Guest Post: Stephanie of Kickass Problem Solver, on Life as a Designer

photo credit: OKIMG_3906 via photopin (license)
photo credit: OKIMG_3906 via photopin (license)

People often ask, “what do you do at Red Ventures?”

guest postThat’s easier said than done. I know what I do, it’s just explaining the big picture. We’re all these wads of complexity that defy a simple explanation. Try it: How would you describe what you do?

Stephanie Lewis rounds it up in a description she uses as the name of her website – kickass problem solver.

She’s on the CD today to share her winding path. We all follow the one set out before us.

photo credit: Rendezvous with Bomb Squad (3 of 6) via photopin (license)
photo credit: Rendezvous with Bomb Squad (3 of 6) via photopin (license)

Life of a … what is it that you do, anyway?

I carry a lot of labels. Mom, artist, developer, chemist, teacher, entrepreneur… and the list goes on. Lately, I’ve been going about my day job with the title of brand and creative designer. My freelance title is usually web designer. When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a problem-solver. But none those speak to what I really am.

I am an opportunist.

I started out as an art student in high school. I was good at it, too, or so my mom told me. I took every art elective I could and had plans of going to the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. But even then I suffered from Imposter Syndrome. I looked around at my fellow art students’ work and wished my drawings looked like theirs. I didn’t see my strengths, only my weaknesses compared to everyone else’s strengths. I didn’t see myself as a real artist. I saw myself as a wannabe.

Then it was time to take a chemistry class. In chemistry, you do some math, mix ingredients, and if you did it all right, you were a great chemist. I aced that class. I also loved science. So when all I saw was strengths in the analytical world of science and math and saw only where I was weakest in my dream profession, I scrapped the art school application and applied to a chemistry program at a completely different college.

I spent my entire college career preparing to be a scientist. I could have taken art classes for fun, but I didn’t. Not until my last semester of college, when I had finished my requirements, did I venture back to the arts. That’s when I realized that I made a huge mistake neglecting it. I didn’t want to be a chemist anymore. I wanted to make my living as an artist.

photo credit: Rendezvous with Bomb Squad (3 of 6) via photopin (license)
photo credit: Rendezvous with Bomb Squad (3 of 6) via photopin (license)

So, I immediately applied for a PhD program in electrochemistry.

What can I say? I was panicked. I didn’t want a day job as a scientist, so I would put it off by going to grad school. I was in that program for 1 year, 3 months, 15 days and I was beyond miserable. I was dealing with my first bout of depression. I dropped out of grad school with nowhere to go. For a month I played video games, and then I went to a temp agency to get a job. I needed money.

The temp agency sent me to a membership association that needed some young kid to stuff envelopes for them for a week. It was a very small association run by 10 people. They were all very close-knit and the Executive Director often had us on her office couch while she was conducting important business. One such day, they were discussing who they would get to design a program book for the upcoming conference. I volunteered. I was starving for some creative outlet and I saw an opportunity to create something and get paid for it. We’ll call this my first big break, my first opportunity that set me on the path to where I am today. I worked on it all weekend and brought them the first draft on Monday morning.

Next thing I knew, I was hired as their first in-house graphic designer. I was making pennies, but the benefits were awesome and the people were amazing. And I finally got myself back into the arts. However, I was severely insecure about my lack of formal training.

After working there, I’ve fought my way into the design community. With no design degree, I struggled to prove that I would be an asset in the creative sector. Throughout the years of my uphill battle, I began to recognize opportunity when it presented itself. If there was any kind of problem, my analytically trained brain would start searching for solutions. And then I would make those solutions pretty–what was expected of a graphic designer. Today we call it “design thinking.” Back then, I called it, “I need these people to remember who I am so that I might get promoted.”

I managed to go from envelope stuffer to managing creative departments, to serving on the executive board of an international membership association. In my free time, I develop websites, design presentations, and help others tell their stories.

The path I’ve been stumbling down has had many twists and turns, complete with a dead end or two (that telemarketing job, for instance). But every experience has taught me different ways of looking at design problems.

The moral of the story is pretty much this: no matter what or how you learn, or what job you end up it, there is always something to learn from it. And the golden nuggets of useful information you learn from something seemingly unrelated to what you want to be doing will benefit you in the long run. Make the most of it. Be an opportunist. Learn to recognize those golden nuggets for what they are: opportunities, skills that make you more valuable.

While I don’t recommend travelling the path I did, I don’t think there’s anything I would change about it. Here are some of the key lessons I’ve learned on my windy path:

1. Do what you love

I mean it. You hear it over and over again so much that it sounds trite. But seriously, if you love doing something, put all that you are into it. Head first. Take the dive. Learn all you can about its various aspects. Money is great, but depression is not. Don’t ever take a job just for the money.


