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Small Design Ephemera: The Alternative Portfolio

For as long as I can remember I have always wanted to do a printed portfolio that went beyond showing appropriately-framed pictures of my work in decently-laid out pages with titles and descriptions of each aforementioned picture. Instead, I imagined a portfolio with tight crops of images, typographic details pulled out of their original context, bits and pieces here and there, creating a teasing texture of my design sensibilities leaving the reader wanting more. Or to think of it another way, the equivalent of a reel from a motion graphics designer, with quick cuts and thumping music, three-minutes-long, bam, that’s it. But I have never actually done it. All my printed portfolios have been pretty straightforward; I have been too conservative (or too chicken might be a better way to describe it) to do anything that might overshadow the actual work. Plus, as everyone knows, putting together a portfolio is no easy task, so if I’m going through the trouble of binding something definite I want it to be as crowd-pleasing and universal as possible. But, something that gives me hope, is an alternative portfolio. Alternative as in independent of The Big Book, and alternative as in showing a different facet of my design approach.

A designer I met earlier this year, John Walsh, who paid me a visit while traveling in New York all the way from Manchester, UK was kind enough to gift me with an alternative portfolio. A hand-bound eight-by-eight-inch book with colorful tassels hanging from the spine, in a black cardboard sandwiched set of glossy pages with a rough-hewn look and feel that was hard to resist. A one of a kind book. Just for me. Inside, it was filled with loose images, logos, typographic treatments, spreads (or parts of spreads) and other things that may or may not be part of other projects. Having just met him in person (and conducted an interview with him about a magazine redesign) I did not know much about John, but from this portfolio I could immediately get his design sensibility, something that might be harder to extract from a more typical design portfolio. And he wasn’t looking for a job (or at least he didn’t ask for one), he just wanted to share his work, so this slightly less formal approach seemed accesible and friendly, kind of like when you are showing your prized record collection to your buddy. Of course, like John’s, there are a hundred other variables of this form, some more adventurous than others… Maybe yours?

I still hold hope that one day I’ll get around to doing something less structured than my past portfolios and just be able to mash up something together that says as much about me as my flush-left, rag-right, 9 over 12 pt, twelve-column grid portfolio might.

[Click on images for larger view]

John Walsh Portfolio

John Walsh Portfolio

John Walsh Portfolio

John Walsh Portfolio

John Walsh Portfolio

John Walsh Portfolio

John Walsh Portfolio

John Walsh Portfolio

John Walsh Portfolio

John Walsh Portfolio

John Walsh Portfolio

This post is part of (the long overdue) Small Design Ephemera series.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Dec.20.2007 BY Armin
Lauren’s comment is:

I too was inspired by John's alternative approach when I first came across it about a year ago. Since then, I've made use of the idea in several sample portfolios to potential clients.

It seems almost ridiculous to me now to present a traditionally structured portfolio. We are designers, why shouldn't our portfolio be just as designed at the content they are showing.

It moves the portfolio from the realm of past work and into a space illustrating our potential. Showing ideas not achievements and giving a glimpse into our style and process. Isn't that what our clients are hiring us for. We don't want them to point to an item in our portfoilo and order themselves a copy.

On Dec.20.2007 at 02:16 PM
Mike’s comment is:

I am always torn on this…

While I am much more of a flush left, 9/12, 12 column grid kind of designer, I can't help but be intrigued by the "alternative portfolio". My thinking has always been to showcase the work, that is what's important, that is what will describe me as a designer, that is what will get me a job that I love. Anything more seemed superfluous and unnecessary. It's not that I've been blind to the concept, it's just that being new to the industry, and having seen a lot of fellow classmates portfolios throughout college, I grew extremely tired of the "lets break some serious ground with these crazy books" idea, and wanted to work away from that, by putting that same energy into the WORK itself.

I also felt, and still do feel, that the "conventional portfolio" is perhaps the most difficult piece of work a designer will ever do, for so many reasons. But to focus on one which I feel is the most important, and perhaps the most obvious, is that it has to explain not only the work you have chosen to present, but also who you are as a designer.

But now that I stand back, and see more and more books from others in the industry, I've had a change of heart, but not entirely. I think there is definitely a lot to be said for those who take big risks with completely obscure portfolios. Same goes for those who play it safe, and follow a more "text book" approach. But I think the most successful of the bunch, are those who have the ability to design a book which pushes the envelope in its design and layout (unique format, hand bound, etc.), but can also be communicate on a more practical level (what client was this poster for? etc.).

