Professional Practices They Don’t Teach You In Art School: Portfolio – What Do You Really Need In It?

I’ve traveled to many art schools, being asked to review senior student portfolios and speak on professional practices in the design business and the one thing I always notice is the lack of direction in student portfolios. Even with professionals, there is often no idea what or even how to present work to a client. Without senior level courses on portfolio preparation or classes taught by those who have been out of the field too long to know current trends, it is confusing and students are left with their own thoughts on what a client wants to see.

The biggest misconception is you need printed or live web pieces to show a client. To this end, as many professionals complain, students will do free or lower paying work just to garner a few “professional” samples to say, “SEE! Someone has actually hired me.”

NOTE: This article, the second in a series of eight articles on Professional Practices which they don’t teach you in art school.

If you think about this practice, what students are actually doing is chipping away at their own future and the industry itself. By doing this underpaying work, they are just teaching clients that they can get work for little or nothing. Contests and crowdsourcing are the equivalent to slave labor. You are doing free work, which the source will own all rights, in the hope for an iPod or pat on the back but, in the long run, it just negates your professional standing.

With that important issue and hot topic out of the way, if you don’t have “professional pieces” to show, then how do you get work? “Professional is not in the printed or digital piece; it is in your demeanor and work ethic. Great work is not a process of design-by-committee but of your thought process and how you create a message from nothing. How do you reach the end user or consumer and how effective is your communicated, visual message?

How A Portfolio Can Turn OFF A Client

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They say a portfolio should have ten to 16 strong pieces in it. Any more and the viewer gets bored, and less and the viewer wants to see more. Having gone over more portfolios than I care to remember, I agree that less is not more. I need to see several solutions in your thought process. If there are more, then they had better blow me away so I can’t get enough.

A new hire at a large corporation at which I worked, showed me his student portfolio. Not one piece of published work, but he was incredible. There were two-dozen student projects and each one was bright, engaging and drew me in. I wanted to see more only because he was so talented. I knew he had the thought process to do great things and the technical savvy to create the finished project.

On the other side, I had people approach me, yearning to work for me yet not having anything in their portfolio that showed me they were a match for the company. While I was the Art Director at MAD Magazine, the worlds top iconic humor magazine, I received thousands of requests from hopeful designers and illustrators. One young man sat in the reception area for a week, hoping I would come back from vacation early (my wedding vacation, actually, so not really a chance I would return early). When I did come back, I met with him…although being accosted by him is more the reality and sat down to view his portfolio. While I unzipped his portfolio, he raved about how working for MAD was his life-long dream. When I opened the portfolio, my first thought was he needed to stop dreaming and wake up.

“These are my ‘brain paintings.’ Don’t you love them?” he said in excitement.

It was six pages of watercolors, looking somewhat like brains, although not enough to impress. It was a no-brainer – he had nothing to show that matched the needs of the company. After I recovered from the stab wound he gave me (just kidding), I instituted a new portfolio policy. While every other art director I knew had what was called a “drop off” policy (drop it off in the afternoon and pick it up in the morning), I limited my portfolio viewing to once a month, on the last Wednesday, between 2 and 4 pm.

I felt this allowed me to meet the person as well as to see the work. How did they present themselves? Did they stick to the schedule? How did they speak of their work and desire? These, I felt were all-important parts of the creative package. Sometimes, the person was hideous, but their work was amazing. We all make adjustments, as the most critical factor is the final piece and how the consumer or viewer receives it.

It was a man who called me and insulted the look of the magazine and told me how he thought it was time for him to see me and “help” the magazine that intrigued me. I told him of my portfolio policy and he insisted he didn’t want to wait. I informed him he had to wait. Test one failed – he didn’t respect my time or rules.

When the portfolio day arrived, he was late. Test two failed. I didn’t mind so much that his outfit was ill fitting and dirty. I wasn’t too shocked when he didn’t want to have me view his portfolio in the reception area and insisted we go to my office. I did mind when he started again on telling me how bad the magazine was, which was a personal insult and he took out an old manila envelope and spilled out his “work” on the table. The illustrations, some on cocktail napkins, were stolen jokes and such from Gary Larsen and other humorists. I pointed this out and he said, “oh, you’ve seen these!?” Test three failed – he had no thought process or talent. As he walked out, leaving a trail of threats to my already dead relatives, and myself he said he was going straight to our competition. Naturally, being friends with the art director of our competition, I called him to warn him of the impending doom. Test four failed – never take it personally and move on. Someday you might meet the same person in a different role and then they CAN use you and your stolen brain paintings!

