Top creatives share their secrets on how they put together portfolios that win them clients.
In a buoyant market, a quality print portfolio is important, but in a creative sector that’s in the grips of a recession, it’s those with outstanding portfolios who stand a realistic chance of prospering.
For a portfolio to have the wow factor, a creative must have both eyes fixed firmly on commercial viability – this is not just a collection of pictures in a smart folder, but a statement of intent that says: “I can provide design solutions that will make money for you and your clients.”
This is what makes assembling a job-winning portfolio such a challenge for graduates, who have limited commercial design experience – or none at all.
Richie Manu, creative director of Consurgo, www.consurgo.co.uk, a London creative agency, says: “If you’ve got a student portfolio then it will be full of one-off pieces of art, which might look great but also look like they took 10 weeks each to produce – so they’re unlikely to be commercially viable.”
Illustration students face the same problem, says Fig Taylor, portfolio consultant to the Association of Illustrators, www.theaoi.com.
“Graduate portfolios are what got them their degree, and are largely full of stuff that pleased tutors, who want to see evidence of growth and maturity,” says Taylor.
“Clients simply want to see if you’re a really good – and reliable – illustrator.” Both Manu and Taylor recommend the same approach for recent graduates looking to build a compelling portfolio: sweat blood to build up a new body of work that demonstrates your skill as a commercial designer.
“If new graduates want to succeed as illustrators, they have to take the time to put together a new body of work that is geared towards the needs of industry,” says Taylor.
She adds: “Given that most graduates’ first jobs will be in the editorial market, they have to analyze that market, and produce pieces for the magazines and newspapers that will be most likely to use their skills.”
Get ahead Manu says that the work of developing a portfolio that will impress potential clients begins before graduation: “I encourage students to go out and seek private projects, which they can then take to design professionals as live projects, rather than just presenting college projects.
“It’s always difficult finding private work but you’ve got to start somewhere. If you’re good at marketing yourself, one job can lead to 20 jobs.”
Manu also advises young designers to build a web presence “to allow people to scope out their work”. He adds: “Even if it’s a simple holding page, you have to get your stuff online – anything that will help someone to engage your services. On the back of such private work, you can build a print portfolio that’s far likelier to get you to where you want to be.”
Manu is launching a careers service called Consurgo Nightlight, aimed at graduates and mid-career designers. Nightlight puts job-seekers in contact with experienced designers, who give mentoring, portfolio review and critiques sessions.
The AOI offers similar services. At its twice-yearly Open Portfolios sessions, Taylor and a panel of experienced art buyers and commissioners deliver key advice to recently graduated illustrators.
One of the most common problems the critics find at these sessions is an inability to self-edit – a crucial skill for crafting a client-winning portfolio. “A lot of the time we’re helping illustrators become objective about their work,” says Taylor.
“Just because something is published doesn’t mean it should be in your portfolio. If it’s not representative of where you want to go, then it will do you more harm than good, because clients will ask you to produce similar stuff – and before you know it, you’re heading in a direction you don’t want to go.
“Also, if there is derivative work that looks as of anyone else could have done it, remove it. Go with work that is strongest, original and personal.” Another mistake Taylor sees frequently is lousily executed editorial illustration mock-ups.
She says: “Quite often, illustrators will superimpose a piece of their work on an editorial spread that has no bearing on their illustration, because they think it makes their work look slicker.
"Yet clients often read the articles to learn something of how that illustrator thinks. If they find themselves beguiled by an image that bears no relevance to the text surrounding it, they’ll be put off. I once saw a guy whose whole portfolio was like this – it’s unbelievably dopey.”
One of the experts at the most recent AOI Open Portfolios session was Rebecca McCubbin, art buyer for Mother London www.motherlondon.com, an agency whose clients include Boots, Coca-Cola and Unilever.
McCubbin receives up to 50 requests a day for portfolio viewings from illustration and photography agents, as well as from individual creatives.
Naturally, only portfolios of a high quality end up in front of her eyes. So what advice does she give to newly graduated illustrators? “I tell them that I look for a definite style, and that they should show how that style can be adapted.”