2. Practice every day

Even if it’s for 10 minutes, practice a little every day until you master it. After you master it, tweak it, change it, and push the boundaries of whatever it is. If you draw every day, try drawing with a piece of celery. You’ll make a mess, but beautiful things will happen.

3. Make mistakes

Don’t let the fear of messing up prevent you from doing so. Make the mistakes so that you can learn from them. Make the mistakes so you can accidentally discover something amazing. After all, that’s how the Post-It note was born.

4. Learn to be a marketer

If you truly want to be successful at what you love doing, you need to learn as much about marketing as you can. Otherwise, your passion will rest with you and not go much further. The marketing landscape changes as rapidly as technology changes. Develop, nurture, and grow your audience.

5. Everything starts with pencil and paper

Pull out your writing utensil of choice and some paper and outline, sketch, or storyboard. Plan on paper until you can plan no more. Then, and only then, do you start making things pretty. A designer is a problem-solver first and an artist last.

6. Screw perfectionism

You’re staring at a pristine white piece of paper. Once you get over the fear of wasting that paper, you work and work and work until someone pries it from your hands. Don’t be a perfectionist. Let it go at 90% perfect. You’re 50% is better than a vast majority of other people’s “perfect.”

7. Write every day

This is one I’m still working on. Write every day, even if whatever you write is just a brain dump from the day before. Writing practice is crucial to effective communication. It will generate new and surprising ideas. I hate writing. I do it anyway.

8. Watch for opportunities

photo credit: Cyclohexane via photopin (license)
photo credit: Cyclohexane via photopin (license)

They present themselves in the most peculiar ways. If I hadn’t taken that envelope stuffing job, I might not have my design career. If I didn’t get a degree in chemistry, my brain wouldn’t work the same way and I wouldn’t be as good at telling stories with complicated financial data. If I didn’t work as a recruiter, I wouldn’t know what to look for when hiring fellow designers to work with me.

9. Don’t judge your middle against someone else’s end

You get discouraged when you look at other designers’ work. They’ve been at it longer than you have. You can’t compare the spot you’re at NOW with where your idol is. Don’t get discouraged. Keep on practicing.

10. Sell, sell, sell

This is not the kind of sale that immediately results in money. If you’re a designer of any kind, you have to learn how to pitch your ideas and defend your design decisions. Your clients want to know why you did what you did and how it will make their problems go away.

11. Never stop learning

Ever. There are plenty of classes online to learn pretty much anything. YouTube is an amazing resource. You’ll only add to the value you can provide to other people.

When people asked what I did for a living, I used to say that I was a graphic designer. This was always followed up by a request for clarification to which I would give the flippant reply, “oh, I make things pretty.” But I was really doing myself a disservice by saying that. A lot of work goes into everything that I do: research, planning, writing, sketching, pitching ideas, and after all of THAT, then I make things pretty. Now I tell them I’m a problem solver and when they ask for clarification, THEN I tell them that I’m a designer.

A designer is a problem-solver first and an artist last.

Be an opportunist. Be a problem-solver. Be amazing.

Stephanie Lewis writes the blog Kick-Ass Problem Solver. She’s building out a new site, Valuberry Design, too. It’s in the “sign up for updates” phase.

problems quote


  1. ksbeth says:

    i absolutely love this. i have a friend who is a research scientist but really is an amazing muralist. she’s crossing over to her love, art, due to family circumstances and company buy-outs and i couldn’t be happier for her. you are brave and fearless and smart and your are right about paths leading you into unexpected places, i’ve lived that myself.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      if we learn something from what most of what life throws at us, we become renaissance in our own way, beth.

  2. What great advice, especially that first one as I do think you have to love what you are doing in order to keep on doing it day in and day out! 😉

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Janine, I just told my two youngest today that they have every opportunity to find something they love to do as a living.

  3. I applaud you, Stephanie. Especially because I relate to this 100% as a writer. I still need a day job to pay the bills and whatnot, but with a lot of hard work and some luck I’m hoping to get to where and what I truly want to be.

    And I love your #9. It’s so easy to judge your creative process (and yourself) by comparing it to other people’s processes. But each creator’s process is as unique as we are. We have to learn to accept and embrace it (and, again, ourselves); negative self-judgment will only drag us down.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      I look back on my first posts, and cringe when I see verbosity and muddled clarity; I should be proud instead of how far I’ve come.

      1. ^^ That’s important, too. 😉

      2. Eli Pacheco says:

        You do that too, Sara?

