“Think, create, fail and be proud”: How to put together an authentic portfolio of work
One of the most stress-inducing aspects of being a creative, sometimes designing a portfolio feels like an impossible riddle to solve.
Given the exceptional circumstances of this year, we at It’s Nice That approached our annual Grads series a little differently. In late April, we launched a survey calling all creative graduates to tell us what advice they need and from who. We’ve listened and now we’ve acted. As a result of the survey, this year’s advice pieces seek to answer the most pressing questions asked by those of you directly affected, from the people you wanted to hear from.
The art of putting a portfolio together sometimes just seems like an impossible task. First of all there are what feels like a million questions to ask yourself involving what to feature, followed by fear of leaving something out which may be vital. Then there’s the matter of considering other people’s tastes too, how some agencies maybe prefer a to-the-point portfolio whereas others will be hunting for a bit of flair. In a nutshell, it’s a bit of a nightmare – which you’ll probably know if reading this article.
Unfortunately, we have to tell you there’s no all-encompassing answer. Instead, in our experience, it seems that creating a successful portfolio is about finding what works best for you, what represents you and your approach in promoting it too.
To guide you through this, we’ve asked five creatives working in a range of disciplines to share their tips and tricks for not only making a portfolio, but making it for you – and fingers crossed an employer too.
Erik Kessels is the creative director of KesselsKramer, a one of a kind creative agency and publisher. An artist, designer and curator himself, Erik has also had several of his own books published, varying from visual investigations to penning Failed It: How to turn mistakes into ideas and other advice for successfully screwing up.
Is there something in particular you look for in portfolios when looking at graduates or juniors work?
Bravery and personality are maybe the two most important things I’m looking for in a portfolio. Remember, a portfolio is nothing more than a selection of thoughts and works done in a certain period of time. A portfolio needs to feel fluid and open ended. This is a document that shows what has been in your “creative” mind so far, but this could change tomorrow again. Therefore you, as a personality and a creative person, is much more of a portfolio.
If a graduate has no previous experience at a studio or agency, what can they do to stand out in their portfolio or CV?
Nowadays, portfolios start to look very similar on many occasions. The best thing is to not follow the rules of how to make a portfolio, just show what your ideas are in an honest and enthusiastic way and what fascinates you. Many starting creatives are putting too much emphasis on the creation of the “portfolio” and, in this way, it becomes too static and almost a work in itself.
The best approach is to work hard on new ideas for most of the time. At the very end of this process, grasp the best of it together and you have the best you can do portfolio. There are some courses on design and communication that teach you how to craft the best portfolio. I find this a disgrace. Teach creatives how to think, create, fail and be proud of themselves, not how to make a portfolio. As a metaphor, the portfolio is the front garden of your house. Everything looks neat and is perfect. But it is much more important to spend a lot of time in your backyard. It’s a mess there, lots of unfinished projects are lying around and it is often very embarrassing to be there. But this is the place where new ideas are born, not in your front garden.
What is your opinion on hypothetical projects to show an approach over personal work?
Both are possible and there are no rules for that – don’t have this fixed in your mind! A good idea is a good idea, either for a “spec” project or personal work. But, don’t try to categorise these in your portfolio! What I really hate is to have a section at the end of the portfolio called: Passion Projects. This is so patronising. Your whole portfolio should be a passion project! There are no rules, no limits and definitely no categories for that.
What advice would you give to someone who needs to feel more confidence in their work?
It all starts of course with the content of your work, your ideas should be convincing. If you feel that your ideas are good, you can also be “a bit” more confident. Remember, you don’t have to be overly confident, because at the end of the day, we are still looking at a portfolio, not finished works. It's most important to be HONEST. If you’re not confident, nervous or whatever, just mention this. We are creatives and somehow “professional clowns”, not robots or computers. So take advantage of this and show your personality through your work and yourself.
You must have seen a lot of portfolios during your career, what are the biggest dos and don'ts in your opinion?
I was interviewing a new creative for KesselsKramer once and we really had a great conversation. Halfway through the meeting I was already convinced that this was the creative I was looking for. So, I told her towards the end of the interview that I would like to work together. She got totally nervous and red faced because of this. I asked her if she was alright and if anything was wrong? “You forgot to look at my portfolio,” she said. After this I got really embarrassed. But, we looked together at her portfolio and it was the cherry on top of the cake and fitted perfectly with the conversation we’d had.
