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There are many reasons a thousand people from just about everywhere in the world came to New York for this year’s 99U Conference, and Brian Collins was one of them. Over two days, I met designers, mostly UX designers, from Finland, Guatemala, the Philippines, Canada, the U.K., France, and all over the USA. They were there to be inspired by today’s most important influencers.

Some said they wanted a peek into design’s future. And others chose to spend their conference budget on a big design event that wasn’t a portfolio show-and-tell. Many expected Brian Collins’s master class, “Designing Tomorrow, Better,” to be a highlight of their 99U experience. They were not disappointed.

Brian Collins spoke at Adobe's 99U conference.

“We’re going to talk about tomorrow.”

That’s what Brian said as he opened his presentation. He then proceeded to show slides of decades-old innovations, his biggest influencers. This was a boy who grew up fascinated by Sputnik and the space race and lunar modules. And by the Modernist revolution that replaced curlicues and carvings with colorful functional simplicity.

“Designers create the future,” he said, showing us images of the icons of Modernism he discovered as a teenager near his suburban Massachusetts home: the offices and Bauhaus-influenced work of The Architect’s Collaborative, co-founded by Walter Gropius; the original Design Research store on Harvard Square with its Marimekko fabrics; George Nelson’s Coconut Lounge Chair.

In 2008, when Brian was at the peak of a stellar career at Ogilvy and Mather—where he founded and ran B.I.G., Ogilvy’s Brand Integration Group—he started his own firm, COLLINS. After 11 award-winning years, people are still asking, it a brand agency, a design firm or an ad agency? Or all of the above?

“We work with clients to build their futures, fast, ” is the way Brian characterizes it. “We run a creatively obsessed company. We are driven to make a difference for our clients and help them reshape the future.” Or, as one 99U Conference attendee put it: “Everything they touch turns to gold.” Ad Age agrees, having named COLLINS its 2019 Design Agency of the Year.

Eos: In this package, you know it’s different.

A prime example of COLLINS’ transformative work—and its links to design’s past, present and future—is the packaging for eos lip balm. Sure, eos could have put their product in a tube like all the other brands. But when you call on COLLINS, you don’t get what everybody else does. You get… Sputnik!

“Sputnik changed everything,” Brian said. “Science fiction became real. A new future was now visible. Space was redefined as The New Frontier. And one important role of designers is to signal and mentor the arrival of new futures.”

“So, if eos lip balm came in a tube, they’d have to TELL people that it’s different,” he explained, “that it’s all-natural and more hydrating and comes in an array of flavors. This packaging SHOWS them. You see it and know instantly that it’s different.”

This was a portfolio-show-and-tell, but not like one anyone had ever seen or heard before.

Brian Collins spoke at Adobe's 99U conference.
Brian Collins spoke at Adobe's 99U conference.

Spotify: What music looks like.

Spotify came to COLLINS seeing itself as a technology company that streamed music. “Music fans don’t want tech, they want music!” Brian Collins asserted. COLLINS worked with Spotify’s in-house team to help spin everything around, so that now it’s a music company that uses technology to create music moments. The design direction was influenced by vintage LPs and psychedelic posters. THIS IS WHAT MUSIC LOOKS LIKE!” Brian practically shouted, flashing a slide filled with images like this:

Then he showed us a bunch of Spotify’s former ads, perfectly decent, all black and lime green. “Not like this! They took the matching-luggage approach to design. Everything looked the same. Boring! Music is a natural pharmaceutical. So, like music itself, the brand should always make me feel something different.”

Enter color. And fun. “Any future worth raising should seem to be ridiculous at the present moment,” he said. Hmm. I interpreted that to mean that a client might not like, or understand, your presentation, at first. But members of the target audience will. So in order for your concept to prevail, many attendees began to realize, you’ve got to be as focused and confident as Brian Collins.

Vitamin Water, newly refreshed.

Vitamin Water had been a brand that, according to Brian, had lost its way a bit, had lost much of its charm and appeal. Working with the clients at parent company Coca-Cola, COLLINS brought back the vibrancy of the original brand, the rainbow of flavors that made it attractive and relevant in the first place.

Brian Collins spoke at Adobe's 99U conference.
Brian Collins spoke at Adobe's 99U conference.

The talk closed with a lovingly delivered barrage of career advice
, including:

• Be the best you can possibly be.

• Make it great. Always.

• If you only hang out with other designers you’ll never have a career. Keep expanding your world.

• Make friends with people unlike yourself.

• Never burn bridges or lose touch with former clients and contacts. It’s just good manners. (And last decade’s administrative assistant might become this year’s VP of product.)

• Make your clients look like they walk on water.

• No, make everyone who calls on you look like a god.

Afterwards, Brian and I sat down to chat over coffee. More advice for young designers followed:

• Start something new.

• Find a frontier.

• Create your own narrative (or you’ll follow someone else’s).

• You’ve got to start out in one of the great cities: New York, San Francisco, London, Paris…

• Work for the very best people who will hire you.

• Go where the great work is. The universe will not come to you

• Work in a team, so you can bring out the best in each other.

• And then you will bring out the best in your clients, and the best in each customer who uses their products.

The work you see here was not done by one person.

It’s a sampling of the work of 50 people in two offices, New York and San Francisco. Insanely talented people who love to make stuff, and to make stuff happen. They are COLLINS.

Brian Collins spoke at Adobe's 99U conference.