On Monday night, I was invited to be part of the Creating A Killer Portfolio panel discussion at PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art) and shared my experiences with creating a portfolio and building a freelance design business. The conversation was moderated by Kelly Coller, the founder of OFFICE PDX, a business specializing in portfolio covers and design goods.
Currently a marketing director at a multidisciplinary design firm, Kelly has worked with clients including Apple, Starbucks, Nike, Purina and Whirlpool. She has been doing business development, marketing and branding for over fifteen years for internationally-recognized design firms in architecture, industrial and retail design. During this time, Kelly has has put together over 2,000 portfolios for client pitches. And, as if that’s not enough, she has met, critiqued, hired and / or turned down 500 to 1,000 creatives. In short, this woman knows what she is talking about!
Kelly started out the discussion with a quick summary of how to create a killer portfolio. I found her information about formatting do’s and dont’s especially helpful. Kelly relayed that a simple portfolio cover is fine for showcasing your work (I am a big fan of Pina Zangaro). Projects mounted to cards and fancy, handmade books are much harder for an interviewer to navigate and can show wear. Additionally, a portfolio cover with pages is nice because projects can be quickly reprinted without much fuss.
Also, Kelly had some advice regarding how much work you should show when making initial contact with a client. She said that the first correspondence should be kept short and sweet; emailing a PDF ‘teaser’ with 1 to 3 pages is fine. If a client shows an interest, it’s then okay to show more. But, save the full scope of your work for the actual meeting. If you give it all away immediately, there are no surprises left!
For the second half of the discussion, Kelly and I had a Q&A session. Here are some of the questions she asked and a quick summary of my responses:
I’ve been actively freelancing since 2005. Some of the clients I have worked with both on my own and in an agency setting have included Forever 21, Virgin, Nike, New Line Cinema, Skullcandy, Smith Optics and Fuel TV. Currently, I run my design business full-time and split my time working with my own clients as well as a handful of agencies around town.
Originally, I wanted to attend PNCA for fine art, but my lack of interest in drawing or painting made that route difficult. In 2000, I wasn’t aware that graphic design was an option and decided to go to school for business instead. In 2006, I decided to go back to school for graphic design and graduated in 2008 from a two-year community college program.
For a print portfolio, I try to limit the content to no more than 10 to 12 single page projects with an absolute max of 15 pages if there are some with multiple layouts. It’s important to remember that the interviewer’s time is extremely valuable and that you may have a half hour total to meet. Because of this, you should be able to talk your way through the entire portfolio in 15 minutes or less. If you’re in New York, chances are that you’ll have less than 5 minutes, so be prepared and practice!
For initial contact, I email a PDF version of my portfolio and resumé. Agencies are busy and these days, art directors and the people in charge don’t have time to flip through many unsolicited books; a PDF is quick and relatively painless. Once a meeting has been set up, my print portfolio and a selection of physical samples (products, catalogs, etc.) come out at that time.
It’s nice to include a brief description about each project in your portfolio. One to four sentences should be sufficient. Remember to include the project title / overview and client name as well. If you’re going to include any in-depth sketches and further insight regarding your solution, this may be better suited for an accompanying process book.
I have always used an 11 x 17 format for my print portfolio with a Pina Zangaro presentation book in Vista Snow. I had a unique situation when I graduated because I didn’t have to show my portfolio to potential employers. I was hired immediately by the agency I’d interned with so my portfolio was literally delegated to the back of my closet until a year into my career. This spring, I finally began the process of reworking and updating the contents and I am probably on my fifth revision.
When you’re in school and building your portfolio, chances are that you want to ‘wow’ everyone. But with time, you may realize that simple really is better. Plain backgrounds and minimal type will let the projects that you’re showcasing speak for themselves.
When I began showing my portfolio, I was really conscious of replacing most of my school projects with client work as soon as possible. I wanted to show that I could handle real world briefs, feedback and deadlines and I think that this helped me immensely. One note: when showing your portfolio, ALWAYS turn it to face the client, even if you’re flipping through the pages for them.
I’ve been incredibly blessed to have almost all of my work come to me directly through my blog and word of mouth. After discussing the scope with a potential client, I follow up through email or over the phone. I work remotely with almost all of my personal clients.
With my personal clients, communicaiton is made over the phone or through email. With agencies, we try to set up in-person meetings as often as possible. Each interview is different, but it’s important to dress the part, to be on time, to have a portfolio that isn’t too precious (it’s meant to be flipped through, after all!) and to always be honest about what you can and can’t do; the design world is smaller than you think! Naturally, a big chunk of your interview is based on what you can do and how good your portfolio is. The other part is much more subtle and often personality–based; do you fit in with the corporate environment and can you get along with the team? Are you a hard worker and can you handle agency hours?
I keep a daily planner with due dates and a list of projects that need to be done, dutifully save every business receipt in date order and invoice my clients immediately once the job is finished so that I don’t forget! I am pretty lo-fi in this area and try to keep things as simple as possible.
When I am working with my own clients, I usually do everything on my own unless there’s a need for a web developer. I have a huge network of friends that are all a phone call away, so if more help is needed in the future, I can find it very quickly. I like balancing working on my own with time spent at agencies. Being in a collaborative environment with other designers and art directors really helps push the boundaries of what seems possible.
Marketing is one of my passions, so this is one of the favorite parts of running my business. I always carry business cards and stickers with me and have actually gotten jobs by handing them out. I also blog five days a week, regularly share my portfolio with placement agencies, designed my own media kit and make a point to go out and network with people I know in the industry. My business is very much personality-based and as a designer, it’s okay to let people know who you are. Go out of your way to make that personal connection!
Thank you to PNCA, Kelly Coller and Jason Resch for making this seminar possible.