Why a portfolio is called “your book”

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September 24, 2013
Why a portfolio is called “your book”.

thumbnailI’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.”

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 to some designers (others see a virtue for those just beginning). Essentially, you are doing free work, or speculative work at its best, to which the source usually owns all rights, in the hope for an iPod or pat on the back.

Most professionals will suggest doing pro bono work for charity, but always retain total creative control as the fee, or you will be taking art direction from an entire board of directors, who are volunteers looking for some kind of power to exert.

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?

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.

Why is it my "book?"

Do you have one of those black, vinyl portfolio cases with two handles and black filler pages and acetate covers? That's been the standard case for a thousand years. Skip the vinyl and go for leather, metal, plastic or anything that has a little pizzaz, but is business-like.

Make it easy to lift, get through and remember, that using small printed samples pasted on the black pages, is not a "book" (see more tips on portfolio accessibility from Gary's tips, in the next section). Samples posted in such a way are random and won't tell a story about you, your thinking process and just looks sloppy. Fill the page! Design a BOOK! It's a book on your career, and a huge part of your brand. Get the best quality prints you can if you're filling a sleeved portfolio case, or creating your own book. Sloppy designers have sloppy books, both digital and print.

The design images are the most important as many people will look through your book at a quick pace. Having copy about your thought process may not be read, but for those who are interested in that, better to have it there and its presence won't take away from the focus images.

Although it's not editable — people miss typos and it will cost a good amount of money (less these days due to print-on-demand) — you might want to consider creating a printed book, not only to show your work, but as a leave behind piece (make it coffee table book sized).

Any unused books can be given to family for birthdays. "A signed book about you?" they will bubble with delight.

Expert advice

I asked several friends in the position of hiring designers and illustrators what they prefer to see 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 through your thought process for each example you have in your 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 vs. printed portfolio

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 see 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?

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, 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?

My friend Josh, who I previously mentioned is a smart guy, 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 the next time, you're offered a project for which you cannot charge, demand full creative control. That will chase away the troublesome megalomaniacs.

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 “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 for 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!

What kind of portfolio do you have? Did the advice of the experts surprise you? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Featured image/thumbnail, interview image via Shutterstock.

WDD Staff

WDD staff are proud to be able to bring you this daily blog about web design and development. If there's something you think we should be talking about let us know @DesignerDepot.

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