”.


Three Takeaways

  • Start with a strong point of view.

  • Remain open to the expertise of others.

  • Search for the answer on the other side of complexity.


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 2-29: "The Existentialist" - Brian Collins

Hi. I’m Charles Day. And this is ‘Fearless Creative Leadership’.

Brian Collins is instantly memorable. He’s a designer by profession, practice and passion. He is an original thinker, and a storyteller. He founded and owns an award winning business. And he’s a man of a thousand voices. You’ll hear what I mean. 

He also asks compelling questions.

This episode is called “The Existentialist”.

“Who are we and where are we going? Which are really the only two questions the world asks of you. But they always have to be answered in that order. That means it's an existential search. It's also turns out to be a search for identity. The same questions I ask for myself are the same questions I ask now today for the companies and the people in the organizations we work for. Who are you? Where are you going?“

I'm surrounded by illness at the moment. Of friends and loved ones. And in those moments, a person realizes who they were yesterday is gone forever, and whether they will be tomorrow is suddenly no longer guaranteed.

We take the routines and rhythms of life for granted. We make many decisions with little thought. We tolerate too much and accept too much because most people prefer routine and predictability to disruption and uncertainty. Most people would rather be quiet and accepting, than demonstrative and demanding.

They don’t know the answer to who they are or where they are going, usually because they haven’t asked themselves that question often enough or hard enough. And so the short-term becomes the only reference point that counts.

I see this manifest in lots of ways. But one - in particular - has become very obvious. The tolerance of most people - and I mean most people - to work for badly run companies.

Companies have two fuel sources. Revenue. And talent. And if you don’t unlock the second, you won’t have much of the first for very long.

And yet too often, talented people expect too little of the companies they work for.

They put up with bureaucratic, frightened management and self indulgent leadership. They enable practices and policies that act against the interests of the business itself, never mind the people within the business.

The reason for this is simple. It's more comfortable to be part of something than to be something. Easier to fit in than to stand out. Safer to bury how we really feel than to say it out loud.

But the problem with all this compliance is that it reduces us to a version of ourselves that is defined by the needs and expectations of others.

We contort ourselves and conform. And never find out why we were here. What we could have done.

As talent, we should ask more of the company we work for.

As leaders, we should ask more of ourselves.

Who are we and where are we going?

Questions to live and die by.

What’s your answer?

Here’s Brian Collins.

Charles:

Brian, welcome to Fearless.

Brian Collins:

It's really good to be here.

Charles:

When did design first show up for you in your life? When were you first conscious that design was a thing?

Brian Collins:

I don't remember when it wasn't. I grew up in a neighborhood ... I guess I was always very conscious as a child of the objects and the things, and the visuality of things that surrounded me, so I loved drawing. My mom said the first thing I drew was the Ritz cracker box, because it was so vivid, it was red and orange and round. And it was just assertive, on our kitchen table. And the other thing that I drew, then I remember, and my mom saved these things and she gave them to me when I was 35, she just kept them hidden in the attic. So I have a memory of drawing that box, but the thing I really remember drawing as a child was the Wizard of Oz, like drawing it while I was watching it, and my mom had those drawings.

And so the idea of visuality, it was incredibly vivid, and trying to capture an amazing story was something that was native to me from the beginning. And then the fact that I grew up in a neighborhood that had been ambushed by modernist architects who'd worked for Walter Gropius ... Gropius had moved to Boston and he ran the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the '50s and a lot of the students had moved to my hometown in the '60s and started building these modernist, flat, futuristic looking buildings that looked like we had been ambushed and invaded by The Jetsons. And we lived in an aggressively colonial town, I grew up in a Cape with a central chimney, you know, a little traditional Cape house.

Charles:

Where was this?

Brian Collins:

Lexington, Massachusetts. But it became this weird bedrock for early experiments in modernism. Four or five blocks from my house, there'd be a flat-roofed thing that looked like a case study house that would be in the desert or in California, in Palm Springs, and there it was in the middle of a New England winter. With mid-century modern, intersecting rectangles and glass walls. We grew up in a house in the '60s, it was like colonial architecture. And colonial furnishings were interesting and then it just showed that this place, which looked like something from the future was interesting.

I was always inspired by visuality, but then in the '60s everything was so future-oriented because of the space age. Then being surrounded by mid-century modern architecture suddenly. Suddenly I was very aware and I was introduced early on to the word "design" from a very young age.

Charles:

How did you express yourself beyond the drawings that you described? How did you internalize and then express this stimulation?

Brian Collins:

When you’re a kid… Because I loved to draw, I learned how to draw really well. And drawing when you're a child is kind of this magical thing. Because kids start giving it up in the second or third grade and I continued with it. So I knew how to draw well. And I loved to draw and I loved to read. And I found that I was very comfortable with my own imagination. So even though I didn't fit in with other kids, I'm like, "That's fine." I can go read, I can visit China, I can visit other universes, other planets, other worlds. And I can draw them.

So I was very comfortable as a kid being alone. I could draw, I could read, it was fine. I wasn't picked for the baseball team, great! I'm going to be drawing! Or I'm going to go read for the rest of the year. I was fascinated by fantasy and science fiction. So I think you become very comfortable.

I think early on, you begin to figure out when you're really creative, that your mind operates differently from other kids. And you can either be upset by that or sort of revel in it. And I was fine with it. I was supported by a whole family of people who were unusual in their own way. So my oddities were the fact that I loved drawing, I loved painting, was really sort of elevated and uplifted by my parents, who would take me to museums and art shows and galleries, to the opera. Fortunately, I lived in Boston, which is a really culturally rich petri dish to grow up in.

So my mind and my intellect was constantly being fed.

Charles:

Did you have brothers and sisters?

Brian Collins:

Yeah, I did. Four of them. And they're as interested - my one sister went to study drama in England, my sister studied international politics and finance at Georgetown, my brother, for a while, did bicycle tours all across Vermont, my sister ended up going to work for IBM. They're really super interesting people. None of them have chosen - God knows what a "traditional path" means, but none of them have traditional paths at all.

Charles:

Are you close to them?

Brian Collins:

Pardon me?

Charles:

Are you close to them now?

