Getting started in your creative career is tough. You’ve got boatloads of ambition and energy, but you lack experience, the kind of knowledge that feels like you can see into the future because you’ve been there before. So we’ve introduced a new column that will allow you to get the benefit of hindsight before you’ve actually gone through the experience. Welcome to “The First Five Years” where Mitch Goldstein, a professor of design at Rochester Institute of Technology, answers reader questions related to the unchartered waters of beginning a career. This month, Mitch answers a question about putting together a winning portfolio.
Q. What should be in my portfolio?
A portfolio is not just a representation of skills and abilities, or simply a checklist of things you know how to make. A good portfolio also represents your opinion on design, what you think is and is not important. It is the story about the relationship between you and design. Companies and clients do not hire a portfolio; they hire a person, therefore it is important that you are represented in your portfolio.
Mitch and his wife and creative partner Anne Jordan showcase book cover designs in their portfolio because this is the work they want to do.
Employers will see a ton of to-do list apps and craft beer labels in portfolios that come across their desks — what makes yours unique? Portfolios should have a few things: first, I want to see that you are capable of creating refined, clear, down-to-the-last-detail work in your portfolio.
I want to see excellent work, which is why you should never add sub-par work just to fill up space — I would much rather see five excellent projects than five excellent projects mixed with five mediocre projects. It is very important that you are able to clearly explain the hows and whys of each project. The portfolio itself might be what gets you in the door, but the conversation about what you did and why you did it gets you the job. Make sure that you are able to justify your decisions and explain your choices.
Julie Campell's portfolio shows bright, visually assertive work that features motion and often references pop culture.
The first set of work helps me understand that you can do the job. Secondly, I want to see you in your work. This is why another key part of a good portfolio is work that is more personal, experimental, and possibly less refined or polished. If you have work that you are obsessed about, work that keeps you up at night, I want to see it. Do not let labels get in your way — it does not have to be “design” to be included, it just has to be something you care deeply about. What work have you done outside of your design classes? Painting, sculpture, photography…all of it counts if it is important to you and your relationship to creative practice.
Finally, you should include the kind of work that you want to do more of, and you should leave out the work you want to do less of. You will get back what you put out — if you do not want to design websites, don’t put websites into your portfolio. If you want to design more book covers, make sure plenty of book covers are included. Having a clear vision of what you want to do as a designer is important, and your portfolio should reflect that in its content. It is always obvious to someone looking at your work which stuff you care about, and which stuff you don’t care about. Part of having an opinion about design is including work that matters to you, instead of including work just because you think that is what you are supposed to do. Always remember: it is not just a portfolio, it is your portfolio.
Got a question for Mitch? Tweet it to us at 99U or Mitch and we’ll tackle a new one every month.
More about Mitch Goldstein
Mitch is an Assistant Professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he teaches in the School of Design. Over the past decade, he has also taught at Rhode Island School of Design, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Maryland Institute College of Art. He works in collaboration with his wife Anne Jordan on select client projects.
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