Exclusive FUSE Interview: Barry C. Collin, CEO, Collin Group, Inc.

Inspiration is really important to us at FUSE. That is why we sat down with one of our amazing speakers, Barry Collin, CEO of Collin Group, Inc., to hear what inspires him. He also shared with us his favorite design, what he thinks is biggest design trend of 2015, and his take on how design and brand strategy has evolved over the years, and what’s in store for the future.  

This year, FUSE connects brand and design leaders to what matters – and each other. In the age of unprecedented collaboration, it is more important than ever for brand strategists and designers to work hand in hand to bring brands to life strategically, visually, emotionally and culturally. FUSE is the only event that unites all the players across industries, disciplines and the world. 

IIR: What is your muse?

Barry: Like many designers, nature is often my muse. As an industrial designer, physiology particularly fascinates and inspires me.  Virtually nothing in nature lacks a practical purpose. Look throughout the animal kingdom. Even extraordinarily beautiful ornamentation (colors, stripes, plumes and even noise-makers) that seem only there to please the senses, actually function to motivate or prevent critical actions or behaviors. Very little is pointless.

Physiology is remarkably efficient; virtually everything that consumes energy has a purpose and uses the minimum required to operate. Everything is optimized as possible. At micro or macro scales, living things provide inspiration for strength, aesthetics, form, function, structure, conservation, mechanics, utility, reliability, and constant refinement.  Inspiration is there -- inside and around us. You just need to look.

IIR:  What is the best design you've seen this year? Why?

Barry: The past year has seen some amazing designs from both expected and unexpected sources. But I'm going to reach higher here -- literally. The best design -- though certainly a work in progress -- I've seen in the past year is SpaceX's Falcon 9 -- a rocket that can bring a payload into space with the goal of re-usable boosters and other components that normally are dropped and discarded into the ocean.

The design is an amazing mix of balanced simplicity and complexity. The effort put into reducing the eco2 (economic and ecological) impact of something that otherwise isn't really environmentally friendly is truly admirable.  There's much for them yet to do, but experimentation and failure is the way towards success. And sometimes design is, well, rocket science!

IIR: Why is it important for brand strategists and designers to work collectively?

Barry: Too often people view that partnership incorrectly as an art vs. commerce battle. 
 Collaboration between brand strategists and designers is absolutely required. Our joint mission is solely focused on best serving customers. Solving their problems, enabling them to accomplish things, making life better in specific and often diffuse ways. Differentiating your company, brand and products from every competing influence requires synchronization, understanding, mutual respect, and a balance of confined chaos and structure. That's why I love the FUSE conferences. They're a rare opportunity for us all to get together to learn, innovate and connect.

IIR: What do you think is the biggest design trend of 2015?

Barry: There used to be "real world," physical design, and then there was software/UX design. With the rapid takeoff of the Internet of Things and the Industrial Internet, more products this year will require both physical and digital design.  Some physical things will have smarts built-in, and others will be tied to smartphone or other mobile experiences. And some bleeding edge tech -- like the new virtual reality gear from Oculus and Microsoft -- will get beyond toys and games and begin providing real value. The best design shops and departments will develop both design capabilities, regardless of what types of products they currently make. Or at least, find the design partners who can help them integrate the physical and digital worlds.

IIR: What are ways a design can emotionally connect with its audience?

Barry: Design should make everything personal -- no matter how utilitarian the product or project is.
My research and work is on personal processes. Every activity we engage in -- commuting, changing diapers, eating at a restaurant, consuming entertainment, are all personal processes.  All such processes are or can be emotionally connecting experiences. Sometimes adding to the emotional connection directly is the key. Other times it's simply getting out of the way in the best manner to facilitate the process and let the emotions arise naturally.