Brian Collins:

Very. Yeah, in fact, I’m heading there tomorrow, we're all spending the weekend together with my mom on my place on Cape Cod.

Charles:

Oh, wow, what a place to spend the fourth of July.

Brian Collins:

It's perfect. Yeah, too much barbecue, we have a place by the "watah," plenty of clam "chowdah," "lobstahs." "Bumpah-to-bumpah" all the way before we get to the "watah." It'll be "supah." Sitting on the French porch, knocking back Bacardis while the kids are having "Stah Wahs pahty" in the back.

Drop my r's and flatten my a's and there you get Boston accent for you, holy Mary, mother of God.

I love Boston. I lost my accent when I bumped into a "pahked cah."

Charles:

So a nuclear family was very much critical to your upbringing? To your creative development?

Brian Collins:

Oh, an Irish-Catholic nuclear family was ... It was pretty constant actually. It was pretty good. Sunday dinner, breakfast together, dinner at home every night. It was remarkable to have that kind of constancy as a creative kid because then I could do anything I wanted to. I lived in an environment that really encouraged it.

My classmates - I just saw Bill McKibben, who's probably one of the world's leading writers on the environment, he wrote the very first book on global warming called 'The End of Nature' in the late '80s. It's been translated into 80 languages. I just saw him at the Aspen Ideas Festival and he's become a world figure on the environment. The other friend of mine, who I also graduated with, went to high school and went to school with since the fourth or fifth grade is Brad Ellis, who is one of the developers of the TV show 'Glee,' he's an extraordinarily accomplished pianist and musician. Scout McCloud, who wrote a remarkable book called 'Understanding Comics'.

The level of creativity in Lexington - and friends of mine who went on to really amazing places and studied at Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge, Stanford, Cornell - we all sit and talk to each other and realize that our formative experiences was going through the public school system in Lexington, Massachusetts. More so than any other place we went.

Charles:

So environment was very important to you?

Brian Collins:

Oh my God, I can't imagine - I mean, Lexington had a ton of Nobel Prize laureates, who lived in our neighborhood. You don't just replicate that, but it changes and it shapes ... The word "genius" was separated from its origin, which was the idea of “genius loci”, a place where genius unfolded. And my hometown was very much like that. I was incredibly lucky to grow up there.

Charles:

Where did you go to school?

Brian Collins:

Well, after I graduated from the public school system, I first desperately wanted to come to New York. And I wanted to go to the Parsons School of Design, which is right there, it's just a block from my office. I wanted to be an urban sophisticate. I had my aunt sew me ascots when I was eleven years-old. I really wanted to leave… what I loved about that town, it was great. But I took my first trip to New York when I was twelve. And I was smitten. I'm like, "I'm going to live here," because everybody was here and everything was here. Dance, opera, the movies, communications, sculpture, art, theater, buildings, architecture, everything was here. I was twelve and I'm like, "Where else would I ever possibly want to live?" And so as soon as I could, I moved here. And I moved here in the late '70s, early '60s to go to school. And it was - what a time. Have you ever seen the movie 'Taxi Driver?'

Charles:

Yeah. Bad.

Brian Collins:

Bad. I lived in Union Square. One time I had to walk over - I didn't realize it until I came back and the body was still there, but I walked over a dead body to get to class one morning.

Charles:

Good grief.

Brian Collins:

Yeah, and that's what it was. People were murdered in Union Square. Union Square had been abandoned by the city because the city had gone bankrupt. So the parks had been left unattended for years. It was overgrown with trash and grub and trees and vines. You couldn't go anywhere near it. There were check-cashing shops, wig stores, drug deals going down, half the stores were boarded up. People were murdered there.

Charles:

How did that affect your view of the world?

Brian Collins:

It was glamorous. It was exciting. Because in the middle of this - I lived in Union Square and I made friends with a guy named Antonio Lopez, who at the time was probably the most celebrated fashion illustrator in the world. He did all the work for Bloomingdale's, Bonwood's, he was incredible. And he and his partner, Juan Ramos, sort of took my under their wing when I was nineteen. And they would take me to Studio54, we'd go a club called Xenon. It was crazy. His best friends were Jessica Lange, Grace Jones, Truman Capote. When you get in the back of a limousine when you're nineteen years-old and you're off to Studio54, Truman Capote in the back seat, it's like, what world was I suddenly in?

Who would ever want to go back to a picket fence in Massachusetts when you're suddenly off to Studio54? Fortunately, I didn't - and probably this has a lot to do with my parents - I never touched the cornucopia of hallucinogenics, drugs, cocaine, Quaaludes, God knows whatever that was, I just wasn't particularly interested in it. So I never touched it.

Charles:

So you were observing as much as participating?

Brian Collins:

I was watching. Yeah, I loved dancing but I didn't want to touch... Drugs scared the daylights out of me. You know those anti-drug conversations you had when you were like in the fifth, sixth grade? These scared the crap out of me. I remember the chief of police, Officer Chief Corr came and spoke to our sixth grade class and he showed us a picture what a healthy guy looked like and, "Here's what happened after he did drugs." And it was two years later and his teeth had fallen out, he looked like hell. And I'm so aesthetically-driven, I'm like, "I don't want to look like that."

So the desire to do drugs was completely, cognitively wired that drugs was a foul aesthetic choice and you will look awful. So I'm like, "Ew." The first time I remember being at Studio54 and someone came up to me and said, "This is for you." And he gave me a black envelope. And I opened it up and there was a pile of white stuff in it. And I go, "What's that?"

He said, "It's coke." "What?" "It's coke?" "Co-coke?" "Coke. Cocaine. You don't know what cocaine is?" I do a hundred accents all of them are ... I went, "Cocaine?" He said, "Yes, it's cocaine. You don't want it?" I said, "It's drugs?" He goes, "You don't want it?" "No." Boom. He vanished in a blur of gym shorts, sneakers and knee socks and tank tops, which is what all the bus boys wore at Studio54. And vanished. The other older Parsons fugues, who were twenty-one, twenty-two, they were reaching in slow motion, "No! Stop! Give it-" Gone.

They said, "You let the waiter have that?" I'm like, "Yeah, I don't want to touch it." They go, "You an idiotic?" Later this guy comes up to me and he goes, "I sent over something earlier and I am Bianca Jagger's brother and you did not want-" And I'm like, "Yeah." He said, "Do you want to dance?" I'm like, "Okay."

