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Thoughts on Portfolios from Someone Making One

I’m 32 and I went back to school last spring. I’ve spent one year at the advertising firm of Wieden + Kennedy, taking part in their experimental advertising school called 12. We graduate in one point five months, so I am beginning to put together my book. This is not such a simple task, as I am finding out.

I am finding out, in the advertising world at least, there are two divergent schools of thought on what should go in a book. “Creative firms,” like Wieden, don’t necessarily want to see a book of real/fake ads. They want to see more of who you are, what your point of view is. The overall question then, is “what do you dig?” Painting? Dirty poetry? Film reviews? Home movies? Whatever can get across that which makes you a special human, they are interested in seeing.

Other places want to see ads. Fake ones. Real ones. A mixture. Five campaigns someone can flip through and conclude at the end whether you have a future in advertising.

And to make matters worse, there are obviously exceptions at each firm: folks at creative-driven firms who want to see ads; and folks at other firms who are bored with ads and want to see something unique.

So where does that leave me?

Well, with me.

I think anyone putting a book together of their work has to think less about what the audience would like, and more about what turns them on. That way, your book will find you the right job for you. When you find an audience for the work you do, you will likely have the right job. Remember the goal is to find and job where you fit. You will then do well, and be well.

When I went from working at Planet Propaganda (rock posters and bike catalogs) to Enterprise IG (corporate branding and ZZZZ) I found out how closely my happiness and productivity is tied to my job. If I had been more true to what I put in my book, I would never have ended up at Enterprise IG. It was a bad fit for the kind of work I was doing. I interviewed there with a tepid body of work; none of my music or protest posters were included. So I got what I deserved. And I learned.

Also consider the effect of technology. You have to imagine that solid portfolio work has a general (and boring) sameness about it. You would do well to differentiate yourself through your work; perhaps by including something that makes you special. Don’t ask yourself “well, is it advertising?” or “is it graphic design?” The question is whether or not it is you, or not.

So what am I going to do with my book? I’m not sure yet.

But it will be me.

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ARCHIVE ID 3132 FILED UNDER Discussion
PUBLISHED ON Mar.15.2007 BY Jimm Lasser
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
james’s comment is:

Great advice. I'm a designer in advertising, and being able to show thinking and what you're interested in and why is huge. Advertising creative is mostly about ideas - what is your direct message? Styling and execution come later but your ability to think and create fantastic ideas are what will get you where you want to be.

Another thing I've realized over the years (both from experience and from Project Runway) is that point of view is incredibly important. Have something to say - in most interviews it's usually the personal projects that get talked about the most anyway just because of the amount of passion involved in working for no one.

On Mar.15.2007 at 01:54 PM
Tommy’s comment is:

Keep in mind I am a former agency "suit" and not a creative person. But I always bring portfolio with me and have been told it is an impressive touch.

I know there are a hundred different ways to put together a portfolio. I mount my stuff on boards (I take different things to different interviews) and include talking points on the back I want to hit on so I stay focused.

What I've found is something I think you are hitting on. They want to know your thought process. What was the clients needs? Why did you approach it in this manner? What issues did you run into in the creative process and how did you deal with them?

IMHO that is what these people want to know more then anything else. If you present that with "real" creative, mock ads, or just pictures I think you'll get your point across.

On Mar.15.2007 at 02:15 PM
Doug B’s comment is:

As a seasoned designer, you should prepare your book the way YOU want it to look, not the other way around. If you value the creative process, articulating the concept, how you went from an initial idea to a finished piece, etc... then lead with that. That is to say, show what is important to your process first, and worry less about what you think people want to see. That way, you have a much better chance of resonating with an individual (or firm) that share that point of view and value set.