On Dec.20.2007 at 02:24 PM
Doug Bartow’s comment is:

I'm more impressed with a well written cover letter than an alternative 'skin' that holds design work.

If your work is average, it will look average in a store-bought leather book, as well as a hand-made box or hand-bound book.

Give me crappy xeroxes of good work, and a well written, articulate funny/different letter of intent any day.

Book binding/box making can be taught.

Original and clever creative idea generation is priceless.

On Dec.20.2007 at 02:44 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

Not long after Armin published his interview with Mr Walsh I started moving out of full-time design. I was trying to find new designers for some of my clients. I suggested John Walsh to a couple of them. It never came to anything, but I ended up with a Mr Walsh's PDF portfolio. It has the stuff shown here, plus a lot more beautiful work. If only I was the proprietor of one of the world's premiere design blogs, I too could have had this oh-so-desirable book.

On Dec.20.2007 at 02:52 PM
Andrew J Klein’s comment is:

I was always told in school, and now I tell my students...

Your portfolio is about the work!!!

Good work, and nothing to get in its way...that should go for a resume too, don't over-design it!

But I too am torn, I've been wanting to do something like John's piece for a while now... but haven't found the time. I think just the right amount of design in a portfolio can add to the overall perception of your work.

It's funny what we will go through to design something for someone else, but seldom have the energy to do the same for ourselves.

On Dec.20.2007 at 03:26 PM
josh’s comment is:

Personally, it's not that I don't have the energy to design an imaginative portfolio, it's the finality it has.

I've redesigned my personal portfolio at least 5 times in the last 2 years, mostly because my designs felt like prisons. It was the folly of trying to lock myself to a 2 color mark, a humanist typeface, or particular grid... a near existential crisis.

I learned that the medium for the work that represents me needs to live in a state of becoming. So, instead of one portfolio to represent me, I create books/works for each new relationship I have as a designer. I guess the time required for that limits my potential list of clients/contacts, but I believe it can be worth it if it means a stronger seed is planted. It's less nerve racking too.

On Dec.20.2007 at 04:05 PM
robin’s comment is:

let the work speak for itself.
(If you have bad work in your portfolio maybe you can crop it, pulling out the bits that did work, but any client worth having will see through this ploy.)

The golden rule of design: keep it simple.

On Dec.21.2007 at 07:39 AM
Tom’s comment is:

As incredibly awesome as this is to us as designers, I can't see showing this to a potential client who isn't a designer/art director; they won't see the value in it because it looks like an art book, not a portfolio. But I suppose you're not looking to show your book to big corporate execs with work like that.

On Dec.21.2007 at 09:55 AM
agrayspace’s comment is:

Generally I agree that a portfolio is about the work. I am not willing to subvert its true purpose by obscuring both my thinking and aesthetic chops.

At the same time I understand the desire to differentiate yourself by NOT just making another book of design projects. Tasteful and clean for sure but too standard for any designer that wants to stand out.

So on my last job hunt I created an alternative to the cover letter. I wanted to convey memorable things about my experience and the way I think about design. I did so through a little ephemeral book. It cut through the standards of the traditional cover letter and really let people know who I am.

Some images below.

And it did the trick. It broke me out from the masses and I got a ton of interview opportunities from it.

For those interested, you can download the whole thing in PDF

On Dec.21.2007 at 10:41 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Thanks for sharing this, Armin. I appreciate learning about new presentation styles. For a while, it was common for designers to do this right out of school. I met quite a few design graduates from bachelor's programs who created 'limited-edition' portfolios, hand bound and all. The work looked great already, and the attention to detail with a nice bound book was an added bonus. I've also seen other designers use services like LULU to produce portfolios on demand. In the end, the work better do the talking first, and the presentation should support it as a conscientious design element.

On Dec.21.2007 at 01:11 PM
Adam Duquette’s comment is:

I can see wanting to do something different for your portfolio if it were going to a potential employer, but maybe not a potential client.

Although, one could argue that the theory behind an "alternative portfolio" is to attract a certain type of client. Not everyone will go for it, but there is a good chance one will have something in common with those who do.

