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Portfolio Advice

I found this interesting article on Design Assembly posted by Neil Cummings:

As February slides in to march the pressure begins to mount on this years crop of final year students. This is the time for third years when things get serious, as portfolios start to germinate and shortlists of potential employers begin to form it suddenly hits home that other people need to get your work.

I spoke with three of the industry’s top creative leaders to gain some insight, opinion and advice on what they look for in a graduate portfolio.

In the current climate, with many jobs having already been cut, competition for graduate positions will be fierce. Companies will be less willing and financially able to take a punt on someone they’re not quite sure about. It’s imperative that students make sure their portfolios are relevant to the companies they’re approaching.

Relevance is not about aping a particular company’s style or only doing a certain type of project, it’s about understanding and demonstrating the qualities and skills that will make you attractive to your chosen prospective employers. For some it means less navel gazing, for others it means engaging more with their personalities. For all it means keeping one eye on the bigger picture and remembering the practical necessities of a portfolio.

Jonathan Ellery
BROWNS

Inside Browns  

Inside Browns

NC
What qualities and skills do you look for in a graduate?

JE
From a Browns point of view we’re looking for a strong, intelligent, practical portfolio. The ability to talk about personal points of reference, to show passion, all mixed in with a healthy dose of humility/insecurity. Arrogance or ego don’t go down well here. Working in a creative environment is fantastic, hard work but good fun. So it’s important to us that they’re interesting, fun, maybe bring in some new music to listen to and hopefully contribute socially. In many cases, this aspect of their personality is as important as the portfolio.

NC
What balance between self initiated work and brief led projects should students have?

JE
Ten years ago I would find myself telling students to bring more of their personality to their portfolios. Meaning, in amongst the corporate identities, packaging projects, signage systems, literature systems, it would be a good thing to have the odd self initiated project in the mix. A revealing and perhaps intimate indulgence. It has now all changed. I can’t remember the last time I saw a rigorous identity implementation, asignage system for the NHS, any packaging or an annual report. I see far too much self indulgent nonsense. For Browns, graphic design is defined by a client, a brief, a deadline and generally fees. If it doesn’t have any of those, it’s not graphic design.We’re very clear on this. It’s why my own self indulgent nonsense is done under the name of Ellery (the artist), not Browns. Now, I’m not saying get rid of lovely self initiated projects but bring some balance to a portfolio. How about 70% hard working, fantastic, beautiful graphic design and 30% indulgent nonsense.

Inside Browns 2  

Inside Browns 2

NC
How would you encourage third year students to build their portfolio’s?

JE
For me there is no set way of building a portfolio. I’ve seen them work in many different formats. Obviously you need to show your very best work, the work being the hero of the piece, not the portfolio, if that makes sense. I would suggest that you treat it as a project in its self, the brief being to promote the individual. Therefore it will need to be functional, practical and maybe passive in it’s own graphic treatment allowing the work to sing.

NC
What have students been getting better at?

JE
The world is amazing, technological advancements, political complexities, financial disasters, it’s so much more sophisticated than when I was at college. There is some fantastic work being produced by students who seem to have the ability to bring all of this to their work, very sophisticated, contemporary and intelligent. The best work I’m seeing at the moment is by the students who have worked out what they want graphics to be. And that is a return to practical graphic design, where it is for the greater good, to make change, to achieve goals. To work with commercial clients, commercial briefs without feeling bad about it. The best graduates have worked out that it’s not solely about them.

Michael Johnson
JOHNSON BANKS

Grab from the Johnson Banks work tree  

Grab from the Johnson Banks work tree

NC
What is it you like to see, or not see in a graduates book?

MJ
I think that the ‘poles’ of graphic design education frustrate me. Whilst I’ve enjoyed seeing design embrace aspects of art (especially the conceptual variety), when I see folios stuffed with it I wonder they didn’t just do art in the first place. Conversely a portfolio crammed with ‘real’, and often really dull, work, leaves me cold.

I guess I’m looking for people that can borrow from both – have left field ‘outside’ ideas that are still (just) tempered by reality. Those people are hard to find, to be fair.

I really wish colleges would find a way to teach branding in an open way. They either ignore it completely (hoping it will go away) or set some hopeless ‘logo design’ brief which gets us all nowhere. Identity and branding done in it’s broadest sense can be really fascinating and the best work at the moment shows that the old ‘logo locked in the corner’ approach is over. But very few educators seem to have seen this, it can be years before a graduate sees quite how broad identity can be… There must be another way.

Patrick Cox
WOLFF OLINS

Still from the current Wolff Olins homepage  

Still from the current Wolff Olins homepage

NC
What do you look for in a graduate portfolio?

PC
Disobedience and wishful thinking. Work that challenges the way things are and imagines how they could be. As designers it’s not our job to illustrate the present, our work needs allow us to see what the future looks like and to do that you need to have a point of view about what that future might be. To have designers with conflicting points of view is important, the more we agree on what good taste is the more limited our palette becomes and the more predictable the results

Therefore a portfolio should contain a strong sense of the individual, it is more than just a catalogue of work or a showcase for design skills, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate your point of view about your work, about the industry your entering and about the world you live in. How you talk about your work can be more important than the work itself. Of course it needs to look great but the delivery and demonstration of your personality is key.

Don’t worry about whether you’ve found a unique voice yet, what people look for in a graduate is someone with enough curiosity and imagination to keep growing and learning. Someone who’ll always find interesting resources and influences, someone tapped into the world.

If you are curios and talented and have a point of view the right people will notice.

So, good luck to all the current third year students and I hope that you take these points of view on board. It’s quite rare to hear these things straight from the people that will ultimately decide whether you get a job or not, often when you do it can be too late. The most important advice I could give to anyone willing to listen is to understand the industry your entering, don’t miss opportunities because you weren’t prepared. Very few will come round twice.

Special thanks to Jonathan Ellery, Michael Johnson and Patrick Cox for taking the time out of your busy schedules to contribute to this article.

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