Print Portfolio vs. Digital Portfolio: A Designer’s Dilemma

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As technology continues to evolve and influence the creative services industry, many designers and other professionals find themselves conflicted. Do they abandon established traditions in favor of adopting new technology and its advantages? Or are the old ways still best?

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It’s not an easy question to answer.

In a previous article and in my stage talk at HOW Design Live, I brought up the importance of context, what I refer to as one of four C’s. Context comes directly into play when making this type of decision. Print and Digital both have their own unique qualities and advantages, and there are scenarios where one may be more appropriate than the other.

There is also an overwhelming advantage in simply making an investment in both and having your bases covered, but I’ll address that a bit later. For now let’s focus on the strengths and weaknesses of them individually.

THE POWER OF A PRINT PORTFOLIO

Print in and of itself is still an experience. It is immersive and when done well it is impressive. Tangible media may not always be convenient, but it does have “gravitas.”

Walking around a conference room table and individually placing materials in the hands of each and every person, takes more time than just presenting on a digital screen, it’s not productive or practical. Yet, the value it has is that it creates a lasting impression by drawing out the moment, and making individual micro transactions. There is a subtlety in this that most people overlook.

The micro-transaction matters—the physical connection, as well as the sense of ownership created when you personally hand something to an individual is more meaningful to them than the convenience of digital (though later I will address how you can do both).

From a presentation standpoint, print has the added advantage of depth. We can touch it, see it beyond just aesthetic but in terms of texture and craftsmanship. We can even smell it, with our sense of smell being one of the strongest senses tied to memory, this is important, in fact it is famously a trick still used when submitting resumes today.

In terms of context, print materials that you designed, are their strongest when presented as print. Their impact and power can be diminished in digital, since the intention behind them was always meant for physical media. The other variable here is size. Large format designs or even small format designs, when translated to digital ignore scale as a factor. Presenting billboards and poster designs as large prints may be cumbersome, but the reason it is still done is because it makes more of an impact and communicates the experience in a meaningful way.

WHERE DIGITAL PORTFOLIOS DOMINATE

The digital world has an obvious advantage that can’t be ignored: speed and convenience. In a nutshell that is the value we immediately associate with all things digital and what we desire from it the most.

For designers, their clients, colleagues and employers, it is no different. Digital portfolios can be easily and instantly shared and distributed via email, mobile devices, digital download links, etc. Feedback, reviews and approval processes that would take hours or days can be reduced to moments.

The added value in many cases is a reduction of cost all around. Nobody is excited about paying postages fees on a portfolio book, and it’s devastating if one gets lost in the mail. Emails and PDF’s can be resent, easily updated and even annotated on directly.

Digital allows designers to sell themselves in the marketplace at all times. Having a convenient portfolio website means that you’re not limited to the number of interviews you can line up week to week. Having a readily available portfolio on your mobile device puts you in a position to literally “elevator pitch” at a moments notice.

WHAT DO CLIENTS AND EMPLOYERS PREFER?

The simple answer to the above question is both. This isn’t just limited to the portfolio itself, but extends to all presentations and pitches. Unfortunately, the execution behind that answer is a bit more complex and often more expensive than committing to one or the other.

Let’s examine a hypothetical scenario of a 3 Designers doing a $5,000 pitch project for a law firm that is rebranding, that includes print materials, brand identity, a mobile app and a new website.

Of our three designers: one does a print presentation, one does an all-digital presentation, and the last designer does a hybrid presentation.

PRINT PRESENTATION

Our print practitioner spends their money on spiral bound sample books for the five decision-makers in the room, large prints on foam core that demonstrate the layout and design of the new website and mobile app, sample business cards and other leave behinds such as custom pens and USB thumb drives.

Estimated cost: $1800
Estimated profit: $3200

DIGITAL PRESENTATION

The digital designer knows that the rebranding will involve print materials, but decides to save a few bucks. All samples of print materials have already been emailed as a PDF to the stake holders for the meeting. The presentation takes place in the board room on a 55-inch screen controlled via laptop. The video files and presentation deck have been emailed to the decision makers for reference after the presentation.

Estimated cost: $0-500
Estimated profit: $4500-5000

HYBRID PRESENTATION

Our hybrid has decided to spend the majority of the money on the pitch. They eliminate clunky presentation boards in favor of the large conference room screen. The meeting starts with them handing out a very small stack of printed samples but also to each stake holder an older iPad Mini, (to be collected at the end of presentation) to navigate the digital portions of the presentation.

They are given instructions on how access the mockup of the mobile apps. PDF samples and links have been emailed to them of everything for convenience. Each phase of the presentation is given in context.

The website is presented on the big screen, but they are also directed to sample the mobile version of the website on their iPads. The brand identity is presented on the big screen and they are invited to feel the print samples in their hands and examine them further.

Estimated cost: $1500
Estimated profit: $3500

CONTEXT IS THE KEY

Outlining the above scenario is one of the best ways I could see framing the conversation and the case for making decisions based around context. The third designer in our scenario had more opportunities to create depth and communicate a powerful experience, while also eliminating very specific weaknesses, such as transporting heavy and cumbersome materials. This version of the presentation also provided the most advantages for decision makers:

  • A tangible experience interacting with both print materials and iPad
  • The convenience of digital files for later reference and related print samples
  • An interactive experience in reviewing a mobile app and a mobile website
  • Seeing consistency of the brand experience across multimedia for themselves

Each presentation had unique opportunities it could capitalize on, but the key is that only one of them would be able to give a complete and unified experience of what a final execution would like to a brand.

Digital projects should be presented in the context of digital. Mobile sites and experiences should be presented on mobile devices whenever possible and showcase interactivity. Print designs are strongest when presented in print rather than digitally.

While this does take more time, effort and often investment, the result is a stronger overall experience for someone trying to make a buying decision where you are concerned.

The only winners or losers in a battle between print and digital are the designer and the decision maker.


Learn more in Roberto Blake’s online workshop, How to Design a Digital Portfolio

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