Posted 22 August 2019

How do you make a good impression when having your portfolio reviewed?

Last month we put on our very first portfolio review event at the G . F Smith Show Space in London. Over the course of an evening, a group of thirty recent graduates bravely presented their work in front of creatives from the likes of Burberry, It’s Nice That, CNN and Superimpose. But with so much invaluable advice being exchanged on the night, we decided to follow-up with some of our reviewers, and ask them to share their top tips. Here, we’ve collated some of their advice on not only curating your portfolio, but presenting it in person.

Portfolio reviews in full swing at the G . F Smith Show Space

Claire Campion, senior creative, Anyways

Bring tangible things, leave something behind and don’t show everything
For Anyways senior creative Claire Campion, bringing something tangible can create a memorable experience and have lasting impact: “I spend most of my days sitting behind a computer screen, so if I’m meeting someone who creates beautiful work, it’s so nice to hold the actual thing.” Even better if this is something that can be left behind and serve as a reminder of you and your work.

This goes for digital work, too. If you’ve come up with an app or website, or even designed something on social media, showing it in the correct context can help bring it to life. “If something is designed to be looked at on a phone screen, have a JPEG on your phone and show it to me,” Claire advises, “that will create a much fuller story.”

Connor Campbell, art director, It’s Nice That

Treat it like a story, and don’t reveal the final outcome at the start
Storytelling is an important consideration for It’s Nice That art director Connor Campbell. “Treat it like you’re doing a Nicer Tuesdays talk and tell a similar story with your work – don’t cut to the chase!” he says. “Remember that the people seeing your project are seeing it for the very first time. You may have been buried up to your eyeballs in it for the best part of a year, but the people on the other side of it have never seen it before, so it’s your job to help them understand it.”

Sharing things like tests and research insights can help show your immersion in the project, and help keep your telling of the process on track: “Don’t chuck 10 mockups on one page and expect them to work it out for themselves.” Timing is everything, though, as Connor notes: “Give them time to make those “A-ha!” moments. Then, when you’ve laid the groundwork and have them gasping to see the final result of all your beautifully curated research, drop it on them – but gradually!”

Portfolio reviews in full swing at the G . F Smith Show Space
Portfolio reviews in full swing at the G . F Smith Show Space

John Cubillan, print and digital designer, Burberry

Tailor your portfolio, ask questions and send follow-up emails
Working out what projects to include in your portfolio is one thing, but making sure it’s as relevant as possible is another. For Burberry print and digital designer John Cubillan, it’s vital to tailor your portfolio for every person you meet with, or the job specification you might be interviewing for.

“Your portfolio represents who you are to an employer. If you want to work in digital, for example, ensure that you hero the digital work which resembles the brand or agency’s aesthetic or thinking.” This way, they are more likely to connect with the work, John says, and shows off your own interest in that area of creative work.

John also encourages recent graduates to feel confident enough to try and maintain relationships with industry professionals after meeting them. “Don’t feel uncomfortable sending follow-up emails,” he says, “If someone hasn’t replied to an email, we’re quick to assume that they’re not interested, but that is not always true.” Inboxes can fill up fast, so sometimes a reminder to a previous email can be a helpful nudge.

Moving Brands

Be prepared, take notes and don’t apologise!
You know that old saying: if you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail? The team at Moving Brands treat this like a mantra. “Be prepared!” they warn. Take time to research the company and person you’re meeting, and be prepared to present your work without relying on the captions in your folio. “Don’t just read what is on the page, tell us about what we can’t see, the bits that aren’t shown.” A pro-tip here: If it’s a team project you’re showing, be clear about your role and acknowledge your team mates. It’s never a good look to take credit for everything and pretend like it was a one-person show.

Having a pen and paper by your side is also a must. It might sound scary, but ask for feedback in the room and take notes. As Maddie explains, “Every review is an opportunity to become a better designer,” and this will show that you’re open to listening, growing and improving. And on that note, the final tip from the Moving Brands team? Cut yourself some slack: “Don’t apologise for things not being finished or perfect, we know you are just starting out in your career journey.”

