The Art of Putting Together a Design Book
In the design industry, your work speaks for itself. You
might have the longest resume in the world, the coolest
credentials, the slickest identity kit. It all matters for
naught if your portfolio is weak. To the extent that clients
recognize quality, design is a meritocracy; clients and
employers evaluate you for jobs primarily on the basis of
work you've accomplished.
Building a strong portfolio is essential to launching your
career as a designer. But how do you craft quality work
when you're still learning the ropes? We interviewed Nomi
Altabef, Associate Education Director at Sessions.edu, on
the trials and tribulation of getting your book together.
Q: A portfolio can be an artistic statement in itself. What defines
a good portfolio in your mind?
Nomi: An effective portfolio accurately represents the designer's
abilities and skills in the best possible light. This means
that it is clean and well put-together, and while it's nice
to try to be a little different, a portfolio should not look
gimmicky. The viewer should be more aware of the work than
the portfolio itself. An effective portfolio illustrates the
designer's self-presentation and communication abilities as
well as showcasing the work.
Q: When you're starting to learn design, it's tempting
to stuff your portfolio with everything and the kitchen sink.
What defines a "portfolio piece?"
Nomi: For a design student, the more in-depth the project, the more
chance it has of becoming a good portfolio piece. A piece
that clearly shows the ability to research a project and also
exhibits skill with typography, color, composition, and technical
issues will say a lot about the designer in a small space.
A prospective employer will be going rapidly going through
your work, and so you have limited spaces to fill in a portfolio.
Q: Sounds like you need a clear picture of your
work's strengths and weaknesses. How it important is it to
get a second opinion about your body of work as a whole?
a second opinion is super-helpful. It's very difficult to
self-edit, especially when you're putting together your first
portfolio. You may be really attached to a certain piece of
work that just doesn't fit in with the rest of your book,
and it really should be taken out. Without a second opinion,
it's difficult to see that.
Q: Nomi, you coordinate the portfolio review panel at Sessions.edu.
What goes on in a portfolio review at a traditional art school?
Parsons, where I studied, students all bring their portfolios
to the review, and one by one they lay them out on the table
and have them torn to shreds! It's really a hard-core critique.
the work that's getting critiqued in a portfolio review may
have been critiqued more gently at an earlier point in the
year, when you had just done it. But at the end of the program,
when it's all gathered into your portfolio, it's looked at
with a harsher perspective, more like the fast appraisal it
will be met with in the job market.
Q: Sounds intimidating. Don't people get upset when their work
gets shredded? I know I would. . .
Nomi: Absolutely! People would burst into tears, run out of the
room crying. You'd be high-strung and extra-vulnerable too,
because you stay up all night for weeks trying to make your
portfolio what you hope the teacher will want, working your
butt off on pieces that get cut with a wave of the teacher's
hand. And you're afraid some of your favorite pieces may be
axed -- which they often are.
a portfolio review nothing is sacred, no matter how much love
or effort you put in to a piece: if it works it stays; if
it doesn't, it goes.
critiquing student work at Sessions.edu.
Q: What's different about a portfolio review at an online school?
for one thing, you are receiving your comments privately in
writing, as opposed to verbally in front of an entire class
-- and by the way, the atmosphere can be very cut-throat competitive
among students at a traditional art school, especially when
they are all that stressed out! At an online school, the emphasis
is more clearly on each individual, as opposed to a class where
there is a competitive vibe between students.
in our online review will definitely find their work being reviewed
by a more critical voice than they've heard in their Sessions.edu
classes up until that point. Classes can be challenging, but
they're supportive environments. In the portfolio review, we're
looking for unflinching, industry-honed impressions of the work
from a professional portfolio standpoint.
Q: 90% of the time, designers don't have a review panel, except
perhaps those nagging critical voices in our heads. How
can designers develop the ability to become more objective about
their own work?
often comes from letting go. Remember -- removing a piece in
your portfolio is not equivalent to burning it! You don't invalidate
a work by editing it from the book you take on job interviews.
way to become more objective is to spend time looking at other
people's work with a critical eye, thinking about what could
have been done differently to improve the work. When you train
your eye on the work of others you can do so without having
your judgement clouded by the fact that it's yours.
Q: What are some portfolio-building opportunities that students
Nomi: Every time you have an assignment that is set up from a client's
perspective, where you are doing an industry-specific project,
you have an opportunity to create a portfolio piece -- it is
not just an exercise to help you learn a certain software or
technique. If you are asked to make revisions, you have the
chance to perfect that piece for your portfolio, so it is best
to really put the time in, not rush on to the next project.
Q: Quality of work matters
most, of course. But how much does a portfolio presentation
affect the client's perception of the work itself?
Nomi: If the portfolio is clean and well-presented, that speaks to
the designer's communication skills. Also very important is
the designer's ability to speak about and explain the concept
behind each project. The portfolio tells the prospective employer
that the designer understands the relationship between art and
Q: How essential is a Web portfolio, in this day and age?
Nomi: Very important! A Web presence is de rigeur these days,
even if your focus is primarily print design. It's the quickest,
least expensive way of getting a range of clients to view your
work. Don't leave home without one!