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Dos and Don’ts of the Design Portfolio

Ben Garfinkel – 34 Comments

Job Seeker

Mark just asked me to take ten minutes and jot down my opinions about what a student (or anyone I guess) should do/include/avoid when putting together and presenting a portfolio. A couple years ago I actually did a post on the topic on this blog.

Since then I have been on the receiving end of hundreds (if not more) emails, cover letters, resumes, portfolios, unannounced drop-ins and all manner of people, talented and otherwise, looking to work here. Having been on the other side, let’s call it the Dark Side, before, I can empathize. Most often I try to respond personally with some kind of feedback. Here’s a peek into what I’m really thinking. Oh and by the way, this isn’t just what I’m thinking, it’s the general sentiment here at Industrial Brand and I’m sure many other places too.

Don’t waste my time.
Tailor your book to me – or at least what it is you think will get my attention based on the work WE do. Prove you’ve done a little research about us. Want to get my attention? Show me I’m not your latest form-letter victim.

Get Electric
I don’t have time to meet with every person who contacts me, especially when I’m not hiring. I have unsolicited portfolios and resumes sitting on my desk, or worse, that take the lowest priority. These days I want to see a PDF, or even better, a website with good samples of your work that are representative of the skills you hope to bring to the company.

The notion of a super busy creative director actually having the time to sift through a bunch of junk to find a jewel in the rough is a romantic one that probably last happened in the ’70s. Seriously, the competition is so tight that portfolios that are not polished and professional are usually completely overlooked.

Touch me while touching base
In your email to me:

  • Prove you understand what we do.
  • Spell our and my name right (it’s amazing how often this small detail is screwed up and guess what, if you do it here you’re going to do it to my clients so why should I hire you?).
  • Don’t screw up and forget to change the salutation containing the name of the last company you sent it to.
  • Generally, a well worded, perfectly crafted (spelling, grammar, etc.) and brief letter is going to make more of an impact than some risky attempt at wit.
  • Include a link to your website and/or a PDF.
  • Tell me what you want and why you think you are a candidate.

So, the portfolio itself:

  • First impressions count. Knock my socks off.
  • I’m probably NOT going to read very much the first time through. Case studies and descriptions are good to include in case I really am interested and want more, but don’t count on them to accompany your work.
  • I personally look at identity work first because I find I can make a pretty accurate judgment of your skills. If your logo work is tight, professional, relevant and attractive usually the rest of the portfolio is good too. I’m generalizing, but guess what, that’s what I’m doing anyway when quickly reviewing a portfolio.
  • Keep in mind that I am making a judgment on how your work will extrapolate to the kind of work we need to do for our clients (or future clients). Feel free to tailor the content to our needs.
  • Have a physical portfolio too – you’ll need something to bring with you if you get a meeting!
  • Fussy, complicated or overly precious portfolios are annoying.
  • Well presented work that’s clear and concise is important. Hey, think of it as yet another opportunity to give me a sense of your talent to make a good presentation. Clean, clear, practical, results-oriented and impressive – just like good business communication.
  • Dirty, bruised, tired portfolio? You probably are too.
  • Two kinds of work: Great design and great concept. These can be mutually exclusive, but show me some pieces with both and you’ll stay out of the ‘round file’! Actually, this student seems to get it. They realize that they should make their portfolio a reflection of themselves, the kind of work they want to do and then pursue the companies that would be receptive to it so as not to get stuck making crap and being unhappy doing it.

Listen up
Finally, you’ll hear lots of rhetoric from busy people. Sometimes they take an extra moment to give more honest, personal feedback. Cherish this. Don’t expect a job from people, be happy to simply get advice, and take it (sometimes with a grain of salt). Ask if you can be back in touch sometime. From the answer you can intuit whether there might be something in the future. Then actually do it. Be good if you had something new to offer when you do.

That’s all I have NO TIME FOR.

34 Responses to “Dos and Don’ts of the Design Portfolio”

  1. Steve

    I remember interview I had with a firm in town (not mentioning any names) and after a long conversation and a look at my book, I was asked what I thought about midget porn! Maybe I should have brought my video samples…

    Reply
  2. Mike

    Ben,
    Great post!! Thanks for your honesty and advice. Being a rookie in the design field, I really appreciate the insight you offer here.

    Reply
  3. Jerry the Greek

    Wow. I’m going to write a alot, Gren Barfinkel, but I suspect you’ll be too busy to read it. Agh well ..