Taylor agrees, saying that even gifted illustrators who can easily create a number of compelling styles must hone it down to one for their portfolio. “I ask them what they enjoy the most and what they feel they can sustain for the longest time, because it has to be something that has some element of spontaneity and discovery in it,” she says.
McCubbin adds that it’s crucial for creatives to customize their portfolio depending on who’s viewing it – a tactic that has been central to the success of freelance illustrator Laura Hughes www.laura-illustration.co.uk.
“The most important thing with a portfolio is to be relevant and to include only the stuff you like, because if you don’t like something, you can’t talk about it in a positive way,” says Hughes.
Whenever she’s not working on commissioned work, Hughes produces personal pieces to keep her portfolio relevant to whoever she is seeing. “Personal work takes up about a quarter of my portfolio but I do personal work only for the benefit of getting commissioned work.
For example, I might find I’ve not been commissioned anything for ages that has people in it, so I will draw some pieces featuring people, in order to balance things out a bit.”
She adds: “I’ve also got a backup of general images, such as businessmen and food, and subject matter you can chop and change. This can always be slotted in toward the back, although I would always look to change the first image, too, so it’s relevant.”
Hughes also tracks who she has seen and what they liked and disliked in her portfolio, allowing her to fine-tune its contents should she revisit them.
Show your worth
When it comes to portfolios, for top UK retouching house Saddington & Baynes www.saddingtonbaynes.com, being relevant is everything. “Retouching is an invisible art form, so it’s important for someone to demonstrate what’s really gone into an image [in their portfolio],” says partner and director of retouching, James Digby- Jones.
“It might only be a colour correction from the original photograph, or it may have been compiled from many elements. The process of demonstrating exactly what has gone into putting something together makes your skills clear.”
Digby-Jones also scans any portfolio for evidence of something very important: innate creativity. “I’ve always said that there’s a lot that can be taught from a skills point of view, but it’s harder to teach someone to have creativity,” he explains.
“If you’re doing colour grading, that little five to 10 per cent that you put into an image to make it look a little different is what I look for in a portfolio, rather than someone showing they can operate all of Photoshop’s tools and palettes.
"They need to show they’ve exercised some judgement. It shows they understand us as a company and they get what we want from our people.”
Design professionals are fairly united, then, in their opinion of what makes a good portfolio. However, when it comes to what kind of folder or carrier a portfolio should be presented in. Whereas Digby-Jones dislikes plastic sleeves – “they’re reflective and make the work difficult to see” – others feel they’re essential to protect the work.
“I saw a technical illustrator once who told me someone was viewing his portfolio while smoking, and burned a hole in one of his pieces,” says the AOI’s Fig Taylor.
“Because of the nature of his work, each piece took him a very long time. Others have had work ruined by spilled tea and coffee.”
The experts also disagree over the size and colour a portfolio should be. “Don’t make it black and don’t make it A3, because you’ll look like everyone else – do something different,” advises McCubbin.
“I love it when someone sends me a small portfolio. For some reason I feel I can take it in quicker, because it feels more concise.”
Hughes, on the other hand, feels that anything smaller than A3 would not work for her. “My work is very detailed and anything less than A3 doesn’t show this off,” she says.
Once you’ve settled on the right size for you, it’s time to think carefully about the portfolio’s appearance and presentation – if anything, this is even more important. “I think presentation is really important, as it shows the person takes care in what they do.” says McCubbin.
“When someone has put together a nice book it reflects well on how they might execute a job. It’s important everything is neat and considered.” But, says Digby-Jones, “a leather-bound folio with embossed details won’t impress if the work doesn’t speak for itself.”
Understandably, much discussion of portfolios focuses on the needs of graduates – yet there’s no shortage of mid-career designers who would benefit from some portfolio advice.
Manu says that for this reason, he’s planning Nightlight sessions later this year for just such people. “I was a victim myself of mid-career portfolio problems,” admits Manu.