So Bianca Jagger's brother- "I am Bianca Jagger's brother-" had sent me over my first offer of cocaine and I turned it down. I ended up dancing with him and he said, "Do you want to come out for drinks or something else?" And I'm like, "No, I have to go and do some homework."

Although I was invited to all these parties, I never- Jesus Christ, I don't know how- I just never managed never to fall into the pit that a lot of other people ... That pit was so easy to fall into.

Charles:

It would have been extraordinarily easy for you to have done something.

Brian Collins:

Yeah, drugs, drink. All sorts of stuff.

Charles:

How did you craft the beginning of your professional career in the midst of that incredible, insane environment?

Brian Collins:

Well, it was an incredible, insane environment. It was also insanely, insanely glamorous because we could get into Studio 54 with the all the other- I would go with the Parsons fashion students and they dressed like peacocks and parrots. Remember, it was the early '80s, late '70s, so colors and fashion, just out of control. Pillbox hats, veils, yellows, pinks, purples, blues, everyone looked like parrots. And we would dress up.

I had no money but at a place called, I think, the Union Supply Company, they bought old gasoline jumpsuits. Gasoline attendants' jumpsuits and they dyed - they would make a big vat, they would do them in the same colors like yellow, green, purple. I bought three of them. I bought a turquoise one. Perfect early '80s, late '70s color. A bright orange one, and a pink one. All the colors that were on their way to becoming other colors. Not red, not blue, but turquoise, which is blue that really wants to be green. And pink, which is white that really wants to become red. So all these transition colors. And I would wear a contrasting bright rope web belt. And I word those late '70s wraparound Devo glasses. Spike my hair, boom, and you'd get in because you were colorful. We would do that and I had three different outfits I would wear to Studio 54 and that was it.

It was insane. I think the connection to design were the other students and their insane level of ambition. The hard part is, most of the men I went to school with, aren't here.

Charles:

Yeah, I can imagine.

Brian Collins:

Yeah, because you're eighteen years-old, the virus really starts to flow around New York City in the late '70s. By that point in the early '80s, it was assumed about 5% of the population had it, and it was growing. I wasn’t aware...AIDS doesn't really appear until 1981 and I'd left the city by then, but we were all swimming in it and we didn't know it. Of the men that I know who I went to school with, I only know - who studied design and fashion, I only know two of them who are still alive. It was a plague. It took a lot of men.

Charles:

Yeah. I've got close friends who lived through that reality as well and it just decimated the generation.

Brian Collins:

Yeah, our ranks in our 50s are thin. There's a whole generation of creative people who are just not here.

Charles:

Yeah, that's right. That’s right.

So you say you left the city. Where to and why?

Brian Collins:

My parents heard me tell these stories about well, I was at a friends house and he lives in Central Park West and they have a three-story apartment and they Picassos and Rothkos in their home and we watch edDebbie Harry, and watched [inaudible] and they didn't hear me talk about any of my studies, my school. It was all about my social life, and I was invited to this party on Fire Island and I'm nineteen years-old and then my parents were, "I think you need some grounding."

Two years in New York. I was nineteen years-old. It's really seductive to meet famous people. A roommate of mine came in one night. It was amazing, we'd gone to a party and then we said, "Hey, a bunch of other people are going to the party downtown." A bunch of celebrities were there. We walk in, Truman Capote's there, and then were heard that Faye Dunaway was somewhere there. And other famous people. It was a massive loft in SoHo. We come home, we go to the Empire Diner and have some pancakes and we come home. It's like 5:30 in the morning. At 5:45, my roommate comes in, and he was this kid from Iowa, six and a half feet tall, handsome as hell, and charming. Really nice guy.

And I said, "What are you doing?" He's suddenly rifling through the closet looking for his suitcase, an old suitcase. The suitcase before wheels. And he's throwing his shirts, his shorts. I said, "What are you doing?" He said, "I'm going away. There's a car waiting for me. Faye Dunaway's taking me to Bermuda for the weekend." I'm like, "What?"

"She has a jet out in - her jet is waiting for us." Now this is the year after she won the Academy Award for 'Network’. And she was stunning. I'm like, "What?" "Faye Dunaway is outside." And he vanishes for like four days! He comes back tanned and exhausted. But that's what it was like to live in New York in that time and place.

Charles:

So you weren't aware?

Brian Collins:

I tried to convince my parents that I wanted to start work immediately. They said, "You aren't ready. Your values are all upside down."

The Parsons School of Design had a transfer program because they're part of an association of Northeast Art Colleges where you could instantly transfer without having to apply. I transferred to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design on Huntington Avenue in Boston, which is a state school. I didn't even apply to it. And I lived with my grandparents in Boston.

Charles:

Wow.

Brian Collins:

That was a shift.

Charles:

Wow.

Brian Collins:

And it was the best thing that I ever did. I learned what they were like as adults. I heard all their stories about the trips from being in the Irish diaspora, leaving Ireland when they were teenagers. Coming and reestablishing life here in the United States, a successful one. And then I ended up going to the Massachusetts College of Art. I ended up meeting the best instructor of my life, her name is Liz Resnick. She was only a few years older than I was but I bonded with her, and she's still a dear friend. But that changed my life. I think, had I stayed in New York, I was just at the point where the kind of promiscuity, drugs, revelry, let's say the Dionysian part of my character, rather than the Apollonian one, was being endlessly fed. Revelry, the body, indulgence, partying, I was just on the cusp of letting that happen. And my parents felt that, I felt that, and their recommendation ...

It was like, yeah I'm twenty now, I should probably realign my life. And I did and it was great.

Charles:

How'd you get into the business world, what was your first step?

Brian Collins:

I remember… I was a terrible student but when it was necessary for me to turn it on, I could. When we had reviews at the end of the year - and I was super competitive, we would have a review where all the students at the end of each year would show what they had done for the course of the year. And for the last three weeks, I just didn't sleep. I just did everything. I just made everything perfect. I just went at it. I did twice as much work. What ended up happening is, visitors from local corporations, like John Hancock, Digital Equipment Corporation, Reebok, local companies who would come by to see what the students were up to. And I ended up meeting an art director from Digital Equipment Corporation. I started freelancing when I was twenty-one, while I was still going to school.

