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Regulars / The Graduates 2019

Does the perfect portfolio exist? Top creatives and studios offer their advice

The Graduates is It’s Nice That’s annual showcase of the most exciting creative talent graduating this academic year. In the lead up we’ll be publishing a series of advice pieces aiding graduates as they leave university. If you’re graduating from a creative bachelors course from anywhere in the world this year we’d love to hear from you and you can apply here.

Should you explain your work or not? Is it worth spending hours making a website when you could just compile a PDF? Is it OK to call someone or drop by a studio when they don’t respond to your email? And how many projects should you be sharing in the first place?! The humble portfolio – although seemingly simple; an apparently straight forward task for anyone who’s just spent three-plus years picking apart a creative medium – can become a nightmare very quickly.

It’s hard to know the rules when you’re first starting out, and the idea of approaching someone for help can be daunting. To try and alleviate some of the stress surrounding landing that first job or commission, we asked a host of people accustomed with nosing through the work of others to find out what’s a big fat yes and must-avoid-at-all costs from them. Here’s what Jessica Dimson from the New York Times Magazine, Anthony Sheret from Colophon Foundry, Kitty Turley from Strange Beast, Eva Kellenberger and Tom Joyes from Kellenberger-White and Pablo Steffa of Agent Pekka had to say.

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The New York Times Magazine June 2019 Issue. Madonna photographed by JR.

Jessica Dimson, deputy director of photography at The New York Times Magazine

As deputy director of photography at The New York Times Magazine, Jessica Dimson has seen a fair few portfolios in her time. So what it is that makes a photographer’s work stand out to her? “When a photographer takes on something familiar and presents it in a new way, or with a twist, we take notice. Transformative imagery, may it be emotionally moving or formally inventive, is always exciting to see,” she responds. This, she tells us, should be accompanied by a considered approach: “When I receive pitches or emails from photographers who do not seem to be familiar with the content of the magazine, it immediately puts me off and suggests that the photographer hasn’t been reading our site, magazine, or social accounts. We encourage photographers to reach out to us and often find new talent and great photo essays this way. Just make sure you are pitching an idea that makes sense for the magazine.”

When deciding how to package up your work, she continues, think about what you are presenting. “If a project is narratively driven or newsworthy, it can be helpful to see the broader body of work,” Jessica says. “But for a portrait series with a consistent aesthetic approach, a tighter edit may be the better option.” Context, however, is always helpful: “The magazine is about great visuals, but it is also about the story, the context, the significance of what is being shown. A striking photograph must also convey information, and providing context can bolster that.”

“A striking photograph must also convey information, and providing context can bolster that.”

And don’t be put off if you have little professional experience, or haven’t been commissioned by a big magazine before Jessica continues, as The New York Times Magazine has hired many a photographer who’s never been commissioned before. “We’re interested in new voices and fresh perspectives,” she concludes. “We don’t hold ourselves to any sort of requirements that a photographer must have in order to work with the magazine.”

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Coign, an extensive study into condensed forms. Released 2018

Anthony Sheret, director at Colophon Foundry

Based between London and Los Angeles, Colophon Foundry is one of the most respected type design agencies in the industry. When looking for new recruits, however, the studio does not want carbon copies of its existing team explains Anthony Sheret, Colophon’s director. Instead, he’ll look for “flare, drive and ambition, and versatility;” someone that complements the team, not replicates it.

“Half the skill of the designer is about the editing process.”

In ten projects or less (anymore than that is too many: “half the skill of the designer is about the editing process”), Anthony recommends trying to show a balance of skills, personal and client work. “It’s great to see an array of projects that tick off different skills and experience, it also shows an eagerness and hunger to learn. Try and balance different disciplines, approaches or outcomes through your portfolio.” Also, “keep your portfolio below 10 MB – we had a portfolio over 200 MB portfolio once.”

Ultimately, it’s about showing you can offer the studio what they need, and that you’ll work to learn what you can’t already offer it. A word of warning though: “We personally aren’t keen on the graphs showing skill level and competence in programmes. Skills can be learnt, attitude cannot.”

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Agent Pekka: Craig & Karl

Pablo Steffa, founder of Agent Pekka

Agent Pekka is an agency representing artists working in 3D, animation, character design, iconography, illustration, installations, pattern design and typography, with offices in Amsterdam, Helsinki and Los Angeles. For Pablo Steffa, Agent Pekka’s founder and director, it’s originality and a high level of craftsmanship that makes a portfolio stand out to him.

In the context of illustration, specifically, it’s a clear style that trumps everything else, as this “takes a tonne of patience and discipline.” “A distinctive, original style will always have a place in this world,” he continues. “If you hone your skills and develop a style that is completely yours, current trends won’t affect you. Instead, your work will always be relevant, because it’s unique.” Ideally, this should then be shown across both personal projects and commissioned work. “Personal projects are the ones that typically push an illustrator’s style forward, and client work is usually inspired by the illustrator’s personal work. Therefore, it is really important to show a good range of both.”

“A distinctive, original style will always have a place in this world.”

Finally, when it comes to how to package all of this up, Pablo says: “We prefer a curated selection of work sent as email attachments. This way, we can quickly judge if an illustrator is a good fit for us. The selection of work should also cover a variety of themes. If the work is interesting, we’ll visit the illustrator’s website to investigate further. So, a well-designed and up-to-date website is very important. It’s also a good idea to use Instagram as a portfolio, especially if you show some of your process and not just the final outcome.”