    First of all, I find it to be depressing to see a repeat of a tired and well-worn trope for creative directors to write about. It’s more depressing to see a another site I actually respect link to this shit. I’d love to make some harsh and absolutely, objectively true judgements about your site, Ben, “Industrial Brand,” and what it represents about you, but I’ll abstain. Because it’s not productive.

    That’s the point. We need to be productive. Just that 1% is good enough. More is better. Pretending to be little Simon Cowells and little Gordon Ramsays is tired, stupid and very irresponsible.

    “Dirty, bruised, tired portfolio? You probably are too.” “Fussy, complicated or overly precious portfolios are annoying.” What the shit type of judgement is this? Is “annoying” meaning anything? I mean, I suppose you’re aping the general public, viewing well-crafted, well-meaning and well-conceived pieces of design and communication. Nevertheless it’s foolish and ultimately it perpetuates the tone of our marketplace …

    Oh well, I suppose I’ll go on, being a beacon of humility and practicality in a world of brutal foolishness and nerd-alerts on parade. I always imagined a career outside of professional sports and Wall Street could exist without a sense of dismissiveness and bald unnecessary agression, but I suppose I should continue to be proven wrong. Congratulations, design nerds, too, for stooping to the level of treating each other like fucking animals. Congrats.

    Reply
  4. shanti

    Being a rookie, I appreciated the insight on how things work, at least pertaining your own company.

    Reply
  5. Nicklaus Deyring

    Don’t be so upset Jerry; getting the dozens if not hundreds of form cover letters that every design hiring manager receives has risen to nightmarish proportions. I propose that Ben’s comments primarily aimed at the thousand of emails sent out before even looking at the firms web site and body of work.

    Reply
  6. nana

    I agree somewhat with ‘Jerry the Greek’ here in fact. This article comes across as arrogant and angry and not particularly helpful except for the one or two points about not sending generalised letters and making spelling or grammar errors, which is common sense anyway.

    “Dirty, bruised, tired portfolio? You probably are too.” – Come on, that’s just nonsense.

    I am tired and my portfolio is perfect.

    Best way to get a design job is to have better work than the other applicants.

    Reply
  7. Haig Armen

    I’m surprised with the amount of negative comments here regarding Ben’s portfolio suggestions. Frankly, I would have been grateful for insight and direction for my portfolio when I was a young designer only (woah) 15 years ago!

    What becomes really apparent here and what some people might be missing, is that sometimes it is less about being a great designer and more about your attitude.

    Some of the postings here suggest an attitude of arrogance and an closed-mindedness. These are characteristics of poor designers, people I wouldn’t want to work with or even hang out with.

    Reply
  8. Erika Rathje

    I’m happy to see you’ve linked to Speak Up. I love Marian Bantjes and was fortunate enough to take a class with her — but just online.

    I also agree that pointing out the no-no in using a formula letter without consideration is the first step to achieving the rejection pile. You have better things to do. I use a template that I redo on a regular basis and tailor for each job application as much as 95%. The frustrating part was the bullshit they taught us in high school that involved redundant phrasing and some definite no-nos. My cover letters now barely resemble the ones from high school (oh, 4+ years ago), thank god.

    Sometimes we need a wake-up call and we can either choose to accept this as great advice and take it, or get overly sensitive about it and pretend we know everything and have nothing to learn.

    Reply
  9. Carole Guevin

    WOW! Could not have said it better, because I can TOTALLY related to this. From a different point of view, as an editor, I go through… well… loads of submissions, and sometimes I want to pull my hair off and shutdown the submission form to have a break from mediocrity because submitted portfolios are simply not ready.

    One rule of thumb: show only your best work and not 10 versions of the same projects.

    .c

    Another rule of thumb: get someone to help you, for objectivity.

    Third rule of thumb: survey the kind of portfolios that are already displayed to see if yours is up to par.

    We are all about championing the luv of design around the world and as such, need excellent examples, so we all keep on improving.

    Thanks for writing such a little treasure. With much-much appreciation.

    Reply
  10. BUDDA

    1st, I must simply say that most designers, are not designers, they just went to school for it and probably barely passed or had some shit teacher who couldn’t find a job either.

    2nd, real designers work for themselves, form companies, attract clients and rarely hunt for work. Really, if you need a job, are you very good? No, you suck, you rely on someone else to define your career… or lack of one. So go back to the couch and watch some more TV designer superstar challenge or survivor or whatever the fawlk is on, flick the channels, go eat some chips.

