Brian Collins on rocket ships, Helvetica, and Grace Jones

Brian Collins on rocket ships, Helvetica, and Grace Jones

This guest post on brand trends 2024 was written by Brian Collins, co-founder of the renowned firm COLLINS.

Editor's Voice: COLLINS is a transformation consultancy with offices in San Francisco and New York City. The firm helps businesses at critical inflection points define, design, and build their futures.

Every day, the teams there cast out wide nets for the stories, shifts, patterns, and ideas that might inform the work they do. At the end of last year, the entire COLLINS team gathered in New York City for their 2023 review. The agenda? Reconnecting face-to-face, sharing coffee and stories, debriefing the year, and planning the next. And, for one afternoon, breaking down and pulling apart the meaning of trends they had been seeing in design, branding, and beyond.

Brian Collins, co-founder of the firm, is a designer, educator, and Paradigms speaker (twice!) who knows the industry inside and out — and he's not afraid to call it like he sees it. So, when we asked Brian if his team had one key thought to share about the state of trends, he said, “We don’t have one. We have buckets.”

What follows is a selected portion of the discussion he retraced for us.


At COLLINS, we have one simple, guiding definition of brand. A brand is a promise performed consistently over time. It is your behavior, measured every day against the beliefs you stand for.

But brand trends are another thing entirely. Trends are just that — fleeting fashion. Most fade with time. Worse, they can harm or distract an organization from performing their promise well. Sure, a few trends might be leveraged to help in the short run. But, in an oversaturated media world, most won’t.

Ken Garland wrote the First Things First manifesto sixty years ago, this year. He believed we had “reached a saturation point at which the high-pitched scream of consumer selling is no more than sheer noise.” Since 1964, with the explosion of the web, smartphones and social media, the screaming now permeates everything. So, when you ask what brand trends we see leaving their mark on the year ahead,it instantly sparked our thinking, not only because we work in business transformation, but because we all live in a world that is now filled with endless, grinding, pointless branded noise.

For over 15 years, COLLINS has been laser-focused on trying to push back or disrupt every one of those trends that add to the endless numbing. So, we work to identify and anticipate emerging trends. And when we spot them, we attempt one of two things:

  1. Twist them to our clients’ advantage.
  2. Kill them off by moving in an entirely new, more meaningful direction.

The Blanding

Remember 2017? The peak of dull, lookalike Silicon Valley brands? That trend became known as The Blanding.

At the very height of that vectorized “me-too!” plague, we got a call from the good people at Mailchimp. They had an undeniably weird, homegrown Atlanta energy. So they stood apart. They had become an insanely successful, but lovable tech misfit.

When Mailchimp invited us to work with them on transforming their brand to better reflect their growing range of services they offered to small businesses, we looked at the dreary brand landscape that surrounded them. We knew the answer was not helping them find some reductive, dumbed-down, grown-up approximation of their Silicon Valley tech counterparts. Instead, we leaned hard into the weirdness at the very center of their culture: monkeys, bananas, doodles and, well, lots of imagination. Our inspiration? Not more vector art.

Instead, weird, off-the-cuff, Dada-esque, brushy, spontaneous ink doodles from our designers’ own sketchbooks. Or, as we say here: Mess is more.

We later wrote in a Mailchimp poster: “Growing up does not mean buttoning up.” As it turns out, not buttoning up served them well — to the tune of a $12 billion acquisition by Intuit.

Anti-Blanding wins.

But then, The Blanding strikes back. What had infected Silicon Valley suddenly leaped into luxury apparel. Burberry followed Saint Laurent who then infected Balmain, Celine, and Diane Von Furstenberg. Overnight they dumped decades of hard-won, distinguished design equities for… Helvetica and its wannabe variations.

Look, I understand the appeal of a great typeface like Helvetica. When it was introduced in 1957, it was embraced for its freshness and its clean, readable structure. With the elimination of every terminal stroke, there were no more frills to cut away. But 70 years later, brands that had once embodied the nose-bleeding heights of elegance and desire had slipped into the swampy visual purgatory of “25% off” sale signs and discount gasoline pumps.

When everyone in a category uses it, Helvetica is no longer an ironic, clever joke. Worse, its ubiquity leads to invisibility.

Happily, Burberry woke up under their new creative leader, Daniel Lee, and returned to their legendary knight icon. And they did so with éclat.

