What Now? Finding a Higher Purpose When Survival Mode Ends

When I started Umbra 37 years ago, I only had one purpose: to keep it alive! We were in survival mode, doing anything we could to keep the doors open from one day to the next. In my experience – and I’m sure this is true for most startups in their early stages – we were just too busy to think about our company’s higher purpose.

Eventually, we found our purpose in what we called “the democratization of design.” We saw an opportunity to design and reinvent everything found in the home, objects that had been the same for decades – from can openers, to coffee cups, to (of course) trash cans. We followed that purpose in every product we designed, and it led us to success. There was a global community that wanted what we wanted: access to well-designed products.

If I were starting Umbra in 2018, would that same purpose still be enough? We had an easy enough problem to solve 37 years ago: functional items in the home were usually ugly. Our solution was to add design to these objects. Today, however, the world has had a taste of what good design looks like.

Just like any other startup, when we first launched we set out to solve a problem in the hopes that enough people would choose our solution. We weren’t thinking about a purpose beyond that goal. However, once a foothold was established in the market, we had to start thinking about the brand values that got us to that point. These were still early days, but when a higher purpose is discussed alongside operational and sales issues, then a truly amazing transformation can take place.

Products are defined by their function; they don’t have purpose in and of themselves. I’ve seen thousands of products come and go. What endures is the brand – and great brands are embedded with purpose. At Umbra, our design team was reminded of our purpose daily, often opening meetings by going around the conference table repeating our key words: original, modern, functional, affordable, and innovative. These words guided our team to design and execute products that embodied our company values.

Today almost everything is commodified – including artistic style and creative imaginations. The world is flooded with imaginative conceptual designs that stem from the use of biodynamic and generative design. However, these designs do little more than feed the imagination of those within the design profession – they have little to no real-world impact.

This is where embedding purpose into the design of products and concepts can improve their real-world impact, in both the short and long term. Purpose is what turns designers into Designers with a big D. If a clear purpose is articulated for products and concepts, they can become platforms for experimentation, speculation, and reimagination of new meanings.

These meanings can help power the consumer journey, allowing consumers to discover their own sense of purpose. I still remember Apple’s 1997 “Leave Your Mark” ad campaign, which demonstrated that the Macintosh computer is more than a computer: It is a tool to empower the mind.

Along the way, your intended purpose might lead you to a purpose you didn’t expect. For over 25 years I was actively engaged in outreach programs with design universities around the world. The idea was to look for new product ideas, but we gained far more than that. By reaching out, we were able to recruit the finest emerging talent. The contributions that recent graduates made at Umbra were key to keeping the brand young and vital. We have always striven to set trends rather than follow them, and finding young designers with fresh ideas and new perspectives has helped us stay relevant.

Today, Umbra’s most successful products are often designed by emerging talent, hired through early involvement with design institutions. Our VP of Design started as an intern 15 years ago, and many of the students we found through collaborations with schools like OCAD University in Toronto have gone on to become both great designers and great leaders.

As a result of our work with students, a breakthrough idea emerged: What if we were to collaborate with national retailers like Target and Canadian Tire to produce student-designed products? Manufactured by Umbra and distributed by these retailers, the collaborations pay royalties to students, create social content for the retailers and Umbra, and raise consumer awareness regarding the design process.

Consumers are now bombarded with hundreds of new products that aim to deliver on their product promise. But often, it’s a company’s higher purpose that can influence a consumer’s choice. A higher purpose unites people and improves company morale – if employees believe in your purpose, they will believe in your business. Purpose attracts great talent and connects a business to its customers in a unique way.

In an era where the customer’s expectations are so high, isn’t it now increasingly important for our companies to stand for something? To have purpose? Take TOMS, for example, which donates one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair sold. The success of this business relies on the practice, rather than the product. Likewise, fashion bag startup LeDaveed supports its own sustainability purpose by using environmentally friendly tanned leather, while also running a campaign to give a percentage of profits to WaterAid.

It’s been a long time since I was focused solely on survival. As both the leader of Umbra and as an individual, I feel I have earned the right to search for a higher purpose. The purpose of Umbra has evolved and extended into my personal life. Design isn’t just something I think about in terms of Umbra anymore. It has become me; it is part of everything that I do.

I recently joined the board of a group that wanted to develop a battery-assisted commuter bike. The higher purpose: to combat climate change by reducing carbon emissions. The e-bike provides the solution and, if enough people catch on, could help to reduce carbon emissions by reducing the number of cars on the road. This endeavor represents the kind of purpose we should all strive for: to change the world for the better, in whatever way we can.

Creative people need projects that have a higher purpose. For designers, that means designing products and concepts laden with purpose. And for brands, that means standing for a higher purpose. So, next time you’re enjoying a moment of reflection in a quiet space, try to ask yourself: What is your higher purpose?

the author

Paul Rowan

Paul Rowan is the cofounder of Umbra and CCO at paulrowan.ca.