Getting the basics tight

Your portfolio is perfect, and it just got a rejection letter.

Dazed and confused, you wonder why. The padding is excellent, the visuals as fresh as morning mountain dew. Yet it got the can. All those hours spent slaving away, making a pixel-perfect, crisp presentation…

…that probably boiled down to 30 seconds of eye-time, enough to be judged as “unfit” for the position you applied for.

It’s time to stop the vicious cycle of hard work being discarded in what seems like 3 microseconds.

What makes a portfolio stand out? How does it stick around for more exposure time? Why is workplace diversity such a difficult issue to tackle?

Here’s a nice field guide to help you navigate the muddy land of self-presentation and craft a solid portfolio.

STEP 1 – Tell me a story

Please check if your portfolio is packed full of gorgeous mockups, final designs and bold, beautiful images. For each design project that doesn’t have text explaining its goals, pitfalls and workarounds award yourself 1 point. For each that does, subtract 1 point. Go do the math, I’ll wait here.

Done? If you got more than 0 points, you’re in trouble.

The problem isn’t in the delicious imagery, it’s in the lack of substance.

Stunning photos and mockups are superficial. They don’t tell a story, they just tell an ending – and spoil it.

Instead of offering final pixels, imagine you’re presenting your portfolio to a friend. Start at the beginning and walk her through it. Don’t be afraid to talk nerdy; be as simple as possible, but no simpler. And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t sound like a corporate jargon machine. Be friendly. We’re all people that eat, pray, and love just like everyone else.

Show that you are more than just pretty pixels. Anyone can do “pretty” if given enough time, but what you need to focus on are your problem solving skills.

You’re not going to be hired and paid just for your looks – unless you’re a Victoria’s Secret supermodel.

Arrange each project in your portfolio as a case study:

Start with a problem.

Explain it in layman’s terms, no more than a paragraph. Give me screenshots if you can. This is the part when Frodo lives in the Shire, but thirsts for adventure.

Complicate it.

Present your first solutions, explain what worked, what didn’t, and why. If you only have one mockup, then you’re not really good at this, are you? Try to tackle the problem from different angles. Offer wireframes, and comment on them briefly. Give me VIP access to your thoughts and decision-making process. This is the part when Frodo does the whole adventure thing.

Finally, offer finals.

This is the part when Frodo kills the dragon, makes oh so sweet love with an elf, and goes sailing into a sunset. Such is the life of a jetsetter. So, this is the part – and the ONLY part – when you show final images of the project. This is your time to shine, so razzle and dazzle with the best you’ve got.

This basic structure is highly adaptable, and can be applied to almost any portfolio in any creative field.

Even if you’re a character designer in search of a job at Pixar, you can arrange your project this way. Offer initial, rough sketches of your character, including pencil tests; explain any changes you made to the characters, like switching to different-styled eyes; finish with the final look.

The same goes for print/web/UI/UX/fashion designers and the ilk.

STEP 2 – Fit to measure

Don’t: make a one-size-fits-all portfolio.

Do: curate each portfolio for its purpose.

Most portfolios are just all over the place. Over 30 projects, no matter how visually pleasing, are just noise. But a few purposefully selected projects are precious and will draw more attention.

Think of it this way. The Louvre museum in Paris is 60,600 square metres (652,300 square feet). There is no human way possible to consume all of the art in the museum AND giving each piece the same amount of time and attention in a single day.

The same goes for your work.

Make a carefully curated selection of projects that closely match the theme of the job you’re applying for.

Want to work in a web design firm but 80% of your work are posters for bands? Kill most of the posters. Glorify the remaining 20%.

Want to apply in app design but you only designed one app, ever? Wake up. Work more. Beef up your portfolio with more app projects, then cut the worst ones, and then apply.

Oh, and in case you have trouble trimming it down: remember to kill your darlings.

Chayefsky, an award-winning author, gave advice to writers that was simple: Don’t think of it as art, think of it as work.

Because when a writer or even a designer is stuck and she calls in another person for help, that second person doesn’t say, “What’s the art problem?”

Instead they ask “What’s not working?” And they get under the hood and fix it together.

That’s most of what you’ll do in your career — work, problem solving. Approach it in that way and then at the end of every day, you’ll at least be able to say, “I did my job today.”

Also remember that we all expire.

STEP 3 – Don’t be afraid to fail

Say you meticulously designed a torrent client. It’s ad-free, open source, available on github, with all the bells and whistles included. Great!

But it only got downloaded 5 times. Should you put it in your work?

YES. Definitely. Not only does it make you seem more experienced, but it shows that you are capable of being honest about failure. That’s one skill that can’t be taught, and is highly valuable.

Discuss your failures openly. Talk about what went wrong, when, where, and why. If at first pass you start blaming other people for a project’s failure – well, you’re not very good at this, are you? Don’t give excuses. Instead try to analyse what happened and present it without emotion.

Each project should say a little something about what it’s like to work with you. How you’re capable of working under tight schedules and high pressure; how you are capable of making independent decisions under duress; how you are a team player; and so on.

Give examples that back up your claims. Instead of just saying “I worked with a team on this project” specify details like who you worked with, what your responsibilities were, and how that related to other team members.

Show humility, and the ability to cage your ego when necessary.

Now continue on to next chapter of this riveting guide to find out the do’s and don’ts of portfolio-craft.


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