On Dec.21.2007 at 02:14 PM
Johnny Come Lately’s comment is:

Nothing serves your talent better than good connections and the trust of people richer and more popular than you. I havent submitted a cover letter or resume for years. At a certain point, you have to leave the book and cover letters behind.

On Dec.23.2007 at 03:45 AM
Brad Gutting’s comment is:

Some years ago Jennifer Sterling did the AIGA design annual and it was really annoying. She broke the work up, cut it apart, appropriated it to her own purposes and intentions. It looked kind of interesting, but it was absolutely horrid and unprofessional.

Because it wasn't *her* stuff she was doing it too. Yeah yeah yeah, I know, design annuals always truncate the work and so on and so forth, but this was excessive and egomaniacal.

It's like anything else--if you're going to do an alternative approach (with YOUR fucking work, just to reiterate that), do it well. Mr. Walsh did an excellent job, and I'd imagine that many people could do just as well for themselves in totally different fashions. Done right, it inspires curiosity about the work, and presents it in a digestable fashion (like the motion designers Armin mentions, their reels are best when you see the breadth--which means short snips). It's a gamble, but worth the shot.

On Dec.24.2007 at 12:22 AM
Chris’s comment is:

Interesting piece by Mr. Walsh. I really like the compositions of his work, the crops, etc. In the context he showed this to you (just to share his work) I think the format is perfect. However, I still enjoy an "unfinished" nature to a portfolio. As a poster above mentioned, a book always seems very finished.

I had an "alternative" portfolio coming out of college that got some great feedback during interviews that I believe is a mix between a "book" and the "alternative". I took a funky, old, orange box I had found and made myself a personal identity using it as inspiration. I then filled the box with layouts of my pieces mounted on 8.5"x11" mat board. I like my work on boards because it gives the viewer a chance to pick it up and interact with it.

I also use the "close crop" method on my website, which I use as a teaser for clients and interviews. I also have a more conservative approach available for download on it.

On Dec.24.2007 at 09:12 AM
Pesky’s comment is:

My last rejected portfolio idea:

Trout with tiny mounted portfolio pieces in their mouths. That way each piece is edible. My business card is printed on crackers as a great tie-in, I think. The fish are very fresh, so there's nothing stinking but the creative director's attitude or the agency's reputation.

The outstanding illustration work is all my top international award-winning images which I change out for each client based on intuition about what they wouldn't like to see. I just hate the obsequious approach. I notice the jealous looks of half-wit, sullen art directors who only wish they had unfettered creativity. But who cares: I'm there to enjoy rejection, drink their coffee and steal pencils.

The metal box comes with rounded corners and about 12 trout-bearing art images plus the metal top has to be peeled off with the key just like a sardine can.(This is subject to change.) Some people get fussy about spilled olive oil on their conference table, so I always pour it on the carpet first to not mess up the desk. Still, they scream like little girls seeing the trout, but my guess is that they're overjoyed.

I've found that some people don't like fish, and so I'm trying it with live squirrels next...

God, I love this job.

On Dec.26.2007 at 03:29 PM
bobestes’s comment is:

Looks nice but I have no idea what I'd hire him to do.

On Dec.27.2007 at 03:49 PM
ammre’s comment is:

I like to walk the careful line between art book and portfolio. It's form AND function, not form or function.

Also Chris, I agree with you about having the pieces be movable. Sometimes you just need to pick things up and imagine what they'd look like on a shelf or on a wall. The pieces weren't created in context with each other, so it's good to be able to pull them out of that portfolio context.

On Dec.28.2007 at 11:03 AM
Pesky’s comment is:

I know you weren't talking about ME, bobestes...but I do trout advertising... Absolute Vodka is coming out with a trout-flavored vodka next and I'm SO ready....

On Dec.29.2007 at 06:39 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

God, I knew that trout thing was a mistake. Now everyone is gonna hate me.....

On Jan.03.2008 at 06:30 PM
gilda’s comment is:

i'm a fashion designer/student and have been trying to properly compile my own portfolio. honestly i'm sooo not good at photoshop (which i need to be to make it look better)... but this post is really great and i would love to really personalize my portfolio. i wonder if i can sew something instead of trying to crack my head over the computer. ooh! sounds fun.

On May.27.2008 at 02:50 PM