Portfolio Lab: Part 2. Words & Pictures

We recently interviewed five incredible creative directors about what portfolio advice they would offer designers looking for their next role, and came away with some fantastic nuggets of information and inspiration to help craft your perfect portfolio. Something that everybody mentioned, but is often overlooked, is the focus on words in your portfolio. Writing is covered in any branding project or campaign – so why not allow your own work the same treatment?

From a thoughtfully penned introductory letter, to getting the basics of file naming nailed, everybody has an opinion on the best way to write yourself into a job. We know that designers give their portfolios a huge amount of consideration in terms of content and layout, but when you’re so close to something, it can be hard to summarise and justify your work in a written format.

Make sure you do your creative work justice and allow plenty of time to sit down and write your portfolio – you may find that while dedicating time to the words, it inspires a new flow of your book and adds a thread of context throughout your projects. But before you grab your pencil, take a read of the advice below from the Creative Directors of some of our favourite Leeds and Manchester based agencies…

Adam Rix, Creative Director at Music

Let the work do the talking. Keep it simple. Clean typography. Over designed portfolios don’t often end up turning out to be good portfolios in my experience.

The portfolio needs to be concise, show good typography and layout skills, start to show me a bit of your personality, and ultimately make me want to see more. A nicely worded cover email, or something that at the very least doesn’t feel copy and paste can go a long way. I’m as interested in the person as much as the portfolio (but saying that I don’t care that you collect cacti and went on a yoga retreat in Indonesia… yet.)

Matthew Tweddle, Creative Director at Only

In your covering letter, explain why you have applied to that particular agency – what it is that you find interesting about their work or approach and why you think you would be a good fit for them.

The layout and presentation of your work is extremely important. Ensuring the correct flow and prominence of different aspects of a project can make all the difference. We’re not looking to read reams of texts, but context around the brief and the solution is essential.

Don’t get the studio name wrong, or start the email ‘To whom it may concern’ or ‘Dear Sir/Madam.’ If you really want to work for an agency, take the time to personalise your approach — you can spot the generic applications a mile off!

Nicky Place, Director at Build

Projects don’t have to be really heavily annotated, sometimes it's just good to understand what the designers involvement is, particularly if they produced it as part of a bigger team.

Projects should be distinct from one another, with contact details at the end. Its useful to include a link to your website, even if the website currently has the same projects. A pdf portfolio is likely to be held for review after interview - it needs to have everything in it.

Do NOT send a file called work.pdf or portfolio2017.pdf, etc. Call it yourname-portfolio.pdf or something obvious!

Typos are a no-no! Please check your spelling… and don’t include links that don’t work.

Rory Sutherland, Creative Head at LOVE.

The main thing is to be clear and concise. If you are presenting in person keep written annotations to a minimum, making sure you only include the relevant details. The aim is to talk people through it with confidence rather than having to strain and read 8pt type on screen. That never does you any favours! If you are sending over email / web you’ll need to give more background, but again be concise. Let the work do the talking.

Simon Forster, Creative Director at Robot Food

For me portfolios shouldn’t really be heavily annotated, as I’m not a big reader. A paragraph intro is enough for each project in a PDF and face to face the ideas should be explained with passion. Keep your portfolio clean, bold, considered and uncluttered. Let each project sing.

The covering email is also important. It’s important that someone gets your culture and wants to be a part of your brand. There’s nothing worse than a generic email with multiple agencies CC’d.

As you can see, the advice above reflects the personality and style of each agency we spoke to, from the meticulous to the attitudinal. This is a huge learning for some designers, as most stop at just one version of their portfolio. If you really want to work at a particular agency, consider how they write their case studies and see what you can learn from them.

A few pointers from us...

  • No matter how many times you do a spell check, let somebody else with good grammar look through your work.

  • Personalise your covering letter, considering whether your best introduction to that agency should be through email, handwritten note, or something completely different.

  • Read your annotations out loud to somebody who doesn’t know your work – can they make sense of what you’re saying?

  • Starting a blank page in InDesign can be daunting – don’t be afraid to crack out a pen and paper to get the words flowing.

Oh, and one final piece of advice in regards to your CV, which was received loud and clear, straight from the CDs above...

"A pet hate of mine is infographics for skill sets — 95% Illustrator, 85% Photoshop etc. It’s 100% meaningless and unimaginative."
Matthew Tweddle, Creative Director at Only

"Accompanying Top Trump infographic style CVs are not cool."
Simon Forster, Creative Director at Robot Food

"What not to do — Please don’t use infographics to show software proficiency – who started this craze? I really don’t know why it pisses me off so much, but it's those bloody infographics for software proficiency. Who told people to do that? Who?!?!!?"
Adam Rix, Creative Director at Music

At Craft we run a regular portfolio lab - offering free impartial portfolio advice to everyone from juniors through to senior creatives.

We give you advice, tips and tricks based on what we know creative directors want to see. If that sounds good, then get in touch!