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CNN ‘What Is Beauty’ by Anna Ginsburg produced by Strange Beast

Kitty Turley, executive producer at Strange Beast

For Kitty Turley, the executive producer at Strange Beast, in charge of growing and diversifying the company’s roster of directors as well as expanding its network of artists and animators to work with, a distinctive portfolio is one that can produce an emotional reaction from a viewer. “Occasionally, I see something and am left energised by it, and super curious to see more by that artist,” she says. “I know I’m onto something really special if I keep returning to it… it’s kind of like having illustrator or animator crushes.” Often, however, she’ll be looking for a specific skillset and so will be scanning portfolios for that: “For example, in animation, it might be that we need someone with an excellent understanding of Photoshop brushes and texture or subtle character performance. It’s a casting process essentially, and every individual brings their unique talents to a project.”

“Put in your shop window what you want people to come to you for.”

On the more practical side of things, we asked whether those working with moving image should present full films, or a showreel. “If they’re marketing themselves as a director, then I want to see films in their entirety,” she explains. “I want to understand their approach to narrative and pacing, which you don’t really get from a showreel. That’s not to say they’re not still useful though, as a means of hooking people in and demonstrating range – particularly if a director straddles multiple disciplines. If someone is marketing themselves as an animator, then showreels are perfect; I want to see their technical skill and the breadth of their performance.”

Whether you’re showing work with big-name clients or a short film produced during your evenings and weekends, the key is to present work which you feel most represents you, she explains. “Put in your shop window what you want people to come to you for.” And on whether enthusiasm, skills or experience are most important to her she says: “I would say first priority is enthusiasm, closely followed by skill. Experience is less important… We have a responsibility as an established studio to help train the next generation of talented humans. As long as you have some appropriate skills and are ready to get your hands dirty, there should be a place for you in the industry.”

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Eva Kellenberger and Tom Joyes, co-founder of and designer at Kellenberger-White

Eva Kellenberger and Sebastian White founded London-based graphic design studio Kellenberger-White in 2009 and have since garnered a reputation for slick editorial, identity and exhibition design. It’s no surprise then that experiments with typography are top of Eva’s list when looking through a potential employee’s portfolio. “That could be a great layout, inventive type forms or, even better, an interplay between type and image that’s distinctive, striking, even jarring,” she tells us, adding that: “Because portfolios mostly come to us via email, presentation is important – from the photography to the typesetting of the portfolio itself.”

Echoing similar thoughts to those above, Eva tells us she values enthusiasm, then skills, then experience, stating: “You can’t teach enthusiasm.” And on the practical side of things: “We typically like to see a maximum of five or six projects. Context is always useful. This can be achieved with photography in situ and/or with concise texts about each project – no more than, say, 250 words.”

“Presentation is important – from the photography to the typesetting of the portfolio itself.”

We also spoke to Tom Joyes, a designer at the studio since 2017, having joined a year after he appeared in our line-up of Graduates in 2016. “I think the most important thing is to have a clear voice in your portfolio,” he says. “That can be in a visual sense, conceptually or through methodology – a ‘style’ is different.” Clarity, on the whole, is what makes a portfolio jump out to Tom with him adding, “a concise selection of projects is definitely important. I would say a random selection doesn’t always work.” Portfolios that are too long or feature descriptions that are “lengthy and over-intellectualised,” on the other hand, are an instant turn off.

With the wisdom of a few years at a studio under his belt, we asked him about something he used to do but would now avoid at all cost: “Over-designing my folio. It’s important the work has space to breathe – leave the aesthetic choices for the work itself.” Now, as a result when flicking through the work of other’s he always make sure to keep an eye out for designer who know the worth of their images, presenting them with clarity.

We asked everyone for one (give or take a few) piece of advice they’d give anyone putting together a portfolio. Here’s what they had to offer…

Jessica Dimson: “Find a way to convey what is singular about your vision. Include the pictures you love. Take risks when it’s appropriate. I have seen portfolios that included just a single project and that was enough to lead to a magazine commission. Don’t be too concerned with what you think a portfolio ‘should be’.”

Anthony Sheret: “Research the studio, spell the names of the founders correctly, don’t put ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Madam’, turn up to interview on time (-/+ 3 mins), always take your portfolio with you (even if someone hasn’t asked for it), and don’t keep calling if a company doesn’t get back to you – it might not be the best time, doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future.”

Pablo Steffa: “Take the time to develop your own style, your own voice. Illustration agents work with illustrators who have recognisable styles, so make sure that your work is unique and original. Once there, put together a tight selection of your best work and make sure to include both personal and client projects, if possible. You make your work because you have something to say. Enjoy the process and make sure your portfolio reflects this.”

Kitty Turley: “Don’t get disheartened if you don’t get instant feedback. We receive so many reels and portfolios, often I will have an email flagged for a month or two before responding to it. It doesn’t mean it’s a pile of shite, it just means the person you’re emailing is busy. Don’t be afraid to nudge people – every time you have a new piece of work is another opportunity to drop someone a note and say, “Hey, remember me?”. Also, reach out to established directors who’s work you admire and ask them for a cup of tea and a brain pick. The animation community is a supportive, generous space, and you never know where a half hour conversation might take you, what other doors it might open.”

Eva Kellenberger: “Invest time in documentation. For example, photography should be taken to the same level of detail as everything else – it’s part of graphic design. Borrow a light kit and make yourself familiar with what kind of photographs you want to go for: plain studio photography, what kind of lighting, or showing the ‘thing’ in context etc.”

Tom Joyes: “Don’t overthink it – keep the process fluid and bold. Use strong images and let your point of view become visible through your work.”

If you’re after more advice and insight into creative work and careers, check out Lecture In Progress, It’s Nice That’s sister company. Standard membership is free and includes exclusive offers and promotions.