    3rd, learn how to fricken draw. I’ve worked with so many so called designers who take a week to make something that i can draw in a minute, blow me, you suck too, go jump off a bridge. If you can draw, you can get any job. I would never hire someone who hasn’t taken the time to ‘learn’ how to draw. No, its not a God given talent, if it were, our fingers would be pencils, Edward Pencil Finger. If you can’t be bothered to learn how to draw and you call yourself a designer, you are a mockery and have already proven that you give up easily.

    4th, this article was fairly true, but whats fair?

    5th, nice black turtle neck buddy. Go get me some expensive coffee.

    Reply
  11. Geoff Kehrig

    Thanks Ben,

    At least you are responding to people … even if they don’t appreciate it.

    People: it could be worse … YOU COULD HAVE NO RESPONSE OR INPUT … and that is a lot worse of a situation.

    When I was looking for work (pre-internet days), the only way anyone could respond was with a letter or a phone call. And, NO ONE ever answered phone calls back (too busy, not my problem, who’s this person). It was the days before cheap colour output and I ONLY had 1 hard copy portfolio (yes, I am old school … my first poster was cut and pasted with rubylith).

    My letter was personalized to each company and I did do my homework. There was a recession going on. I volunteered at GDC functions while I was at Emily Carr. I had 2 printed peices in the Student section of Studio Magazine. Only 3 company’s responded when I followed up.

    I currently work at one of those places (the past 9 years). They were the only place with the decency to write a letter back. They had no job available at the time but we kept in touch … and I’m glad we did.

    I learned a lot about looking for work.
    1. No one cares
    2. No one owes you anything
    3. Designers are a dime a dozen … even amazingly talented ones.
    4. How fast can you do it … and how cheap are you … this is what matters.
    It’s a pretty shitty revelation after you’ve invested 40 grand and 6 years into your education.
    By sharing his experience, Ben is giving FREE advice to help you out. He at least cares enough to share his insight. People should at least have the decency to identify and appreciate that.

    Reply
  12. Simon Beach

    …Sounds like you are all drunk with clever insights, here’s a creative idea…go live in a very poor country, look around, talk to people…and then come back and pursue your “Design Career” and Ben, oh god of the black frame, sounds like you could use a nice cup of humble tea.

    Reply
  13. David Schmeikal

    The comments to this article was almost as entertaining as the post itself!
    But great advice regardless from all sorts of people (beaten or not) in the industry. Thanks for that.

    Steve, I always thought I recognized you from the midget porn series!

    Reply
  14. überpedia

    In a competitive market, one must think competitively and set oneself apart from the mass; however, having insight into the hiring managers’ eagle eye is always a welcome treasure of information. Especially if one has been eying said company …

    danke

    Reply
  15. nina

    I would like to point out how similar ‘comments rage’ is to road rage. We’re all protected in our little ‘bubble’ and nobody can catch us, so the pent up expression of who we really are runs rampant. It’s beautifully raw, really.

    p.s. Thanks to Ben. AT least he cares enough to take time to give advice based on HIS observations and opinions (who else’s could he give?!) to people who might need it. Why would you ever turn DOWN free advice – or get angry at someone trying to give it because it’s not WHAT you wanted to hear.

    I gave my sandwich to a beggar on the street once and he threw it back at me saying he wanted money. I don’t think this is any different. Sad. Be happy with any form of love that’s shown to you in this world and pass it on.

    Reply
  16. Ben Garfinkel

    Nina, love the comment!

    Wow, I never thought this post would lead to such polarized comments, but certainly glad it did. It’s pretty clear that there’s as much variation of opinion on this as there is variation in the approaches and quality of resumes, letters and portfolios we receive.

    Now that we’re in a full-on recession the basics of what I originally posted are now more important than ever, since competition is fierce for scarce jobs.

    I’ll leave it with this: For those that have been given the impression that I’m some kind of ego-driven, high and mighty prick, I can assure you I am not. In fact, I’m quite the opposite. I am, however, one of the owners of a design agency that takes great pride in the team we have and the work we do and make every effort to ensure that continues. As such, we’re always going to be picky about who we let in. When there are dozens of applicants wanting to work here, why in the world would I pick someone who can’t even be bothered to get the spelling of my name right or sort through the work they’ve done to tailor it to what they think is their best work, and work we’d find interesting? I’ve no interest in exposing myself, our employees and our clients to mediocrity.