      3. Yes and no. Sometimes when I link back to older posts, I take a quick look at them – and shudder. *lol* But blogging is a learning process, like most things in life. You get better at it as time goes on and you get more practice, and you gain more confidence as a result. Besides, we all have to start somewhere, don’t we?

      4. Eli Pacheco says:

        I notice periods of verbosity and some of clunky clarity, and hope I find myself in the middle of the two today.

  4. Lyn says:

    #2, 6, 7, and 9 work for me 🙂 Stephanie, you rock, girl!

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      I love the idea of writing every day.

      1. Lyn says:

        Yeah, but sadly, it doesn’t happen 😦

      2. Eli Pacheco says:

        If I’m elected to congress, I’ll require every American to write for 30 minutes every day. Or at least be quiet while the rest of us do.

      3. Lyn says:

        Yes! That would be a brilliant piece of legislation 😀

  5. I love this Eli! I am in the process of going for that dream and I have had those same exact self-doubts. This was just the extra push I needed! Great timing! I debuted the new site yesterday at hope you enjoy it.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      I thought you’d be able to get something out of this post, Rena. I’m checking out the new page now.

  6. Steph says:

    Thanks everyone! Oh hey, logging in would make this faster. I’m glad this resonates. I still struggle with writing. I think those research papers ruined it for me. It’s a blessing that I was able to get back into art and not have to write a thesis! 🙂

    1. Kim says:

      I’m pretty sure research papers ruin writing for most of the population. I still have nightmares about one research class…

      Oh well.

      I love the idea of being a problem solver first – who then makes things pretty.

      1. Eli Pacheco says:

        Maybe you could do something about the Jacksonville Jaguars’ uniforms then, Kim.

    2. Eli Pacheco says:

      After I spent time away from writing, I could have written thesis after thesis with at least some degree of joy. To be without writing is to be without life.

  7. CD: we really loved this post & Stephanie!! What an incredible lady. I was watching a fav show of mine, Impractical Jokers. Four guys in New York City who play practical jokes on eachother and all of New York. They aired the creation of the show the other day. All four new each other since high school and were the same jokers back then. They went their separate ways for college only to find each other later on and start this show. One of them said. “I can’t believe we get paid to do what we love. To play like kids with each other. And people love it!” And there it is. When you enjoy what you do, so will others. And you’ll excel!! Clearly Stephanie’s path has taken her back to where her heart was leading her all along. Which makes her courageous to take that leap and brilliant to become successful at it!! Great freaking post, sharing this now!! 😉

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Thanks for sharing it – I had a feeling Steph’s words would resonate here!

  8. Great, great advice!
    We’ve all had this envelope stuffing job, but look where it took you!

    Sometimes in life you have to make compromises, be realistic and take a money job, and that’s OK – as long as you don’t let your dreams out of sight.

    Problem solving is one of the most valuable life skills – the whiners and blamers out there should try and get some…

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      I say we replace Trigonometry with Intro to Problem Solving.

      1. Steph says:

        Hahaha. YES. So very yes.

      2. Eli Pacheco says:

        I’ll mention it to Ben Carson.

      3. I’m pretty sure I read that on FB today 😉

      4. Eli Pacheco says:

        It felt too good not to share!

  9. Rorybore says:

    I’m getting the “write every day” one down pretty good… but market myself? oh boy… I wouldn’t know the first thing. Does it go against my nice Canadian nature that we don’t talk about ourselves? and how do I get over that? ha.
    I like that you included failures, because I think we can learn as much, if not more, from those. We can be present for those moments and not wish they away; and hopefully turn them into bigger moments.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      I didn’t know the value of failure until I did so much of it I couldn’t ignore the lessons.

  10. reocochran says:

    I like when people let us know how they got to where they are, Eli. The people who choose crooked paths or go from A to G to Z to finally their destiny, “B” make me smile! The details of finding what you like to do and striving to better at it were all very helpful. Great post and thank you, Eli for featuring Stephanie here. 🙂

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Stephanie sketched sticky-pad pictures for many entries in a six-words post a while back. Great stuff!

  11. Steph says:

    Ok, since I’ve been having such trouble sticking to the “write ever day” thing, I’m dedicating a full day to nothing but writing (after a walk in the morning to wake up). September 27th is going to be nothing but writing. Y’all should join me. 🙂

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Let’s promote the hell out of it, Steph. It’s a Sunday … I think I could do that.

      1. Steph says:

        Sweet. I’ll start tweeting, etc. 🙂 With a sketch.

      2. Steph says:

        You know what? I want a Live Scribe pen. So I can write old-school, but have the pen record it and upload it to Word. But I can’t justify $300 on a pen.

      3. Eli Pacheco says:

        Could a device like that decipher my handwriting, I wonder?

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