A portfolio is a living profile of the artist who creates it. It can also be the difference between nailing an interview or falling flat; between landing a career and… well, not.
SCG Creative Director Trevor Nolte and I were recently invited to the University of Minnesota College of Design to provide guidance and mentorship to students putting together their résumés and portfolios as they prepared to apply for internships and careers in the creative fields. Meeting with students from graphic design, architecture and other disciplines, we shared our perspectives as visual artists and discussed the purpose, contents, presentation and design that would best suit their work, style and goals.
Most students’ concerns revolved around making their portfolios look good, which is a large part of grabbing a prospective employer’s attention. But standing out among peers is about more than having the fanciest portfolio; it’s about demonstrating concisely what makes your work unique. In broad strokes, our guidance simplified to a few key suggestions:
1. Curate your own work
Your portfolio should be both more and less than all of your best work. A striking, effective portfolio is a vertical slice of your talent, demonstrating your process and strengths without excess (yes, even great work can be excess). So how do you find that balance?
The pieces that catch an interviewer’s eye are the ones that showcase the range, talent and personality of their creator. Along with your self-defined masterworks, save some space for more personal pieces. Brand yourself and own it – then cull them to be pertinent to your audience and the opportunity you’re gunning for (more on this later).
An interviewer will also be paying attention to works that illustrate your process. Most employers want to know how your methodology led you from a blank canvas to a finished product.
2. Find the right format
When you know what you’ll be presenting, it’s time to figure out how you’ll present it. Physically? Digitally? Multimedia? Maybe you have some web experience and could build a webpage to house your portfolio. Don’t get carried away, though – not every format works for all disciplines.
One of the students whose portfolio Trevor reviewed planned to submit his portfolio as a bound, hardback book with reproductions of his prints on the pages. He felt that would be a cool, unique way to leave an impression with the interviewer, but found himself at odds with the practicality of showing his design drafts in such a small format. (Turns out he’d never heard of portfolio cases.)
Ultimately, the student opted for a more traditional, large-print presentation that could bring his talent, style and process to the forefront, even if it meant shelving the book idea.
3. Know the field you’re playing on
While expectations will differ between, say, a graphic design internship at a marketing agency and a career in the furniture arts, every interviewer wants to know how your brain works as well as the kind of things it can create. Putting your best work forward is only part of putting your best foot forward when applying for internships and jobs.
Thinking beyond your own work and presenting yourself as you want to be seen might be the hardest portfolio skill to master. You should try to create a feed-forward loop: Process how you perceive yourself, how you think an employer might perceive you and the things you can do – connecting your work, format, intent, priorities, et cetera – to impact their perception of you.
Utilizing your support and resources, whether they’re at home or at your college, are key to polishing your portfolio. Think beyond your résumé, know your goals and work backward from there to present not only your best work, but market yourself effectively during any interview.