How A Last-Second Portfolio Decision Impacted My Career Forever

In recent weeks I’ve been getting a number of emails around the subject of portfolios so I figured I’d take some time to share with you my experience when it came to creating my first portfolio and some of the most common mistakes I see in portfolios on a regular basis.

Keep in mind the context of this lesson is  a traditional new graduate portfolio, but much of this still holds true for any other portfolio you have to put together for yourself in your career. I hope this lesson helps you evaluate your current portfolio so you can make it better. As with all my lessons I really try not to talk too much about the obvious, so if I leave out something obvious it’s because I’m making an assumption you know the basics (such as layout, spell check, etc.).

My Experience:

So just like many design schools, I also was required to enroll in a portfolio class my senior year. This class was designed to help develop my personal brand, resume and portfolio for potential employers. It was by far my most exhausting time in college. I got to focus two whole semesters on creating a solution that would hopefully help me land my first job out of school. Either I was going to come out of college a winner or a loser and this class was the only class standing in the way of that. With that said, I was well prepared for the battle that was ahead of me.

The first semester was very frustrating as I was trying to define who I was and what part of the design industry I was going to focus on. I also had the added pressure of knowing that my peers will soon become my competition. In a matter of months, I had to figure out a way to to set myself apart from the competition.

At first we were required to start with our brand. I immediately settled on a logo and package that utilized my initials and felt very clean and sophisticated. I suppose you could call it a safe option. I sat with that logo and brand for awhile, but often times felt insecure and bothered by the solution. However, I knew I had to keep going in order to pull together everything I needed for year’s end.

Soon I moved onto the actually portfolio and the format of the portfolio. Keep in mind this was during a time when portfolios were still primarily created in a physical format. In order to fit with my clean and sophisticated brand I decided I’d settle on a basic aluminum portfolio book. I’d then simply print my portfolio work off and slide each piece into its appropriate sleeve. After all, it was a proven format. Why wouldn’t that be a good option? I quickly purchased my portfolio book and called it done.

As you can tell up until this point my portfolio was pretty straight forward. Sure I was really proud of how nice it was and how sophisticated it made me look to potential employers, however, something bothered me deep down with this solution. Was it the fact that many of my peers had gone with the same portfolio format? Or perhaps it was because there was no depth to my solution? Either way I kept moving along and I soon closed out the first semester.

Since the first semester was about finalizing your brand and how you were going to present your work, the second semester was designed to focus on portfolio reviews and wrapping up much of the last minute details that were required to get you ready for the end of year career fair.

During the start of that final semester I decided to choose my Dean as the first person to review my portfolio. I respected him and he worked in the industry for years. Surely he would be honest with me. Not only was this because I wanted to get his opinion on my work, I wanted to talk to him about my insecurities with my portfolio. He reassured me that my portfolio was not going to be any issue. He said everything looked great. I left that meeting feeling a little more confident with the choices I had made.

Unfortunately, after about a two weeks those insecure feelings started to creep back up. Perhaps this was because I was getting closer to the end of the semester and my nerves were starting to become more noticeable? I remember sitting in bed one night wondering if this was the brand that represented me. Was I really creating the ultimate portfolio that was going to set me up for success down the road? Was this the right solution? How could it be? My portfolio was pretty much the same as all of my peers. Sure the work was different, but the delivery and presentation felt very much the same. If I was to brand myself shouldn’t it be unique? So I made the call. With about four weeks left in my college career I decide to scrap it all.

With my current portfolio already approved by my instructors and other industry professionals I went back to the drawing board. The risk was huge. I was now supposed to be placing my final touches on my resume and business cards. I was supposed to be wrapping things up. Time was running out and I decided it was time to start over. However, I knew deep down inside that if I was going to stand a chance at all of being remembered by employers, I needed to not rely on my actual work too much. Lets face it, much of it was student work anyways. I needed a solution that really showed what I was capable of. I wanted to work for a branding agency and if there was ever an opportunity to show my strengths this was it.

To keep this story short, I’m going to summarize for you everything that happened in those final four weeks. First off I scrapped my entire logo and color pallet, and determined that I needed to develop a story. Something that had depth that I could talk about. So I did a self evaluation on myself. I found that I really enjoy the color brown, nostalgia and logos that utilize numbers and appear strong. I also really love brands that tell a story and have many parts to them. I decided I’d find a way to pull all of these things together in my own personal brand. The story that I decided to tell was that of a long, lost portfolio found in the attic of an old house. Something that would have perhaps come from the 40s. The only thing this portfolio had to identify it was the great work inside. Everything else was a mystery.