On Mar.15.2007 at 02:43 PM
Brad’s comment is:

I somehow started off at VSA Partners in Chicago, where I was a very bad fit (and really, just very bad), to going to an unknown place in St. Louis that was probably too indifferent or lazy to stop me from running wild, which was fun but led me nowhere. Then I did what I was "supposed" to do, and wound up at a decent firm that I ultimately wasn't thrilled with. Then, a guy who has a quotation from Cicero on his wall and is partnered with a former literature professor, and to whom I had showed a very sprawled, chaotic but accurate version of my work a long time ago, spontaneously brought me on. I'm a student of history, philosophy and Latin, and it makes sense that I work for similarly intellectual, unapologetic individuals.

That being said, a couple of thoughts:
1. Keep it short. People get the point quickly.

2. No fucking pro bono work.

3. Your work damn well better be personal. And if you can't express that in work for real clients with real objectives, keep pushing it until you get there. Whoever can reveal a bit of their soul and perspective in an a piece for checking accounts or health care probably has an edge. Howard Gossage did that in his work for Fina Gas 50+ years ago. Awesome.

For anybody who's heard of the artist Doug Aitken, you might be surprised to know that he started off directing TV commercials--including one for Coke with Gyro years ago. Gyro themselves said it was pretty obvious why Doug became an artist and not a TV spot director. He's a much better fine artist.

On Mar.15.2007 at 03:19 PM
DC’s comment is:

I'm actually at this same point right now, building my portfolio back up. I've been out of the game for so long, I have no clue what people are doing with their books these days. Are pages better than boards or vice versa? Large format or small? I'm really at a loss and it's starting to take over my every thought. The problem is that I'm not really in touch with many other designers outside my company, so I don't have a local support system. If anyone has any pointers to this regard, I'm all ears.

On Mar.15.2007 at 03:32 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> Other places want to see ads. Fake ones. Real ones. > don’t necessarily want to see a book of real/fake ads

So showing "fake" ads is acceptable in advertising? Maybe I should make me some fake logos...

On Mar.15.2007 at 03:34 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Come on, aren't all ads fake?

On Mar.15.2007 at 04:32 PM
DC1974’s comment is:

Now this is a useful post. I've wondered about this too. I'm working on transitioning my career from marketing graphic design to exhibition design and working on my certificate at Georgetown. Although my portfolio site won't win any awards (I'm not a web designer), my family (recruiters and personnel directors all of them) have wondered about the chaotic nature of my site -- including video art, writing samples, etc. I've always contended that I want to be evaluated for my total aesthetic. (Especially since I've done a lot of corporate B2G work.) It's nice to see that others think the same way -- now I need to incorporate that into the physical book as well.

On Mar.15.2007 at 04:50 PM
Andrew Twigg’s comment is:

2. No fucking pro bono work.

Really?

On Mar.15.2007 at 04:55 PM
Doug B’s comment is:

No fucking pro bono work.

I just saw a lecture and slide show by Woody Pirtle three weeks ago. He built his design reputation by doing pro bono work for arts groups in Dallas well before his Pentagram and Pirtle Design days...got his name out there, met people, and took off from there. I'd leave pro bono work in, if it was good design. I like to see designers giving back in one form or another. It's also an excellent way to get pieces printed for young designers, and you tend to hold on to more creative control of your work when billable hours aren't an issue. It's certainly better than 'fake' ads...

On Mar.15.2007 at 05:38 PM
Brad’s comment is:

Well, the pro bono thing is just a (rather firm) thought of mine. Do as you wish.

For instance--CP+B did all that anti-tobacco work, and it was great. Got 'em clients. Pretty strong work, too.

I think, however, pro bono work is just too easy. And it doesn't have the same effect it used to; years ago, it was a clear path to an award, especially in ad world. Now its not quite as big a deal. INTERESTING pro bono is cool, but domestic violence or anti-drugs or anti-racism shit is played out for portfolio purposes.

Regarding fake ads:
Depends on what you mean. Rem Koolhaas built his reputation almost entirely from models of buildings that were never constructed. Same principle can apply here. The ads I put in my portfolio are all for real projects and real clients, but I don't think any of them were ever "officially" produced.

And I encourage the creation of fake logos.