Portfolio reviews in full swing at the G . F Smith Show Space

Myles Palmer, digital design director

Easy on the text, and understand the different nuances between a PDF and a website
“Having a website and a PDF are equally important,” says freelance digital designer Myles Palmer, “but they have slightly different purposes.” While you might include the same work across both, you should consider the way someone will interact with both. A website, as Myles adds can be a “quick taster” where people can scan quickly and then delve in further if they like, whereas a PDF should have more of a linear structure with enough depth and detail to understand the work.

Myles does offer a word of warning here, when it comes to writing too much: “Communicate what the work is, and your role in it clearly, and in small, bitesize chunks. Don’t have page after page of text – just enough to inform them.” A portfolio after all, is not only an opportunity to showcase your work, but your ability to distill and communicates ideas in the first place – something that, as Myles points out is “key to working in industry with clients and colleagues.”

And finally, Myles emphasises the need to only show what you’re passionate about. Because there’s no hiding when you’re face-to-face with someone: “If you don’t have real enthusiasm for the work, it will come across in the way you talk about it – so just keep the stuff you love!”

Ollie Olanipekun, creative director, Superimpose

Don’t undersell yourself
Starting out, it can be easy to feel like there’s a lot you don’t know. But Superimpose’s creative director Ollie Olanipekun wants to remind emerging creatives not to undersell themselves – and that, actually, there’s a lot those higher up don’t understand either. “Don’t let people in the industry pretend what they do is hard,” he says, “and how they do it can’t be changed.”

So bear that in mind when you’re talking someone through your work – your opinion, process, way of looking at the world is totally invaluable. It’s one thing to cater your portfolio to the person you’re showing it to, but be sure it’s work that actually means something to you, and not just what you think the other person wants to see.

Portfolio reviews in full swing at the G . F Smith Show Space

Sarah-Grace Mankarious, art director, CNN Digital

Showcase your style, add notes and reach out over email
Industry professionals are used to seeing a lot of work. So finding a way to stand out and be memorable is imperative. For CNN’s art director of special projects, Sarah-Grace Mankarious, it’s especially vital for illustrators to showcase their own unique style: “As an art director I’m looking for a distinctive style that should be clear to see within the first three projects or pieces.”

Sarah-Grace is also quick to point out that the challenge of catching someone’s attention can often start over email. Sending thoughtful, individualised emails to art directors or publications you admire or would like to be featured in is a great way to make new connections and get your work in front of the right people. “Perhaps include a little GIF that runs through a few projects,” adds Sarah-Grace, “This gives a quick impression and makes it much easier to see what your work is like from the offset.”

Key takeaways

Bring tangible things
If you’ve spent time labouring over a beautiful object, bring it your presentation! It’s not often you get face-to-face time with people in industry, and holding something tangible in their hands can make a real difference to their experience of your work.

Leave something behind
While this can be seen as the oldest trick in the book, it works! Providing a takeaway is like evoking a memory of your work – when someone finds it days, weeks or months later, they’ll immediately remember you.

Don’t show everything
Treat your practice like a design project – edit your portfolio to showcase only the work that you want to be hired for. Showing a prospective client or employer too many different things will only confuse them, it’s important to make their decision as easy as possible.

Present with passion
If you’re bored by your work, then you will also bore your audience! A presentation is an opportunity to excite people with your portfolio, so grab it with both hands.

Never start with the end
Tell a story with your work. Take your audience through your process bit by bit, and be gentle with them – don’t show ten mockups on one slide! Build up to the grand finale which is your final piece.

Don’t be scared!
Send follow up emails (sometimes it takes more than one), ask questions in an interview and never assume what your client or employer wants.

Bring a notebook
Always take notes. You won’t be able to remember all feedback off the top of your head.

Have a website and a PDF
They serve different purposes. A website can act as a taster for your work, whereas a PDF can be viewed offline and is a deeper dive into your work.

Easy on the text
Don’t have an essay accompanying your portfolio. Design the text in, break it down into accompanying chunks for each page. Include what part you played in the project, whether this was branding, art direction, research etc. It will give your audience a better sense of the skillset that you’re offering.

Mention Sarah-Grace Mankarious
Mention Ollie Olanipekun
Mention Myles Palmer
Mention Claire Campion
Mention Connor Campbell
Mention John Cubillan
Mention Moving Brands
Written by Creative Lives in Progress