“I went to someone who was working for a recruitment agency, and asked them to take a look through my portfolio. She could tell I’d been in the same company for a long time, and spotted a similarity in the work. This is the danger of a mid-career portfolio – your work can become samey and a tiny bit stale.”
Manu’s advice to other creatives suffering from mid-career staleness is to throw themselves into private work, whether this be commercial or personal.
Digby-Jones says that Saddington & Baynes looks for different qualities in a mid-career portfolio: “Although there may be a personal response to a portfolio – I might not like the style of their work, for example – the important thing is that the work is considered, and that there are points we can talk about, such as client requirements on the jobs they are showing me.”
He adds: “If someone shows a couple of images that are less strong I would expect them to explain why – perhaps they were pieces from earlier in their career, or maybe a client had given them insufficient time to complete them to their satisfaction.”
The biggest single complaint about student portfolios from employers across all design disciplines is that they too often ignore the most important factor in design: commercial viability.
Unsurprisingly, the world’s best-known product designer began his career with a brilliant portfolio. Jonathan Ive, senior vice-president of industrial design at Apple, has spent the past decade redefining industrial design – his influence spreads way beyond his sector.
Ive started making a splash at Apple when still a student at Newcastle Polytechnic in the late 1980s. The college had a scholarship that allowed an outstanding design student (Ive) to visit firms around the world.
He went to see Apple’s then director of industrial design, Robert Brunner. Brunner, now CEO of US product design group Ammunition, www.ammunitiongroup.com, remembers viewing Ive’s student portfolio: “Jonathan made an appointment, and I looked at his work. A very good designer can develop a wonderful object, but the big battle is getting through engineering, manufacturing and distribution. He had beautiful designs but they were completely thought out. They were ready to be manufactured. I’d never seen a student go into that level of detail and development.
“The one thing I remember is a telephone he’d done, that was very radical form, but he found a way to make it work, and also a way it could be produced. You could see that he was going to be an effective designer, because he understood that it’s one thing to do a cool model but another to figure out how to make a million of them.
“One of my pet hates about portfolios I see today is the pervasiveness of CAD technology. It’s important that students are proficient at it, but it’s moved people away from the craft of industrial design. I don’t see as many models as I used to, and I don’t think that as a designer you can really understand something until you can make it.”
Illustrator Jang Zhing, who works under the name Mazakii, www.mazakii.com, presents her work to potential clients as a printed booklet, which she updates regularly. “I want something physical,” she says.
“I also wanted to test the colour on different paper stock. It feels much better that I have it printed out. Also, commercial clients sometimes want to see the result of a design work. A printed book is a good sample to present your design work.”
However, she reserves her printed portfolio for clients she is meeting face-to-face. “I only have one copy, for myself only,” she explains. “Although I want a lot of copies, sometimes I update my work on a daily basis, and it’s impossible to print out a lot.”
She says that her careful presentation of her pattern-set images gets the best reaction from potential clients. “They’re all designed in a specific colour chart, which has the strongest visual effect – especially in print.”
“My portfolio is tricky because it’s a mixture of graphic design and illustration,” says Adi Gilbert, who works under the name 99 Seconds, 99seconds.com.
He explains that he used to mix both, but now splits them into clearly labelled sections. “I start off with what I think is a strong piece and finish with my favourite. Start with a punch and end with a hug,” he adds. After years with an A3 portfolio, Gilbert has opted for A4 format.
“My last one was A3 and it was a nightmare to carry it around town: this one slips in my backpack. Also it allows me to print in the studio, keeping the costs and fuss down.”
“When the time came to create a new portfolio, I wanted to get as far away from the standard black-sleeved portfolio as possible,” says Tim Rowe, www.welikeourjob.com.
“As I was no longer a graduate, and as my main passion was print I felt it important to put as much thought and love into the portfolio as I put into the work.”
For this, he had to consider a cover, abstract pages, the method of presentation and the binding process (a French fold). He then selected projects that highlighted his range of skills.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in a nice selection of agencies producing a wide variety of work – ranging from channel idents to building signage to traditional print jobs,” he says.
