Quick, as someone who creates visual stuff, what is the most important professional asset you possess?
- Your quick wit?
- Your lucky shark tooth necklace?
- Your Uncle who knows a guy?
- The Instagram photo of you eating a burrito the size of a baby that got 12,000 likes?
- Your minor in psychology?
- Your degree?
- Your resume/cv?
- Your creative work (paintings, photographs, architecture, etc.)?
Answers in order:
- Definitely not
- Nope, not even close
- Closer, but no
- Even closer, but still no
The single most important professional asset you possess as a visual creative is your portfolio. Period. It is also one of the most misunderstood and neglected.
Why is your Portfolio your most Important Professional Asset?
If you are serious about pursuing a creative professional path that focuses on the production of visual stuff then you will need to share and show your work. It doesn’t matter if you are selling work directly or using your work to get hired at a design firm. Applying to art school? You need a portfolio. Want that production job at DreamWorks? You need a portfolio. Want to sell your design services to a client? You need a portfolio. Not only do you need a portfolio, but it will, with very few exceptions, be the deciding factor as to whether you progress in an interview process, or sell your services, or get into art school, or get a scholarship, or get that gallery show. Can a degree or a resume or a connection help you professionally? Of course, but good luck competing for work or sales with your fellow degree holders (and sometimes non-degree holders) with a weak portfolio.
How are Portfolios Misunderstood?
Despite their importance, visual portfolios are one of the most misunderstood and poorly developed assets that creatives struggle with. The following are correctives to some of the most common misperceptions I run into:
- A portfolio is not your work. I know this sounds counter-intuitive but it is true. A portfolio contains your work. A portfolio cannot exist without your work, but it is not your work. It is incredibly important to differentiate between the two. A portfolio is a system. As a system, it is “a set of elements organized in a way to achieve some function or purpose”(Meadows, 2015). The power of this framework stems from understanding that portfolios (like all systems) become greater than the sum of their parts. Individual elements (your work) interact with one another to communicate qualities about you that transcend anything an individual piece can communicate. The beauty of this is that it allows you to design your portfolio with intent through effective curation, sequencing, and presentation. Those meaningful interactions between pieces of work can be controlled and adapted to communicate what you want them to communicate.
- Your portfolio is not a homework assignment. It is not something you do once and then just throw it out in the world and wait for a response (or grade). It is not something that is ever statically “right” or “wrong”. It is not something that is ever “complete”. Don’t create a single portfolio and assume that it will be useful in every circumstance forever (it won’t). Portfolios are not only systems but dynamic systems. This means they can and should be adapted depending on their defined purpose and audience. Because of this, you should never be “working” on your portfolio. If you ever catch yourself saying, “I need to do more observational drawing for my portfolio!” stop and re-evaluate. By all means, practice your observational drawing but do it because it is a vital skill set, not that you think it will always be needed in your portfolio. Instead, you should be focused on making work, your work, developing your voice, developing your skills and expertise. The portfolio, when you have a purpose for it, will be designed using those elements.
- Your portfolio does not need to be a comprehensive representation of you and all your work. Focus the design on the specific purpose at hand. A portfolio used to apply for a Photoshop production job doesn’t need to include the storyboards from your epic short fan film about a day in the life of Rainbow Dash. The flip side is that if you are applying for a job at Hasbro Studios, it might be very smart to include your MLP storyboards and exclude work that shows your highly developed expertise at using Photoshop to remove acne from high school portraits.
Why are Portfolios Neglected?
Unfortunately, these misunderstandings create a lot of confusion and ultimately neglect by visual creatives. This manifests in all sorts of ways but some of the more common cases of neglect include:
- Not bothering to examine your purpose or research your audience. If you don’t bother to understand why you are showing your work or who your intended audience is, then there is no point in designing a portfolio. One of the questions I constantly see students struggle within my portfolio design classes is “what do I put in my portfolio and where?”. They ask this question having done no research into their audience and never really examining the purpose of the portfolio they are designing. It is impossible to focus your portfolio on a purpose if you don’t understand that purpose and you have no sense of the audience that will allow the fulfillment of that purpose.
- Arbitrarily throwing things up on a website, or Facebook, or Instagram. When you share your work online you are creating a digital portfolio whether you intend to or not, even if it is simply a series of Instagram posts. Portfolios are strong signifiers that can communicate negative things just as readily as positive things, so do not just throw up work for the sake of getting it out there. Think about why you are posting or sharing and what it will communicate to your audience. Social media can be a very powerful marketing tool when used effectively, but it is not a replacement for an intentional, focused portfolio designed and presented for a specific purpose.
- Creating one portfolio and calling it a day. If you are serious about finding work or getting into art school you should be researching your audience and potential clients and designing your portfolio around the needs of that audience. The audience’s needs, the audience’s priorities will be as varied as the individuals that make up that audience. Your portfolio should be adapted to address those priorities as much as possible.
- The “I’ll get some feedback on my portfolio from my art teacher” approach. This occurs when a visual creative deflects responsibility for their portfolio by dumping it on a teacher, or a career counselor, or an admissions counselor at a portfolio day. Feedback is good, feedback can be useful, but it is also very limited, especially if you are not clear about your purpose for the portfolio. Often, because people fail to do research or have a clear understanding of audience, the conversation becomes about the work, not the portfolio. While these things are related, they are not the same thing. What your Drawing 403 instructor thinks is strong or interesting may very well be irrelevant to the purpose of the portfolio because that teacher is not your audience. What is worse is that the feedback may actually work against you if they are advising certain curation or sequencing or presentation approaches that have nothing to do with the needs of your actual audience. If you intend to get feedback on your portfolio then be absolutely sure that you and the one giving the critique have a clear understanding of the portfolio’s purpose and audience.
The Good News
The good news is that all of these misunderstandings and neglects are fixable. Designing your portfolio effectively is an acquired skill set. It is a skill set that puts anyone who has a deeper understanding of their portfolio as a system at a distinct advantage professionally. Whether it is applying to an art school, applying for a job, getting work from clients, or getting that gallery show they’ve always dreamed of, a well-researched, well-designed, well-presented portfolio will make all the difference in your success.
If you are interested in developing this capacity to more effectively leverage your creativity and expertise, then I hope you will consider joining us at artnerdsociety.com free of charge. Our members-only courses, resource library, and forums are designed to educate and empower you to make better work, connect with other creatives and create a more meaningful professional path.
Meadows, D. H., & Wright, D. (2015). Thinking in systems: a primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Title Image by Beata Ratuszniak
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