    Reply
  17. James Wallace

    Love the work you and your team do Ben!

    Many years ago I was applying for work and sent my portfolio to Industrial Brand. Ben was awesome and emailed me quite a few times to follow up and gave me some great advice. Doubt you would remember this – it was a while back.

    As my career has progressed I have been in the position of hiring people for design positions – gotta say your post is dead on and still relevant today. The fact that this post is still active after years says alot for its relevance.

    It is never easy being in the position of hiring people – you are always going to piss someone off. Great posts and great insight. Thanks Ben!

    Reply
  18. McElroy

    I’m really confused as to what Ben said that is so offensive.

    All seemed like a reasonable assessment to me. Nothing earth shattering but it’s a post about how to get a job so there’s no reason to believe it would be.

    A funny read, nothing more nothing less.

    Reply
  19. Marie

    Thank you for your advise Ben! It’s like “how to survive in any job market 101.” Also, I am so greatful to know that someone actually cares enough to give an advise and even provides a room for some comments! It’s really unfortunate that people abuse this generosity though. I think that any worthy designer should be receptive to fair criticism.

    By the way Ben, thanks for creating such a resourceful blog for everybody to look at. So many insightful articles to read; it’s excellent!

    Reply
  20. Dale

    I found the comments here quite amusing. Being out of work for the first time in 12 years has made me have do a lot of self-evaluation both in career path and portfolio wise. Sure I’ve had accolades in my career, but what people don’t seem to realize is that it takes more than talent to win a job these days. You HAVE to FIT. It’s not so much about skill as having the right art and the right attitude for an employer. Don’t be slighted when your work is scrutinized. You are an extension of your employer and if they don’t believe in your work you will not have success. Find an employer that wholeheartedly embraces what you do. You will make your employer and most importantly yourself, very happy. Just my two cents.

    Reply
  21. Ruby Palmer

    Hi,

    Because of fairness, we should also post a list of tips for agencies, EH?

    Don’t waste my time.
    You are hiring or you are not hiring. Don’t waste my time, invite me for an interview, let me travel miles, let me answer random questions and then forget to send me any respond. Just tell me: WE ARE NOT HIRING!!! (Update your website, delete 1year old job-ads on KROP, coroflot, behance, local newspapers, etc.). Tell me if you took your brother in law or the girl next door. But please: DON’T WASTE MY TIME!

    Answer the question: Why do I have to understand what you are doing? Why don’t they ask the question: Di you understand what our clients are doing? How many times did you (agency) hire a freelancer because your own employees weren’t able to handle the job? How many times did you talk to yourself: “Dammit! Wouldn’t it be great to have that guy who knocked on our day the other day?”

    Then agencies go even further and claim: We want someone who fits into our company and culture. But ask yourself – what does that actually mean? Really? Don’t they have strategies to make everybody happy? Wouldn’t it be great for an agency to have the north and the south pole in the same team? Good and evil? Black and White? Only those teams are able to think further: Above and Beyond. Diversity is king in a creative process. Oh yeah, alright. The came up with the employee-does-not-fit-the-client thing. Well, turn it around: Clients leave their agencies because they get bored quite fast these days. Based on Forrester Research every 5 years an average.

    Why should I spell your name right, if I can’t even read your badly designed logo, EH?

    You can even go a little bit further and ask:

    What do you actually do to keep top talents in your agency? If you have good people in your agency, when was the last time you have been awarded for your work? Who was it? You, or someone who left lately? Its NOT unusual that agencies with lots of creative, international awards got it because of the talent of one outstanding employee. Go ahead – you can check it.

    The portfolio. Take your time for my portfolio. Don’t review on the fly – get a wrong impression – invite me for an interview, let me travel miles, let me answer random questions – …….. (well, you know whats coming next); … and then tell me that we actually are not looking right now for new employees.

    Well, and don’t forget to ask the agency: Why do you wanna see creative excellence if you pay the minimum wage? … or wanna hire me as an intern?

    Thanks for the interview.

    PS: … sorry about the grammar. My apologies – I am French-Canadian 🙂

    Reply
  22. Ren

    My comment may be a little late, but the feedback for this article just compels me to respond.

    Funny, I finish reading this article thinking “Wow Ben, thanks for the great inside scoop,” only to read this hilarious feedback positioning the writer as “arrogant” and “needs a slice of humble pie.”