Charles:

Doing what kind of work?

Brian Collins:

Just graphic design. Mostly brochure and collateral work for technology for different systems that Digital, which at the time was one of the largest technology and computer companies in the world, second really only to IBM at the time. So I ended up going to Maynard in Bedford, Massachusetts at twenty-two. Driving out there and getting these incredibly complex and huge assignments from Digital Equipment Corporation when I was twenty-two. I called myself the Brian Collins Design Group.

My mom's job would end at two o'clock, she'd be home by 2:30, so I'd tell my clients to call me after 2:30. I set up an extension in the kitchen. I worked out of my bedroom so she would answer the phone, and she'd say, "Brian Collins Design Group." "May I speak to Brian?" "May I ask who's calling?" She said, "Yes, just a minute, I'll see if he's available." Of course I was available. She'd put a hold button on it, okay? She said, "Brian, it's Ann Morton from the Digital Equipment Corporation." And I would wait. And so I could pretend that other people are around me, I would go, "Yeah, I think that needs to be out the door by four o'clock." And I'd go, "Yeah, that's good. Hi Ann!"

I was talking to nobody. Nobody was around. And then there was someone around. I hired an assistant from the Massachusetts College of Art and then I built out the garage behind my family's home and I then I took on a partner, we hired three or four people, they were all working out of my family's house, behind our house. There were cars parked and neighbors were like, "What's going on here? We love Brian, but you've turned your home into an office park."

I'm like, "Okay," and we got an office in Cambridge. But that's how we started the Brian Collins Design Group. With mom answering the extension.

Oh, people would say, "Who's the woman who answers your phone?" I said, "Well, that's Mary." "She sounds great." "She is, she's fabulous." "How long has she been working with you?" "Quite some time."

Charles:

As far as I can remember.

Brian Collins:

As far as I can remember. I never told anyway that's my mom and I'm working out of my bedroom.

Charles:

That's fantastic.

So you were ambitious from the get-go?

Brian Collins:

I think every artist is ambitious.

Charles:

Oh, really?

Brian Collins:

Yeah. I think every artist, every creative person is ambitious. They're chasing something.

Charles:

Such as ...? What do you think they're chasing?

Brian Collins:

Finding where they might belong. Where their voice might belong. Trying to find out what their voice is. And where the best audience for that might be. Where the most appreciative audience for that might be. And then working with other people to find where their voices might be. Which I turned out to do a lot of. Inviting other people to come work with me was also great, because very early on I was fascinated by helping them find their voice too. And then the question is, everyone's searching for their voice, for how they belong. That means you, turns out to be the same things for huge corporations. Who are we and where are we going? Which are really the only two questions the world asks of you. But they always have to be answered in that order. That means it's an existential search. It's also turns out to be a search for identity. The same questions I ask for myself are the same questions I ask now today for the companies and the people in the organizations we work for. Who are you? Where are you going?

Charles:

How often do you find people have an answer to that question?

Brian Collins:

I think they have a ready answer. I don't know if the ready answer is the right one. So I poke at it a lot. One of the things I have my strategists and my creative leaders read - everybody reads here - is, I have them read Beowulf. I love metaphor and I love poetry. Not everyone has to read their first English epic poem, right? But Beowulf was such a great story because it deals with a hero who is asked by a Nordic town to come and save them from this horrible monster that's coming out of the lake every night and eating and destroying and killing the people who live in that community.

And Beowulf is a celebrated hero who has vanquished horrible things in the past, so they send him off and he vanquishes this terrible, terrifying monster named Grendel. He wins, and he wins the affection of everyone and becomes lauded and he wins the day. There's a big celebration and everyone's happy and they all go to sleep and that's the end of the story. Until something worse comes out of the bottom of the lake. And it's Grendel's mother. And she's not happy. He ultimately has to fight Grendel's mother. And ultimately fails.

Not that I want to tell a downer story, but what that means if you don't find the problem that's lurking ... There's always two problems: the one that's presented to you and the one they don't want to talk about. Or there's something underneath it. And you've got to find out what that problem, that other problem, is. You always have to look for, listen for, what isn't being said in the room. That's the real part of the conversation. We're really good at surfacing that. Whether it's any of the work that we've done for any of our clients, we're always really good at finding the narrative that's not the easy one. But what we call it is "simplicity on the far side of complexity."

I think in advertising, other agencies are really good at simplicity at the near side of complexity. You have a bunch of slogans, they would sell it to anybody. Whereas design - if you're going to design a brand, or an operating system for a brand, which we end up doing a lot of here, then you really need to understand the complexity and the real purpose behind their companies. That requires you to go digging. And when you go digging, you usually find the other dragon that's there. Sometimes it has to be slayed, sometimes it just wants to be traveled off and talk to it. And find out what's really going on here. And sometimes you befriend it, but usually you have to bring out into the light to figure out what it is. And usually, it's an incredible story.

When we did our work with Dropbox, the founder turns out, is a Star Trek fan. By design, he's an incredible optimist. That was self-evident when you walk into Dropbox headquarters. In fact, one of their rooms is designed like the conference room on the U.S.S. Enterprise, the original one from the 1960's. It's like, "What is this about?" And he got back to me, he said, "A sense of optimism." It was something that was not self-evident in anything he was talking about but then when you start having a conversation about it, then it opened up a whole world of things.

But that wouldn't have happened unless we sort of started digging for finding what dragons were sort of lurking around that no one was really listening to.

Charles:

And how early in your career did you discover that was critical? I just made a note of "simplicity on the other side of complexity," I think that's a very powerful expression. How young were you when you realized that that was the place you had to get somebody to, to help someone?

Brian Collins:

My dad took me to the Busch-Reisinger Museum, which has one of the finest collections of Bauhaus artifacts, chairs, in the world. And he took me there when I was twelve. And to see their original experiments and pipe fitting in order to make chairs, they had to get the plumber, because the artists didn't know how to weld two pieces of steel together. And you see just the sheer amount of effort and work, just sheer effort it took to make something incredibly simple. To make something elegant. And then if they couldn't make it elegant, they couldn't make that bolt disappear, then it made the bolt the idea. To see that epic effort go in to make something so simple, and see all the prototypes, the first prototype made of canvas, the second prototype made out of clay, the third prototype a metal, and by the time you get to the sixth one, and the final one ... Just the sheer, sheer effort.

