For most creatives, your portfolio is the first impression for potential new clients. More important than the traditional resume or cover letter, hiring managers pay more attention to the contents of your creative portfolio when evaluating candidates to carry out a job. The digital age has democratized the ability for anyone to put their work out into the world, meaning competition is stiff and can come from anywhere across the globe. So how do you make sure you stand out among the rest?
Tonya Ames and Gabriela Williams specialize in digital and creative staffing at Creative Circle, one of the country’s largest and most successful recruitment firms. Ames, a lead recruiter with more than a decade of experience, has seen thousands of portfolios cross her desk from a wide range of creative professions. Williams, a recruiter that focuses on art direction and visual content creators, likewise has a unique understanding of the needs of the market and how creatives can demonstrate they are capable of addressing them within their creative portfolio. With their unique expertise, Ames and Williams offer a few tips on demonstrating your best self when building a creative portfolio.
Show You’re On-Trend With Your Creative Portfolio
According to both Ames and Williams, there is no such thing as an industry-standard creative portfolio template. “At the end of the day, how to craft ‘the best’ creative portfolio is all pretty subjective,” explains Ames. Chosen works and campaigns can vary from a handful to a dozen and can be featured in a wide range of physical or digital formats. There is, however, a golden rule: curated creative portfolio entries should be new and representative of your strongest and most relevant pieces.
Whether you are a photographer, a graphic designer, or an art director, the world of visual content is constantly changing—not just the visual trends, but the technology, as well. Candidates should clearly demonstrate that they aren’t behind the curve within their creative portfolio.
“A creative portfolio should be new, fresh, and feel modern. Trends and technology change so quickly that even something from more than five years ago could look old, Ames emphasizes. “An older piece may be able to show-off a well-executed concept, but you don’t want your book to feel dated.” Ames also stresses the importance of how a book is structured. Creating a cohesive book is important, but you should also consider the format’s practicality. “The strongest works should always be at the front. There is no guarantee that a hiring manager will get through the whole book, so if you save the best for last, your best work may not be seen at all,” she says.
Both Ames and Williams agree that your creative portfolio should demonstrate that you can address the challenges facing your industry. Williams emphasizes the importance of doing your homework. “There are constantly new people coming into the industry, and clients are going to go with people who produce relevant work,” she says. “So you have to ask yourself: do you understand the challenges of the industry? What problems need to be solved? Who are the innovators? If you can’t answer those questions in your creative portfolio, then you’re already behind.”
“It is important to show you are up to date on technology,” Ames adds. “If you are a designer, for example, companies are looking to drive people to their site and keep them there. How are you going to do that for them?”
Likewise, it is important to verbalize the challenges and results within your creative portfolio. Williams stresses three key ingredients for explaining your entries. “First, you need to explain what the challenge and end goals were that you were hired to tackle. Secondly, what was your contribution? What were the ideas that you brought to the table? Finally, what was the impact? Were the goals met? This needs to be articulated for hiring managers,” Williams says.
“Not only is it good to give that information, but it’s valuable for a hiring manager to understand your thought process and get a glimpse of how you communicate your ideas from within your creative portfolio,” Ames adds. This is particularly important for designers who may be showcasing a website or logo re-design or a re-branding of a business’s identity within their creative portfolio. “It is always helpful to see the before and after. If you designed a website, how did it look before? What were the challenges you faced and the changes you made? Showing what you contributed is going to demonstrate your value as an individual while identifying how you can contribute to a team.”
Include Work on Spec
Competition is stiff across all creative fields, and younger job seekers are often competing against seasoned veterans. If you do not have commissioned work to feature in your creative portfolio and land a job with that dream client, Ames suggests putting together some work on spec and uploading it to your social media or website, or as an attachment to your book.
“If you have a specific client in mind, put together a small campaign that mirrors their style, and verbalize your goals and thought process,” Ames says. “You should be demonstrating what you can add to their team, and it also shows a lot of initiative and how much you care about their brand.”
Williams argues that for photographers, stylists, and art directors, the key is crafting an engaging narrative with your creative portfolio. “If you are competing against candidates that are already doing heavy editorial and high-end fashion campaigns, while you’re working with indie brands or small startups, it’s about curating that work to show your creative vision and create an overall package that makes you a strong competitor to someone who may have already worked for Dior or Alexander Wang,” says Williams. “Just because someone works with small Brooklyn firms doesn’t mean that they can’t create a beautiful creative portfolio that stacks up against the competition.”
Go Over the Details
It is easy to get wrapped up with the aesthetics of your creative portfolio, but curating your strongest work is only half the battle of presenting your best self to potential clients. Making sure that you have gone over the smallest details with a fine-toothed comb is just as important to landing a gig. Your creative portfolio, after all, is often your first impression. Clients aren’t just evaluating your potential to create a beautiful campaign, but to be able to pay attention to the minutiae.
Ames stresses the importance of having multiple eyes look over your creative portfolio before sending it off. “You can see when something hasn’t been proofread properly. When you are putting together a portfolio, you end up looking at it so many times that those tiny mistakes don’t pop out at you,” she notes.
She suggests checking not just for grammar and spelling typos but also making sure that language, grammar tenses, and formatting is consistent throughout your entire creative portfolio. “If your language switches back and forth from past and present, those little details pop out at a reader. Demonstrating that you are detail-oriented is really important because if not, the impression you are giving is that you don’t care or don’t have the energy or skill set to execute a job properly, whether or not that is the actual case,” Ames says.
Evaluating every potential way that a creative portfolio can be read is also key as the standard format for portfolios moves away from the printed book to a digital layout. Ames explains, “Making sure that your book is responsive is extremely important because you have no idea how someone is consuming that information. Are they on their computer in their office? Are they on their phone in a cab? Are they at home on the couch with a tablet? It needs to look good in every scenario.”
Remember that your portfolio is your first impression–so don’t make it your last. According to Williams, it acts as “an extension of your identity as a creative.” So be sure that you’re telling the right story with a well-curated and polished creative portfolio that will set you apart from the rest.
Are you updating your portfolio? Tell us about your process in the comments!
Kevin Vaughn is a writer and photographer focused on food and culture in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His work has appeared Munchies, New Worlder, Remezcla and Savoteur.