[The following was sent to design blog, UnderConsideration.com, at their request, regarding students and portfolios. I also sent them our 2-page pdf on Getting Your Foot in the Door. Send me an email and will send it to you.]
How many student portfolios do you see in a month? Or in a year?
I probably see the work of about 30 or more portfolios a year, though not all in person. I may see one a month in person, as the rest send pdfs, and I review them on-line. I usually instruct someone who wants in the door for any reason, to send pdfs first, so I'll have an idea whether they are serious or not.
What would you advice a student do (or not do) when designing and producing their portfolio?
Show your best work, in a sequence that makes sense. Make sure your resume is flawless, with excellent typography, as that is the immediate deal-breaker. Keep the rez simple, no gimmicks whatsoever. Unless the gimmicks are abso-fucking-lutely amazing. And they're probably not.
I have a six inch chunk of a 2"x4" on shelf that someone stenciled, labeled (spelled my name correctly) and ran thru a postage meter. I was really excited by it when I got it in the mail. Even checked out the website. But I wasn't thrilled when I got there. I kept the wood. Maybe someday I will steal the idea. If I have a reason.
What do you look for in a student portfolio?
Thinking. Do they have a clue? Do they have a thirst? Are they eager to explore, be curious, know more? That all comes out in their approach to school assignments. Have they been able to play with the rules but still find ways to instill the work with spirit of their own that can captivate?
Point of view. Want to know if they have figured out where they fit in the world, would like to fit, or if they are searching for that. Ties in to the curiosity and exploration above.
Humor. Do they have wit or just crass, and pointless?
Now regarding design, I'm looking for courage to try (and fail), skills, a foundation in core design principles, and at best an understanding of design history, of art history.
How many pieces would you say make the perfect portfolio?
Back when I taught at Massachusetts College of Art, we made sure that students had 18 pieces. As faculty we went around in circles trying to do right by our students - and I was teaching the portfolio class when I moved to Texas, so was very much on top of what we hoped went out the door.
Now - because we do our share of dvd packaging - I've told students they really only need six dvd packages, making for a tight, small portfolio. But here's the rub: they can't be the kind of crap that is available in the stores. They have to pick six widely diverse topics/clients/causes and go from there. The end result would be 6 logos, 6 covers (which could double as posters), 6 on-screen menus and submenus (along with notes on movement and sound), 6 DigiPaks with 6 discs, 6 slipcases (because those are the kind we love to do, not those plastic things you find in Blockbuster), and 6 booklets (we've been lucky to have some 60+ pagers).
What this would show is the application of an idea across several components, which is what I always like to see. In the case above we would have logo, publication, package, multimedia. A variation would be identity (not logo) applied to anything from marketing materials to packaging to annual reports to websites. When I taught portfolio I made certain that students had the basics down, but if they were dead-set on moving in specific direction (media, publishing, ARs environment), that they be certain to load their "books" in that direction.
What I DON'T want to see? One logo. applied to nothing. One letterhead, with no futher applications. A magazine cover with nothing else. A magazine spread with no table of contents or cover. If you are going to do a publication, gimme something I can hold and flip thru. Don't want to see one poster, one ad, one of anything. Unless it is so good that it knocks me silly.
And what kind of project should be included/excluded? Do you like seeing personal projects, school projects, gig posters? Or none of the above?
I have had it up to HERE with gig posters. And considering that's how I got my start, for my own band or doing other bands record covers, back in the day, that would make it a sorry state of affairs. So many of them today are subjective that it becomes all about style. Now if there is an idea that must be expressed, I'm willing to take a look. But more often than not, that whole angle becomes a dead-end if they can't develop a truly unique style (Kozik, Coop, Vaughn Oliver have enough imitators).
Personal work is fine - if it has found a way into the design world, and is not an extended art project. Has an audience been considered? Has communication been considered?
A stack of photos or illustrations can be an asset if they are top-notch. If they are average, they drag you down, like the drummer of that great band who could not keep time. Remember them? Exactly. Neither does anyone else.
Tell us about the most memorable portfolio you have encountered.
The most memorable ones always have the best work. While I have seen a lot of good work over the years, the ones that have made me rethink what we do here at the studio are those of the Academy of Art University, in San Francisco, and those of the Portfolio Center, in Atlanta. Students from the former are required to design an actual hardcover book that has their best school work in it, along with resume and some aspect of process. The books present a unity to their work, and are quite manageable, particularly to book lovers. The school also makes sure that each designer knows how to photograph their work for presentation.
The students at Portfolio Center create very elaborate constructions that house several of their projects. PC prides themselves on their hand-skills, which are sorely lacking in most schools.
What would you say are the most common mistakes?