Clear examples of adding to the emotional connection range from a restaurant or other venue that customers attach a particular set of memories to. Or a product such as a wedding ring, crib, a special gift, or even premium chocolate or champagne.  Sometimes it's just listening to "our song" while sharing earbuds. Emotional connections cover pleasure, pride, memories, desire and the whole gamut of human feelings. I've found that supporting emotions, not manipulating them, is the long-term answer to success. And, design and brand can both facilitate that.

IIR: How has design changed in the last 5 years?

Barry: Design has traditionally been tied to sales, marketing, advertising (including packaging), and product functionality. Over the past five years, beauty as an intrinsic component of an offering -- no matter how basic or utilitarian the product is -- has become more prevalent. Not cute or novel, but truly blending with functionality, both high and low end, consumer and industrial.

As an example, even hospital equipment has become, in many ways, beautiful. The "industrial aesthetic" is alive and growing in perceived value (in this case, recovery is shown to improve when you don't feel like you're in a harsh lab environment).  Over the past five years, at home and at work, design is increasingly seen as a quantifiable, competitive advantage. In essence, beautiful design is more important than ever. Not putting in design effort can leave your product seeming at best bland, and at worst undesirable.

IIR: Knowing how consumers will react can be an art and sometimes involves clairvoyance. How have you developed this skill?

Barry: Across all business functions we're moving further away from "gut instinct" and towards research. We're integrating both design thinking exploration with big data analysis, and it works. Leveraging data science, I find patterns in behavior, acceptance, usage, aspiration and interest that help me make better decisions in design. As a designer it can take some real effort and getting used to "numerical empathy."

I don't find the melding of traditional with data limiting. Instead I find it liberating to get some insight into customers that you can't get through personal observation. You can create hypotheses, test them against the data, and experiment with models -- even before you prototype. I'd rather work with lots of data models before I even fire up a 3D printer to make a physical model. Remember, ask questions about interpreting the data, and consider it potentially powerful insight, not specific directives.  The bottom line is, the more we can reduce the requirement for clairvoyance, the better chances we have of quickly creating the right recipe for success.

IIR: Gamification is shaping our interactions with everyday experiences, from education to retail. How has gamification affected you?

Barry: In those instances when I do something that makes my wife especially happy, I always joke, "do I get extra points for that?" While I'm (sort of) joking here, gamification can incentivize almost anything. I use gamification to drive innovation and creativity with my teams and to engage current and potential customers. When there's a million things people would rather do than yet another to-do, gamification -- if done right -- can pull focus onto what needs to be done. Gamification takes understanding your customers; how they process and use what you offer.  In a noisy world where everything competes for time and attention, gamification can motivate people to engage and participate. Consider it motivation, not gaming the system.

IIR: Brands want their products to be special -- to mean something important -- to their customers. How do you make your product special?

Barry: Products, brands and companies become important and special to customers when their offer becomes truly integrated into their personal processes, as we discussed earlier. In essence, things become important or special when they either directly do something essential for customers, or facilitate customers in doing something essential. One of the most critical tasks is to understand what your customer considers essential. Again, in our noisy world, what's important is contextual. Your car may be absolutely important one moment, your smart phone another, and a beautiful piece of jewelry another. And sometimes, it's simply a great dining experience.

It's a very specific process, and is the core of what I'll cover at FUSE 2015's onsite interactive workshop "Become Essential: Integrate Your Brand and Products Into Customers' Lives, Not Just Lifestyles.”

In the workshop, brand strategists and designers will learn how to help ensure their products and brands become essential to their customer's lives. The attendees will receive tools and practice in the specific approaches to becoming essential to their customers.

IIR: We live in an always-on "now," where the priorities of this moment seem to be everything. What does this emphasis on immediacy mean to marketing and design?

Barry: Everything is competing for your current and prospective customers' money and attention -- from competitors you know to cross-industry entries, startups, apps, games, social media post, "news" articles, texts, endless emails and to-do's at home and work. When there is so much action and distraction, getting and keeping customer and prospect attention is almost impossible.