On Mar.15.2007 at 06:21 PM
David E.’s comment is:

There's a fine line between having a point of view in your portfolio, and making the work very personal. Some portfolios I've seen were much too personal. I want to see that someone can do the work. Form is equally important to concept, in some cases much more so.

It may be true that in really big ad agencies, they hire art directors based soley on their conceptual skills, but I think that's only a few really big ones who have a studio staff to execute the finished work. I would imagine it's not easy to find an art director position at a place like that. What I think is much more common is the small ad agency that does both design and advertising. I started off at a place like that. We did much more design than advertising, and the only advertising we did was print. When interviewing at a place like that, it's the same as interviewing for a design position – they want to see that you've had real experience and can do real work.

On Mar.15.2007 at 07:07 PM
Adelie’s comment is:

>>Are pages better than boards or vice versa?

When I first got out of school, I had pages. About a year ago I was working on it again. Updating. Interviewing. I was interviewing for quite a variety of organizations and came to the conclusion that I needed to switch to boards.

My opinion is that your portfolio needs to at least be slightly tailored to where you are interviewing (just like your resume and cover letter). I think boards make it a lot easier to do that.

On Mar.15.2007 at 08:44 PM
Kim’s comment is:

I'm currently working as a designer at an extremely conservative, horribly expensive university. It's my second job out of school. It provides great benefits (I'm getting my masters for free) but other than that, I don't feel like I'm getting anywhere. I played it safe with my portfolio and my interview and now that's all I do. "Safe" design. I'm reworking my portfolio and web site now and this has been a tremendous help.
Thanks guys.

On Mar.15.2007 at 09:41 PM
Armin’s comment is:

We had a great discussion on portfolio tips almost three years ago, I would encourage those in the midst of doing a portfolio to take a look at the comments. Which are still relevant after all this time.

> Regarding fake ads: Depends on what you mean.

Brad, I agree... It depends what you mean. From the way Jimm wrote it, it sounded like you could sit around in your living room and come up with uncomissioned ads for Tabasco or something and just show how creative you can be if given the chance. Real projects that were not produced, I completely understand and I'm happy to see in a portfolio (and even put in my own) if the story behind it supports it. But showing fake work done without any rigor seems absurd and, not to be offensive or pejudiced, but I wouldn't be taken by surprise if this were a recurring practice in advertising, whether it's people looking for a job or agencies looking for clients. But anyway... Whatever gets anyone a job as long as no one gets trampled in the way is all fair.

RE: Pro-bono work in your portfolio

It must be the types of pro-bono work I've done this year, but they have been no different than working with a generously-paying client. The process is the same (except we sit in less meetings and make less comps) and the results are only as good and effective as we make that process. One of my favorite pieces of the year so far came out from a pro-bono client and it was as hard getting approved and produced as any other project.

On Mar.15.2007 at 10:27 PM
Amanda Woodward’s comment is:

Some of our pro-bono work is the work I'm most proud of.
It is stayin' in!

On Mar.16.2007 at 03:03 AM
Sean Flanagan’s comment is:

In my experience, pro bono work is often my best work because I choose to do it, as opposed to being paid to do it. And my pro-bono clients understand that and appreciate it. The moment my pro-bono clients start acting like my paid clients is the moment I stop doing pro-bono work. But I will always show the work as prime examples of what my firm can do.

On Mar.16.2007 at 10:34 AM
Christina W’s comment is:

Personally I think mounting boards should be burned. And yes, I did have a nasty episode involving an x-acto knife and some spray mount in universty but that has absolutely NO bearing on my opinion :)

On Mar.16.2007 at 10:44 AM
Jose Nieto’s comment is:

The moment my pro-bono clients start acting like my paid clients is the moment I stop doing pro-bono work.

This may be for another thread, but, frankly, I find this statement rather bizarre. What do people expect from their pro-bono clients -- obedience? A pro-bono client is simply a client you take on for free: they should expect that your work will solve their communication problem, not just serve as an outlet for your creativity.