Poor typography. Not knowing a thing about whom it is they are talking to or checking out our work to see if they are the least bit compatible with our sensibilities. Spelling my name wrong. Not having a clue a to what we do or how we do it.
Please tell us a little bit about your portfolio review process.
Pretty much 95% of those who come in my door are students, with little interview experience. So I usually take far too much time - an hour or more - trying to set them on the straight and narrow, as one particular guy did for me, many years ago - before hiring me.
I ask if they have ever done an interview before, and if they have, its usually a very small number. So then I tell them that I'm gonna tell them how they should handle it in the future, to their advantage. I also tell them I picked some of this info up from a former employer.
1) Ask how much time you have. Lets interviewer know you appreciate the value of time, and allows you to then take control as much as possible.
2) Divide your time into thirds.
First third: get personally professional. Ask about things you quickly observe in the environment? "Did you climb Machu Pichu? I see that photo . . . ”, "I noticed you love [art deco/modernism/old farm equipment/old posters]" or "I see that you collect [license plates/shrunken heads/Victorian dildos/Hummels]". Or ask about what got your interviewer where they are today, why they have chosen the direction they have, or about their specific client base.
Second third: show your portfolio. Never say anything negative about it. If there is a relevant way to bring some of the information gleaned from the first third of the meeting into play regarding work, do so, as it shows the ability to connect ideas. I also advise them to otherwise shut up, and let the work do the talking, never explaining unless asked, or unless there is info that is not apparent [I wrote the copy, took the photos, it was a joint project and my contribution was ______ ]. Do not explain each piece, or why you did things, as the interviewer has most likely seen similar assignments one way or the other, and the projects either work or they do not. Ask for feedback, and take it at face value, and professionally, not personally.
Final third: time to build the network. If not hiring, can you get the names of five more names you should see? Ask for direction. And in general do not over talk.
For the most part, picked all that up after an hour-and-a-half interview, with a gentleman that then asked if he could offer some constructive criticism. I was eager to hear. He told me two things, the thing about asking how much time you had (I then blushed) and the part about not having to go into detail about each project, why I chose a font, color, etc. Then he hired me.
What was your first portfolio like? What did you learn from it? Do you still have it?
Still have my first portfolio, and subsequent iterations.
I had three versions:
1) Circa 1986-87. the 20" x 24" leather job (Massachusetts College of Art, still in great shape), that had a removable metal spiral in which I had those much cooler vinyl pockets, not those crap acetate ones. In this I had also attached much smaller vinyl pockets to the larger pages, that I could present brochures and small pieces in an easy-to-access manner, which then looked designed. Pocket in back held resumes.
2) 1987-1989. the same leather portfolio, with the guts removed (was smart enough to see that one coming). I had seen a portfolio from Yale and saw they were mounting everything on black matteboards, with each piece inset into a hand-cut area that echoed the shape of the piece. If it was a brochure, it was only two boards thick. If a thicker piece, then I would often use black foamcore backed with matteboard to reach my desired thickness, which kept the weight down.
By using this technique I could then do several things. First, I could make some of my boards 20x24 and others 12x20, to easily accommodate larger and smaller pieces. Second, I could very quickly and easily rearrange or edit the portfolio according to whomever I was seeing.
Finally, each board had a label on the bottom, white type on black Photostat paper, consisting of the briefest of Client, Description, Objective, Audience, all set in Frutiger, which was the typeface I also used on my resume. First, this allowed potential employers to know that I recognized clients and purpose, and second, the unifying labels (maybe 6" x .75") tied all my work together, as they were stylistically different. Always got good feedback on the presentation, though this thing often weighed a ton.
3) 1992-present. I picked up a foam-lined Halliburton Zero case, the kind photographers use for their gear (13" x 21" x 7"), and the kind that invariably shows up in T shows like 24 or any Schwartzeneger film when some one is carrying either documents, weapons or a nuclear device. Have no idea if the manufacturer is related to those dudes making all the money in Iraq. But I digress.
I lined the top with the soundproofing foam one gets for recording studios, as it had my ME logo already built in, and perfectly fit inside the lid.
In 1992 I still used some of those 12x20 boards, but essentially it was not long before I ditched them completely and just had my actual samples. The only holdover is actual a rather simple but effective one, where we use boards (black tape seams) to present websites, dvd menus, and exhibits, as no technology is required.
The case can takes a beating should you check it on an airline, and easily fits in the overhead. Back when I was working out of the very cramped and cold basement of a New England home, the case alone made me look like a pro. Eventually the work looked like that of a pro.
[Aside from having seen and reviewed student porfolios all over the country, I currently teach graduate studies at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco, and have previously taught at Massachusetts College of Art, The New England School of Art and Design, Texas State University, and Austin Community College.]