Up and coming designers often approach me asking for work. My response is always the same. "Why don't you send me your portfolio and when I have a project that will fit you, I'll reach out to you." It seems (to me anyway) like a simple and reasonable request. If I'm going to hire you for a job I need to know that a) you will follow through with what I've asked you to do and b) you have an eye for good design. The thing is these up and coming designers never bring me their portfolio. I think it's because they don't have one. Though you may not be a designer, here are a few tips on creating a good portfolio.
Good Help is Easy to Recognize
I was on my way to a meeting one day when I literally ran into Kristen in the parking lot. Somehow the subject of an internship came up. I think, at that point, Kristen had not designed a single graphic in her life. She had certainly not done anything professional, and she had absolutely no formal training. Most people would surmise from that description that Kristen did not have a portfolio. They would be wrong.
You see, Kristen baked cakes. When I said, "Have you ever designed anything before?" she said, "I've baked cakes." That's a portfolio. By looking at the cakes that she made, I could recognize that she had an eye for design. That's the point of a portfolio.
Don't think because you haven't done work for a big or important company that you don't have anything to put in your portfolio. If you have done something creative, you have a portfolio entree. Scrapbook, birthday invitation, poem—anything! Anything that showcases your talent is a good way to convey that you have that all-elusive je ne sais quoi—the eye for good design.
The Talent Scout Rule
I don't think sports are fun to watch, but they do make for some great analogies. The story goes like this. A talent scout watches two baseball players run to first base. They get there at the same time. One of them has perfect form, while the other looks like a fish out of water. Q: Who does the talent scout choose? A: The guy who looks like a fish out of water. If he's that fast with bad form, just imagine how fast he'll be once he learns the right way to do it. The guy with perfect form, however, has already reached his full potential.
Don't think because your work isn't perfect or impressive that it's not fit for a portfolio. Your portfolio is to showcase your potential, not your peak. If your portfolio only consists of work that you still love, your portfolio will only consist of the project you haven't finished yet. It is the life of a designer to love the piece that haven't finished yet and hate it as soon as you start on the next one. I cringe when people tell me they like my work from a year ago. I have to work at not finding it insulting! That's the way we designers are. I'll quote E from The Incredibles after she insults her own work. "I never look back, Darling. It detracts from the now."
I'm going to let you in on a secret. If you want to get an edge on the design world, here is what you have to do. In order to distinguish yourself from 90% of the designers out there you don't have to be "better;" you just have to not be flaky. If you say to someone (a potential employer, a potential client, a potential partner, whatever) that you are going to do something ... do it. Do it when or before you said that you were going to do it. If you cannot be trusted to follow through with Step 1, no one is ever going to trust you with Step 2.
A good design portfolio is one that showcases your creative potential. A good design portfolio that distinguishes itself from the rest is one that sits on someone else's desk instead of yours. Put together a portfolio and give it to somebody!