Find Your 'Ikigai.' What I Learned Taking a Break From Agency Life

My time at Planned Parenthood and the value of work that has meaning

In Japan, they have a word called "ikigai." It roughly translates to happiness in living, or the reason why you get up in the morning. I didn't know it at the time, but my lack of ikigai was why I got swept away by a headwind in my career a few years ago.

Research shows we are happiest in our work lives when pursuing purpose: with the people, values and sense of accomplishment that give us that "get up and go" attitude. A chance to rediscover my ikigai came unexpectedly when an opportunity emerged at global nonprofit Planned Parenthood, one of the nation's largest providers of reproductive healthcare. This was an organization I had long cared deeply about and supported. It was an instance where my personal belief system perfectly intersected with my professional life. And it was a moment where I felt compelled to make a change and to do something that mattered.

Within weeks, I left my agency job and started work as a creative director with the trailblazing health organization. Here are four lessons I learned from working on the client side—before returning full-circle to agency life. 

Transformational design is about storytelling with impact.

It's easy to focus on the craftsmanship of design, whether that's animation, typography or some other technical nuance. These formal elements are very important, but working with Planned Parenthood opened my eyes to the deeper impact that design can have on the world around us. 

I realized that what drives me in the process of brand-building is the question of literacy and accessibility. Over two-thirds of Planned Parenthood patients live with incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which means design has a key role to play in engaging with communities on the fringes of our healthcare system. 

My role with Planned Parenthood showed me that design as a conduit to social change is the pinnacle of what people like me can offer. How can we, as designers, better communicate and amplify our messaging to the people who need it most?

Find your fearless voice.

On the agency side, we don't always get to see firsthand the many and evolving social and economic issues that organizations face every day. Working with Planned Parenthood opened my eyes to this, but it also gave me a powerful reminder of the pivotal role that designers like myself can play in helping to meet these challenges.

This is an organization that reaches over 5 million people a year with frontline reproductive health services. Its 600+ health centers are constantly fighting obstructive legislation; most notably, the Supreme Court is currently deciding a case that could end the constitutional right to abortion by overturning Roe v. Wade. This would allow states to have harsher laws or make abortion illegal—some states, including Texas and Missouri, are severely restricting abortion now.

Against this backdrop, Planned Parenthood has the smartest political and healthcare minds on its side. I worked alongside a fearless cohort of thinkers, people who were unapologetic about taking risks and doing things differently. 

After my whirlwind stint there, it felt like a luxury to return to the comforting routines of agency life. But I was also buoyed with confidence. I now am much quicker to voice my opinion and be a stronger creative in pursuit of the bigger picture.

Agility drives momentum.

Amid the ongoing threat of clinic closures, the pace of work at Planned Parenthood was often intense. Decisions and pivots occurred in quick-fire succession, in reaction to live events. 

As a result, I've learned to handle design projects with a higher degree of agility. This might include bringing new people or perspectives into early conversations on a branding project—even if that goes against the status quo—to get a closer handle on what the end consumer wants or needs.

I've also discovered how to examine a design brief through the lens of multiple viewpoints. Planned Parenthood showed how intricate the decision-making journey can be, taking into account everyone from healthcare to political and accessibility stakeholders. The design process, in turn, needs to be versatile enough to accommodate this chorus of voices. 

Be proactive to align with your "why."

When you're immersed in the groove of agency life, you can quickly become submerged by a cycle of serving clients and fulfilling briefs, regardless of how engaging and inspiring you find that work.

My experience at Planned Parenthood was a wake-up call. I saw that, to be happy in a design career, you have to proactively seek out the kind of work that fulfills you. For some people, that will be about great aesthetics or the minutiae of the craft. For me, it's all about storytelling, and the ability to help solve a social issue via design. 

I was always planning to return to a team of creatives and a studio experience after my time on the client side of the industry. That opportunity came with the executive creative director role at Elmwood, where I've recently created a new brand platform for Summit Health Cares, a nonprofit healthcare provider for underserved communities in New Jersey and Greater New York City. This followed our work rebranding Summit Health, the new combined holding company for the Summit Medical Group and CityMD.

With a warm, inclusive ethos and visceral sense of purpose, these are the kinds of projects that make my heart sing. Yet I only got there with a conscious gamble to shrug off work that didn't speak to me—and a relentless focus on work that did. You, too, can find your ikigai: it's all in the power of meaning.

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Meg Beckum
Meg Beckum is executive creative director at global design consultancy Elmwood.

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