Others will follow. There is hope.

Rocket ships

2019.Robinhood was on a mission to reimagine and democratize investing. The company was designed to be the antithesis of intimidating, arthritic financial institutions. To counter decades of the industry’s stick-to-the-script-playbook with photographs of white-haired retirees on sailboats and golf courses, Robinhood first emerged with an identity based on a mix of Blackjack, arcades, and Vegas.

“Everything that can be gamified will be gamified!” Remember that one? It wasn’t working as well as they had hoped.

What Robinhood’s first ad agency had not realized was that in ditching all of the traditional financial industry’s visual cues — and leading with a “finance, gamified” stunt stuffed with flashing neon, aces, jokers, queens, and tumbling dice — they had traded one world’s dusty visual tropes for another’s: gambling.

The financial industry’s approach to brand was (and largely still is) unimaginative, chilly, and inaccessible. But it had dialed in one crucial element for people: trust. A hundred years of stuffiness had ingrained what a reputable and safe financial institution looked like. Robinhood had (smartly) jumped tracks. But (unfortunately) to arcades and casinos — places you go to lose money, not build wealth.

So, we helped Robinhood leave both sets of industry tropes behind to build their own vision of the future. And that future would be 2087. A place where opportunity and access would be more evenly distributed. A hopeful future that younger audiences could see themselves in.

Robinhood moved in with a mix of verve, a clear voice, and a strong world-building strategy we developed with their team. We also helped design a deep, easy-to-grasp, future-facing glossary so people could better understand the opaque and intimidating finance jargon. Here, a rocket ship entertainingly explains the complexities of fractional shares. Hell, even I understood it.

Fortunately, the founders and in-house creative leaders at Robinhood have the fortitude and talent to deliver this well and coherently. Which is why it works.

Healthier, please.

2023.AI has already guaranteed that the glut of “content” and distractions we all receive in a relentless barrage will only accelerate. And, since the 2016 US election, we’ve seen an unprecedented global drop-off in trust and good-faith discourse.

OpenWeb sees the growing toxicity crisis online — and recognizes that social platforms meant to bring us together have only pushed us apart.

The online community brand entered the scene with two missions: to aggregate real news sources and to create trustworthy online spaces that help people engage with their media (and one another) in healthier, more productive ways.

We worked with OpenWeb to give their mission a new brand, a new identity, and a much stronger voice. Following the launch of a trend-bucking brand repositioning, OpenWeb has only grown and accelerated — driven and committed to delivering smart systems that unlock the real power of community. Importantly, this includes users and growing lists of content publishers and brands who see a better future here, too.

Along the way, The New York Times became so impressed by the new future OpenWeb was building, they became an investor.

A definition of sorts

In all of our work with our clients, including Disney, Equinox, The Institute of Design, Nike, Spotify, Target, and The Girls Scouts, we work hard to build enduring brands and operating systems that not only aim to be immediately unique and relevant, but can intelligently evolve over time to remain that way.

Fast Company did a good story on how we did just that with our talented friends at Spotify, starting almost a decade ago.

So, if we opened up with our guiding view of brand, I should probably close with a helpful view of trends. But first, a story.

As an art student, I lived in Union Square. I became friends with fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez, who lived on the top floor of my building. He and his creative partner, Juan Ramos, would host small parties in their massive loft before heading out into the night at Studio 54 or Paradise Garage. One evening, the legendary singer Grace Jones showed up. She had been a model for Antonio in Paris before she became a famous singer. Somehow, she appeared to be much taller and far more fierce in person than in any of her videos.

She later said something that I would never forget: “There will always be a replacement coming along very soon. A newer version. A crazier version. A louder version. So if you haven’t got a long-term plan, then you’re merely a passing phase, the latest trend. Yesterday’s event.”

This former James Bond villain just headlined the great Blue Note Jazz Festival in New York last summer. That’s a 40-year run of never getting lost in the noise.

So, our view? Never, ever, ever follow the trend. Become the trend. Let others follow.

Just ask Grace.

To get more insights and inspiration, follow Brian Collins on LinkedIn. Explore the work of COLLINS to find out what it means to “Make your future so irresistible that it becomes inevitable.” And to combine insights with creativity, follow Paradigms and sign up for the newsletter to be the first to know about the dates and location for the 2024 edition.