Again, everything today is based on context -- what time it is, where you are, what you want to accomplish, and so on. One of the great things about mobile and other emerging technologies is the ability to serve your customers at the right time and place. The key in dealing with our noisy, always on, in the moment world is to understand it, embrace it and leverage the tech tools we now have.  The key: You don't need to be in every moment -- just in the right ones.

IIR: How have you used Design Thinking to solve a problem?

Barry: Design thinking is vital to my work. It's been incorporated into virtually every product, service, business plan and major problem solving project on which I've worked over my career. One of the best things about design thinking is it's focused on buyers' needs and wants, rather than simply what your products do.

But an issue we need to address in 2015 is the rise of demanding unsafe speeds in the process. I often see design thinking's initial stages rushed, or even glossed over. When that happens, the process can lead you astray. Preventing those kinds of disasters requires some educating management by the designer. It's imperative management understands that the rewards of properly-paced design thinking can lead to the right answers -- creatively, technically, and realistically.

IIR: Each brand is a story and must be approached as a narrative. What makes a successful brand story?

Barry: Think of narratives as short movies. They are visual, have a beginning, middle, and (hopefully) instead of an end, a future. Like movies they can and should combine drama, comedy, suspense, thrills, heartwarming, heart breaking, and most of all, redemption. Depth of story creates mythology, even legend, and if maintained can last indefinitely. Great narratives become integral to your products, brand and company. Apple, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and the garage they started out in are as inseparable from today's iPhones and MacBook Airs as they were from the Apple II. Your narrative must paint your story as relatable, inspirational, and if appropriate, aspirational. It should motivate connection and action with customers, in context with the parts of their lives your story touches.

In 2015, I'm noticing a growing number of startups that think cute or twee makes great stories -- but those are soon forgotten. Bland stories yield bland narrative. And in our instant click-to-the-next-story world, you can't afford that. A successful story and its narrative can be internalized by 
customers, and becomes part of their own, personal story. Few things are more powerful than that.

IIR: How does your brand connect with the "Connected Generation" (aka Millennials)?

Barry: As my work is mobile- and connected-first, I work with Millennials all the time. And for the most part, they're no different than how I was when I was starting out. In fact, looking at me back then, I was a bit of a trouble maker. Breaking rules, breaking things, frustrated when the "old guard" didn't understand how technology could make something better. Never happy with the status quo. Quit my very first job after college with a Fortune 100 company because of a constant "we don't do things that way here" attitude.

I could be arrogant, teeth gnashing when confronted with slow movement, annoyed with convention. I wanted to use technology to change the world. Sometimes hipster, often nerdy. Moved to Silicon Valley right before the boom and bust because I felt design and tech were the future.  But really, I don't connect with people based on certain birth years any more than by astrological signs based on certain birth days. We need to move beyond the perceived homogeneity of Millennials -- it's neither fair nor accurate. My personal brand is Millennial. And Boomer, X'r and whomever comes next. It's simply individuals, all sharing some commonalties and unique in others. It's design thinking: find what matters, and make that happen for any age and for any person.

Attend my workshop at FUSE 2015 and see what I mean.

Want to hear more from Barry? Join him on his workshop “Become Essential: Integrate Your Brand and Products Into Customers’ Lives, Not Just Lifestyles” at FUSE 2015 April 13-15 in Chicago. To learn more or to register for the event, click here: http://bit.ly/1D0qS8E


About the Author: Amanda Ciccatelli, Social Media Strategist of the Marketing Division at IIR USA, has a background in digital and print journalism, covering a variety of topics in business strategy, marketing, and technology. Amanda is the Editor at Large for several of IIR’s blogs including Next Big DesignCustomers 1stDigital Impact, STEAM Accelerator and ProjectWorld and World Congress for Business Analysts, and a regular contributor to Front End of Innovation and The Market Research Event,. She previously worked at Technology Marketing Corporation as a Web Editor where she covered breaking news and feature stories in the technology industry. She can be reached at aciccatelli@iirusa.com. Follow her at @AmandaCicc.

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