Designing a good portfolio
It’s 1998 and I’ve just arrived in Bangkok and it’s 90F at night. I’ve arrived at a small hostel just around the corner from the Khao San Road and, just like everyone else travelling or on a gap year, I’m a walking stereotype. From my flip flops, overly loose trousers, consumption of banana fritters and cheap Thai beer. Oh, and well-thumbed copy of The Beach.
Like I said; a walking stereotype. Except for lugging around the 2kg A3 sized portfolio case rammed into my already weighty backpack.
It’s 1998. The web is still in its infancy, but it’s there and pretty good. Fireworks was on version 1. I used Internet Explorer 5 and Eudora The first iMac had been recently released. Not really the dark ages, but here I am, lugging around an additional 2kg of dead trees for two months around South East Asia. Why? Well, I wanted a good job when I got to Sydney. And, as a designer, a good portfolio – or ‘Book’ as it’s called in advertising – would get me one.
Let me back-peddle a bit to my first job as an intern at an ad agency in Manchester. There worked an Art Director called Tom. Tom was quiet mannered, quick to smile and laugh, and much quicker to point out a small opportunity for improving a design. Together with the other Art Directors, he taught me about hierarchy and how to make type fit on a page (this was a distinct problem when designing plumbing catalogues). But he also taught me the value of a good Book. How to design one; how to tell a story through your work; how to present your work and do enough in the portfolio to get you a foot in the door which is what junior designers needed so much back then.
“Leave your book and pick it up tomorrow”
My experience of looking for a job early in my career was probably quite usual amongst my peers: I never replied to a job advert. Instead, I was encouraged to get together a list of the places I’d like to work and then to sell my portfolio around them. So, there I was; fresh out of school, full of ‘I got a First Class honours degree’ confidence selling myself from agency to agency. It was a baptism of fire. I remember the first day was particularly horrific. Out of the six or so agencies I’d arranged to visit, only one was happy to let the art director see me rather than just leave my Book and pick it up tomorrow. And then, my work was systematically ripped to shreds by an Art Director with too little time on his hands.
Now, this isn’t meant to sound like ‘oh, woe was me and my hard time finding a job’. But, I am trying to recall how my portfolio was the start of a conversation. And, generally, a conversation I wasn’t there for. I didn’t really plan for that so had to adapt the work to invite that second meeting.
Oh, those soft skills
So much of what we do is working with people. Sometimes, though, I think I need to have experience in counselling or negotiation tactics in order to usher through design changes which impact organisations at their core. It’s difficult work. And, if you’re not the type of person who like talking to other people, then the impact of your work will only go so far. The question is, how do you demonstrate this in your portfolio? How can you demonstrate the value of design games, or collaborative moodboard exercises? Or that it took six months of negotiating with dozens of facets of an organisation in order for a content strategy to be adopted? My advice would be to write a story. Show photographs of workshops. Demonstrate how you approach these things. List the methods you’ve used and those that have worked. List those that haven’t and the reasons why.
This may seem odd for a portfolio, but if you think about it, design agencies have been doing this for decades. This is because they have similar problems. A lot of agencies sell the process of design, not the end result. In order to charge money for things like strategy, research, collaboration and what-not, all of which is difficult to show in a piece of design, they have to demonstrate it in other ways; case studies, stories, photographs. Packaging the work to show the full range of what was worked on.
A few pointers Tom gave me (and a few of my own)
Let me take you back to Manchester in 1995. I think it was early in a week in July. It was probably raining, as is usual in my home city. Anyway, Tom and I are discussing university and where I’d like to work and doing what. I start talking to him about my final year and the projects that await and he begins to advise me on not leaving my portfolio work too late. That I should be working on it throughout my final year and how I shouldn’t under-estimate the amount of work it will take. A year! Surely it couldn’t take a year, I said. It’s just a dozen prints after all. ‘No’, he said. ‘It’s probably the most important piece of work you’ll do in your final year, and one you won’t get marked on until you try and find a paying job’.
Over a nice hot cup of tea, he and I chatted for an hour or so about what makes a great portfolio and all of the things he considers when a dozen or so would land on his desk every single week. At the time, this was for a print portfolio, but looking at these now, you could easily see how they’d apply to all types of portfolio, including those for a small studio or agency.
Here are the highlights…
Who was the client? When did you work on this. What was the Date? What was your role? What was the value to the client? But keep this brief. This meta data way-finding is important when skimming through a portfolio.
Show a progression
Show work that didn’t cut it. Demonstrate your ability to change and iterate and show variance to get to a solution. This also demonstrates your graphic design capability, copywriting, and visual thinking.
If you worked under a senior, say so. Talk about why projects might not have been completed. Honestly, if you bend the truth, it’ll catch up with you at some point.
If your work is just a bunch of posters, of a certain type of client or work, then it’s easy to pigeon hole you. If you just design icons, that’s the type of work you’ll get. Demonstrate breadth, even if it means working on your own side projects or setting yourself your own briefs.
Fewer and better
Be very, very picky about what you show. If you only done three projects you are really proud of, then just show them. Talking passionately about how it went, what your contribution was, and what happened after it was finished will shine much brighter than ten single pieces of work. It’s easy to spot things made with care and love, even those commercial projects that fell short of the mark (and it’s ok to say that if you know the reasons why).
Walk the walk
If you can code, then demonstrate it. If you can’t, be clear about why you don’t think that’s applicable for your role and growth. Either way, conviction in your own abilities or not will tick boxes.
Work is more about pictures
The big difference between junior designers on the web and print is quite stark, but the more experienced you become, the roles become similar. It becomes less about pretty pictures, and more about facilitating a process from beginning to end. Think about how you can convey something before hand that isn’t a picture. This is where writing about your work trumps showing pictures. Because sometimes there just aren’t any pictures to show.
And, the last point I think nicely rounds off this post.
It’s the start of a conversation
This was applicable when I started my first job, when I ran a small agency, and now I work in-house at Monotype. Any portfolio is the start of a conversation. It needs to invite discussion, further questioning, and that all important call-back.
Going back to that stereotype traveller type, wandering around Asia with an extra 2kg in his backpack… Well, I arrived in Sydney. I had a very short list of studios I wanted to work for and proceeded in doing what I’d done before: making myself a nuisance until I had the opportunity to either leave my Book, or talk it through with someone. I managed to get the job I wanted with a great little company in Sydney called Spike. It was my first web design job. All thanks to Tom and his advice. And a sturdy rucksack.