9 Steps to a Better Portfolio – Guest Blog by Christopher Natsuume – Co-Founder of BoomZap

by Leo on December 21, 2011

Christopher and I were classmates at the UW Foster Business School.  He has since founded one of the most successful casual game companies in the world Boomzap.  I am very glad that he agreed to write this blog, which is as applicable to photographers as it is to any visual creatives.

9 Steps to a Better Portfolio

If you are a professional working artist your portfolio is your career.

Sure, you have a résumé, a job history, and an educational background – but the honest truth is that these are all just context for your portfolio. When you are applying for work, your potential employer will glance at everything else for a few minutes, and then spend the rest of their time on the portfolio.

So it’s in your best interests to make sure that this portfolio presents you in the best possible light. A good portfolio won’t save a poor artist, but a poor portfolio can certainly make a good artist look less marketable than they actually are – and that’s relatively easy to fix with a couple simple rules:

1) Quality
When I look at your portfolio, I assume that this is the absolute best art you are capable of. So, when picking pieces for your portfolio, use fewer images, and make sure they are your best.

The typical artist will want to show the world their entire body of work – even the flawed pieces and works in progress. In fact, many artists have blogs where they share their creative process, and have conversations with peers about their work. This is all great – but it’s not a portfolio.

Your portfolio is a separate site – a culled selection of your absolute best work. I shouldn’t see a single weak image in your portfolio – because if I do, I am going to think “this person is unaware that this is not great work” – and I will question your taste and judgement.

2) Diversity
It’s critical to choose images that show the full range of your skill. Sure, you may have 500 images of tropical birds from your last project that are all incredible, but you don’t want to be pigeonholed as “that guy that draws birds” – unless that’s the only thing you ever want to work on.

Make sure that your portfolio includes a number of different styles, techniques, and looks. A digital painter, for instance, should have at a bare minimum a few characters in closeup facial shots, a few characters in full figure shots, and a number of environmental works in both indoor and outdoor environments. This lets me see your strengths in each area, and shows that you are capable of adapting your talents to a diverse set of tasks.

Keep in mind – if your portfolio has a big gap where you’re not showing some kind of work – such as figure drawing or images that include movement or action, I’m going to assume that’s because you can’t do that kind of work well. It’s your job to prove to me that you can.

3) Context
I will appreciate your work more if I know what it is you were trying to do. Keep in mind, most professional work is done to achieve a specific goal, and whether or not the art is good objectively is often not the point.

The point is: Did the artist accomplish the goal set out for them?

In some cases, that goal or challenge in the artwork may not be obvious – such as completing by an extremely tight deadline, or including some product, message, or design element that was difficult to integrate. If I know what your challenges were in making the piece, I can better assess your ability to meet my challenges.

Even for works that were done entirely for personal reasons, I would love to know what it is you were trying to accomplish personally in the work – such as improve your figure drawing skills, or work on your lighting or perspective. This allows me to focus my attention on that element of the work, and appreciate it properly.

4) Process
When I look at a portfolio, I want to know how you made each piece, and how long it took.

What lenses did you use on your camera? What kinds of media did you use on your traditional art? If you worked on a digital image, or if you animated or modeled something – what software did you use? What plugins? What kind of tablet? Knowing all this helps me better understand how you work, and how you will work in my production process.

In the case of work that is heavily Photoshopped versions of photographs or references, it’s helpful to include the originals, so that I can clearly judge your work against the starting point you were working from. In fact, one of my favorite things to see in a portfolio is a step-by-step presentation showing how you made one of your best images, with work-in-progress shots leading up to the final image. This really lets me get my head around the way you work.

And of course, I’ll want to know how long it took you to do the work – so I can use that as a benchmark for the work I am looking to have done.

5) Credit
It’s critical for you to clarify precisely what work you were responsible for in any image. If you created something as part of a team, clarify what your role in that team was, what your contribution to the work was, and properly credit the other contributors. Failure to do so will be seen as insensitive, or worse, as outright dishonest.

