10 Ways to Find Your Purpose as a Designer

To get the most out of your career, you have to track down your true calling and put it into play. Here’s how to get started.

By Sunny Bonnell, with Ashleigh Hansberger. Illustration by Otto Steininger.

career_illoHaving a deeper sense of purpose is the greatest of all human needs. We all want our lives to have meaning and count for something, and to feel like we’re doing what we’re passionate about and were born to do. Now, consider: We spend 80% of our lives in the grind. That’s a lot of precious time wasted if the work you’re doing doesn’t align with who you are and what you can offer the world.

We all have something that is ours and ours alone. Something that can’t be taught, learned or duplicated. If you’ve ever heard the axiom, “Be yourself—everyone else is already taken,” then you know the importance of listening to your calling and following it.

As co-founder of Motto, I’ve worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs on living their purpose and expressing it through their work. One commonality I’ve noticed is that discovering purpose is a process that most of us won’t allow ourselves to fully participate in. We tend to surrender to the trappings of life, the expectations of others and the pressures to conform to the demands of daily work, instead of persistently seeking greater fulfillment. When you look at what you do as just a job or a source of income—unrelated to your purpose and disconnected from your passions—whether by choice or by circumstance, you undoubtedly feel a sense of emptiness.

Purpose is a powerful career and life catalyst—once understood, it becomes the driving force around which all of your behaviors and actions align. When this happens, it’s amazing how much more alive you feel, how much it fuels you and how much of a difference you can make in other people’s lives. Your working life should be at the center of your purpose and happiness. It can be a source of empowerment, not just employment.

Consider this legendary story about President Kennedy. On a tour of NASA, he saw a man holding a broom and asked him what he did there. The janitor replied, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” He wasn’t just a custodian; he was a member of the 1962 NASA Space Team. It’s a matter of perspective.

The point of the story is this: You can sweep the floor … or be part of the mission to put a man on the moon. You can support a charity … or help eliminate hunger in Central America. You can be a designer … or help bring your client’s dreams, passions and purpose to life through the work you create.

At Motto, our purpose and our name is a symbol of who we are and what we stand for. It’s also the foundation for how we work with clients. We help visionary entrepreneurs and leaders build inspiring brands using their most crucial asset—their purpose. We believe our role is more meaningful than helping our clients sell products or services. While there’s of course an element of that salesmanship, we’ve seen our clients’ lives transformed beyond the business sense by working with us, and that fuels our own passion.

So how, exactly, do you find your purpose as a designer? Although purpose can be one of life’s most baffling questions, we should allow ourselves to examine it as we think about our talents and potential—so we can open ourselves to all the sources from which meaning and mission can be derived. It’s often in the midst of our work that we’ll find the best clues for our calling. We must actively search for our purpose, and clear a path for it to emerge. Fulfilling careers are not happenstance. People who live their purpose do so because they assume responsibility for their journey. Nothing shapes us as much as the questions we ask ourselves—or refuse to ask.

If you’re looking to peel back the layers and infuse more meaning and influence into your work, here are 10 tips to get you started.

1. Don’t seek success. Seek meaning. Success is a result. If you put too much weight behind it, you lose sight of the real driving force, which is to live your purpose and create meaningful work for you and your clients. You should first show up to serve others. Then, the successes that follow will be that much sweeter.

2. Have some moral courage. If something doesn’t feel right, change it. If you’re working at a company or for a client and your values don’t align, or you’re compromising who you are, then it’s time to rethink where you are and what you’re doing.

3. Don’t be a slave to the ordinary. This is a mantra that Motto has adopted. In life and in business, you’re always presented with opportunities to either fit the mold or break it, to fall in line or buck the status quo. You may know, in theory, that “different” is a competitive advantage, but fear of failure keeps you bumbling around in the sea of sameness. In order to be remarkable, you can’t be a slave to the ordinary.

4. Don’t have an excuse for your life. You never want to look back on your career as you watch someone else at the top and think, that could’ve been me. Your passion can never be substituted, so go bold, dream, and don’t make excuses. Commit yourself to your purpose and give your heart fully to it.

5. Remember the fire in your belly. My parents have always been influential in my life because they were also entrepreneurs. I grew up with an entrepreneurial spirit that practically made it impossible for me to work for someone else. Over the years, they’ve both given me incredible advice, but there’s one thing they’ve said that’s always stuck with me. Any time I’ve become discouraged or at the point of giving up, they’ve reminded me: “You can go on, and you will. Remember the fire in your belly—it will be the only thing that sees you through.”

6. Do what you love, but follow the money. Every business follows a path, and that path will undoubtedly include various obstacles and reroutes; it’s the nature of business. There’s a difference between having a job you love and having a business model that you love and is scalable. Remember to work strategically, and to get paid—it’ll allow you to keep doing what you love.

7. Figure out what you stand for and what you believe in, and use that as your point of difference. In a crowd of designers, how will you stand apart? If you’re guilty of leading with what you do, start with why you do it and articulate that on your materials, website and social channels. Find out where your talents and values meet, and use that to leverage the power of your purpose.

8. Champion a movement. This tip is for you and your clients. Extraordinary individuals and companies devote themselves to an issue and see it through. You shouldn’t be swayed by quick fixes or cheap marketing tricks. Everything you do should reflect your mission.

9. Approach your work as a lifelong experiment. You‘ll hear advice such as, “Do one thing and do it well.” In my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Purpose is what guides you. What you do and how you do it are simply expressions of that larger purpose. If you’re a person with varying interests, you should never limit yourself to just one focus. It will drive you mad and you will likely become disenchanted.

10. Craft a motto. A motto serves as your guiding principle and spirit of the cause you’re advancing. I’ve asked so many entrepreneurs what their motto is and often hear, “We don’t have one” or, “I don’t know.” By defining what you believe in and encapsulating those beliefs into a brand motto, it gives you, your team and your customers an inspirational idea to rally around. And that is the essence of purpose.

Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger are co-founders of Motto, a comprehensive branding firm that helps visionary entrepreneurs and companies build inspiring brands using their purpose. Their work and expertise has been featured in various design and business outlets, including Forbes, CBS, and most recently GDUSA’s “25 Creatives to Watch in 2014.”

The new issue of HOW is out now! Our Behind the Design issue celebrates the inner workings of design teams, examining everything from the inspiring workspaces that help keep their creativity afloat to profiles about studios creating buzz coast-to-coast. This issue also features the surprising (and surprisingly great) results of our 2014 salary survey, and a close look at the HOW Interactive Design Award Winners. Check it out in print, or on your favorite device.

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