    So a few quick things:

    1.) If I was Grand Puba of a successful design/branding firm, I’d have a little swagger too.

    2.) Why can’t people just come from an attitude of gratitude?

    I’m a proud Gen Y. Helicopter parents, constant ego-stroking, seeing the world as my juicy oyster, the works. However I’m also proud to have the common sense of never biting the hand that feeds. It’s a messy, dirty jungle out there, and it’s a privilege to get a little help along the way, especially in an industry as competitive as ours.

    So simple. Ben hires. He offers tips. You do tips, you might get hired. At Industrial Design, or anywhere! No need to get the wiggins, you either take the advice or you don’t.

    Oh yes, thanks Ben.

    Reply
  23. Mia

    I visited Industrial Brand a few years ago with a group of students while attending Capilano University. It was a privilege to step into their world of design and experience the atmosphere and their work ethic. I was so impressed and inspired which is precisely why I keep revisiting the website from time to time. The fact that Ben would go out of his way to write something like this is refreshing and encouraging. We can all agree to disagree, but ultimately, if you can’t appreciate a piece of advice, who is going to appreciate you?

    Reply
  24. Ben Garfinkel

    Thanks Mia! It’s great people are still reading this. The rather lively debate is rather telling of the individual approach people have to job hunting and how they present themselves.

    Reply
  25. Farouq Samnani

    Although I can appreciate what lesson Mr. Garfinkel is trying to convey, but anyone who uses ‘Don’t waste my time’ & ‘Prove to me’ clearly has a chip on their shoulder. This is usually characteristic of an HR Manager of a financial institution and not a creative agency.

    To all newbies, please don’t ever cater your book or folio, especially to appease a studio general like this. For the most part they are as pretentious and ego filled as some of your favorite hollywood stars.

    The really funny thing here is that Industrial Brand’s own website does exactly the opposite of what Mr.Garfinkel suggested above. Their own case studies section has way too much copy and does nothing to showcase the actuall work. In fact there identity work is nothing to brag about either.

    This post in not intented to slam Industrial Brand, they’re good at what they do, that’s why they’re in business. It just saddens me that rookies who first step into this industry with no experience but with a shit load of talent and potential quickly become put off when they read shit like this.

    Industrial Brand, try using a little humility and constructive critism without coming off as the best desgin firm in the city.

    For those who want any advice or example of what a well balanced portfolio is, visit http://www.farouqsamnani.com

    My Two Cents

    Farouq Samnani

    Reply
  26. Ben Garfinkel

    I’m a little hesitant to comment again here as I think the discourse in the comments thread above clearly demonstrates the divisiveness of the topic at hand nicely, yet…

    The above comment strikes me as someone who, while possibly in possession of a modicum of talent, operates in a silo and missed the point entirely. In question is not the degree of talent of Industrial Brand as measured by our own portfolio. In fact, while the work may not always dazzle the likes of our designer friends , they are not our true audience. The work is not designed for any other purpose than to WORK for the audiences they were intended, and move our clients’ businesses forward.

    With respect to ego, we have none, except when it comes to insisting that young designers who are looking for work actually do some research into who it is that they are approaching for a job. Mr. Samnani’s comment suggests that he’s never been the recipient of over 100 applicants at a time, or received countless ill-conceived, poorly executed and dim-witted unsolicited cover letter/portfolio combinations.

    Sometimes, out of sheer necessity of sortation and getting on with things, we just have to be dismissive. At other times, when we see someone with potential, but is totally missing the mark in their approach, it gives us great pleasure to assist them and steer them in the right direction, even if we’re not able to hire them.

    Whether you take the advice of this post or not is up to you. If you do, you’ll probably rise above others who have not when submitting work to us for consideration. It may be completely the wrong approach for engaging with another firm, and another person looking for new hires who wants something else. So, the point is really: Do your research and tailor your approach to the firm and person you are talking to.

    Finally, Mr. Samnani, your comment would probably have had more credibility if you’d chosen not to conclude it with a blatant, self-promotional link.

    Reply
  27. Randall Infuso

    This is probably the most interesting thread I have read about design, portfolios or job hunting for that matter. Ben simply states what he believes will HELP designers get the right job. I just wish more directors would share their thoughts as Ben does.

    Ben, I am from Toronto, now living in Vancouver like yourself, and I just want to say THANK YOU for the candour and honesty you have shared with us. PLEASE keep it coming!

    Reply

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