Perfect portfolios

The perfect portfolio can make or break a career in design, so what goes in, what stays out, and what's the best format? Lawrence Zeegen unveils the secrets for success.

Your future is in your own hands. In no other sphere of professional life is this truer than in the creative industries. Your future is, quite literally, in your own hands every time you pick up your design portfolio, step outside your own little bubble and venture into a design studio, ad agency, or any other creative company looking for work - whether it be full-time employment, in-house freelance work or a one-off commission or project. There's no nice way of saying it, no sugar-coated version that's easy to digest: as a creative professional, you will live or die by your portfolio!

Given that the route that has led up to this point is generally one of full-time schooling from the age of five, a couple of years of A-levels at college, followed by an art school foundation course and a further three years studying design at university, you'd think that most graduate designers were more than prepared to put a portfolio together. Think again. Many young designers are woefully ill-equipped for the rigours of professional portfolio presentation. It's almost as if this aspect of design education is bolted on as an afterthought. The fact that most employers look to the portfolio before the qualifications indicates the importance that should be placed on this crucial aspect of professional practice. A good degree indicates how well a designer was doing at the point of graduation, whereas a good portfolio can indicate so much more!

Stiff competition
Across the creative arts and design, there have been over 11,000 graduates this year - up ten per cent on last - and while the design industry is relatively buoyant, there's fat chance that each and every graduate will end up in their dream job straight away. For these graduates, and those designers looking at moving onwards and upwards from their first position to their next job, putting a new portfolio together is vital. It's part and parcel of making a successful career in an industry that expects so much more than just a covering letter and CV.

Getting up to speed on portfolio presentation can be a lifeline. This is the lifeline that fresh-out-of-the-box graduate designers, hardened professionals and those who have simply been out of the job market for a time need to grab hold of. Rocket science or simply common sense, you decide. But if your portfolio needs a rethink, there's no time like the present!

It would be lovely to think that it only took a little wand waving to make a problematic portfolio instantly presentable. Even having a fundamental formula or a step-by-step guide to follow would make life easier and alleviate the stress. But, unfortunately, getting your portfolio together isn't an exact science.

Perfect portfolios are created through a combination of trial and error, experience and understanding. You'll have to accept that your portfolio won't be created in an afternoon; it'll take a lot of time and energy. You should also seek critical feedback from others. Don't be afraid to ask what people think, and don't get upset if you don't like what you hear - this is a vital part of the process.

The perfect portfolio should be an extension of your personality as a designer, expressing aspects of your background and your skills. But it'll also need to work on a much deeper level. It'll have to harness your aspirations and future ambitions, as well as define your strengths, demonstrate your creativity and show your ability to resolve design problems with deftness and clarity. Put your portfolio together with passion - no one really wants to see a cold, clinical and sterile representation of your work.

Getting started
So, where to start? At the beginning, by first making a decision about the kind of portfolio you'll need. It has to be one that you believe best suits what you do. Are you looking for it to contain printed run-outs or originals? Are you wishing to show CD sleeves, book jackets or packaging projects as mock-ups? Are most of your works a similar size and format, or will some be as large as A1 posters or as small as business card designs? 2D or 3D, big stuff or small stuff whatever category your work falls into, it's important that you pick a portfolio format that will accommodate it.

Next, it's wise to consider the job in hand for the portfolio. Are you expecting your portfolio to get you through a round of interviews, nab the best job at the best agency and then be consigned to a dark corner of your home until you move jobs again in a few years' time? If you're working as a freelancer, is it more about creating a body of work that'll constantly be doing the rounds, being reviewed, updated and added to frequently? You'll need to decide whether your portfolio simply needs to make a one-hit impression or whether it needs to keep working for you - day in and day out.

With the answers to these questions, you can start deciding exactly what type of portfolio to purchase and, while professional opinions might be divided across some aspects of portfolio presentation, there's one area where almost all agree: don't use a ring-bound, off-the-peg portfolio with a cheap plastic sleeve, as found in every student art supply shop. "Buy an expensive folio/case/book," explains left-field illustrator Paul Davis from his studio in Hoxton. "Never use a ring-binder folio because they're rubbish!" Just north of Hoxton at Why Not Associates, Andy Altman, director of the award-winning company responsible for nearly two decades of stunning work, offers some simple advice. "Don't use the classic, college-black portfolio, and don't use projects from the degree show that are still on mounting or polyboard."

Emmi Salonen, the Finnish-born creative director at her London-based design company Emmi, agrees with Davis and Altman on ring-bound portfolios, but has some advice for those who do go down the route of using plastic sleeves. "If you insist on using them for your presentation, think of your portfolio as a book," she suggests. "Consider how the work fits together on a spread and consider chapter breaks to create a structure and a narrative." Salonen's previous experience working as a designer in Italy at Fabrica (Benetton's Research and Development Centre) and at Karlssonwilker in New York has brought her into contact with many portfolios. "The best solution, I think," muses Salonen, "is to come up with a format of your own, something that suits the way you see yourself and the style of your work."

Over the pond and in another time zone, Brit-boys- done-good Vault49 insist from their Manhattan studio that there's a time and a place for the dreaded plastic sleeve. "They belong more to the world of advertising," explains Vault's John Glasgow. "They are really the only clients that we keep such a portfolio for. When we look at a portfolio and we see a design behind a plastic sleeve, the first thing we want to do is take it out!"

