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