Then I went to … one of the libraries at Harvard have one of the manuscripts of Charles Dickens. I think it might have been ‘Great Expectations’. It’s one of them; I’m not sure which one. And then you see his handwriting. They're written out, and crossed out, and every line is rewritten and rewritten and rewritten. Lines are put in there - not taped, but they're connected in there. You can see- he's not writing, he's sculpting to get to what's the perfect combination of ten words. Just look at it and you can see the effort and sweat and the ambition all on the page.

Charles:

There's a great James Joyce story, actually, along the same lines. Where he was visited in his house, on the shore of some remote Irish lake, by a friend of his. And he finds the great man slumped over, despairing. And he says, "James, what’s the matter?" And James Joyce says, "I've only written five words today." And his friend says, "Well, that's pretty good for you." And he says, "But they're not in the right order."

Right? It's like, to your point, kind of sculpting, kind of craftsmanship that's kind of critical.

Brian Collins:

Kind of relentless. Relentless effort.

Charles:

Yeah, relentless. That there is actually a perfect form out there and it is your responsibility to find it.

Brian Collins:

You defined it. And you go hunting for it, right? And so I realized then just the sheer effort it took to make something look inevitable was not inevitable. And it required great effort, whether it was in architecture, a chair, or a novel by Dickens.

Charles:

So you've owned your own business at two points in your life: once when you first came into the business world, once now. In between you have worked for other people. What did you learn about working for other people?

Brian Collins:

I didn't work for anybody else until I went to work for Joe Duffy, who at the time was leading, what I think was one of the best design firms in the world, the Duffy Design Group. They had slaughtered all the records at the Art Directors Club one year. They showed up and won something like 6,000 awards. Back then, before the web, starting in the spring, there were all different annuals. Graphiste, AIGA, the One Club, the Art Directors Club, D&AD would come out with their annuals. And you'd flip to the back of the annuals and you'd look who had the biggest number of entries.

And one year, Duffy Design Group had done something that no one had ever seen. The number of awards when to like three columns. They had appeared practically out of nowhere. Now what they were, they were the design arm of Fallon, McElligott, an equally celebrated, creative ad agency.

I admired their work. They were doing extraordinary work with some incredibly illustrative, funny, whimsical, witty, but it was based in illustration, rather than - [inaudible] und ze red, und ze right, und ze blue, und ze red square, und ze blue circle, on the yellow triangle, right? Sorry. Again, another - all my accents - each one is more insulting than the next.

Boston was suffering the yolk of that modernist period and it was grim, flush-left traditional ADA type of graphic form. And that's what was celebrated there. And having been introduced to the pushpin work. Milton Glaze's work and Paul Davis's work and Seymour Goff's work was incredibly illustrative and rich and romantic and fun. To say that graphic design was just big Helvetica, that was really limiting to me.

Now I look back at it, and surrounded by the people in Boston like Jaqueline Casey or Muriel Cooper, who were amazing. Dean Martin Winkler who were incredible. Early pioneers of that style. It really was grounded in Boston. But that was the canon. And I saw Joe doing these crazy romantic, rich illustration-based design. And I loved it. At one point, I had some work that I won in communication arts. Joe had seen it, I wanted to meet Joe, I met Joe and Joe offered me a job to come work with him on the spot. So I did. I picked up at twenty-nine and moved to Minnesota.

Boston was - I didn't want to do another black poster with Helvetica flush-left again. Or red. I was like, “Really?” And I picked up and Joe was my mentor. And opened up my head in terms of what was possible.

Charles:

Which was ... ?

Brian Collins:

You can do anything. It's all made up. Whatever it is. Find the solution, but it could be anything. It didn't have to be this grim, Teutonic, dramatic, aesthetic that had come to be the measure of what design was. I was like, "Really?" The world of history, of art and illustration, mythology, filmmaking, art, architecture, painting, printmaking and everything is a Helvetica flush-left thing? With a square?

And so Joe was like, “No, it can be handwriting illustrations.” That opened up a lot. Sharon Warner was one of my heroes. She had done some amazing work. Tom Waterbury was there, who is now the chief creative officer at Target, who's a friend and a client. Who's amazing on what he's done at Target. It's sort of been remarkable. Charles Spencer Anderson who’s ended up winning the AIGA medal, as has Joe Duffy. They were incredible.

Then to go to Minnesota and then be surrounded by this midwest vernacular of these crazy midwest signs, sign painting and sign making. And ghost signs for Pillsbury and General Mills and Gold Flower, on all these ancient warehouse buildings all over Minnesota. It was the breadbasket of America. It wasn't like New England at all. It was eye opening. And meet midwesterners. And if they hadn't grown up on the farm, or their parents hadn't grown up on the farm, their grandparents had grown up on the farm. So a living memory of what a farm is like. And that changes your perspective.

Vegetables to me were… My mom would have Del Monte canned vegetables and she'd boil them. So to grow up with people who have living memory of growing up - my best friend, actually just a couple of years ago, sold their hundreds of acres of farm in Wilmer, Minnesota. He grew up on a farm. He had to get up at four o'clock in the morning to take care of the animals. That changes your perspective because you can't rush. If you don't take care of your crop in the spring, plant in late spring, tend to it over the summer and harvest it in the fall, you don't survive the winter. So things are done in a very disciplined way. And those people are very different from people who are in the north. And that was an eye-opening and soul-expanding experience. I was there for five years.

Charles:

And then came where?

Brian Collins:

San Francisco. Levi-Strauss had invited me - or their agency, Foote, Cone & Belding was the Agency of the Year, was doing incredible work - they were a flagship office of Foote, Cone & Belding. And they invited me to be a creative director on the Levi's business for design. And that was my first real step into design and advertising. Joe was a designer who was connected to an advertising agency and then Foote, Cone had wanted me to lead design within their agency for Levi's, which we did. And I ended up working on television, store design, architecture, fashion design, product design. I did that for just over three years.

