February 1, 2016 - Comments Off on Tips for New Designers Part 1: Portfolios

Tips for New Designers Part 1: Portfolios

Getting feedback, whether solicited or not, isn’t always easy. It’s can be especially difficult when it is directed at the work that you’ve put so much time and care into creating. Given that external feedback is so central what it means to be a designer, it’s best to develop a thick skin early. Throughout my career, I’ve been received a lot of feedback on my work, and I’ve also had the chance to look at the work of a lot of designers just getting their start in the field. In the portfolios of less experienced designers, there are some commonalities that I often see that get in the way of receiving feedback on the actual work.

Less is Always More

As a young designer, I wanted to show everything that I had created. It’s a temptation that I see from a lot of other designers, and it’s completely understandable. You want it to be clear that you’re capable of a broad range of work. You want to convey that you’re flexible, and have the ability to pick things up as you go along. The problem with this approach is that it tends to be at the expense of quality. It also makes it difficult for the portfolio reviewer to see a clear voice in the designer. “Voice” in this instance doesn’t necessarily mean style, but instead refers to that special thing that this designer brought to the solution. If it’s difficult to see that in a portfolio, it’s difficult to say what this person will bring to the table on client projects.

The next logical question is how how many projects to show. There’s really no hard and fast rule for this one in my book, but for a junior designer I’d like to look at about 6–8 projects, give or take. If there are some extensive projects, it could certainly be less. I could even imagine a scenario where showing a single, very in-depth project would do the trick. But which projects to pick? Ah, we’ll get to that one.

Except When More is More

In terms of number of projects to show, less is the way to go. That doesn’t mean that I’m suggesting a portfolio that is light or lacking in substance. Very much the opposite, and this really gets to the heart of the challenge. For inexperienced designers especially, the reviewer isn’t as concerned with the outcome of the final project. What they really want to see is the thinking behind the work. They want to understand what the problem was, how the exploration was done, what the concept is, and how that concept was executed throughout every element of the project.

How this is conveyed is really the biggest challenge with putting together a portfolio. A lot of the time you can offer some voice over as you walk the reviewer through the projects, but that shouldn’t be the only option. Try to approach putting together your portfolio as if you weren’t present to narrate through the work—as is the case on a website—?so that you can illustrate the key talking points in other ways.

Presentation is Half of The Battle

This really shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to you as a designer, but the way you present the work is critical. It says a lot about the care that goes into the work, and it also sets the tone. It’s important that you are able to create a beautiful logo, but it’s also important how you show that identity in application. Even with digital artifacts, showing context can help a lot with giving reference to the viewer. Of course, there’s a careful balance to strike (I’m looking at your severely skewed iPhone comps).

Fake It, Even If They Didn't Make It

This lesson is the one that took me the longest to learn personally. The point is that when it comes to your portfolio, you should always show the work that you did in the best possible light. If the client mandated changes to the design that were bad decisions or you ran out of time to give the project that final polish, this is your opportunity to make things right. Show the design as you would have wanted it to live in an ideal world. When presenting the work to a reviewer, you still have to be honest about the state of the work that you’re showing. You don’t necessarily have to offer that information without being asked, but if questioned you should absolutely be honest and be prepared to defend the presented version of the work without dragging the client through the mud. Ultimately though, the worst thing is having to make excuses for how the work turned out.

Don't Kill Your Darlings. Keep Them Close.

Deciding what to pick is usually the first step of putting together a portfolio, but it’s a decision that you’ll likely have to revisit frequently. The reason being is that early in your career, it’s best to tailor the types of projects that you’re showing to the interviewer. If you’re interviewing at a company that specializes in web design, it might not be the best tactic to go in with a portfolio that focuses on branding. Exercise your best judgement here, but always tailor the presentation to the audience.

Start by compiling a list of the work that you could show, and narrow it down to work the would be more relevant to the reviewer. From that shorter list, chose the work that you’re really passionate about. This will most likely result in a manageable list for you to figure out how to package. Depending on the type of review, you may also want to put in a wildcard project or two that you really love. Maybe it’s for a non-profit that you believe in or it was a project that came together really well and you feel it really represents your vision. Ultimately it’s your call, but your belief in the work will come through during the review.

In The Next Episode

Those four things are the biggest pointers that I can give to designers just starting to put together a portfolio. Having the work is just one part of the equation, however. Next week I'll talk about bringing it home in the interview.

Anything really important that I missed in the list above? Drop a line.

Published by: Ira F. Cummings in Blog

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