Getting Your Foot in the Door

If you’re in search of a new design opportunity, you’d be wise to follow the sage advice of a popular dandruff-shampoo commercial: "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." While this wisdom may seem trite, landing the work you want takes more than top-notch design talent.

In looking for work, you send a message about yourself—from your initial cold call to your final thank-you note. Make sure this message is memorable and impressive. If you know how to put together a winning portfolio, approach a company, handle an interview and follow up effectively, you increase your chances of beating out the competition.

Start by knowing the type of work you’re interested in and learning general information about the companies you want to pursue; you can then design a portfolio that suits your needs and theirs. Should the employer want to interview you, you’ll have a head start on gathering even more information in preparation for the meeting.

Appearances Matter
Your portfolio should speak highly of you and your work, effectively communicating your aesthetic to those who review it. Employers first notice the portfolio’s physical structure. "There’s no one format, custom-made or not, that should be used," says Allison Artnak, assistant design director of The Weather Channel in Atlanta. "Just choose one that best presents your work and is neat and manageable." According to illustrator Joel Nakamura in Santa Fe, NM, "It should be convenient to carry or ship."

Although a flashy approach isn’t appropriate for all creatives, a custom-designed portfolio can generate curiosity and interest. "We’re a visually based society, and it takes more and more to impress others," Nakamura says. "The better you stand out, the stronger the impact."

It’s What’s Inside That Counts
"Put your own spin on your portfolio, with removable holders for your work or a certain board or paper," Artnak says. While a portfolio should flaunt the designs, she likes one that lets her handle mounted pieces and transparencies.

Janou Pakter of JanouPakter Inc., a New York City-based recruitment firm, suggests slides for 3D and architectural designs and clear sleeves for editorial tear sheets, plus the actual magazine to demonstrate the print and paper quality. "Don’t use digital files unless you’re a new-media designer. People still want to see the real thing," she says.

But Nakamura offers CD-ROM and Web-site presentations of his work, suggesting these options as a supplemental or stand-alone portfolio. "It gives immediate access," he says. "In the next couple of years, people will expect it."

Include 10-15 examples of your best work in the portfolio. "Most designers show too many, forgetting that one strong piece carries more weight than several weaker ones," says Pash, creative director and principal of Digital Soup, a six-person, multidisciplinary design firm in Culver City, CA.

The first image in the portfolio should be your strongest and the last piece your favorite, Artnak advises. If you’re looking for work through a recruiter, don’t target your portfolio to any one client, Pakter says. "We like to see everything. Otherwise, consider the client’s clients, marketing strategy and company culture; select examples of your work accordingly," she says. "You can use the same pieces but arrange them differently."

Whether your portfolio shows a variety of media or concentrates on one area of expertise depends on your audience. Pakter says most American design firms are specialized and are known for certain markets or a specific style. "There’s strength in diversity, though, as long as you tag areas in your portfolio that are of particular interest to the reviewer," Pash says.

Don’t attempt a theme "unless it’s understated," he adds. "I’ve seen some that are so obvious—cartoon characters commenting on each page or little birds showing the way to the next piece. It’s hard to focus on the work." Aim for consistency in materials, mounting and quality.

Although prospective employers generally want to see recent designs, choose examples, old or new, that best represent the kind of work you want to do. Omit school assignments two years after graduation. "By then, you should’ve developed enough work on your own," Pakter says.

But if you lack experience in an area of design you’d like to pursue, "Freelance to get it, giving incentive with a price reduction," Pakter suggests. "Some areas also translate well, like book covers to CDs or editorial copy to annual reports. An open-minded company can make the leap." Give yourself mock assignments that demonstrate not only your creativity, but also your enthusiasm.

"Try to include at least one project you did as part of a team, since more and more firms depend on teamwork," Artnak says. "It shows your ability to collaborate."

Explain, in writing, your role in each project. Include a one-line description for every piece in your portfolio so the work can speak for you if you have to leave the portfolio behind. Mention the client, challenges you overcame and the budget, especially if it was limited. "Be unobtrusive so the information is there if employers want it, but it’s also easy to ignore," Pash says.

Don’t Be the Invisible Designer
If you haven’t arranged an interview but would like a company to see your work, your portfolio can often speak for you. A successful portfolio can help land a job if you know how to attract an audience:

1. Call the target company and inquire about their drop-off policy. If they have one, follow their guidelines.

2. If they don’t have a drop-off policy, write a letter expressing your interest to help them meet their client’s design needs. Include a resume (if looking for employment) or partial client list (if searching for freelance projects).

3. Wait for a reply. If you don’t hear back within three weeks, call. If still no reply, try again but don’t be a pest. Someone who’s interested will let you know.

4. If they pursue you, requesting that you drop off or send your portfolio, the company will usually pay for the delivery charges. It’s OK to ask. If you pursue them, however, consider the shipping costs a part of selling yourself.

5. Include a cover letter with your portfolio, thanking the person for their interest.

You’ve Got Their Attention Now
Once you’ve piqued the employer’s interest, make sure to continue your research on the company before the interview. "The more you know about them, the better you can adapt your presentation to their needs," Nakamura says. Talk to the receptionist to get a feel for the company culture and how the staff dresses. Wear clothes that fit with their environment yet remain true to yourself, ranging from offbeat to business conservative.

During the interview, plan to speak as little or as much as the other person wants. Have questions of your own, as well. "It shows interest and initiative," Artnak says.

Afterward, leave behind a few slides of your work, your portfolio on CD-ROM or a self-promotional brochure. Don’t forget a thank-you letter, and remember to include more samples of your work. If you’re a freelancer, do a promo mailing a couple of weeks later if you haven’t heard from the company or you didn’t get the project. You never know when someone will call you because you made it easy for them to remember you.

If you don’t make the company’s payroll or win the contract, however, you can feel confident knowing you did everything you could. Eventually, your efforts will pay off. If you do win the job, make sure the new position or assignment expands your talents and freshens the pages of your portfolio. Then shoot even higher the next time you’re ready to pursue the job market.