3. Your Portfolio

case-auntie-p-4310444_30214OR, AKA — “Excuse me while I whip this out.”

Even though this is a Freelance Workshop, here is a quick note to students and artists who wish to make their living doing graphic design: Make sure your art school or college requires you to have a professional-level portfolio as a condition of your graduation. Not once in over 20 years has anyone ever asked to see my degree.

If you’re working on your first portfolio, do EXACTLY what your teachers tell you to do. If you have trusted them this far, trust them down the final stretch. In the beginning of your career, you are the least qualified to determine which pieces go into your book and which are better left in your bedroom. Let your teachers guide you. When you get your book put together, get a job. I recommend you work at least two years as a staff designer before you consider a freelance career. It is critical that you experience several “real-world” projects front-to-back before striking out on your own.

Portfolio-wise, let’s make sure we have the basics covered: 10-15 of your best pieces, assembled and mounted in a professional manner, neat with no smudges or tattered corners. Open with your best piece, close with your second best.

There are only two audiences for your portfolio:

1) You
2) Everybody else

Freelancers: YOU are the most important judge of your work. YOU are your own best friend and your own worst critic. When it comes to your work, your vote beats everybody else’s vote. Forget trying to second-guess what “they” (whoever they are or might be) want to see. You have credentials. You have professional work. You have been around the block, possibly several times.

Clients vs. Agencies
Let’s talk about “them” for a minute. There are “clients” and there are “middlemen.” Portfolio presentations are very different for each. I’m going to lump the middlemen under the “Advertising Agency” heading, but a middleman can be anyone who subcontracts your services on behalf of the client. Some clients are so big and have so many projects going at the same time that this business model is the only one that makes sense. Because it is such a recognized model, getting work from agencies is a lot like interviewing for a job. Further, once you get the work, it’s a lot like having a job, except without the benefits, the security and the freedom. In short, they are in control, they hold all the cards and you are an extra set of hands. There are exceptions, but not many. The format of the agency interview is as follows:

Art Director: “Hi, let’s see the book.”

And that’s basically it. There are variations, but that’s the long and short of it. They see hundreds of portfolios and are very focused on the work. They may radiate distaste for everything about you; your clothes, hair, car, personality, attitude, lifestyle — but if they like your work, you’re in, no questions asked.

In contrast, “clients” are much more focused on YOU. Their priority is to find someone they can work with and someone who they’re comfortable with. They want someone who understands their unique set of problems. They value your input and are eager to hear your ideas. They want to know that you can manage their project from start to finish. There are exceptions, but not many.

A client will never scrutinize your portfolio the way an agency art director will. This doesn’t mean that you can be lazy and not have the goods, because a client will scrutinize work you’re doing specifically for HIM many, many times harder than an agency art director. Recognize that many clients look at your portfolio merely as a courtesy to you. They don’t really CARE what you did for your last client, they don’t want to discuss your last client; they want to discuss THEIR immediate graphic design needs. When you get a prospect like this, forget the portfolio. Get their project details, nail down a budget and a timeframe and set up a time to come back with a proposal. I have closed many deals where my client never sees work I’ve done for others until after I’ve been working with him for several months. But you need to be ready.

Staff artists may only show their portfolios a few times per decade, when they seek a new employer. Freelancers may show theirs several times per month.

Do you have an online portfolio?
It just never ends, does it? Just a few short years ago, graphic designers who had online portfolios were really “out there.” Now, an online presence is one of your most valuable marketing tools. If you specialize in web design, well, it’s not even an option, is it?

Just like it’s 3D counterpart, your online book needs to contain examples of your best work, neatly organized and presented in an easily-accessible format. Keep your interface low-key, keep your site as fast-loading as possible; let your work be the hero.

Your website can help you in many ways. People will contact you from seeing your work on the web. If you are trying to set appointments with potential clients, many of them will want to look at your site before they schedule a meeting. Some freelancers rarely, if ever, meet clients in person. ALL of their business, from initial portfolio viewing to concepts to finished art, is conducted online.

A record of your abilities
It is important to remember that your portfolio of work is as much for you as for any prospective client. It is a powerful statement of what you can do. It is a testament to your creative skills and an ever-vigilant reminder of the people who have placed their confidence in your abilities.

Sometimes, business and life can get pretty crazy. It is comforting to have tangible evidence of your talent. Your “book” helps to remind you of just how good you are and how hard you’ve worked in pursuit of your dreams.

Where does all that passion come from? And how can you sustain it? Follow me, that’s the subject of the next Freelance Workshop…


Image courtesy Auntie P used under a Creative Commons license.

Leave a Reply