Many creatives think that a great portfolio and showcasing their work, is the most important thing to enter the industry. This is not true. The most important thing is you as a person. A creative person, that is unpredictable, stupid and brilliant at the same time. Who are you as a person in combination with your work? Your work has to go along with your personality and because of this I think: PERSONALITY BEFORE PORTFOLIO!
Alva Skog is a Swedish-born, London-based illustrator who we were first introduced when she was a student in 2018. Ever since, Alva's work are quite rightfully popped up here, there and everywhere from The Guardian to Apple, always in a signature Alva style.
In your portfolio you have really defined a style and approach. It appears very confident! What advice would you give to graduates on how they can feel more confident in the work they produce?
First of all, you don’t have to be super confident. It’s totally okay if you aren’t because it’s hard to be confident about your work when you are graduating, and when you haven’t seen your work in a professional context. I would give the advice to concentrate on what you find exciting, motivating and keep on working. In the beginning I pretended to be confident and it went pretty well. Now I’m a little more confident in my work, but because I have worked for a few years.
To a recent graduate currently feeling a little insecure about pitching their work, what advice would you give?
I’d say reach out to agencies, even if you don’t want to be signed with one they can provide good advice and feedback. The Association of Illustrators (AOI) is a great source of information and support. When I graduated I reached out to a lot of online platforms, like Creative Boom and Ballpit Mag for example, to get my work seen. Then, when I had a few features I always mentioned them when I pitched my work. Be yourself, and talk about the part of your work that excites you most.
In your experience how have you found it best to display your work?
For me, keeping my website and Instagram constantly updated with new work is important. I post my most recent projects or commissions mixed with personal projects. I'm not sure what is most popular, but I think people enjoy the variation.
How have you maintained the passion to create during this difficult time, do you have any advice to any creatives currently feeling like they’re in a bit of a slump?
I have been creating some personal work in response to what we are going through right now. This has kept me motivated, and has also become a way for me to channel what I’m feeling.
Gabriella Marcella is the founder of Risograph specialist and stationary company based in Glasgow, Risotto. With a bold and colourful approach to both, Gabriella's design sensibility has made us endlessly enviable of anyone in the Glasgow area who can utilise her services.
What are you personally interested in seeing in a creative’s portfolio?
In short; confidence, personality and flare. I read an interview with Ted Mueling recently and he said: “I think if you've got the taste thing figured out, which is basically about beauty and proportion, craft and materials, you can go outside the lines and blow everything up.” This really resonates with me, and what I love to see.
Risotto has always packed a lot of personality. How can creatives make a portfolio that represents themselves, and sets them apart from others?
This is a hard one, as it really depends on what sort of work you're looking to do... and on that note, I do feel a portfolio should reflect the work you'd like to be doing, moving forward. Even if that means a big chunk of it is self-directed work. These projects also show dedication and passion for their practice, as well as an insight to their interests and appetite.
I'm more of an illustrator in the sense that the attitude and style is front and centre, whereas some brilliant designers can turn their hand at many aesthetics, and play subtly and cleverly with content – which I'm always in awe over, as it's a skill I don't have. Personally, I like to see diversity of application, as this allows me to begin to understand how this person works and what their process is like.
“For me, the aspect that always sticks out is their approach around the communication.”Gabriella Marcella
Is there something you feel creatives don’t do enough of when presenting or discussing their work?
For me, the aspect that always sticks out is their approach around the communication. If I receive a cold/standardised email, where I've been bcc'd, and maybe there's a big hefty 5GB portfolio attached, and no introduction... I'm not feeling enthused! If I can see that someone has taken the time to consider the person who might be on the other end of it, I'm so much warmer! Receiving something through the post is always a treat, and sparks my interest as we're a very tactile-loving studio. We get so many emails from students wanting to intern, or get an interview, and I really appreciate the ones who I see have done some leg work and research prior to flying out an email.
Do you have any recommendations as to how graduates can access different resources, or create their own resources, now they might not have to their university?