Charles:

So you saw a product, or a company from every perspective?

Brian Collins:

Yeah, I was practically, what we would call, working in-house. It was the closest job I ever had to working in-house because you were over at Levi's Plaza. Levi's Plaza and Foote, Cone & Belding, we're in the same building. We'd walk across the plaza four or five times a day just to have meetings there. It was almost like we were their in-house creative team.

Charles:

Did you enjoy the focus?

Brian Collins:

I loved the focus, are you kidding? We were in Minnesota in the middle of an ice storm in January, to wake up with crocuses blooming on Telegraph Hill, which is where I lived my first three months?

Charles:

But you enjoyed the singularity of the problem, the fact that you were solving a problem for a single brand?

Brian Collins:

That was remarkable and I was solving communications, environments, products, television, at one point radio. To be able to really go in for three years and shape the voice, and in some cases the architecture, and in some cases the product, was incredible. To see how you could, in its totality, create something.

I like German words because they take sixteen words and they put them together. So there's a - I'm going to mess this up - I think it's gesamtkunstwerk, which a really interesting German word for the total work of art, the comprehensive work of art. Where everything integrates. It's a great German word and that's what we try to do in Levi's. How does everything integrate? Later, I would get a call from Ogilvy and say, "We want you to run the brand integration group." Which is a very tactical way of expressing what we were doing. I like the German - and I could barely express it.

Charles:

So Ogilvy brought you back to the east coast?

Brian Collins:

Yeah, we became Agency of the Year, I became sadly famous, for what passed for famous in advertising. And I got a call from the chief creative officer for Ogilvy who said, "Do you want to come and work at Ogilvy's?" I said, "Yeah, but I really want to run design." And I wanted to be a designer at an advertising agency, I didn't want to do what most people do and be like, "Well, I was once a designer, but now I'm a fill-in-the-blank, an art director, a creative director, I'm a group creative director, I'm a chief creative off-" It was always dismissive. It was like, "I was a designer once, but now I'm onto this."

I'm like, "No, I really want to be a designer." And as my staff grew, that line was pulled on everyone who worked for me. Because I would send them into meetings and they would always start, "Oh, you're a designer? I started out as a designer. Oh, I was a designer, now I'm a ..." And it got so hard because I really wanted to establish a different career path within an advertising agency. You'd have an extraordinary career as a designer, not as a repurposed art director. Or a repurposed designer becomes something else. I really wanted to be a designer.

They were so good at doing television and so good at traditional, regular advertising, I didn't need to feed that franchise. You had amazing people who did that work. Incredible. I'm not going to compete with that. You're doing IBM, Jaguar, American Express, that television work is the best in the world.

I'm going to build a new conversation. Let me build a new circle. But you have to build a new circle by riffing off and taking energy from that one that was there before. And so, I would say to my people, when they would come back from their meetings, I'd say, "They pulled that line. OK, here's what you're going to say."

"If they ever say to you," and I said this to my team, "Whenever they say to you, 'Oh, I was a designer.' Or 'I started out as a designer and you're clearly still a designer.' Say to them this, 'It's a shame you didn't have the chops to remain one.'"

Charles:

How did that go down?

Brian Collins:

It pissed people off. It pissed people the fuck off. And it was necessary because I really had to assert our muscle and say, "We're pursuing a different value here." The purpose of advertising is fame. That's where you're measured. Have you made me famous? The purpose of advertising was get me to like something by making it famous. The purpose of advertising is build things that people like by making them useful. Those are two different values.

I love both of them. I love storytelling, I love advertising, but I love design. They were so good at storytelling that I didn't need to do this, but I had set up a different set of values, which means I'd use different languages and different kinds of conversations. And I was not going to let a recently-promoted junior art director to dismiss a designer on my team because they were particularly good at designing.

Charles:

So were you looking to hire specific kinds of people? Obviously you wanted designers but were you looking for people with a certain mentality?

Brian Collins:

Yeah. I was looking for people… We hired people who were on a certain trajectory and had reached the curve that leads to the strategic inflection point of wherever their career was and they weren't quite sure of what they were going to do next. So one of my first people I hired, who's work I'd admired, was Luke Hayman, who was at the time, design director of ID Magazine. He's now a partner at Pentagram.

But Luke had already established his credibility and a bit of his reputation internationally because of the work he was doing for ID. Then I hired a bunch of people who were well-known for doing other kinds of things. So I hired Michael Kay, who was one of the most accomplished book designers, book cover/jacket designers ever. Chip Kidd, who is one of the most celebrated book designers ever, at one point over dinner, said to me, he was the only book designer we thought was going to give him a real run for his money. Michael Kay is a real gifted designer. I said, "Mike, you want to work in advertising?"

And Barry Deck, who's a celebrate typographer, I invited him. I invited Rebecca Mendez, who won the Cooper Hewitt Award for Designer of the Year a few years ago. She's in Los Angeles, I invited her to open her office in Los Angeles. I really wanted to hire incredibly gifted people with [inaudible] intellects, who are ambitious, who really wanted to be designers. Who didn't want to enter advertising to make TV commercials, really wanted to build design, which meant build interfaces, technology, architecture, packaging, all the things that people did and touched. And so we got involved in interaction design, new technologies, architecture. We built the Hershey store in Times Square, we were given a billboard assignment, we built a giant flagship toy store for Mattel in Shanghai, we built futuristic gas stations for BP, we designed magazines.

We established, I think, a bit of an avant garde around design for about the ten years that I ran that. We were really on fire for about five or six years. And we became known as a place for, a really safe place, for designers to work because we were really pursuing design. We actually ended up doing advertising. We did it through the lens of design. We refused to be turned into a resource for the art directors, who wouldn't design.

Charles:

I want come and talk about COLLINS now, but before we do that I just want to put a piece of context around this, which strikes me. The journey you've described is one in which environment is obviously, not only massively important, but distinctive in every moment. At each one of these markers, you've gone into something that is dramatically different from what it was before. Within that context, what's your relationship with fear?

Brian Collins:

Oh. Pema said something, "The closer you get to fear, the closer you're getting to a truth." So I kind of like fear. And if it's scary, then it means that- and it's really scary, it means there's something on other side of that that's really worth going for.

