One of the questions I get asked most often by fellow designers is how they can land more of the types of projects they actually enjoy doing. In my personal experience, the answer is pretty straightforward:
Showcase the work you want more of in the best possible light.
Lock up the work you don’t desire more of…and throw away the key!
While that might sound slightly dramatic, I’ve reviewed many portfolios where designers felt that they didn’t have enough solid projects and filled in the gaps with work they weren’t 100% satisfied with. I promise you, it’s always better to have less work in your book (that you’re totally over the moon about) than a whole lot of mediocre work that doesn’t represent where you see yourself going. In the world of portfolios, less is usually more.
My Personal Experience
Looking at my portfolio, I showcase mostly branding, web design and editorial-based projects — you probably wouldn’t guess that I’ve done campaigns for the NBA and NFL! While I was proud of the outcome of these other projects, since I don’t desire more sports-focused work, I never show them in my portfolio. I actually have a stockpile of 20 to 30 projects I’ve never publicly shown because for one reason or another, I don’t seek more of that particular style of work.
I know that in the beginning, it’s not easy to pick and choose who you want to work with. Your ideal projects might not come along very often or at all but don’t ever let that stop you! Dream up your own projects — there’s nothing wrong with including a self-initiated project or two as long as it’s credited as such. Sometimes you have to prove yourself first so that potential clients know that you have what it takes. And if those clients still don’t come knocking once you have work in your portfolio you think would appeal to them, don’t be afraid to contact them and introduce yourself.
In my career, I’ve always dreamed of doing more editorial design work. Yet because my portfolio was full of branding and web projects, not a whole lot of those opportunities came along. So I started out small to test the waters. First, I started offering media kit services. Media kits are traditionally what print magazines have sent out to potential advertisers — they feature rates, readership stats and an overall feel for the publication. Media kits tend to be 8 to 16 pages in length and are like a mini magazine in themselves.
I figured that if print magazines had media kits, maybe blogs could, also. In 2009, I started by producing my own for my blog first and shared it in a post — almost immediately, clients started hiring me for that service. It was ideal because a lot of smaller businesses just don’t have large print budgets but they could afford my design services for a digital media kit and I used these opportunities to build up my editorial design skills. Some examples are here, here and here.
Leverage your projects for new opportunities
Once you have a few projects in your portfolio that you feel are in line with your dream customers, the goal is to turn that work into new opportunities. Kat of Rock n Roll Bride was an early media kit client and loved the outcome so much that she came back within a year to produce a promotional brochure, showcasing her ‘best of the blog.’ She was attending a wedding fair and wanted a print piece she could hand out to her target audience but I saw one glaring issue — when it comes to print and weddings, I automatically think of magazines and invitation suites, not brochures.
I took it upon myself to transform the concept of her 14 page brochure into a 40 page magazine. Yes, it took a lot more time but I saw a gap in my portfolio and an opportunity to turn paid client work into something even better. It was a win-win outcome: I got an editorial design piece in print and a much needed project for my portfolio. In turn, Kat got a great deal on a project that turned into a much bigger scope (since she hadn’t actually requested the extra work, I kept the quote the same).
And, all that extra work paid off: when those thousand copies flew out the door, Kat came back with a bigger budget and a much bigger project: an 80 page magazine. Finally, I had the opportunity to design a magazine, cover to cover. Once that had wrapped, another client, Luke Copping hired me to do a magazine as a promo piece for his photography business. It’s a domino effect: you do a good job on one project, another client likes what they see and hire you, and so on.
Prune Your Portfolio
I now have a few more editorial-based projects in my portfolio to share and each time I finish something new, I try to edit down the work I’m sharing and remove a few things that aren’t as strong. As a designer, remember that your portfolio is part of your brand audit. Is it telling the story you want it to?
When potential clients come across your work, they might not know anything about you and it’s up to you to curate what you are seeking more of. If they can only see things you absolutely love, they will probably only hire you for those things. In a nutshell, that’s how you get the ball rolling. Put more of the work you love out into the world and you’ll get more of it in return. Share wisely and before you know it, the clientele and projects you’ve been dreaming about will find you.
* Image: Modified from Luke Copping’s print portfolio.