COLLINS creates strategies, builds brands and launches campaigns for some of the most recognized brands of our time. You've likely seen their work for Coca-Cola, Airbnb, Spotify, Ogilvy and recently, Mailchimp.
What I love about the studio is that, despite its prestige and Brian Collins' personal legacy in the industry, COLLINS still feels "small" and accessible – even to young designers just entering the field. And that seems to be intentional. In this interview, Brian Collins and Karin Soukup talk about encouraging and enabling designers to do great work, what they look for in a new hire and how we might get a job working on their design team.
Hey Brian and Karin, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. Let's get right to it: Looking at your current creative team, how many of them came through internal referrals or headhunting, and how many came through the traditional application process?
Brian: None of our current employees were identified through headhunters. About 15% came through our traditional application process. The majority of the talent at COLLINS is sourced by creative leadership and our director of talent, Yocasta Lachapelle. Many are former graduate students from the class I teach at the School of Visual Arts MFA program.
COLLINS' brand reimagination and redesign for Mailchimp
Say we decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us? Or should we just fill out the job form?
Brian: No tricks. No gimmicks are necessary – unless you love tricks and gimmicks and are really good at them. Send us whatever is right for explaining what you think you might add, what new, unique value you might bring here.
Look, design is not about what we do. Design, for us, is about what we encourage and enable others to do. For us, it’s about building tools, environments and communications that help other people make meaningful things possible. Design should enable people to do whatever they need or want to do with their time. Time itself is the most valuable asset anyone has. Money, objects – you can get all of that back. Time is irreplaceable. So, we work to fill and inform the time people give us with clarity, understanding, support or joy.
The way I see it, it’s a moral transaction. Did that client get your very best in that transaction? Did their customers get the finest you can do? Did you give them the best you had? Or did you fizzle out, or give up when it got difficult?
We go all in. Everyone here goes all in. We’re kind of...relentless.
On the other hand, we also just like playing around with words, building models, filming, coding, drawing or making images and stuff move around on the screen until we land on something we love and go – STOP, STOP! THAT’S IT!
Not to get too precious about it.
Spotify brand redesign and identity system
How important is a complete portfolio? Can I get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Collins?
Karin: Even if you’re young and have a limited portfolio, the work within it should demonstrate great care and attention to detail in everything you do. This is table-stakes.
Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?
Karin: We don’t want work that simply copies everything else. Our clients come to us to help them meaningfully resonate and differentiate. That means that we need to be on the bleeding edge of what is relevant, inspiring and thought-provoking. So we look for designers who are experimenting with form, tools, aesthetic sensibilities, frameworks, ideas, new ways of collaborating – and who are always asking “why” with a lens of optimism.
vitaminwater brand redesign and interaction system design by COLLINS
I heard that when someone sends their portfolio to Brian, he sends book recommendations in response. Besides being well-read, do you like the idea of designers being invested in other interests? For example being active bloggers or otherwise outspoken in their community?
Karin: COLLINS prides itself in solving unique brand challenges with appropriately unique answers. We don't want to be known for having a “style.” To keep ourselves fresh, we are constantly looking to history and the emerging fringes of culture to inspire what’s possible – and making sure that we can translate these ideas into stories that bring breadth and dimensionality and relevance to a brand. This includes hiring folks with a variety of interests that influence their work (and our work) in unique ways.
Part of COLLINS' exhibition design and advertising campaign for the 'Inflatables' exhibit at San Francisco's Exploratorium museum
Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?
Round 1: Informationalmeeting with the director of talent
Round 2: Meeting with creative directors
Round 3: Meeting with designers and strategy lead
Final Round: Meet with me. But if they’ve made it that far, it’s pretty much done. I trust my colleagues.
"We expect everyone to have a second secret 'superpower,' so to speak. Hybrids."
What are the secondary skills you look for in a designer, besides common soft skills? For example, do you prefer coding skills over photography skills? Writing skills over coding?
Brian: We don’t look for particular secondary skills, but we expect everyone to have a second secret “superpower,” so to speak. Hybrids. We love to hire great people who are also remarkable at something else—it could be coding or writing, but it could just as easily be cooking, science fiction, scuba diving, biking, singing, painting, Taekwondo...anything. I believe those collisions expand us.