Brian Collins:

You and I are sitting in my library.

Charles:

An extraordinary room. Extraordinary room. You're surrounded by inspiration.

Brian Collins:

Well, we've all sorts of things. All the back issues form Art and Architecture Magazine, to painting, art history, biography, mythology ...

Charles:

To a puppet of Mickey Mouse in the corner.

Brian Collins:

And Pinocchio.

Charles:

And Pinocchio.

Brian Collins:

My spirit guide. But we have 9,750 square feet here, on 11th street, the top floor, sky light's here in Greenwich Village. This space ain't cheap. In order for me to get it, I had to sign on the line, my two property. My house in Cape Cod, my house here. If everything goes kaput, "We're coming after your house." I'm like, "Okay!" And we're self-funded. We're our own company, we're an independent company.

Charles:

So you built this yourself from you own financial...?

Brian Collins:

No, I didn't build this myself, I built it with everyone who's here. I built it with-

Charles:

But it's your property that's on the line?

Brian Collins:

Yeah. Sure, fine. But if I couldn't have done that, then all these amazing people I get to work with ... That was the thing that made me open the business. This is theory of emergence. The thing that is not just a deciding factor is the person who decides to make the jump, it's the person who says, "Yes, I'll make the jump and I'll go with you." Because our lives are made in relationship with each other.

And that was, I remember on my way to a meeting, and I had a brilliant young man who worked with me. His name is Leland Maschmeyer, he's now chief creative officer over at Chobani. COLLINS was started by IPG and we were housed under the Martin Agency, which is a terrific agency. And we were growing and I was unsure if we should be part of a larger holding company anymore. There's a conflict. I had won a really great project with Barclay's out of London and they had recently won a competitive bank, and we couldn't both service the business because of there was a master service agreement that said you couldn't do this.

We negotiated a departure. Earlier than I wanted, but it turned out to be good. I remember saying to Lee, "I'm going to leave. And we're going to take the company and make it private. We're going to go off and I would love to do this with you." And he'd be my first hire. And he said, "Yes, I will join you."

Charles:

In that moment?

Brian Collins:

In that moment! He just said - There are moments when you go, "Yes, I am doing this with you." There's no hesitation, there's no ... "I'll come with you." I had such respect and admiration for him as a thinker, as a person, as a creative partner, as a designer. Certainly, as a creative leader I thought he was remarkable. It's interesting. He's twenty years my junior, and it's interesting when you make young people your mentors. So that was like, "Okay, he believes in this, I believe in this." And we're off. And the first few years were a bit of a struggle, but we eventually hit our stride, earlier, a few months ago, AIG named us their first Design Firm of the Year. Which was a miracle.

And the phone rings. And we have a second office in San Francisco. We're opening up a third office, I can't tell you where, with someone I really admire. It's been great. But that confirmation from someone I admired, who I trusted, I liked, in that case, Leland, was the fire starter, that was the fuel on the fire. I'm like, "Okay, someone believes in me and someone believes in this, and we believe in each other." And you can go off and create something. Now I have extraordinary people. I have Nick Ace, Thom Wilder, Karin Soukup, Ben Crick, Emily Morris, Yocasta Lachapelle, Amir Ouki, people who have come from around the world to come to work with us.

Charles:

And why do you think they come? Why do they choose here?

Brian Collins:

I think you're probably better off asking them. They seem to stay, a lot of them. I think they're seen. I think they learn their voices fast. I give young people extraordinary amounts of responsibility, just huge amounts of responsibility. Leo Porto is a gifted designer on my team, and was just promoted to design director. Twenty-four, he ran his first international design conference here in New York. He's from Brazil and he was fascinated by the Brazilian creative diaspora, of all the amazing Brazilian people around the world, who are changing the landscape of creativity, advertising, design, architecture. He said there was no voice about this, so he decided to have a conference. COLLINS sponsored it. Sold out. Five hundred people for a day conference in Dumbo. To the walls, he brought people from around the world.

They're self-starters. And they move. And hopefully they recognize ... My only value, or my only judge, my best judge is when people start recommending their friends to work here, then I know we're moving onto something. I would say a third of the people who work here, are friends of the people who are here now. And they said, "Why don't you come work here?"

Charles:

How has owning your own company been different than the way you thought it was going to be?

Brian Collins:

Oh, you're on the frontier every day. You can't ever keep your eye off the ball. It's not possible. And you have to surround yourself with people who you have extraordinary trust for. But you're always - you can relax a little bit, but you are always, always moving.

I spoke with a friend about this. When you’re a project-based business, the first purpose of a project-based business is more business. Until you are at sea, on your ship and a storm comes in - and a storm comes in every few weeks - you really don't know how to sell that. You've got to get your sea legs. It took me until after being in advertising, and certainly my run I had at Ogilvy for just over a decade, I'd say it took me about three years to get my sea legs.

This is a different thing. You're always on a frontier. And you're always trying to anticipate what's going to happen next, with not a lot of information. We thought, We want a huge project,” and we're about ready to begin and the CMO left and a new CMO came in, and said, "Hold on." That project, which we planned to be working on, all of a sudden, we had a cancellation fee - fortunately we had enough work coming in- but those things kind of happened. And you can't let them freak you out, because that's just the nature of what it is. So you just have to say, "Okay, we've been here before. Panic doesn't help. Let's keep going."

Charles:

It's such an interesting reference point, because the retainer-based model is something that as human beings, we yearn for. We yearn for the security, and the reliability, and the predictability of all that, right? And it satisfies this sort of Maslow-esque part of the hierarchy of need. But every company that I've ever been part of, or worked with, or observed up close, that has a large part of its business built around that, I think struggles enormously. I think that project-based work makes you nimble, it makes you agile, right? It gets you up in the morning. The anxiety, the concern about the initiative, the creativity, the original thinking that is required to solve the very immediate problems - where's the next piece of work coming from. That's the lifeblood of creative businesses.

