The Designers delves deep into the world’s leading design studios through a series of in-depth conversations with the individuals that make them tick.
For the third part of the series, we caught up with Megan Bowker, a design director at COLLINS in New York City.
The Brand Identity: Hey Megan. How’re you?
Megan Bowker: Very well! At least, with the world a little upside down at the moment, still well.
TBI: Can you tell us about your background, and how that led to you becoming Design Director at COLLINS?
MB: I was born and raised in Alaska. A remote world that feels distant to that of art and design. I grew up hunting, fishing, camping and hiking – but from a young age, I was always drawn to visual art. After graduating from high school, I knew I wanted to be a graphic designer, but it didn’t seem like a realistic career choice. Probably because I didn’t know a single graphic designer!
Instead, I chose to study architecture and interior design. I did that for two years until realising that my favourite part of architecture was designing the presentations. I loved the conceptual thinking but understood by studying graphic design, I could apply this thinking to an infinite number of other subjects. I was drawn to design’s potential to change the way people see or understand the world – and shape the way they feel about it. At that point, I knew New York City was where I wanted to go. I spent one year, heads-down, working 80-hour weeks as a barista and waitress to save enough to move here to go to art school.
When I finally arrived in New York, I didn’t skip a beat. I loved being exposed to so much art, culture and city life. While I was at the School of Visual Arts, I landed two internships – one with Mother and the other at Pentagram. I was so eager to design real projects instead of solving hypothetical ones. I thrive when real challenges and real parameters exist and I’m solving those problems for real people.
“I thrive when real challenges and real parameters exist and I’m solving those problems for real people. ”
Shortly after graduation, I started at COLLINS as an associate designer. I grew quickly in such a stimulating and varied environment. With exposure to a huge range of clients, types of projects, collaborators and perspectives, I quickly began developing a voice of my own – understanding how my point of view, my own experiences and insight could help shape our work for the better.
That might be the first and most important lesson I learned – the value of a designer’s unique point of view. It seems obvious, but understanding that it’s our job to have a real opinion changed the way I thought about my role. I was empowered to exercise my own voice – to agree, to disagree and to contribute to shaping the direction of the work, not just execute it. In design, there’s no single right answer, and there are many possibilities. This understanding requires designers to put themselves into the work. I think it was my ambition to do that and to lead work that accelerated my growth into a design director.
“It’s necessary to have open conversations and a back and forth as we look for ways to advance our ideas.”
TBI: How would you describe your point of view?
MB: Describing my point of view might be as complex as describing my identity. It’s no single or fixed thing, it changes and evolves. I take pride in my opinions being calculated and informed, but intuitive. I’m driven by some combination of strategic reasoning and subjective taste. I get so much satisfaction out of an undeniable solution. When, in the end, you can’t imagine it having been any other way.
TBI: Can you give an insight into your process of directing the design team?
MB: I spend a lot of time synthesising problems and identifying paths for exploration. It can range from suggesting points of inspiration in the early stages of a project to sharing experience in how we might approach the organisation of a complex system. There’s no rigid process here – it’s very collaborative. It’s necessary to have open conversations and a back and forth as we look for ways to advance our ideas.
“If we talk about our creative work in a language that’s only meant for other designers it doesn’t get very far.”
TBI: Would you be able to share something you’ve learnt from Brian Collins?
Among many things – he has taught me the value of language.
Clear, simple and intentional language. Whether it’s how we craft a solid argument, tell a compelling story or frame our ideas.
A big narrative forces us to move beyond what and how, and not just ask – but answer why. One of Brian’s anthems is – design is not what we make, it’s what we make possible for others. If we talk about our creative work in a language that’s only meant for other designers it doesn’t get very far.
TBI: Has the way you work changed as you’ve transitioned into a senior role?
MB: I might work the same way, which is non-linear, but my role has expanded from being purely a maker to also leading teams. I spend more time building presentations, coordinating work-streams and reviewing work with other designers. I also get to spend more time collaborating with strategists and writers – it’s understanding how all of the creative decisions we make ladder up to an outcome much greater than the sum of its parts.
TBI: What advice would you give to a designer who might be thinking of sending their work into COLLINS?
MB: First, please do. But also edit your work. Be your own toughest critic. Show work that extends beyond one-offs. We look for broad, comprehensive thinking – strong ideas that translate into many expressions and push against the status quo. A strong, unique voice is valued here.
“I love the breadth of opportunity we have in projects at COLLINS. I’ll never get bored.”
TBI: Do you have a favourite project you’ve worked on at COLLINS?
MB: Superlatives are tough for me. But I have two projects that launched this year that I love to see side-by-side: Equinox Hotels and More Than Magic. One a hyper-minimalist, exquisite, luxury hotel. The other an eccentric, bubbly, tween fashion brand we did with Target. I love the breadth of opportunity we have in projects at COLLINS. I’ll never get bored. I do have a special project launching this summer, but I can’t talk about it yet.
TBI: Is being open to exploring a range of visual styles crucial to creating successful identities?
MB: Definitely. An identity system should amplify and build the unique essence of a brand, not be dictated by a designer’s aesthetic agenda. While someone might go to an illustrator for a specific style, they come to us to help them define and build a unique voice that will grow stronger over time. We see such a diversity of clients and briefs it wouldn’t make sense if the solution always looked the same. Of course, any body of work will have a certain coherence, but I find it more interesting when it’s a subtle through-line or way of thinking rather than a clear, predictable style.
TBI: What does your setup look like?
MB: This is it on a fairly good day. Every few weeks my print outs and scribbled notes begin to sprawl…
“I have a particular admiration for women who have carved out a place for themselves and set a precedent of leadership and success in our field.”
TBI: How do you approach days where you don’t feel so creative?
MB: I don’t know if I ever feel more or less creative. What I’ve learned is, if I can separate myself from expectations of the outcome, I allow myself much more freedom. I have to trust my intuition – find any thread of curiosity and follow it deeper.
TBI: Are there any other studios or creative people, in graphic design or any industry, that you particularly admire?
MB: I have a particular admiration for women who have carved out a place for themselves and set a precedent of leadership and success in our field. The statistics of women in leadership positions are so disconnected from the numbers represented in art school. I’m encouraged by the awareness and number of individuals committed to driving change in balancing the voices and perspectives shaping work. I admire these women because they have faced unspoken adversities and have proven their resilience. In doing so they have begun to pave a path for others to follow. I hope that will lead to continued and radical growth of female leadership in design. It’s well overdue.
TBI: Would you like to start your own studio one day?
MB: We’ll see. My dad keeps telling me they need graphic designers in Alaska. But for now, I prefer the view from here.