We also search for an ineffable quality. People who have or seek a greater sense of purpose and understanding of how design can help them achieve something bigger than themselves. I’ve always liked this thought from Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
I think everyone here has that.
The Dropbox brand redesign and marketing campaign, which I've personally seen around NYC
Would you hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?
Brian: No. We look for people who make a new cultural contribution, not a “cultural fit.” What a pernicious, horrible question – “do you fit?”
It’s not about finding people who are exactly like us or share a certain narrow personality trait. It's more about finding those rare people who are great at what they do, who will contribute something brand new, something different to the creative spirit of our company. And that we’ll be able to accommodate their unique way of doing it. By that I mean we support introverts, ambiverts and extroverts, anyone to be themselves. We get stronger by adding difference.
E pluribus unum. Or as Mr. Spock would say “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.”
I’m insane for Star Trek. Sorry.
Architecture/interior design and exhibit for the Jim Henson Exhibition at Museum of the Moving Image in New York City
Collins has been described as “the dream agency for young designers.” What qualities do you look for in a young designer? How can we best prove our potential?
Karin: I’ve outlined a number of the characteristics that we look for in prospective employees, but if I boiled those items down it would include:
Imagination & experimentation
Confidence, balanced with doubt
Doubt is helpful to make sure the work is meaningful and thoughtful, by questioning its intentions and considering all possibilities. It signals an open-mindedness and recognizes that there is always room to grow. Yet confidence is a valuable and necessary tool for taking creative leaps of imagination and trusting the process of design. It goes a long way, too, in helping clients to trust us, take risks together and establish momentum along the way.
"The smart, ambitious ones read. And ask for more. We hire from the readers."
The COLLINS’ offices in San Francisco at South of Market
What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Collins? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you?
Brian: That they assume we’re only interested in the work they’ve made or their resume. That’s part of it, for sure. But we want to know what they’re reading, the ideas they’re excited about. As you noted, I’ll always recommend books to young designers who want to work here. The few who actually read them come back and we talk about the concepts in that book rather than their resume alone. That's far more insightful and useful to us when it comes to making a hire. 90% of the people I ask to read never follow through. They vanish. So it separates the players from the talkers, fast.
The smart, ambitious ones read. And ask for more. We hire from the readers. They’re curious and self-propelled. And they never act “big.”
We need confidence. But don’t “act big” here at COLLINS.
The library at COLLINS’ office in New York’s Greenwich Village
How do you think Collins is different when hiring new talent compared to other companies?
Karin: We’re an independent company that works for ambitious clients to help them make big changes. Each person on our team has skin in the game – there’s no room for mediocrity or “dialing in” the work. So we look for passionate folks who thrive on seeing their visions made manifest. People who work hard to develop both their voice as well as their ability to get buy-in for the work. Dedication, resilience, enthusiasm and hard work are all necessary for this. Brand systems design and communications, especially, often means working with complex organizational teams. It requires us to guide clients through foundational decisions that can often be both initially challenging, but ultimately uniquely rewarding.
Brian and Karin, thanks so much for your time and thoughts! We're honored to have you in the series and appreciate all the honest insights into getting a job at COLLINS.
For those interested in working with Brian, Karin and the talented COLLINS team, here are the tips to remember:
Nr. 1 - Show your versatility.
Brian and Karin both mentioned this. They want the hybrids. The people with multiple interests and skills, with a secret "superpower" that adds to their team. Show your diversity in your portfolio — and be sure to tell a cohesive story when doing so. You want to present yourself as confident and multi-dimensional, not scattered and confused in your career.
Nr. 2 - If Brian recommends a book, read it.
I love that Brian does this with people who apply at COLLINS. Whether you read the book he recommends or not shows everything about your drive and enthusiasm, your follow-through and the way you think. Plus, it's a lot more fun than the standard application process. Take advantage of it!
Nr. 3 - "Go all in."
Be confident (but humble), give it your very best and show your passion for the work they do. COLLINS simply wants to work with talented people who love what they do and will give it their all.
P.S. I also interviewed Brian Collins personally on the NTMY Show podcast a while back. We talked about confusing mastery with fame, making the most of small opportunities and finding perspective as a designer. Check it out for even more helpful career advice and insights.