Last Saturday I had the lovely opportunity to review student portfolios at AIGA Baltimore's Ink & Pixel. It was a design conference where students could meet and interact with their peers, attend lectures and workshops, and have their work critiqued by industry professionals. It was great to see so many young people excited about their designs. Understandably so. Most of them probably spent hours upon sleepless hours working on their design projects as well as the physical portfolio itself.
There was some awesome work and some okay work. There was some awesome work presented poorly and some okay work presented really well. Which leads me to this very post dedicated to the many young designers, and artists, who visit this site. Here's a little something about presenting your work.
When I was a senior in high-school I somehow met the internship coordinator at the Smithsonian's Office of Exhibits Central; a department that provides production support for the entire Smithsonian Institution. I can't remember for the life of me how I met Tim, but that one encounter changed my perspective about presenting one's work.
At the time I had been struggling trying to get into art school and needed help. With basically no background in art, let alone graphic design, I really had no idea what I was doing with my creative interests or building a portfolio.
In comes Tim. I made an appointment with him to get some feedback on my work, so one sunny weekday my mother drove me to the Office of Exhibits Central in D.C. Tim showed us around, introduced us to his colleagues, and shared information about the internship program. Then came my time to shine. I pulled out my bag of artwork and laid it all out for him to see.
I do not remember much about the moments that followed. All I can recall is Tim saying that "presentation is everything." We hadn't even begun to look at my work. He went on to explain that sometimes your work can speak for itself, if it is indeed amazing — but in reality that is not enough. I had never considered the idea of "presentation." Again, I can't remember how I was showing my body of work, but I just know it was bad.
What I learned, though, is that you must respect your work. The way you handle it, display it, and organize it says a lot about who you are as a person and a potential employee or student. When your work is shoved into a case, disheveled with stains, wrinkled, out of order or in no particular order at all the impression you leave with the person on the other side is that you don't care. And if you don't care about your own work how can you possibly care about the work you will be doing for them?
Now having been on the other side a few times looking at others present their work, it definitely holds true. You generally have about 5-10 minutes to intrigue someone enough to want to hire you for a job or internship, or accept you into the program. So it's important to leave the best impression that you can. Here are a few tips I'd like to share on how to do so:
1. Be organized. Have your work in a case, on boards, or a bound book that allows you to get to the examples quickly and easily. Fumbling, looking for stuff, and dropping items on the floor is a great way to make yourself even more nervous. Naturally you will be nervous, so minimize that anxiety by making sure your work is laid out in a comfortable format that fits you; both physically (don't get something too big if you'll be carrying it up and down subway stairs like me back in the day); and for presentation purposes. Make sure your projects are presented in an order that begins with intrigue and ends with a bang.
2. Bring samples. Designers, especially those interested in print, folks want to see those hand-skills; you need to bring examples to show you can create professional comps. Bringing samples will impact your physical portfolio, so make sure the physical portfolio will accommodate your pieces safely (there's nothing worse than opening your portfolio to a crushed mock-up of a box or book).
3. Be confident. So important!! You spent hours developing your concepts into projects (at least I hope you did). You withstood many critiques, and printed that piece a trillion times until you got it just right. You spent all that money on paper, ink, and materials. You built a bomb portfolio site. You spent even more money getting a portfolio box custom-made, and hours cutting boards for each project. Then you get into an interview and speak so low no one can hear you, make excuses or give disclaimers for why something isn't right, or give very little information about the project because you just want to get it over with. That is not the move!
I understand you may be nervous, or shy, or unsure but this is what you've been working so hard towards. You made all those design decisions in that book; this portfolio represents who you are as a designer. Own it. Whether they're good or bad be confident about those decisions. You will get more respect that way.
One way to work through this is to prepare a little written version of your presentation. Jot down bullet points you must mention for each project. Don't memorize this, you don't want to sound like a robot when presenting your work, but revisit and reread this information to prepare for each interview.
4. Pay attention. Every single person or group you encounter when presenting your portfolio will be different. Some people will LOVE your work, or you, and want to sit and chat for an hour. Others are doing a favor for a friend of a friend and don't really have time to look at your stuff. Then there are the folks who just want to point out everything wrong with your work. It is what it is. So it's up to you to gauge how you will manage these encounters. Pay attention to their energy. Does the person seem genuinely interested? Are they checking they're watch? Rolling their eyes? Asking a lot of questions? These are all clues on how you should move forward. If the conversation is easy-going and fluid feel free to give more details about a project. If the person seems agitated then you should keep it moving. Either way never take advantage of people's time, always assume they're busy. Limit your presentation to 10-15 minutes if possible, with a little time in there for questions. Depending on how the meeting is going and the vibes you're getting will determine if you should go longer or wrap it up, give more details or keep it short and sweet.
5. Have portfolio options. If you're going to interview with a web or motion graphics firm don't show printed screen-grabs of your web and motion graphics. It's only okay if you are showing the live version on your laptop or iPad, but it makes no sense otherwise. A person hiring you to design for the web wants to see how it works on screen.
If you are planning on showing a PDF presentation of your print work on screen you need to have printed versions with you as well. Seeing printed pieces on screen is deceitful. The light shining through the monitor always makes colors look better, and you need to be able to show details of how you set type and handle mock-ups. Therefore, always have printed versions with you.
Some people just want a link to your site, others want you to send in your book. You can handle this by making multiple versions of your portfolio; a physical piece, a PDF or another digital version, and of course a portfolio website (a must have). That way you will be prepared when a potential employer asks for a specific version of your work.
6. Leave something behind. This might be another copy of your resume (assuming you already sent it in to get the meeting in the first place) but you want to leave something the person can remember you by. A fun business card, a promotional piece, or a cool poster you designed. It should be something that represents you but also acts as a little reminder of your design talents.
7. Show your work to anyone who will look. This is the best advice I got from my portfolio professor my senior year in college. When I graduated I did just that. I made a list of design firms I wanted to connect with, then emailed them and cold called (I don't know if I recommend this now). I would ask if I could send my resume for their review for potential design positions. Most times they said I could but they weren't hiring. Then I would ask if I could set up an appointment to show my work. I'd butter them up with, "I really admire your work and would appreciate your feedback on mine."
This worked most of the time. If they liked what they saw they would refer me to someone who might know someone who was hiring.
It was a lot of work showing my portfolio to people who weren't hiring. I must have presented my work all over Philly and Manhattan at least twenty times in one month. Not one of those people was hiring (I did eventually get a tiny freelance gig from one of those encounters). What it did do was allow me to practice, which helped me build my confidence, which got me some great connections and eventually a job.
Go to portfolio reviews, meet with other professors, contact design firms; show people your hard work so you can get feedback and get better at presenting your portfolio. Then when you do get in the door for a job or internship you really want you will be ready.
Those are my tips. Am I leaving anything out? Is there anything you would add to this list for designers presenting their work? Did you have any interesting experiences interviewing or presenting your portfolios? Do share.