7 ways to make your portfolio sing

Is your portfolio all it can be? Here are seven thoughts on the subject I had while partaking in a portfolio workshop recently. They may seem simple, but you'd be surprised by the number of creative types that missed a trick or two during the session.

On reflection writing this, I realised I am in fact going to eat my own words and take my own advice. A rewarding experience, it validates that much piped phrase, 'Take a step back'.

01. Practice what you preach

Ask honestly whether your portfolio will stand out against the competition

Ask honestly whether your portfolio will stand out against the competition

"Is there something wrong?" I ask my interviewee. I follow her nonchalant gaze through the glass into the career cubicle of purgatory next door where the bearded art director wizard is having his undeniably impressive A3 print folio pawed over by the Head of Design from one of London's finest.

"Raised lettering. Pale Nimbus. White," my interviewee says as she stares at me eye to eye and then shamefully down at her troubled A4 ring-binder. If we can learn one thing from American Psycho, it's that presentation is everything.

The feeling of awe (and potentially slight jealousy) found in the pit of your stomach when you see a competitor's collected works is unforgettable. Aspire to hit the highs that other creative people reach, be inspired by them.

Think of the competition

An unfortunate truth is that there will always be someone better than you, so with this spoonful of truth in mind, it is doubly imperative to dedicate some time and effort into the way you present yourself.

Your portfolio is your key which will lead you anywhere you want to go. It's also your baby. So when that speculative first day at school comes around you want to make sure that it's more than ready for the big wide world.

The vital ingredient of course, is your work. Keep it clean, keep it spacious, make it beautiful. Let the work scream off of the page, whether than be the printed kind or the sort that appears by magic on one of those computer things. Practice what you preach - you strive for the best when dealing with darling clients, so why not treat yourself the same, darling?

02. Think of it like a meal

Cut what you don't like, get rid of what you're not so proud of. There's an eternal conflict of 'is too little too little' or 'is too much too much?' Is there a project you think you should keep as an ace up your sleeve to cover bases, but actually you're tired of it?

Think of it as a delicious meal where you only want the tasty bits of each and every mouthful. Rather than, for example, bloating your guests with too much filler thus meaning they don't get to experience the remaining decadent slices of work drizzled in pure wonder and visual goodness. Mmm, visual goodness.

03. Make it tell a story

Rather than just a random collection of work a portfolio should form a coherent narrative

Rather than just a random collection of work a portfolio should form a coherent narrative

We all like stories, especially short concise ones where each act is easy to understand, from beginning to middle and end. I like to present my projects with a story arc, giving them a narrative to talk the person through.

Aside from telling people what the brief was, what role you took on the project, think about the visual story. As the person responsible for the craft, you want to be able to take us on a journey from the start (sketches, scamps, concepts, colours) to the middle (wireframe, storyboard, animatic, design) to the end (final edit, animation, printed matter and build).

Get a structure in place so it's a seamless exercise in communicating your projects to an audience. When your time is precious you don't want to deviate on a backstory for a character no one really likes - don't get stuck, keep it moving and keep it relevant.

04. Tailor it to the role

I've just had a conversation in my head, "Sure, it's a great jacket but it doesn't quite fit. Whether it's too big or too small, it's not quite right so I'd be better off waiting to find The One."

The jacket that didn't quite meet expectations and specifications could be - and quite probably has been - you.

If you are applying make sure you appear as a creative apparition of what the role is asking. There is a cultural side to vacancies but my focal point here is the work.

Make it relevant

In my early days I'd be criticised for being 'too illustration-based' when applying for a design role. Having been through that experience and now finding myself facilitating as the reviewer to some reviewees to join my team, I realise what those art directors and creative directors must have thought way back when. And you know what, it makes perfect sense.

If you're applying for design, show design. If you're applying for animation, show a reel. Be relevant. Be the jacket of their dreams.

05. Nail your rap handle moniker

Focus on what your unique proposition is and this will define what your portfolio needs to say

Focus on what your unique proposition is and this will define what your portfolio needs to say

Art director? Animator? Designer? Copywriter? Illustrator? Editor? Who are you? What are you?

The idea of a general all-rounder is particularly pertinent at this space in time as I think the general methodology of the modern creative is one where they're happy to experiment and learn new things. The landscape for art is constantly changing.

It's difficult to pigeonhole yourself if you have an ambidextrous nimble mind, but at some stage you're going to need a rap handle moniker to score you the work and/or role. It will work in your favour if you're able to find a focus primarily and then smother yourself in complementaries after you know what your foundation is made out of. Ultimately, for communicating and conducting yourself, it's how you wrap yourself up as a gift in front of the person whom you are present.

06. Keep it up to date

I did want to make a point about keeping your folio up to date. Then I realised mine wasn't. After a brief lapse of hypocritical hysteria, I then thought, "Hey but that's exactly my point!"

Whether it's beautiful procrastination or because personally I'm happy with my creative place in the universe right now, regardless of those two things having a current portfolio is important.

Stay current

When you're putting your name out there to impress and get noticed by the studios you want to be a part of, it's incredibly important to have an up to date buffet. You may have an excellent award-winning piece from five years ago, but what did you do in the last six months? Hero the new stuff to stay current whilst also allowing people to find a link to the past.

If there's nothing to show from the last 6 months, maybe it's time to re-adjust your current creative position in the grand scheme of things. I like to think each and every opportunity is a chance to go one better than the previous creative endeavor.

07. Ditch the hobby stuff

Having a variety of interests is healthy and it's rather compelling to see an individual having outside world projects happening. This shows a proactive side, a want or indeed a need to be involved. It's exciting to see what makes somebody tick and where their passions are outside of studio life. Remember to keep your work and your interests separate unless they're complimentary, but even then I think a distinction between work and life must be drawn.

For the sake of respect for an anonymity, I'd like to tell you a tale from a recent folio workshop. A troubled anonymous - whom we shall call Kermit - was having somewhat of an identity crisis and themed an entire folio with their deep interest for dinosaurs (this has been changed for the purpose of the story). Every page of the folio was covered in dinosaurs.

"Here are my identity projects," said Kermit, presenting a great spread of logos, framed by dinosaurs and a 'bone' font. My advice? Get a blog and keep the hobbies away from the work folio. Unless of course, Kermit is pitching to fashion an identity for some dinosaurs.

Words and illustration: Will Aslett (opens in new tab)

Will Aslett is lead digital creative at The Good Agency (opens in new tab) and describes himself as a design, illustration and animation maverick. Check out his illustration work at Will Aslett Draws (opens in new tab).

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