My new logo became the number 46 (46 is where my initials fall within the alphabet). Was it mind blowing? Absolutely not. But it allowed me to create a mark that I loved and it created conversation. Whenever I share that logo with someone they ask, “What does the number 46 mean?”  The great thing is it became a built-in call to action. The only way someone would find out exactly what 46 meant was if they set up a time with me to tell them.

Now that my brand was defined it was time to rethink my portfolio. Obviously a shiny aluminum portfolio would not fit my story. I decided to get crafty. I found a cheap painting kit at a hobby store for kids that resembled a wooden briefcase. It cost just 20 dollars. I gutted it out, stained it and changed the hardware to something more fitting for that era. It took three days of breathing in toxic fumes, but that became the container that would hold my work. But what about my work? How was I going to present that?

Sure, I suppose I could’ve just mounted my work on presentation boards and tossed them into the box, but I dove deeper into this story and decided that inside this box would be a photo album. This photo album would contain all of my portfolio pieces. With my portfolio box in hand I soon began the hunt for the perfect photo album. I found it at a scrapbooking store. I spent one weekend completely hacking the photo album to fit my presentation work. In the end I only used a portion of the portfolio. It was a ton of work, but was well worth it.

But I didn’t stop there. I needed to create a takeaway for potential employers to remember me by. I didn’t really want to give them something useless so I decided I would create a stamp of my logo and purchased some small pocket-sized brown Moleskin notebooks. I stamped each of the notebooks with my logo and left them with anyone who visited my table. The notebooks also had a message inside each of them thanking them for checking out my portfolio and to contact me if they had any additional questions or wanted to know more about the 46 brand. I also included my portfolio stamped business card with it.  

Along with all of the physical items I also created a website that made the box the hero of the site. It was a flash-based website where visitors could actually open the portfolio box and navigate around my work. It had a small story about the portfolio, but prompted them to contact me for an interview to find out more about what 46 means.

Sure it was rough. I made most  all of it by hand. Every business card was cut and stamped by me and my friends. I think the beauty of this concept was that even with some of its imperfections it actually helped tell the story. After dragging that wooden box around for four weeks it sure got banged up. But it was those imperfections that helped everything fit together just right.

Was I the best designer to graduate in my class that year? Absolutely not. Many of my fellow classmates were way better then me. However, I can honestly say without a doubt that my first job was simply because of the impression I made with that portfolio at the career fair. You see, what I had was a memorable delivery. Not only were my fellow classmates surprised by what they saw, but so were my teachers and even the Dean. Because of how unique the package was, employers would look past the fact that most of my work was student quality work. They could see the conceptual mind at work and my dedication to problem solving.

I had a problem to solve and I solved it. Was it on my first try? Nope, but often times it never is the first idea that is the best. Sometimes it takes scrapping your first idea and going back to the drawing board a second or third time. My only regrets with my portfolio is that I wish I would have listened to my gut the first time and redone it sooner.

I’ve had many great opportunities come my way because of that portfolio, and nothing was more rewarding than knowing that my solution worked. When I arrived for my first interview about a week after the career fair, the first thing the creative director said in my interview was, “Is this the guy responsible for the 46 brand that everyone’s been talking about all week?” I smiled and Chuck (the gentlemen who discovered me at the career fair) showed me all of the great notes he’d been taking during the week with his 46 branded Moleskin notebook.

Now I can’t say if my pervious portfolio would have had the same outcome or not. It very well could’ve still gotten me a job. But I can say with confidence that it would not have been nearly as memorable as the one I presented. Till this day many designers who know this story call me by 46, and I occasionally hear about a designer still holding onto that 46 branded notebook. Because I’m sure you’re curious abuot what this portfolio looks like, I’ve posted photos of it on my Facebook Page. While you're there give my page a like.

What I’ve Learned about Design Portfolios.

