Interview: Rehearsing Tomorrow

Three questions. That was it, they promised. Three.

Three questions. That was it, they promised. Three.

When the good people from Future London Academy reached out to me on a cold day over the winter, I was far, far away from our offices. I was deep inside my family’s bustling house on the windy, snowy, chilly Atlantic coast on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

The writer wanted a story about our approach to work. Now, my interviews are a sad, messy tangle of unfinished sentences, abandoned thoughts, fantastical non-sequiturs and random bouts of explosive enthusiasm tripping over what should probably be seasoned, professionalized calm.

But I don’t know how to do that.

So, to make it easy, they reduced the number of questions. I got three.

And I, for once, with a moment of quiet to think, I poured myself a tea, settled down at a desk in a small, pitched-roof, upstairs bedroom looking out over the ocean and answered.

Here’s what I said.

What do you think makes creative founders different/unique compared to any other founders?


In my experience, every founder – whether they’ve started a global SaaS business, a brewery company or a tiny shop in the West Village that only serves chocolate ice cream – they all share the same ambition; they see a world they can make better. They want a future that is different from what’s been painted for them. And, they choose to fight for that vision, instead of settling for anyone else’s easy, status quo.

Any meaningful difference for creative founders is in execution. Creative people are at their best when they’re blowing things up, tearing things apart, poking, examining, questioning and reconstructing. In short – finding new patterns in the chaos. And usually ones other people don’t see.

But when you need to summon the kind of ruthless discipline required to execute consistently against a vision, reconciling that with creativity’s inclinations toward randomness and surprise, well, that can become…tricky.

That said, creative people – and designers in particular – make up for this problem because they all hold this ace: They have the unique ability to visualize many possible futures before they arrive. They have the skills and tools to model and share those futures – and their benefits – with everyone else.

Designers can rehearse tomorrow. They look over the mountain and point to a world where we all might go, if we join their cause. That’s why AI is so inspiring to me. A new future is being made right now, by designers, by us, everyday.

And when it all works? Watch out. Instagram, Airbnb, Mailchimp – all founded and led by designers. Each one of them pointed to a new future, pulled it forward into the present and delivered all kinds of new value for people, way ahead of schedule.

Can you name one thing you wish you knew before starting the company?

No. And with good reason.

When my co-founder Leland Maschmeyer and I started COLLINS, we had nothing but four desks, two laptops and an idea:

Design is not what we make.

Design is what we make possible.

We wanted to build a company that would place an equal focus on business, organizational and brand transformation – with real, measurable outcomes – as well as on our creative work, the craft itself. Internally, Leland called it “incredible craft at incredible scale.”

We also wanted to build the kind of community that didn’t exist when we both started out. One that would not hire people based on some grotesque “cultural fit” – the “right” college or the “right” employment history. That’s a pernicious idea. Instead, our community would be based on cultural “contribution” – on how everyone could be different from each other. That creates a richer, stronger, far more interesting tapestry.

At the beginning, knowing nothing is daunting. But knowing everything is paralyzing. We understood that just making a start was the best thing we could do – because we knew we just needed to try stuff, accumulate mistakes, and a lot of them, fast.

So we found ourselves constantly on our toes and (sometimes) on our asses. As we navigated those first few years, we found that the moments directly after any one of us blundered, moments that might be used for blame or finger pointing, we learned to try to use, instead, for understanding. I am not perfect at this, but in that pause after a botched meeting or a dumbass oversight, we learned to sit, listen, think and find the lesson that would point us in the right direction.

Success is great, but can be calcifying. It can teach you to perpetuate the same thing. Mistakes, however, forced us to re-examine and learn. The compounded knowledge and whatever momentum we’ve gained as a result has delighted us and our clients.

The sanctuary space at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in the Hudson River Valley.

In 2008, at the start of COLLINS, we went on a retreat with Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön in bucolic, upstate New York. That is where Leland, myself and our small team heard her words:

To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.

To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.

To live is to be willing to die over and over again.

So, learn to cherish your mistakes and honor where you tripped up. Pause when you look back at them. That’s where you learn some serious stuff, even though you felt like shit.

I don’t know of one good leader who has not gone through a brutal, brutal realization that they were not the leader they once thought. It’s only at that point of transfiguration that you can become a real leader and learn how to put others before you.

I would argue that you cannot really be a leader until you have learned to give away credit for success to your team and clients and accept all failure as your own responsibility. Always.

Until you learn how to do that, you’re posing.

Why do you think your company kept growing and became such a phenomenal success?

First, COLLINS is no “phenomenal success.” I am so happy you think that. I would never, even for a moment, assume that. In fact, we don’t assume anything. We’re all just heads down with everyone, working.

Look, many think a real prize in design is some giant award you win, an “indelible mark” you place on an industry or on a company. Those are good achievements, for sure. But they are achievements of finality. Things you can put on resumes and shelves of awards to point up to, dust and polish. Again, all good.

We’ve been Ad Age’s Agency of the Year in Transformation or Design & Branding five times in the last six years. And we became D&D’s Design Agency of the Year, too. That is all astounding to us. Bonkers. We are beyond honored.

But the reality is nothing is ever final. Things are always in the process of coming together, changing, always evolving. And that’s how we view ourselves. Always evolving.

We try to never take anything for granted here – our clients, our colleagues and our commitment to each other. We take pride in everything we touch. Whatever project we are lucky to have in front of us – large or small – we treat each one as if it is the most important thing we’ll ever do.

So, lately, we have taken our time on a few really important, large projects and clients we have. We’ve spent much of the last 12 months rethinking what the future of design, brand and business transformation might be. And our role within that. As a result, we chose not to pump out case study after case study at the rate we had the years before.

But now that work is ready to be launched. We did a small clip of some for Ad Age.

It includes our work with our friends and clients at Disney, Bose, YouTube, Guild and others.

We have a rule here: Act with confidence, but never act big. The minute you believe in any accolade or your own press, the Muses will leave you. And then you’re done. They dislike arrogance.

The way we see it, whatever recognition we received last year, last week or last night only gives us permission to turn the key in our front doors tomorrow morning in San Francisco and New York City and start it all over again.

That way our best work, I hope, is always yet to come.

Previous Story
Futures: Resilient Futures
Next Story
Why we started Ideas
Case Story