Obviously, you don't want to get stuck in a bad situation, so it makes sense to use good judgment before starting a pro-bono relationship. Does the client appreciate design? What's the decision making process? Do they have respect for your time and effort? These are questions we should be asking from every client, though we sometimes overlook them in pursuit of a paycheck.

To expect a pro-bono client to take whatever you dish out is both unfair and counterproductive. It sends the wrong message about the value and purpose of design, and, just as important, it makes you look like a jerk.

Looking at the archives, it's been a few years since pro-bono work was the subject of a post here at Speak Up. Maybe it's time to take it on again...

On Mar.16.2007 at 11:49 AM
David E.’s comment is:

But showing fake work done without any rigor seems absurd and, not to be offensive or pejudiced, but I wouldn't be taken by surprise if this were a recurring practice in advertising, whether it's people looking for a job or agencies looking for clients.

Big ad agencies sell "creativity." In other words, clever concepts. That's pretty much all they care about. They look at graphic designers' intense focus on execution as being absurd. I don't think they care very much whether or not the ads in someone's portfolio are fake or not, they just want to see how well someone can come up with concepts – the execution is secondary. It's very common for art directors and copywriters to show fake ads in a portfolio. The common saying is "I need to work on my book" – which means they need to come up with some new fake ads for their portfolio.

On Mar.16.2007 at 12:48 PM
David E.’s comment is:

But showing fake work done without any rigor seems absurd and, not to be offensive or pejudiced, but I wouldn't be taken by surprise if this were a recurring practice in advertising, whether it's people looking for a job or agencies looking for clients.

Big ad agencies sell "creativity." In other words, clever concepts. That's pretty much all they care about. They look at graphic designers' intense focus on execution as being absurd. I don't think they care very much whether or not the ads in someone's portfolio are fake or not, they just want to see how well someone can come up with concepts – the execution is secondary. It's very common for art directors and copywriters to show fake ads in a portfolio. The common saying is "I need to work on my book" – which means they need to come up with some new fake ads for their portfolio.

On Mar.16.2007 at 12:48 PM
Von K’s comment is:

Pro-bono work can be just as demanding as comissioned work. It just depends on the client's needs and how serious you are about doing it right.

Fake ads are a staple. I'm talking about work created from a brief, with real goals and real limitations--that should go without saying. Putting playtime stuff in your book is like jacking off in front of potential bosses. I know it happens, but damn. It shoudln't.

I like boards, Christina. If I had a dollar for every time I've sliced off my thumb prints, I'd have at least 4 or 5 bucks by now.

Seriously, though--it's par for the course. You've just gotta be careful working with knives. What do you do when you've gotta build mockups? Pages are nice, but I've always appreciated the ease with which boards let me add, remove and rearrange my stuff.

On Mar.16.2007 at 02:29 PM
Josh B’s comment is:

A good discussion to be sure. Just to address a few points:

>> My opinion is that your portfolio needs to at least be slightly tailored to where you are interviewing.... I think boards make it a lot easier to do that.

Taking the easy way seems counter-intuitive to finding a good job. Even if its with something as seemingly insignificant as boards or pages. Boards are ugly. They reek of easiness (read laziness). There are ways to bind pages that allow you to swap or rearrange them as you need to. It's not difficult, and makes for a cleaner presentation.

>> Big ad agencies sell "creativity." In other words, clever concepts. That's pretty much all they care about. They look at graphic designers' intense focus on execution as being absurd.

Wow. I could almost be fine with this statement except that I'm forced to ask, how often do we see really good ads with clever concepts? Only the most clever, most superb concepts can stand up to being executed poorly (see Idiocracy), and advertising is largely devoid of greatness (or even goodness). An average idea, executed well at least has that on its side.

On Mar.16.2007 at 02:49 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> They look at graphic designers' intense focus on execution as being absurd.

We look at advertisers' lack of focus on execution as being absurd. So we are even. Although I do make design-made-by-advertisers the butt of many of my jokes when I see bad design.