Your Brain Is The Key!

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I asked several friends in the position of hiring designers and illustrators what they prefer to se in a portfolio. My friend Alex, who is the Design Director for Disney Publishing said:

In brief, I look for diversification. I like to see that someone can work with innovative type treatments, as well as being able to make bulleted lists appealing. They should show an ability to frame up large amounts information in a clean and easy to follow layout, as well as working with only an image and headline. Most importantly, they should work with a sense of information architecture… It doesn’t matter if something looks good if it doesn’t visually convey the message or the needs of the project.

There is a difference between just making it pretty and making it work. I’ve known too many designers more interested in the look than in the message. Both need to work in tandem. Type has to be readable, colors need to excite or calm or persuade and the message must hit the consumer fast and hard.

Another friend, Gary, who was the head of Cartoon Network Creative Services, had a bullet pointed list:

  • Customize it for the job you are applying for. If you are trying to get a design or illustration job at a specific company, then focus on showing work that relates to the type of things that the company specializes in. Do research on the company that you are interviewing with. Know what they do and who their clients are.
  • Only show your very best work. Better to have fewer great pieces than many average pieces of work. I know it’s tempting to show a lot of stuff in order to show off your versatility, but if the work is mediocre, it won’t do you any good.
  • Be able the talk though your thought process for each example you have in you portfolio. Be ready to talk about why you made the design and creative choices that you did. But also, in the interview, read your interviewer, he or she may not want to hear the full story about every single piece.
  • If you are doing a non-digital portfolio, make it easily accessible. I’ve had a lot of designers show me portfolio packages that were way too complicated. The designer thought they were being very clever with their kit designs, but they were frustrating because the portfolios were too hard to open, or too hard to look through.
  • In the past several years, more and more people just show up with their portfolio on their laptops, on a thumb drive or direct their interviewer to a website. That’s fine, just make sure it all works and it is tailored to that company. Also, it’s never a bad idea to have some hard copies of some of your work.

Bhaskar, a connection of mine in India is a Marketing Strategist, and he adds:

If I were to hire an unknown designer I would look for back-stories to the logo designs. Typically every client has some expectations from their logos, which are outlined in the creative briefs or answered in formatted questionnaires.

How did the final logo fulfill those expectations? What were the alternatives and why they were junked? What was the reaction to the logo from the client’s customers? You answer these questions and you have me as your next customer.

All of these are extremely important points from top professionals. As I mentioned, the thought process and even, as Bhaskar points out, the process with a client can show not only your own thoughts, but also how you interpret the client’s thoughts.

Digital Portfolio Vs. Printed Portfolio

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Years ago, I was one of the first people to have a digital portfolio. A simple application that showed a slide show of work and all one had to do was double-click an icon. Many clients were confused by the action of “double-clicking.” As Gary pointed out, “make sure it all works.” I once received a bug-laden, digital portfolio, which would not shut down. I had to call the company IT department to rip it from my computer. I’ve made the mistake of showing up empty-handed at a client, expecting them to have wifi for my laptop or a computer at which they could view my online portfolio. Sometimes their internet is down and then what do you do? I have always heard, from many professionals, to have a back up printed portfolio, just in case.

My friend Joshua, a Director of Creative Development, shows a portfolio of stages of web site design so the client can see the thought process through the different stages of development. Although the web is digital, it’s interesting his portfolio is basically printed. URLs can be input by the client to se the live sites, but Josh relies on the thought process to sell his company’s work.

When it comes to having a portfolio on a web site, Cheryl, a recruiter I know, imparts:

As a design recruiter for over 22 years I know what I’m looking for in a good portfolio and in today’s electronic world, the best presentation is to have your own URL or website that loads quickly and easily without too much crap that wastes time. You want your work to be seen clearly, be organized, be easy to navigate, each piece of work can be enlarged, and have some description of what the work and your role was in producing it. You should have a downloadable PDF resume.