Global perspectives
From the views of a Finnish female based in London Town to Brit boys in New York City, it's off to Australia for a perspective from the other side of the planet. Jeremy of Jeremyville in Sydney certainly knows what he wants from a portfolio. "I love a really originally packaged portfolio that's mailed to me, like a DVD or a pull-out poster," he explains. "That way I can open it in my own time, digest it, show the rest of the studio and keep it on file for future work."

But surely that's more of a promotional device than a portfolio? "Maybe, but I've mostly hired designers based on mailers that have excited me, rather than in face-to-face portfolio meetings," he admits.

Originality and flare are the key attributes required if a portfolio is going to turn heads, and Cdric Gatillon of Paris explains just what he looks for when hiring new designers or freelancers. "I'm interested in getting into someone else's world," he enthuses. "The portfolio must reflect a true personality and have that little something special - I want to be surprised." Gatillon looks for the kind of designer that has a different approach to their discipline. "It's a pleasure to see the work of someone who is able to avoid mainstream design or current trends," he says. "I want to see a portfolio that says to me: 'Look, I can do that (or I have done that), but also I am like that!'"

Criss-crossing the globe from France to the Far East, Simon Oxley of IdoKungfoo says that it's a good idea to constantly update your portfolio to keep it truly individual. "Constantly add new imagery," he says, speaking at his home and studio on the Japanese island of Fukuoka. "Keep it fresh and remove any items which begin to smell." Back in London, Paul Davis suggests going back to your portfolio and making some ruthless decisions about what makes the cut. "Do an edit," he explains. "It's always best to start with lots of stuff and then cut the wheat from the chaff - don't overfill a portfolio."

Taking to the skies for advice once again, this time from a Columbian living and working in Barcelona. Designer Catalina Estrada advises that presentation is also extremely important. "Once you've made your selection, keep it as simple and sober as possible in terms of layout," she offers. "The presentation should not compete with your own works." This focus on simplicity is an opinion shared by many, including C©dric Gatillon. "A portfolio must be simply presented," he adds. "What's important is what's in it, no extra design or gimmick. It doesn't mean that you can't have an original idea, but keep in mind it is your work that you want to get across."

Presentation skills
So, apart from the vital contents of the portfolio - your work - the other key factor in putting a perfect portfolio together is in the presentation. Getting this right can make or break the whole process. Consider who will be looking at it. The best art directors and designers are driven by design: they continually strive for creative excellence and demand to work with the very best. So, in order to impress them, every tiny detail must be attended to.

At Kapitza in London, Nicole Kapitza - one half of the German design duo - recommends the use of high-quality prints of your work. "Don't be afraid of white space - let your work breath," she advises. "Just make sure that your portfolio demonstrates work with original thinking, captivating ideas and an individual style."

Sarah Douglas, art editor on the successful style magazine, Wallpaper*, agrees with Kapitza. "Keep it simple but show strong ideas that are well-articulated and well-executed," she says. "Also, try to show a mix of commercial and personal work." The inclusion of personal, non-commercial pieces is one that Andy Altman believes in, too. "I think the two most important things that a portfolio needs to express are intelligence and passion," he says. "It's the additional aspects to a portfolio that always interest me - the sketchbooks and scrapbooks that illustrate their ideas and passion for the subject." Jeremy at Jeremyville is also a fan of non-commercial work in a book. "Don't be afraid to include lots of your personal work," he enthuses. "A studio can see how it might relate to a client of theirs and sometimes a raw graphic or illustration gives a better indication of who you are, your capabilities and your true self!"

Wise words from across the world, then, but when it comes down to what exactly you should include in your own perfect portfolio, ultimately you'll be the final judge of what works and what doesn't. Listen to advice and be prepared to continually update, reorganise and revise your portfolio as you progress, but also remember to start as you mean to go on. Pia Knight, the London-based graphic designer who turned heads with her unique nipple badges, offers up the final word. "As with anything in this life," she argues, "first impressions count, so open your portfolio with something memorable but, more importantly, leave them wanting more!"

Digital portfolios have a harder job of portraying your personality!

With all this talk of good old-fashioned, leather-bound portfolios, you'd be forgiven for thinking that web-based portfolios count for nothing. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Taking to the web is a given these days. Paul Davis describes a website as a "perpetual portfolio" and Jeremy at Jeremyville goes one further: "I much prefer the relative obscurity of online," he admits. "It's also much more time efficient. Of course, if the work is great, then the second stage would be a face-to-face meeting!"

Many of the same considerations must be adhered to when creating a digital, online portfolio as when creating a traditional, real-world version. Only show your best work - don't pad it out with superfluous projects. Cut to the chase and ensure that the focus is on what you're best at.

Make sure your contact details are easy to find on the website, ensure that download times are kept to a minimum and show personal work as well as professional work. Label everything clearly - let your audience know what they're looking at and whom the work was created for, and ensure that you spell-check everything. One thing worth adding to an online portfolio that normally wouldn't appear in a real portfolio is a short biography - often you'd be explaining your work one-to-one, but online the portfolio has to work that much harder for you.