> It's very common for art directors and copywriters to show fake ads in a portfolio. The common saying is "I need to work on my book" – which means they need to come up with some new fake ads for their portfolio.

That's kind of weird if you ask me. But whatev.

On Mar.16.2007 at 02:57 PM
Brad’s comment is:

See, this is why I like Speak Up. I work in advertising, have for 3.5 years now, and you are ALL totally correct in your assessment of it.

For what its worth, my passion remains typography and I'm fortunate to work with people who believe that typography is integral to communicating meaning. I'm pretty sure that's a rarity. Lots of art directors can't do shit without accessing a rolodex; for awhile there, I worked with this writer who'd say "you're a designer, not an art director." Why? What's the difference? Because I can DO something? Execution matters a great deal. I'd argue, however, that a non-idea executed beautifully is like eating 25 Hershey bars in one sitting. Tasty, but sickening.

Oh, actually, David--you're wrong. Ad agencies rarely sell creativity. That might be the theory (and perhaps that's what you mean by using the quotation marks), but these days its a lot of flash and image and other vacant notions of "cool." Because as Josh pointed out, there's really not much that's truly creative.

Of course, I think the bigger issue is depth. Substance. Meaning. Just because its commercial doesn't mean it has to be vapid.

So maybe that's what a portfolio should express: "I have something to say, and here's the proof that I can say it well."

Armin: yes, fake ads as you described them are weird. It does happen. It's strange and vacuous and pointless. Between that and pro-bono, go with pro-bono.

Am I the only ad person on this site?

On Mar.16.2007 at 03:34 PM
felix’s comment is:

Jimm,
Should I expect to see buck naked 15 year olds in your new personalized freedom folder? C'mon, mate. Don't let Wieden spoil you. My advice: stay there at W+K.

That insert you guys did of r Goo magazine was one the most inspired pieces of graphic design I've seen in recent years. Totally fresh and personal. But corporate America aint along for that ride.

Come on back to NYC. We miss your lanky dumb ass.

Also, for most of us, pro bono is as personal as it gets, most days. Keep it real. Make it fake.

On Mar.16.2007 at 06:04 PM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:

So what am I going to do with my book? I’m not sure yet.
But it will be me.

how about inverting that:
"What am I going to to with my life? I'm not sure yet. But it will be my book."

You have had the luxury of testing the waters of different types of firms and experiences. It sounds like you know more about what you don't want to do, and aren't sure about what kinds of opportunities there are for someone who wants to "be his most true self."

I read you as saying you wish to point your wagon in the direction of risk but might be afraid of making the kind of personal investment in a presentation that might not pan out for you. Don't wimp out now!

If you have the talent and resources to work at top firms and go to elite schools, I can't understand why you would settle for anything less than a completely personal statement.

You can always make a conventional book and go to work for someone who requires one.

On Mar.17.2007 at 06:48 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

I'm at a loss to think of giving anybody advice about portfolios.I probably do it all wrong by reasonable standards. I lost my handmade book to Katrina and now I just collate pages downloaded from my computer "appropriate" for each interview. It's a shotgun approach: Some relevant and some personal. A non-fussy carrying case and 11x14 individual boards in plastic sleeves to protect against drooling. It always surprizes me when the unexpected weird-ass piece in the back gets their enthusiastic attention.I show my New Orleans sketchbook book only if they haven't fallen asleep.

There's no science to it: be honest, show what you like to do and forget fakery or "good impressions". If they see your talent and you trust them something good will come of it. Maybe not. Oftentimes I find that art directors are too cowardly to trust illustrators to create something new. They want safe.
Art directors are spineless scum. I hate 'em. (smilin')

On Mar.18.2007 at 10:36 PM
EBrackett’s comment is:

As a design firm owner who has to do hiring, I have no problem with "fake" or pro bono pieces. However, sometimes the inconsistencies between real work and not-so-real work is the MOST telling.