Brian Collins:

Without question. You've nailed it. You draw a big circle, right? Inside of the circle, everything you know. And outside there's really everything you don't know. Businesses sit… You draw a second circle on the intersection of what you know and what you don't know. That's where we always are. You're always in that place. It's constantly that shift between chaos and order. That's what keeps you fresh. And if you don't like that, and you like the AORA model, you want to just relax for a year until the AORA comes to you again, you have to hustle two months up to AORA and you have to show, "Oh, we're really engaged." Then you should go work for one of those old agencies that are quickly becoming dinosaur.

I love a project-based business. I love singing for our supper, and for my supper, every day. It just makes you work. The interesting thing though is that some of the people who have gone, who have been pulled back into other agencies, who have now come back here, the amount of the work, the intensity, the focus, just the sheer intense creativity being in a project-based business, they go back to these agencies with these plotting AORA moments. Nothing gets done. They don't have to get anything done because they're billing their hours, but they're not making anything. "We bill a lot of hours, we didn't make anything."

Here, we ship. If you don't ship, you don't get paid. If we don't make the thing that's incredible, they're out the door. The other thing too is we've grown because of our existing businesses. We do a really good project, we service the crap out of them, they love it, they'll hire us again. So we take nothing for granted. Ever. Ever. And that's a whole way of running a business, which means everyone is honored here and our customers ... The AORA model, from my experience, puts the hierarchy of needs this way. Client, work, people. And that is fucked up. Really screwed up. My hierarchy of needs are my people, the work, the clients, because here's what I know.

You get great people, they will always make great work. If you always have amazing work, clients will always find you.

Charles:

That's right. That’s right. How do you lead?

Brian Collins:

Pardon me?

Charles:

How do you lead?

Brian Collins:

Badly.

Charles:

Because ... ? In what way, I should say?

Brian Collins:

There are some days that I'm really paying attention to those kerning pairs, between an E and a W, right? Because I can spot that from fifty miles in the dark with bugs on the windshield. That's my superpower because I learned how to draw Helvetica and Garamond by hand, for a year, with a typography genius named Marjorie Kath at the Parsons School of Design, she was an evil, fascist dictator that taught us how to draw typography. I did that for a year. And when you have that, it widens your neural net. It's physiological. And so I can't help but see typography.

And then I go from that kind of minutia to trying to figure out what's the future of our industry going to be, and how do we work with our clients to determine what kind of culture, what kind of civilization we are building. So then I'm on MSNBC, or I'm at the Aspen News Festival talking about this. Or I got invited to Davos, without dropping too many names. I might get out over my skis and become self-important, inflated and have to watch that too, because I like being invited into those conversations where design is at a different kind of a table. At the Aspen Ideas Conference Room, business conferences are places where design - those conversations don’t usually happen.

So that's my problem, is I swing between "Let's change the world," and "You should be at PMS 172 or PMS 173." So that's not a good way to be a leader. Leadership should somehow be balancing, should be between order and chaos. And I swing between the chaotic and making sure line length, leading on the piece of typography is perfect.

Charles:

What are you afraid of?

Brian Collins:

That's a good question. Time. You reach a point where you realize that you've less time ahead of you than you have behind you, so you become super-focused. We can do anything we want. I could buy another house, I could add more people, I could add more books, God forbid. I could buy more outfits, I could open more offices. The only thing I can't get more of is time. So time is very precious to me. And meaningful work, and meaningful conversations that can change me and change the people I'm working with or change the clients we're working with, is enormously important to me. So I'm very aware of time.

In a transitive way, our observation of time, everything we do, everything that we create for people has got to be our best because we engage them in time. A film we make, a design program we create, a store we design. They don't get that time back. It ain't coming back, it's gone, thank you very much, that was yesterday. So everything we do is kind of a moral transaction. Have you given it your best? Does the thing that you're asking people to spend time with embody your best? Does it embody your highest values? Have you given it your best qualities, have you given it your best craftsmanship? Is that the best you can give? Because when people look at it, and they spend time with it, they ain't getting that time back. So ultimately, that's a moral transaction. Have you done your best?

I can tell you, the people here always say, "I am doing my best. I will give it my best." And that's what we do. And I think something we do, sometimes because of implementations or constraints or time or whatever, it's never the best, but we always aim. B+ work is never C+ work amplified, B+ work is always A+ work diminished. Oscar Wilde said it best. He said, "All of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." 

Charles:

Yes, indeed.

Brian Collins:

So we aim high, always.

Charles:

So I wrap every episode with three themes -

Brian Collins:

I don't know if that was the answer you were quite-

Charles:

It was an excellent answer to my question.

So here are three themes, three takeaways that I've heard today that I think contribute to your success. One is, you clearly have a strong point of view and you are always willing to explore that, support that, you believe in that. But I think that the second observation is attached to the first, which is, you are extremely open to and support of and, I think in many ways, grateful for, the involvement, the opinion, the advice, the expertise of others. You've mentioned a lot of different people over the course of the last hour who have influenced you and have been important to you. I think putting those two things together, so you're opinionated but not stubborn and you believe very much in the value that other people can bring to the process that you are participating in, or that you are invested in and interested in.

Brian Collins:

Yeah, because I don't know what they'll come up with. I have no idea.

Charles:

And I think that open-mindedness is really powerful because it doesn't show up for every leader, I don't think. And then I think the third area that I find very interesting is what you described earlier about your relationship with fear. You're interested in getting to the simple side of complexity and that you are willing to embrace the fear that goes with that most of the time because whether you are dealing with your own fear, or whether you are exposing somebody else's fear, you have to find a way to move past that to get to the place where the real answer lies. You have to get to the bottom of the lake.

Brian Collins:

You have to find what's at the bottom of the lake. And sometimes it's the bottom of the lake, and sometimes you, staring right back like, "Oh, you again." Yeah, you've got to be able to deal with that, without becoming bad or trite, those are really true things. And if you're not comfortable with fear, like real, scared, gripping, white-knuckled, three o'clock in the morning, what the fuck have I done fear, you can not open up your own business. Because that's where you live, probably a third of the time. And if you can turn that into energy, then you're okay. If you can't, then it becomes a problem. I'm not perfect at it, but it's that weird combination of oxygen and nitrogen that I think every entrepreneur has learned to breathe.

Charles:

Perfectly put. Brian, thanks for joining me today.

Brian Collins:

Thank you. It was a really good conversation.

Charles:

It really was. Thank you.