The aspect I cherish most from art school was our peer-group / community. We were such a mish-mash of people and interests, but we really challenged each other to go weirder, bigger, or more public. We were each other's resources; whether it was actors for a sci-fi film filmed over the kitchen table, or heavy-lifters to help set-up my DIY bedroom print studio. When I think how scattered we are across the globe now, it feels surreal that at one time we were all grounded for a few years in one place, with little else to worry about. Obviously students and graduates today are facing bigger challenges than we ever did, but the ones who can cut through this, think innovatively, remain playful and have the opportunity to show us all how it can be done!
The definition of a multi-hyphenate creative, London-born Mahaneela is both a photographer, director, music manager and much more. Seemingly talented at everything she turns her creative hand to, her clients range from XL Recordings to photographing for the cover of gal-dem and the Tate Modern.
Across your career you’ve jumped between different job roles and creative practices. What advice would you give to a graduate who isn’t sure they want to pursue what they’ve studied?
I would say, make sure that whatever you’re doing has transferable skills, and don’t be afraid to take on more than one practice at a time, as long as you are passionate about it and can make time for it. Also, don’t underestimate your power to teach yourself something. For me, I got to figure out what I liked to do / what I was passionate about by working at places where I could see the many different facets of the creative community. For example, it was my first “proper” job as a digital marketing apprentice at an ad agency. That gave me the proximity to try photography and film in order to get more of a feel for what roles existed within that craft and where I wanted to fit in.
What do you think are the benefits of working in a multidisciplinary way?
The benefits of working in a multidisciplinary way are that if you pick complementary disciplines they can work to inform each other and give you new perspectives. In my case, working in photography and mastering that before taking on film, gave me an advantage and a unique lens through which I direct.
When you work across lots of different disciplines, what would be the best way to display work so pieces don’t compete with one another for attention?
For me, I utilise social media platforms like Instagram because I do feel they best showcase the many facets to my artistry. For some people, they create separate accounts or segments on their website; but I personally like having all of the different parts of my artistry in one place, to show that I can be a multitude of things and have various outputs. I also utilise my website to showcase my different outputs.
When it comes to applying for jobs, or showing work for freelance opportunities, what tips would you recommend?
Get your deck game on point. I think now more than ever visual impact is key when presenting in the creative industry. Going out of the box and giving people pause is important. I usually use keynote to create small decks to get my ideas across, they are often more impactful than a direct email.
How have you been working currently? Are there any recommendations you have for working at home where your resources may be slightly smaller?
Honestly, at first the entire quarantine / lockdown situation has been a real challenge for my creativity. I’m sure it has been for many people. I spent a large part of it feeling blocked and unable to be creative because I didn’t have the resources I am used to. Now, I’ve kind of had to shift my perspective a bit and recognise this is the new new normal. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s important to recognise and move forward now, seeing it not as an obstacle to my creativity but a new challenge.
I’m directing two music videos remotely at the moment which has been an entirely new way of working in itself. It’s kind of exciting actually. I’d say creating a routine is really important for people when you’re at home, blocking off time to work, time to relax, time for self care, it’s been really key for me to feel like I have a handle on things.
Ejin Sha is a Malaysian graphic designer, who studied in The Hague before settling on her now home of Kuala Lumpur. Across striking identities and thoughtful publication design, her portfolio is consistently socially and culturally engaged.
Since you graduated, are the ways in which you've changed your work, or the way your work is displayed?
My design methods have not changed much, but my approach to design has become more people orientated and connected to my environment. I am now more aware of the social and cultural landscape I inhabit in Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia as a whole, and that understanding opens up my mind and broadens my visual language as a designer.
Are there ways in which you have kept yourself motivated since graduating?
The response I get from my works motivates me, to know that it provided a solution or even asked interesting questions about the way we live or the possible future.
When it comes to displaying your work on your website, or online in general, what is your approach?
My approach to showing work online would be to keep it crisp and clean, like an attractive window display that represents you well. It would help too if the website is simple to navigate. Find your voice, design with your heart and soul and not get carried away by trends. Eventually, your work will start to speak for itself.
What advice would you give to a recent graduate who is maybe not feeling too confident in their work?
Be humble, keep making work and never stop learning. Put yourself out there, find your community and support one another.
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.