Dear Design Martyrs: The One About a Mission Statement

Posted inDesign Inspiration

“Dear Design Martyrs” is PRINTmag’s latest advice column from Debbie Millman. Debbie will respond to your most burning questions about design, branding, work-life balance, and so much more.

Dear Design Martyrs:

I am graduating from design school in May. Everyone I know—from my grandparents to my girlfriend to my classmates —wants to know why I decided to get a degree in design and what I plan to do with it when I graduate. Saying “I love design” sounds lame. But other than “create great designs,” I don’t how to answer these questions. Do you have any advice for me?


Nervous in New York

Dear Nervous:

I think what you are asking me for is an elevator pitch. A one-line response intended to impress people and give them a sense of who you are and what you believe. These questions are really, really difficult to answer! Most people don’t have a clue how to respond, especially if they are just starting out. 

Any reply should begin to set the stage for differentiating yourself from others. You want to stay away from some of the standard answers, which include meaningless sentiments such as, “I’m a people person,” “I want to make the world a better place,” or “I want to contribute to something good.” (Please note that these are all noble descriptors, but they are a given in today’s world; nearly everyone says these things, especially when they have nothing else to say.)

The best possible answer to these questions is a statement with a strong point-of-view, or what is more commonly called a philosophy or a mission statement in business.

Your philosophy or mission statement is reflective of what you stand for. For example, the great football coach Vincent Lombardi had a great philosophy. He often stated, “I never lost a game.” During his career as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, Lombardi led his team to five NFL Championships and victories in Super Bowls I and II. But his career record of 105 wins and 35 losses belies the declaration that he never lost a game. When asked to defend his statement, he staunchly replied. “I never lost a game. I just ran out of time.” 

In today’s world, who you are and what you represent in the marketplace (whether it is on your website or on social media or on your resume or face-to face-in an interview or casual conversation) is as important as your work and your ideas. You must have a sincere set of beliefs that guides everything you do, and they must be authentic and true. You also need to know what you believe in, even when other people disagree with you. 

Debbie in 1983 wearing her graduation garb and her Aunt Ida’s handmade Ruth Bader Ginsberg-esque collar.

Your philosophy or mission is a statement that will allow you to communicate why you want to do what you do. It is essentially a statement of purpose. Your philosophy or mission statement should also offer insight into what you view as meaningful and important.

In constructing a philosophy or mission statement, consider the following:

• What can you do differently or better than anyone else you know?

• What can you offer that no one else can, given your background and interests?

• What is inherently unique about you, what you do, and how you think?

Then ask yourself if this is believable, ownable, and defendable to YOU and only you. Then try to finish this statement:


Or after your first job:


Can you provide both a benefit and an inspiring reason to hire you in this answer? 

You must.

It is no longer enough to say what you hope to do when you graduate or interview for your next job. You must evolve the conversation and communicate what your benefit in being hired will be. You need to move from a “what do I want to tell my interviewer?” to “How do I show what I can do in a way no one else can?” Please note: I am not suggesting you overpromise and declare that you have better type skills than Paula Scher (no one does). But, as an example, you might be able to say that you want to use typography to entertain, inspire and motivate others to action. Keep in mind that you are just starting, and no one expects you to be an expert at anything! But if you can reveal your curiosity, zeal, and thoughtfulness in any response to the tough questions you inevitably will get asked, you will go a long way in making a good impression.

Your goal should be going from a one-sided volley-back-and-forth Q&A session to a mutual conversation that engages and intrigues whoever you are talking with to want to know more about you.

Hold up your philosophy like a mirror. What do you see?