Eight Steps To A Dramatically Improved Portfolio


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by David Burn

Your portfolio is literally your passport to work. The better your pieces, the easier it will be to find the kind of work you seek, where new opportunities, mutual respect and financial rewards are the norm. Yet, it can be quite difficult for creative people – especially when they’re new to the business – to properly evaluate their own work. Without this essential skill, it’s nearly impossible to improve your portfolio unless you get lucky or have a strong partner.

Given how important a great portfolio is to your ability to convey marketplace value for your ideas and skills, 52 Limited offers you this list of action items to dramatically improve your portfolio today.

1) Edit yourself, before everyone else does

It is essential to discern between great work and shoddy work, especially in your own portfolio. It’s not easy to do. We’re creative people and we grow attached to our various productions and outputs. But these attachments won’t serve you in business. You’re paid to make great work, and you’ll be expected to know that not all of your own work is great. Do yourself and everyone else a big favor—take a critical look at your work and remove all the excuses. If the headline doesn’t sing, remove it from your portfolio. If the layout is distracting or lacking in other ways, get rid of it. Ad campaigns are like sculptures, so pare away the unneeded clay and reveal the beauty underneath.

2) Never be too pleased with the power of your own ideas

The sooner you realize that you have all the ideas in the world bottled up inside of you, the better. Even when you are particularly pleased with a campaign idea, continue to generate new ideas. Clients and creative directors kill “good ideas” everyday. It’s a fact of life in any creative business. The answer here is your faith that you can always go back to the well and find something just as brilliant.

3) Invest in a finished, perfectly polished product

Advertising is a visual medium. Wireframes don’t get it done. Napkin sketches don’t get it done. Your portfolio is better than that – treat it with the respect it requires. If you’re a writer, find a designer to work with and vice versa. Advertising is made by a team, so team up and show that you know how to work well with people and elevate the work in the process.

4) Figure out how to go beyond the digital requirement

Online portfolios are routine today. In fact, they’re required. So dial that all in, but don’t stop there. If you’re a mobile developer, make an App that showcases your portfolio. If you make annual reports and print ads, find a way to show your print pieces in person or via mail. How about a flipbook that serves as a leave behind? The point is to do something unexpected but totally on-point to get the attention of busy hiring managers.

5) Breathe new life into unsold work for a real client

In your portfolio, show great ideas that got kicked to the curb for whatever reason. According to Andy Askren, Partner and Creative Director at Grady Britton in Portland, “The gateway to good work is the brand manager, marketing director, etc. and they don’t always operate in ‘what’s best for the work’ mode. This is not to dismiss them—it’s the real world gauntlet your work has to run in order to see the light of day. So, if you’ve got something that you truly believe in (for all the right reasons), by all means rock it. We love to see ‘what should be.’”

6) Reveal yourself and what makes you go in your work

Portfolios are abstractions unless the human being who made the work is present. Show what your interests are and what makes you go. From Askren’s perspective, “We can feel it when you’re going through the motions; believe in yourself, love your contribution to the work, and it will show.” This is where pro-bono work for a favorite cause or side work for a local food truck or snowboard manufacturer comes in. It’s not spec work, it’s real work and it solved the client’s real needs. These campaigns have heart and every portfolio needs heart to go with the smarts.

7) Stretch beyond the product category

The entire industry falls into creative ruts and relies on formulaic answers, instead of doing the hard work that innovation requires. Look at any category—insurance, banking, grocery, etc.—and the spots are all eerily alike. The work that really connects is usually surprising in how it solves the problem and it catches you off-guard. To get to this new and better place, Askren advises “put blinders on to what everyone else is doing, and cause new synapses to fire.”

8) Give proper context to your ideas

In the real world, you never get the chance to explain your work. It MUST speak for itself. However, this isn’t the real world. This is you showing creative directors how you think and how you solve marketing problems. “Usually, we can appreciate the power of a good idea no matter where it shows up,” says Askren, “but it can’t hurt to give us some context, a point of reference we can relate to and evaluate from.”

Are you ready to start doing these eight things today? If so, get ready to rock some socks with a seriously upgraded portfolio.

To recap, here’s the list of recommended steps.

Dramatically Improve Your Portfolio With These Eight Steps:

1) Edit yourself, before everyone else does

2) Never be too pleased with the power of your own ideas

3) Invest in a finished, perfectly polished product

4) Figure out how to go beyond the digital requirement

5) Breathe new life into unsold work for a real client

6) Reveal yourself and what makes you go in your work

7) Stretch beyond the product category

8) Give proper context to your ideas

Lastly, consider reading or re-reading the classic text on the subject: Hey Whipple, Squeeze This by Luke Sullivan.