What makes the perfect portfolio?

Picture, if you will, a piteous scene: you've just heard you didn't get that latest job, the one you couldn't stop yourself daydreaming about. What's stupid is that you have the talent, you've even done similar work before - and done it well. But that just wasn't enough. Desperate for an explanation, you start running through the things which could have kept you from the top slot: that new aftershave was stronger than expected, and you did make the mistake of handing your coat to the head of personnel... but no, that can't be it.

You reach for the trusty old soldier you've been humping your work around in since your days on foundation, and you pause. A thoughtful look creeps on to your face as you scratch chewing gum from the frayed edge of the zipper. Could it be that your portfolio has been letting you down? Perhaps it made you look shoddy and unprofessional and that's the reason you didn't get the job? Well, duh!

Obviously there's more to it than the mere quality of your folio's manufacture, but the competition is tough, so the last thing you want to do is give anyone an excuse to overlook you. Designers may give the impression of being psychic, but they rarely are: the portfolio is how they will gauge you and your work. It has to be perfect.

Have a word with my agent
As an agent of the Central Illustration Agency, Ben Cox sees a lot of portfolios, but to get to that stage your work has already been vetted. Cox says: "We generally get approached by between five and ten illustrators per day who want us to represent them." Not many of these will get to the portfolio stage, mind you.

"We always ask people to email in examples or direct us to a URL first because it's just a pain in the arse having to handle folios you're not going to be interested in." Cox makes this point well: if you handle portfolios all the time, you probably don't see them as cherished artifacts but as cumbersome, expensive to ship and frequently unrewarding.

So the first thing to establish is whether a portfolio is appropriate. "We even try to avoid people sending in printed samples if possible," adds Cox. "Storage space is an issue for an agency of our size." Even if you're perfect for the job, it's worth thinking through your approach so your folio can become part of a process.

"Persistence definitely pays off," says Bloc Media's Rick Palmer. "Email it. Then call to check that it was received. Call a week later to see if you've been considered yet." Be careful though, because, says Palmer, "It's a delicate balancing act, as you don't want to upset your prospective new employer, but if you keep it respectful and friendly, persistence can pay dividends." Vary your approach, and monitor your work to see what gets results. Be methodical about it because there's plenty of competition out there but there's also plenty of work. Palmer acknowledges this: "Digital is stronger now than ever and that means there's a real demand for good people." If you have the talent then settling for second best is foolish. "I see a LOT of bad work," adds Palmer "so when I see someone with obvious talent it's really exciting!"

Digital agency Bloc prefers to be hit with an email in the first instance. This is the initial hurdle, according to Palmer: "When you're looking for a job, no matter how creative or laid back the agency is, show some respect! You might be the funniest guy on the block, but we don't know you yet and it's hard to tell if you're joking in an email. Safest bet is to play it straight at this stage." After all, if you don't get through this bit, you can have the most awe-inspiring folio in the world but nobody will see it.

Next stop for a Bloc candidate should be a portfolio website - a list of URLs is pointless. "You're looking for a job, right? Make it easy for us to assess your ability," says Palmer. And if you've made it this far: "You live or die on the strength of your website." That comment is particularly illuminating because the website and the portfolio are one and the same in this context. It just seems easier to be more cut and dried about a website. The message is simple: make that portfolio do some work.

It's all good
"As long as the idea is good, we don't care if it's been crocheted into a whoopee cushion," says Love Creative's Simon Griffin. "There's nothing more disappointing than being able to guess what you're going to see when you turn the page or click the mouse."

On the other hand, we have this observation from Rick Palmer: "Presentation is everything." You're meant to be demonstrating that you're a creative person. Palmer continues: "If you're applying for a job developing effective communications for big brands, you need to demonstrate your ability to communicate, right?" It's just common sense, as Ben Cox points out: "You've got to display a genuine respect for your own work, or you can't expect anyone else to."

Cox continues: "There mustn't be a single DPS in that folio that you're not really proud of. You can't have any filler - you can't afford to." The Central Illustration Agency aims for 30 or so pieces of work, and, according to Cox, "It's got to be good at the back as well as the front because you never know which way it's going to be read." A descending order of quality could be fatal.

Surprisingly, tailoring of folios isn't highly recommended. CIA doesn't do it as a general rule, preferring to give a coherent picture of their artists. Bloc has a similar take on the situation. "We never hire someone with a specific project in mind," says Palmer. "Generally we stick to a policy of full-time, in-house staff only, as this helps us to develop a sense of family and belonging in the studio - and a deeper, more intuitive creative understanding of one another."

Adapt and overcome
You know your own work, but you're not always the best person to judge its merits. The online portfolio makes the situation very clear indeed, says Rick Palmer: "I read somewhere that we decide whether to stay at a single online destination in under one second." That doesn't give you time to explain why you did something in a quirky but annoying way.

Palmer's advice is universally applicable: "If you can, try and find a fresh pair of eyes to look at your handiwork when it's finished - an unbiased (for example, mums not allowed) opinion can tell you a lot." It may not all be what you want to hear, but try to take it on board constructively.

"Rather perversely, I found that the crits where you get a bit of a slating are the most useful ones," says Love Creative's Simon Griffin. "So long as it's constructive and you listen to what they have to say." The worst word you can hear is 'like'. "'Like' is a bad word: 'Love' and 'Hate' are good," says Griffin.

