Getting a job: your portfolio

  • Work in Progress Portfolio: April 2008', Zamir Antonio and Antoine Choussat, CAD

You’ve done your homework, applied to some companies you like the look of, and – congratulations! – they want you to come in and show them some of your work. Hear from our Getting a Job panel on how to go about preparing your portfolio to show your work in the best possible light.

'Work in Progress Portfolio: April 2008', Zamir Antonio and Antoine Choussat, CAD 2008 

The panel
Kimberley Kapner – has now moved back to the US, but at the time of this event she worked in design recruitment for Aquent
Dale Russell – a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art’s IDE department 
Nick Vessey – formerly managing director and now non-executive director at the product and interaction design company Alloy

Preparation is key

Kimberley Kapner: The ideal portfolio should be tailored to the job you’re applying for. So every time you’re going to an interview, it can be different. You need to find out exactly what the client is looking for: know who they are; what they produce; how they produce it; what they’re interested in, and what they’re looking for. Make sure that your portfolio reflects that. You definitely don’t want it to be too long or too repetitive.

Also remember the really generic things: it should be neat, it should be organised, it should be clear – you shouldn’t open it and have things fall out everywhere. You might be presenting to clients, and as Nick said, that would be unacceptable.

It should contain work that allows you to talk about the way you work. You should be able to give case studies and stories about your work that will demonstrate to the client how you can contribute to what they’re doing and add value to their organisation through the way that you work. Be ready to explain how you solved your problems, if that was the issue. Say what inspires you, what your process of working is. There are a lot of questions you need to think about and ask yourself about your work. Make sure you include pieces that allow you to talk about that.

It has to be tailored to the specific job that you’re going for. And you can ask them before going for interview what they would like to see in a portfolio. It doesn’t have to be mysterious. Leading up to the interview, ask them as many questions as you want so you can prepare what you want to talk about.

Nick Vessey: I think the scariest thing is when people turn up for interview with a suitcase. It makes us think, "Oh my God! How long are we going to be in here?" I often say, certainly for the first interview (we always interview at least twice, maybe three times), that I would rather just see three or four projects that you’re really proud of, ones that really demonstrate the core skills you want to sell. Don’t bring the kitchen sink. You can have things in reserve and sketch work is really good: often it’s about the way you’ve been thinking, not just the end result. As Kimberly said, it’s better to keep it concise.

Dale Russell: I’m also interested in seeing a portfolio that’s relevant to you. To have something that looks like it’s come from Photoshop or Illustrator can be so repetitive. I’d like to see some originality as well. It may not be relevant to what you’re producing, but I wouldn’t be put off somebody because their portfolio isn’t ‘clean’.

The other thing I love to see is if someone has brought along some pages from their sketchbook: I really want to know how they are thinking, as some of the people I’m working with go from concept right through to engineering and model. The whole thing is there. Others are very conceptual and don’t have to produce anything to show how it’s made: they just show that it can be made. I’m happy if you just hold your hand out and when you talk me through it I’m able to see it in your hand. There are different approaches for different people.

NV: Dale’s right – I don’t want to paint a picture where it’s a very stale and sterile experience: at the end of the day, we’re looking for creativity.

DR: And the old dog-eared portfolio: there’s really no excuse. If you’re in consultancy, it’s all about the detail. Clients are looking for those things. Winning business is really hard, and hanging onto business is even harder. So, we are absolutely anal about how we look to the outside world. If I see that kind of slapdash approach, it’s a big no-no.

Including collaborative work

NV: You’re there to sell yourself: your experience and whatever you’ve done in your life, as long you’re proud of that work. It’s a fairly common occurrence, seeing people’s portfolios where they’ve been part of a team. Be sure you’re clear about what your contribution was because if you interview two people who were part of the same team and they both claim to do the same bit of work, then that’s another story. But collaborative work is not a problem at all.

DR: I think it’s a real bonus. It’s great to meet people who can work in a team well. It is very rare, working with a company, to do a solo piece. For me, teamwork is the most important factor of hiring. You want lots of wonderful, brilliant people to be able to interact together.

KK: It’s also a great opportunity to talk about your experience on a team: what made the team work and why you think you’re a good team player and how did that manifest itself in your work. You can create a whole story around it because how you work together in a team will be important to anyone you talk to.

Don't sell yourself short

DR: In galleries I’ve seen tons of people bringing portfolios that really would have never, ever worked with what has been shown and collected by that gallery. But if you have something that’s special, and you really believe it’s special, then go for it and let people know. Also, [think about] the way you lay things out: I’ve seen people get their models out and just plonk them on the table, and you think, “Do they really care?”

NV: I was judging on a panel for a competition this year, and we saw different people participate. One person came in and was quite nervous - he looked a mess - though, in fact, his work was good and intriguing. The final graphics weren’t that special, but the ideas were fantastic. We were all intrigued to see whether he could pull it off: there was something in it. He had such passion and all of a sudden started producing amazing work from a bag under the table, and it got better and better and better as he brought it out. For some reason he had not put forward his best work in the beginning and I still haven’t found out why. The signs that were coming through were good enough for us to have felt this talent.

Now, if you’re a company and you’ve got a whole load of people coming to interview, you don’t have time to eke this out. This was a special position because it was a competition. But you can simulate this by getting someone in your peer group to look at your work. Or by scheduling a couple of lousy interviews with people you really admire, ones that you think you’ll never stand a chance of getting a job with, just to go through your portfolio and feel someone else’s eye looking at it. I think that’s a really good way of dealing with it.

All quotes are transcribed from our 2006 event Getting a Job, where the panel spoke to an audience of recent RCA graduates.