I've seen a lot of portfolios of young designers who can only do something creative with a topic they are personally interested in. Unfortunately, not all my clients are cool enough to interest them. When their work is consistently high-caliber across assignments I know they'll be a good fit.

On Mar.19.2007 at 01:15 PM
Greg Scraper’s comment is:

We look at advertisers' lack of focus on execution as being absurd. So we are even. Although I do make design-made-by-advertisers the butt of many of my jokes when I see bad design.

That's probably the best way that I've ever heard to get "advertisers" to listen to your points, Armin. Kudos. Should we change the name of the site now to Shout Down?

As a design-guy-in-advertising myself, that's pretty fucking offensive. The pressure I get from my boss (and exert on myself) to do good work is phenomenal. Not to say there aren't art directors/creative directors out there who don't know two shits from good design, but don't lump them all into a catagory called "advertisers" and kick them collectively in the ass. Some of us in the studio (and I'd even bet some members of the ADC) care and are trying to change things for the better.

On Mar.19.2007 at 02:20 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Greg, no need to start a holy war… just some competitively friendly pokes at our creative brethren.

On Mar.19.2007 at 04:24 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

Holy Warrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! LOL

Well, perhaps I got carried away. (No wonder they never call!)

On Mar.19.2007 at 06:56 PM
Greg Scraper’s comment is:

Oh. Sorry. I guess sarcasm/good-natured jibing reads funny on screen (and when it's something you've heard in earnest). I was, however, pretty proud of my "Shout Down™" renaming. That's quality material. Consider the Holy War rescinded... or at least on hold.

As far as (ahem)the actual subject matter of this post, I feel like what Jimm says is true; you'll eventually find the place you're looking for if you have the book you want. I did the same thing, except I did it with freelance rather than interviews. I was me, in every place I worked, and never tried too hard to fit in. I felt at times like I didn't know if I'd ever fit in anywhere, and then I found where I work now, and it's great. Imagine, an ad agency where your boss loves Speikermann and Bringhurst, and embraces concept over all else. Who'd have thunk.

On Mar.20.2007 at 10:07 AM
Tim Lapetino’s comment is:

Imagine, an ad agency where your boss loves Speikermann and Bringhurst, and embraces concept over all else. Who'd have thunk.

So, Greg, that begs the question. What *is* this magical ad agency called? (And is it located in Chicago?) :)

BTW, Jimm, your post has really resonated with me and I feel like it's the missing link and direction I need to put together the latest iteration of my book. Making a book that echoes yourself, that will help you find a place where *you* fit in--seems obvious, but there's genius there. Thanks!

On Mar.20.2007 at 10:58 AM
Jeff Orlowski’s comment is:

What you put into your portfolio should reflect the work you are looking to obtain. Any of the pieces you bring to the table will by default showcase some of who you are (ie. your thought process, execution and other skills) but your designs are not who YOU are but who the client IS. I usually look for the value effect. What did this do for the client, why this execution? How did this project or campaign achieve the clients goal? You can lead the interview and communicate this to the interviewer. Keep it simple and quick and show them the "go get 'em" attitude.

As a creative/art director who is constantly interviewing creatives, designers, freelancers, and production artists the portfolio should communicate quickly that you possess the skills and ability to complete the task at hand. It doesn't hurt to do research on the firm in question. Who their clients are and what role the firm plays. What the firm is known for (more production than creative or nice mix of both). This will effect what you place in your portfolio. Keep it nimble and don't have one type of portfolio. Fitting in will only come with in-depth research or just plain freelancing with the firm for a period of time. Besides, this is where you're going to spend 8-14 hours of your day. You better know if this is a good fit and where you want to spend the next (X) many years.

Good luck!

On Mar.23.2007 at 08:23 PM
Mike’s comment is:

Awesome advice, Jimm. I totally agree with you!!!

On Apr.01.2007 at 11:28 AM
Will Bryant’s comment is:

Excellent advice! thanks for this post.
I'm very interested in w+k12!
This is very encouraging to hear.

best,
will

On Oct.02.2008 at 06:16 PM