What matters is that you learn to adapt your portfolio. Roll with the punches, and if you disagree with a criticism, ask yourself why. Is it simply because you spent the time and effort on that piece? "The most annoying moments come when people are too stuck in their ways to listen to our opinion," says Griffin. If you can't agree at this point, what will it be like once you've got your feet under the table?

Form factor
Print work can be demanding: it requires you get past the initial on-screen viewing, have a viable website and also a physical portfolio. And nothing is certain until that physical folio has passed muster. "An online portfolio is important because that's very possibly the first place they're going to see your work," agrees Ben Cox. "But, certainly here in the UK, people really like to see a printed book." And it's not just a formality: "I've seen stuff before that looks great on screen but just doesn't hold up nearly so well in print." Another important aspect of the physical folio is practicality: "The folios we use are made by Prat. They're A4, leather, and very hard-wearing." Cox explains that, this is the logical size for print applications: "Whether we're talking about adult fiction, a press advert, record sleeve, or editorial. If your work doesn't work well at A4 size then there's a problem."

Then, once it gets to an agency, there's a usability issue to consider. Cox again: "When you've got a bunch of creatives, traffic and art buyers having meetings with the board members of the company they're working for, you just want to have something that's very easy to hand around the table."

Then, of course, you have the cells: "The old zip-up style folio with those horrible orange peel textured cells just aren't impressive," says Cox. Viewers need to be able to see the work without feeling mediated as, particularly in busy environments, the work will rarely make it out of its little plastic sleeve. If you want to leave a mark, you could always leave some printed cards that they can keep.

And while we're at it, adds Cox: "Print full bleed. What's the point of having a border, or sticking work onto black sugar paper? It looks ridiculous." Let the work speak for itself, give it room to breathe and make sure the folio itself is as self-effacing as possible.

Finding the right level
One reason for the content of your portfolio to vary is your level. "Depending on the position you're applying for, the work varies dramatically," says Palmer. "A senior creative should be able to demonstrate a number of large commercial projects, well-written case studies and outstanding graphics." Otherwise, they wouldn't be a senior. For a junior, the bulk of large projects won't be there yet so will be less of a focus: "A junior designer just needs to show a good understanding of the creative process," says Palmer. "Some interesting non-commercial work is good and they should demonstrate a good sense of humour and fun in their portfolio."

It might seem a little strange, but sense of humour and personality matter here as much as anywhere. Simon Griffin concurs on this point: "They need to realise that this is the only thing we can use to get an impression of their personality. And we all know personality goes a long way."

The ambition is not to produce something cold and efficient: a clinical report. It's a creative 'get to know you'. Griffin goes on: "It's a question of looking at all of their work and their personality, then seeing how that ties in with our visions for the agency." After all, if things go well, you could be working with these people for the next few years.

Even if you're freelancing on a smallish job, personality will be important because, in the main, design is a collaborative exercise. Perhaps with this in mind Griffin adds: "I think it's important that people look at employment as a two-way relationship. It's not just an agency hiring someone, or someone taking a job: it's a mixture of both."

Special considerations
If your folio does you justice, it will find its way into the right hands eventually. "The word will always get around if someone sees a good book," says Griffin, "and we'll probably try and hold on to it until everyone's had a look." It's their job to spot talent and it's your job to make that as easy as possible.

Love Creative is a cross-media agency so not only will folios come in all shapes and sizes but their content will also vary wildly. "It's difficult to look at work restricted to just one medium," says Griffin. "It's all very well having a fantastic online portfolio, but it doesn't necessarily give you a feeling for an interesting DM (direct marketing) piece, for example."

Don't be afraid of breaking a mould or two - Love Creative's own portfolio is a giant Ladybird-style book. "As with all great ideas this one came out of last-minute panic," says Griffin. Love needed something simple that would help it stand out from the crowd and, Griffin explains, "This was the only idea we could realistically do before the deadline. It made a really good impression, so we decided to make some more."

Now, this isn't a charter for portfolio madness; a giant children's book would be impractical for most people. That said, clever solutions will always be appreciated, but they need to be solutions, not just pointless exercises in over-complication. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Getting to know you
The portfolio is an integral part of the 'getting to know you' process which the creative industries rely on. It can and should be much more than just a CV because it's at the heart of what an artist does - it's the docking mechanism between new designer and larger organisation. If the fit is okay, traffic between the two can commence and that may or may not lead to employment.

"When people come in, get a feel for the place, show us their work and still want to come back again then it's a good sign that there's some chemistry going on," says Griffin. "A link to a website is fine if you just want people to see your work, but it's not very personable. And you can't go for a drink with a website either."

Ben Cox is right on the money when he observes: "The portfolio gives an indication of how people present themselves generally, and how professionally they are likely to work in a commercial environment." If your folio is being sent on without you, it has to be all the more personable and convincing because it can't get a round in.

Rick Palmer makes a very compelling argument for ensuring your folio is up to scratch. "There are" he notes, "a lot of mediocre designers out there." If you don't want to be mistaken for one of them, presenting a well-thought-out, carefully crafted portfolio is essential.

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