Top 10 Portfolio Faux Pas

A well-crafted portfolio can open doors to new jobs and clients. But if you submit a sub-par book, you’ll likely find “no entry” signs at just about every door you knock on. Following are some mistakes that can drive hiring managers a little crazy, especially when they need to find a talented designer quickly. These 10 portfolio faux pas can cause employers to pass on your book and move onto the next one. Avoid these errors, and you’ll have an immediate advantage over the competition.

Faux Pas #10: Providing “over the hill” examples. Don’t include dated items in your portfolio, unless they’re from a particularly high-profile assignment. No hiring manager wants to see a logo from a college project you created 15 years ago. Instead, include only pieces from within the last three years.

Faux Pas #9: Not bringing a leave-behind. Sixty-four percent of executives surveyed by The Creative Group said it’s important to leave a work sample behind after an employment interview. You might want to develop a piece to use specifically for this purpose, such as a stand-out postcard that contains all of your contact information.

Faux Pas #8: Only having an online portfolio. The good news is that you have a visually stunning and well-organized online portfolio. The bad news is that this is the only way a hiring manager can see your work. Most design firms want evidence of your ability to produce excellent work online—in addition to a book you can show them in person. How you present that portfolio is important, too: In a survey by our firm, 65 percent of advertising and marketing executives said they preferred a bound book or separate container with loose pieces inside.

Faux Pas #7: Not customizing your portfolio to the client’s needs. When preparing your book, make the samples specific to the project type, industry and client. If you’ll be working on direct-mail pieces, for instance, be sure to provide samples of that type of work at the beginning of your portfolio. There are three common ways to organize your book: by industry, media specialty or chronologically. Most corporate clients will be interested in an industry-specific portfolio with examples that relate to their lines of business. If you’re just beginning your career, however, arranging it chronologically may be preferable so you can highlight your career growth.

Faux Pas #6: Not telling a “story.” The way you arrange your portfolio and present it is just as important as the pieces you include. Your samples should spark conversation about your contributions to previous employers. Ultimately, your book should tell a story about the value you provided clients over the years. Always be sure to strike a balance between showing any challenges you overcame and not coming across as a prima donna. When describing a piece in an interview, for example, you might talk about how a redesigned website increased traffic by 20 percent or how an award you won helped improve the firm’s brand recognition. Essentially, you want to demonstrate what changed as a result of your work on a project. Companies want to know that they’ll make a good investment in hiring you.

Faux Pas #5: An online portfolio that takes forever to download. David Langton, a principal graphic designer at Langton Cherubino Group, says it best: “Don’t make me wait for your portfolio to download. I won’t.” Hiring managers are short on time and none of them wants to waste it waiting to see your work. Likewise, skip the musical introductions. Depending on your musical tastes, it can be jarring to go to a website and be greeted by Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” If you must have a fancy introduction for your site, be sure to include a prominent “skip introduction” button.

Faux Pas #4: Creating an unsolved mystery. Be sure to clearly identify each piece in your book by including the name of the client for which you produced the piece, your role in the project, the software you used and a sentence or two describing why it’s important.

Faux Pas #3: Leaving no piece behind. You might be able to assemble enough material in your book to rival “War and Peace,” but resist the temptation to show the hiring manager all your work. When it comes to portfolios, less is definitely more. A survey by The Creative Group shows that prospective employers feel the ideal portfolio should include about a dozen items.

Faux Pas #2: A sloppy book. Thirty-one percent of advertising and marketing executives polled by The Creative Group said unorganized samples bothered them most when reviewing portfolios. Your book should be neat and clean. If you’re including bulky items, carry them separately. Along these same lines, don’t give too much information about a particular example. Displaying numerous versions of the same piece, for instance, can be confusing to the person reviewing it. Generally, it’s best to include only one final version.

Faux Pas #1: Not having an online portfolio. You must have an online portfolio; because all companies have a web presence today, few hiring managers will consider you for a job if you don’t. And keep in mind that 22 percent of advertising and marketing executives surveyed by our firm said they preferred an online portfolio when viewing a creative’s book. Cover all of your bases and have both an online and hard-copy portfolio available for hiring managers to review.

Remember that your book is never a finished project: You will constantly need to update and revamp it to reflect the job market and your skill set. While it’s true that developing an online and hard copy of your portfolio requires significant time and effort, consider it a long-term career investment.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.