  • Be memorable: Often times I come across portfolios that are just not memorable. I’m not saying that you have to let your presentation overshadow your work, but think about your brand. Your portfolio should be on brand and illustrate your ability to tell a story right down to the format you choose. Keep in mind employers look at hundreds or thousands of portfolios. Give them something that breaks the monotony and makes them say, “I haven’t seen that before.” I guarantee you’ll get their attention. We want to be inspired too.
  • Stand for something: It’s easy to think you need to show an employer or potential client everything you’re capable of achieving for them. Although it may sound like a great idea at first, be careful with that. Sometimes it can really set you back. When reviewing a portfolio or candidate, We’re not only looking at the quality of work, but more importantly we’re trying to determine who you are as a designer. Do you fit our needs? Sure, we may get excited to know that you’re capable of offering more and we love hearing that, but more often than not we really want to understand what your core skill is to ensure fit within a team.
  • Give context: Here’s the truth about student and non-client work. We love seeing it in portfolios. It’s inspiring and takes us back to the days of no budgets and blue sky thinking, but the truth is we can tell the difference between a student project and a real project. Often times it’s really easy. That’s why we like thesis projects. It gives us a chance to see your process and your problem solving. I love to see portfolios that try and turn every project into something that could actually have been real. Give us context and tell us what problem you were trying to solve. Don’t just show us a solution. Just because you had to do it one way for class doesn’t mean you can’t change and expand on it later.
  • Be careful of including too much personality: I think this is a big one. Sure you may love a certain elaborate font, color palette, texture or subject to design around. However, you do need to be careful with how much of your own personality and taste go into your work. It makes it really hard for employers to see how you would be able to help them with their clients. Now I’m not saying you should not have a style, but your style can’t be so niche early on. You have to be able to have some mass appeal with your work. As a designer in the industry, you’ll be tasked to work on a ton of projects with a ton of different brand guidelines and many tend to be pretty vanilla. If you feel like you really enjoy a certain type of client and style of design, go towards that industry, but if you want to go mass market you have to have mass market appeal.
  • Tell your story: Early on many designers throw out wide nets and hope to find something great. Your portfolio should reflect your story and who you are as a designer. If you really love branding and that is what you want to do, double down on that. Find employers who would benefit from your skill. I reviewed a designer’s portfolio one time and she began to apologize to me because she didn’t have any websites in her portfolio. She said she really just wants to do branding and logo work. I remember explaining to her that in that case, I’d rather see twelve really great brands in your book that you can talk about with pride than trying to force two mediocre website designs at me because you’re obligated to have them in your portfolio. The industry is full of great opportunities for designers. The only way someone will know what you want is if you tell them your story.
  • Enhance your strengths and down play your weaknesses: Similar to the above, but this is more so related to skills. Don’t include something that you are not good at in your portfolio. Nobody is great at everything. Those who look like the’ve got it figured out are only showing you their strengths. Why would they share their weaknesses? If you don’t show an employer a weakness, most likely it won’t come up. If it does simply discuss it as a weakness, but continue to focus on your strengths.
  • Quality over quantity: This is pretty obvious, but don’t try to include every project you’ve ever done. We simply don’t have to time to review it all and often times all of that work just starts to bore us some. Keep your portfolio limited to 10-12 pieces of your best work. I’d even be happy with six really killer projects. The truth is that after the first handful of projects we can tell already whether you have the skills we’re looking for or not. Make it your best and tailor it to that company’s needs.

My Takeaway:

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a good number of portfolios come across my desk, some great. But more often than not I’ve always felt slightly disappointed with them. Many never really feel memorable, focused or engaging. I’m not saying all portfolios have to be completely wild like the portfolio I created for myself. But I do think often times as designers we’re focussed too much on the actual work we are putting into the portfolio and not enough time determining the goals for the portfolio and what mechanism we are going to use to deliver the best results. As a young designer the types of work you can include in your portfolio are pretty limited anyways, so try to spend more time on your story and your strengths versus throwing everything you’ve ever created at us. That’s one reason why I felt like I needed to develop the Portfolio Workshop. The workshop is really set up to help designers define goals and create a portfolio that gets the results they’re looking for.

With portfolios becoming more digital it can provide some limitations in format, but it does give you an edge in terms of how you deliver your story from a technical standpoint. Think about how you can get an employer to click your portfolio link in their inbox. A nice polite email can work, but when we’re busy sometimes you need to go beyond that. How far is too far?

Think of your portfolio like a movie trailer. Focus on the story and give us a handful of great scenes to get us excited. If we want to see the full movie, we’ll buy the ticket. If we don’t like the trailer we may just rent it first, but with all movies there’s always someone who’s willing to buy a ticket if the trailer is good enough.

Communication is important to me, so I’d love to continue the conversation with you.

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