Additionally, if your work used references, or was heavily inspired by some other artists work, it is critical to include that information as well. While I may be impressed to see how you have reimagined the work of another artist, if you aren’t crediting that artist or reference, I’ll think you’re simply plagiarizing. That’s one of the fastest ways to have your portfolio dismissed, and to have your reputation in the industry destroyed.

6) Portability
In this day and age, there is simply no excuse at all for having anything but an online portfolio.

One sure-fire way to piss me off as a potential client is to mail-bomb me a massive email attachment of your work. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been travelling overseas on a limited bandwidth connection and received a résumé with a 20mb portfolio attachment that jammed up my email. My solution? Delete the email and attachment without ever looking at it.

Additionally, keep in mind that if I like your stuff, I am going to want to forward it to other decision makers in the process – and you can bet that if I hate getting massive attachments, I’m not about to forward yours. What I really want is a single link that I can pass on a medium as small as a text message.

As a side bonus, keeping all of your information online allows you to keep it constantly up to date. If I open the same link a year later, I’ll see your updated portfolio immediately.

7) Simplicity
Please, please, please don’t make some enormous confusing flash based site with all kinds of bells and whistles for your portfolio. Nobody will be impressed – in fact, most people will be annoyed. Your portfolio should be a simple, clean page with images I can easily scroll through, with whatever text is necessary attached in a simple, easy to read font. Keep in mind that I may be looking at your portfolio on any of a number of devices – including tablets and netbooks – and I’ll be annoyed when I have to wait for all of your flash animations and java scripts to load. In fact, I probably just won’t bother. I’m not interested in your website (unless you are a web designer) – I just want to see the portfolio of products you’ve made as quickly and easily as possible. Honestly, my favorite format for a static art portfolio is a simple Flickr page – which you can have set up in a couple of minutes. And, unless you are an animator, I certainly don’t want to see a demo reel. If you are showing me still images, I want to see them as still images. Preferably in the resolution they were created in.

If you are an animator, I’d honestly prefer to see your animations in a short, silent medium – I am not really interested in your favorite new Coldplay song as a soundtrack. If the animations were designed to go with specific music or sound, then include only that. If you have a number of animations to show me, break them into a few short videos, so I can look at them individually without having to search for them on a long showreel. For a platform, you can set up a simple website from any of a number of off-the-shelf blogs, and embed some YouTube videos. That will allow me to watch them on just about any platform, including my tablet or smartphone. There are obviously other workable formats, but whatever you use, keep the focus on delivering your art as simply and easily as possible, and letting me view it on as many platforms as possible.

8)8) Accessibility
Your portfolio should serve as the main point of contact that I have with all elements of you as a potential hire. If you have things about yourself that you would tell me in a cover letter, make an “about me” page on your portfolio, so that when I direct someone else to your portfolio, they have that context as well. Make sure that you have an updated résumé on the site, in a simple, clean text format that I can look at online or grab and print. Please don’t make a PDF or image file résumé – that’s only going to annoy me. When I look at your résumé, I want to be able to quickly find information, click on hyperlinks to see any online resources you want me to see, and grab hunks of text from it to paste into MSN conversations and google searches. You want me interacting with your résumé like this – but if it’s is a PDF or image file, you’re making me retype that information, and I probably can’t be bothered to do that.

9) Relevance
Finally, if you know something about the clients/companies you are submitting your portfolio to, try to lead with the most relevant materials. If you’re applying as an animator for a company that does military simulations, and you have some demo reels of tanks and helicopters you’re proud of – Lead with them! If it’s a position that’s important enough, you might even consider taking the time to modify some of your art or create new art to show that you can match the style or needs of the client. One of our best artists, for example, waited a month before applying, and spent her evenings making a specific piece of art that exactly matched the style we were looking for, and led with it in her portfolio when she applied. Not only did she immediately get an interview, she also got the job.

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