“Hopefully this is mirrored in my portfolio. Though this could be seen as a disadvantage if going for a strictly print job, I felt it was important to highlight my skills as an all-rounder.”
Rowe adds that he’s currently working on a new portfolio, which will have a master section of key projects, and an archive from which he can cherry-pick the most appropriate projects for the audience.
“Something I’ve found when laying out my work is that it’s good to have contrasting pieces next to each other,” says Sean Freeman www.thereis.co.uk.
“For instance, a piece with a black background next to a piece with a white, so long as they’re on the same subject, such as two pieces of type.”
He also feels it’s important to use space carefully, for example spreading a piece across a double-page spread rather than trying to fit it on one page.
“One thing I’ve not done is include any information about the work in my portfolio, for instance the title, or the client,” he says. “This is because I want the work to be the main focus, irrespective of who or what it’s been used for, and also because it gives me something to talk about when I’m talking through the work.“
Richie Manu, founder of Consurgo, says that presenting even print portfolios online is increasingly common: “Print designers now shoot work such as brochures using high-quality photography and present this online, alongside the digital files that went into making the print job.”
The Association of Illustrators runs Open Por tfolios events every year . AOI portfolio consultant Fig Taylor says: “I don’t subscribe to the idea that there should be ‘X’ number of pieces of work in a portfolio. My advice is you should research your market or markets and put together a portfolio that says ‘This is what I do and this is how you can use me.’”
Your portfolio should not only reflect your style but reflect the commissions you’re after: illustrator Silent Hobo (www.silenthobo.co.uk) includes this commissioned illustration of a grime producer when he’s seeking similar assignments.
Mazakii’s highly detailed print portfolio features a range of paper stocks and specially-cut papers (left), indicating to clients that she’s fully aware of the special demands of print publications. Below: samples of Mazakii’s illustrations.
99 Seconds Gilbert’s portfolio is a simple document that he’s constantly updating; it can also be easily transformed into a PDF for emailing. “It’s so much more manageable than I’ve had before,” he says. “I want my portfolio to be more about the work in it than the delivery.”
Less is more when it comes to the number of pages in your portfolio, says Laura Hughes. “I only show my best work, even if this means there’s a couple of empty pages at the end,” she says. “I don’t have a great deal of examples of book illustrations so if I went to see a book publisher I wouldn’t put a load of editorial work in there to bulk it out.”
Saddington & Baynes retouching artist Karl Hugill landed his job on the strength of his portfolio and interview. The studio’s head of retouching, James Digby-Jones, says: “While the content in any folio is the important factor, presentation does help. Karl’s portfolio is beautifully designed, printed and bound. The paper is a photographic lustre effect, which maximises the colour range, but minimizes the glare and reflections you get with glossy papers or sleeves.”
Create a great portfolio
- How you display your work can be as important as the work itself. Give it space; don’t cram it in.
- A print portfolio shouldn’t be bigger than A3, and should ideally be A4. It should be small enough to comfortably hand around and open in a cramped office.
- Less is more – don’t have too much work for potential employers to trawl through in your print portfolio. The better the work, and the more you love it, the more likely you will be to catch somebody’s attention.
- Include personal work – it’s another way of demonstrating your skill, it gives you fresh marketing material to post out and shows you are passionate enough to work for pleasure as well as cash.
- Consider how to mount work. Black card is no good for dark, moody pieces, and light pieces with fine detail will not be served well by white card.
- For print portfolios, develop a subtle marking to indicate which side is the front, so that prospective employers open it at the right end.
- Diversity works better for graphic design portfolios than for illustration portfolios. Graphic designers should show they can work across different mediums and styles to communicate messages. Illustrators benefit most from a single, strong style that they can show being applied across many different briefs.
- Be considered. There should be a natural flow of pieces through the folio, but throw in contrasting as well as complementing pieces to keep the viewer interested.
- Tailor the folio to the person you’re presenting to. It’s no good showing the Guardian technical illustrations of products, or a brand identity agency your work on annual reports.
- As a rule of thumb, put strong work at the front – you have to attract attention while you can.
Image Archan Nair, www.archann.net