Creativity, says Tracy Collins, AB ’85, has its foundation in curiosity. “You can’t be creative on a superficial level,” says the university’s first senior creative director, who started in his new position within Public Affairs on Feb. 4. “It’s being curious enough to really want to be involved at a level where you understand the inner workings. There’s strategy and skill behind what you’re doing. Understanding enables the creativity that comes with this deep knowledge.”
He applies his curiosity and his creativity personally and professionally, immersing himself in new endeavors and thoroughly enjoying learning new skills.
Personally, Collins has transformed a shell of a house into a beautiful period home. Included in his home projects were 14 stained-glass windows that he designed, made and installed and a chicken coop that he designed and built for his eight chickens. Curiosity and learning also are key to his love of travel; he recently traversed the trans-Siberian railway and sailed the British Virgin Islands.
A former music major and opera singer, he earned a degree in English literature from Washington University. This man of many talents rejoins the university community after starting his professional career as a copywriter in Famous Barr’s advertising department. “It was a great first job because it really taught me about the economy of language,” says Collins.
He then spent more than 20 years at Creative Producers Group, a St. Louis agency specializing in event production, national business meetings, video and digital media production, and interactive development. Collins, the senior creative director, and his team consistently received national industry awards for creative excellence.
“I was heavily involved early in the process, figuring out what our creative offering should be for each client situation,” he says. “Then I would oversee the teams, making sure it all creatively matched the strategy and it all looked as if it were coming from the same place.”
Collins always keeps the end users in mind, respecting their limited time. “People are getting messages from a thousand places every day. We have to give them a really good reason to consume what we’re putting in front of them. It has to be really compelling, or it has to be very important. And we have to telegraph that quickly enough so they give us a few seconds to evaluate whether this is worth more of their time. If they don’t read the article or watch the video or go to the web page, it doesn’t really exist.”
While recognizing the complexity of Washington University, he believes in delving deeply enough to arrive at its core. He likened the communications goals for the university to those of a city like Paris, which also “has a huge audience of potential constituencies with varying demographics. Yet, if you say the word ‘Paris’ to anybody in the world, they know exactly what that is. There is a brand essence that can be communicated in very few gestures. Once you add lots of levels of complexity on top, you just give your audience reasons to wander away. So what can we communicate powerfully in the fewest gestures?”
In his career, Collins has developed an understanding of all stages of the creative process — concept to execution — through practice as writer, designer, video producer, creative director and team leader. “My background is as a word person. And I still approach design from a word person’s perspective. The thinking is the most fun, even more than the doing.”
Ellen Rostand, assistant vice chancellor for integrated marketing and brand strategy in Public Affairs, says, “Tracy is an extremely gifted designer and developer of talent. I am excited about the energy and innovative thinking that Tracy brings to our team in Public Affairs and to the partners with whom we work across campus. He will play a key role in helping us better understand and communicate the university’s brand through words and imagery.”
In this newly created role, Collins will be responsible for all the print, digital and environmental creative output from Public Affairs, overseeing the work of the office’s in-house creative staff as well as outside designers.
His new position thrills Collins: “By creating this position, the university says that the work we’re all doing in Public Affairs is important. I love being around creative people, curious people, smart people — which makes Washington U. a great place to be.”
Tracy Collins on creative communications
Good design: “It has to be appropriate. Appropriate for the audience, appropriate for the voice that is speaking, appropriate for the brand that is being represented.”
Unifying force for all channels of communication: “In the communications creative fields, we’re all working with the same raw materials: words and pictures.”
Mark of a good leader: “One who can articulate the goals of the group in a way that everybody understands, believes, and knows their part. It’s turning big ideas into actionable things for people.”