Dos and Don’ts of the Design Portfolio

Ben Garfinkel – 34 Comments

Job Seeker

Mark just asked me to take ten minutes and jot down my opinions about what a student (or anyone I guess) should do/include/avoid when putting together and presenting a portfolio. A couple years ago I actually did a post on the topic on this blog.

Since then I have been on the receiving end of hundreds (if not more) emails, cover letters, resumes, portfolios, unannounced drop-ins and all manner of people, talented and otherwise, looking to work here. Having been on the other side, let’s call it the Dark Side, before, I can empathize. Most often I try to respond personally with some kind of feedback. Here’s a peek into what I’m really thinking. Oh and by the way, this isn’t just what I’m thinking, it’s the general sentiment here at Industrial Brand and I’m sure many other places too.

Don’t waste my time.
Tailor your book to me – or at least what it is you think will get my attention based on the work WE do. Prove you’ve done a little research about us. Want to get my attention? Show me I’m not your latest form-letter victim.

Get Electric
I don’t have time to meet with every person who contacts me, especially when I’m not hiring. I have unsolicited portfolios and resumes sitting on my desk, or worse, that take the lowest priority. These days I want to see a PDF, or even better, a website with good samples of your work that are representative of the skills you hope to bring to the company.

The notion of a super busy creative director actually having the time to sift through a bunch of junk to find a jewel in the rough is a romantic one that probably last happened in the ’70s. Seriously, the competition is so tight that portfolios that are not polished and professional are usually completely overlooked.

Touch me while touching base
In your email to me:

  • Prove you understand what we do.
  • Spell our and my name right (it’s amazing how often this small detail is screwed up and guess what, if you do it here you’re going to do it to my clients so why should I hire you?).
  • Don’t screw up and forget to change the salutation containing the name of the last company you sent it to.
  • Generally, a well worded, perfectly crafted (spelling, grammar, etc.) and brief letter is going to make more of an impact than some risky attempt at wit.
  • Include a link to your website and/or a PDF.
  • Tell me what you want and why you think you are a candidate.

So, the portfolio itself:

  • First impressions count. Knock my socks off.
  • I’m probably NOT going to read very much the first time through. Case studies and descriptions are good to include in case I really am interested and want more, but don’t count on them to accompany your work.
  • I personally look at identity work first because I find I can make a pretty accurate judgment of your skills. If your logo work is tight, professional, relevant and attractive usually the rest of the portfolio is good too. I’m generalizing, but guess what, that’s what I’m doing anyway when quickly reviewing a portfolio.
  • Keep in mind that I am making a judgment on how your work will extrapolate to the kind of work we need to do for our clients (or future clients). Feel free to tailor the content to our needs.
  • Have a physical portfolio too – you’ll need something to bring with you if you get a meeting!
  • Fussy, complicated or overly precious portfolios are annoying.
  • Well presented work that’s clear and concise is important. Hey, think of it as yet another opportunity to give me a sense of your talent to make a good presentation. Clean, clear, practical, results-oriented and impressive – just like good business communication.
  • Dirty, bruised, tired portfolio? You probably are too.
  • Two kinds of work: Great design and great concept. These can be mutually exclusive, but show me some pieces with both and you’ll stay out of the ‘round file’! Actually, this student seems to get it. They realize that they should make their portfolio a reflection of themselves, the kind of work they want to do and then pursue the companies that would be receptive to it so as not to get stuck making crap and being unhappy doing it.

Listen up
Finally, you’ll hear lots of rhetoric from busy people. Sometimes they take an extra moment to give more honest, personal feedback. Cherish this. Don’t expect a job from people, be happy to simply get advice, and take it (sometimes with a grain of salt). Ask if you can be back in touch sometime. From the answer you can intuit whether there might be something in the future. Then actually do it. Be good if you had something new to offer when you do.

That’s all I have NO TIME FOR.