Career Creative Recruitment — 24 May 2012
A designer’s portfolio: art vs strategy

The perfect graphic design portfolio should be a PDF of high-res images of your “best” work, right? They should be photographed from funky angles and laid out in a way that demonstrates your creative style. And that’s it. Easy. Right?

And then, when the Creative/Art Director gets your portfolio into their inbox they open the PDF, scroll through the pages, and from seeing the images of the press ads, brochure covers, logos, magazine layouts and web pages you’ve so carefully positioned and included, they will be so wowed that they will pick up the phone and hire you on the spot. Right?

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

You could be the world’s greatest designer, but a collection of pretty pictures saved as a PDF will very rarely get you a new job. What about the thought process behind your design? What about the brief? Was the campaign/design successful? How can someone tell all that from a PDF of images?

Strategy is a word that is thrown around a lot, probably too much. And, whilst the word may be over used, the thinking behind a design is just as, if not more important than how aesthetically pleasing it is. So include it in your portfolio.

For example, let’s say you have designed a brochure for a financial services company and the front cover has a beautiful photograph of a mountaineer summiting a snowy peak. Or you’ve designed a stunning new logo, with bespoke typography for a construction business. Great, they should definitely be featured in your portfolio, but what you MUST also include is the thought process behind your design showing your response to the creative brief.

Who were the target audience for the financial services company? What product is the brochure marketing? What was the key message behind the campaign/design? Why did you choose that image? Why a mountaineer? What did the old logo for the construction company look like? Why were they re-branding? Why did you choose that style/colour? How was the campaign rolled out?

You don’t need to write War and Peace for each campaign, as the detail can be discussed at interview, but a short paragraph or a few bullet points to explain each piece goes a very long way. It gives the reader an insight into the design, to you as a designer, why the design looks like it does and what you were looking to achieve.

You may have been working as part of a creative team and therefore weren’t involved in the strategic thinking. That’s fine, and whilst you should never claim work that wasn’t yours, it’s important to demonstrate you understand why the design evolved in the way it did.

A portfolio is the single most important tool that a Designer has at their disposal. It’s a platform on which to showcase your skills, so put some time into the design and presentation of it but don’t think of it as just a collection of images – in our current economic climate, where margins are lower and every decision and cost needs to be accounted for, the strategy behind a design is just as important as how it looks.

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(8) Readers Comments

  1. I agree with most of what you say but sometimes i come across portfolios that explain their briefs and it tends to bore me half the time, I’ve witnessed first hand how creative managers recruiting for new positions fly through portfolios and they don’t like to read much. I think your point about having a couple of bullet points is good, i myself have a header/title and subtitle, every piece with consistent formatting of course. your comment about the thinking behind a design is just as, if not more important than how aesthetically pleasing it is, I find depends on who your audience is, if it’s the interviewer then sure but even still, if the design itself isn’t aesthetically pleasing then surely that shows a lack of technical execution regardless of how good the idea is.. if its for a design role. Other questions people want to find out is how many pieces of work should you show at an interview, should you take 5-10, 10+. I personally take quite a lot and play it by ear as to how much i showcase. I would always take your portfolio in both print and digital formats (flash drive – swf file) depending on the type of role it is.

    • Hi James
      Thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts.
      Yes agreed, the visual impact of the design must stand on its own feet – it can’t all be about the strategy and the idea – the execution has got to work too. And I also agree that too much information can be just as bad as none at all!
      As for how many pieces to include; I think it depends on the role and to be blunt, how much really good work one has in their folio! Taking a lot of work, in both hard and soft copies, and then selecting pieces to discuss during the meeting works really well – but only if you know your folio inside out and don’t find yourself flipping/scrolling through page after page looking for a specific piece.
      Cheers
      Alex

  2. An alternative to including a list of information about each project, on every page, is to include a case study or two. Talk about the brief, insights, strategy, execution and results. Try to keep each of these points to one paragraph and you’ll soon have a couple of ‘power pages’ in your folio that speak to employers and recruiters alike.

    This is a simple exercise when you’re talking about your best work and goes a long way in demonstrating how you approach your work.

    If you’re not confident writing about yourself, get someone else to have a read (a colleague, BF, GF, wife et al etc) and remember – spell check everything at least twice before sending your folio off.

  3. “You may have been working as part of a creative team and therefore weren’t involved in the strategic thinking. ”

    Oh really! A true, if dreadfully sad reflection on our business today.

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  5. Hi, i read your blog from time to time and i own a similar one and i
    was just wondering if you get a lot of spam responses?
    If so how do you protect against it, any plugin or anything you can recommend?

    I get so much lately it’s driving me mad so any help is very much appreciated.

    • I can definitely help you out with this one. We get thousands of spam comments but never see them because we use a spam filter called Akismet.com – It’s only $5 per month and you install it into your wordpress site. Pretty easy.

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