If you choose to do it on a blog make sure it’s a professional blog geared to your portfolio only. Get rid of all personal stuff for that is detrimental to your cause in finding a job. Do have a back up physical portfolio that includes the real work. You never know when you might be asked to show it.

Show your best work only, and arrange it into categories if you have categories and are not a specialist in something. I hope some of this helps.

If you are unable to make your own website, there are some excellent professional portfolio sites around that you can use for a nominal fee. This is also acceptable.

Once again… have a back up portfolio!

Eric, an Online Media Manager, speaks of the importance of both:

The preference for print, digital or mixed portfolio is likely to depend on the need or expected need of the position. Unless we are hiring solely a web graphic designer or print graphic designer, it would be nice to see both types of work represented in their final format. That way you can see a true example of the work. I don’t want to see a printout of a webpage (which can’t simulate drop-downs, animations, rollovers, load speed or click events) and I would rather see the result of the actual stock and ink you chose for your business card than an image on a laptop.

In most cases that means bringing in a portfolio of several print pieces and a laptop with the local copy of a website portfolio examples in case of Internet connection issues.

Having concise stories behind the original goals and ongoing client communications would be nice as well, to see how the designer handled the objective, deadlines and feedback.

Are You Confused Enough Yet?

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You shouldn’t be. All of these opinions point to the same conclusion – it’s the thought process you have as a designer that will make you shine in the eyes of a client. Every decision that YOU make shows your abilities.

Recently, my friend Jen, a designer from Hallmark Cards, who moved from Hungary to Sweden contacted me to ask how she could create a new portfolio of designs as all of her work was sitting in an attic in Hungary. Although she is an American, she wanted to appeal to the local businesses. I suggested she take ten printed ads from local businesses and redesign them and then show both in her portfolio on facing pages.

“It will show your thought process and might impress the client.” The key, of course, is not to show the client THEIR ad as they might take offense you think they made the wrong choice or THEIR decisions were not correct. I had done the same thing with illustration students in a class I taught where I instructed them to take a printed page and insert their own illustration to show how they would handle the assignment and show them side-by-side.

As a young illustrator/designer, I would buy the Sunday New York Times, redo the editorial page illustration, make a copy on the original page and fax it to the art director of the editorial section Sunday night. I wanted to show her I was fast and could have the thought process to create a great solution. After four or five weeks, I was hired to do an illustration for the editorial page. She turned out to be a raving lunatic who preferred to hire her husband to do the illustrations and I ended up running from her office in fear for my life, but you get my point about showing the process.

When I started in web design, I created sites based on my hobbies and interests and put them on free hosting servers like Angelfire and Geocities. It gave me clickable portfolio samples and, at that time, there were only 136 sites on the web and 37 of them were mine!

Will Cheap Or Free Work Provide Great Samples?

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My friend Josh, who I previously mentioned is a smart guy. He once said, “if you get a $200 job, make it look like a $2,000 job and by showing that to clients, you will get a $2,000 assignment!”

Very true and not to downplay Josh’s words of wisdom, but when you do a job for free or little money, chances are the client does not respect you and will step all over your designs and the final product will not be YOUR thought process or talent.

My only suggestion, to get the best work out of these cheap jobs, is to preface it with, “I’ll do it for your fee but it contains no changes. I will create and deliver it but you have to either use what I provide or not.”

I did this in the beginning of my career and had to walk away from clients who had “just a few” changes. I didn’t get the $25 or $50 (or free for “exposure” or “work later on”) but I did have the final piece to show to other clients. It was mine, my thoughts, my talent and that is one of the reasons of my successful career. I wouldn’t do it any differently if I could…except for staying away from the crazy lady at the Times, but that’s another article completely!

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  1. Nice article! tailoring a portfolio is definitely important when trying to get the right client. I learned that the hard way.

  2. Great post! You gave us a chance to see how the things look like from the other side. I really like the ending words, and wish I had the same guts before, to say it to some of my clients..
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Great post! You gave us a chance to see how the things look like from the other side. I really like the ending words, and wish I had the same guts before, to say it to some of my clients..
    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Well, I’m flattered Rosetta Stone felt my article was a good avenue for spam, but couldn’t you have masked it a bit better than just copying the previous comment? Tsk-tsk!

  5. Nice article, it’s always good to read tips on how to start on this business with the right foot.

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