Maybe you’re just out of school (or even better, still in school). Or maybe you’ve been pursuing a design career for a while, but are trying to break into other areas. From my own experience, here are some ways to begin build out your portfolio and gain some valuable experience.
On some level, the idea for the post came from my discussion (read: argument) on spec work a couple days ago. If you click through to the original post, you’ll see that several people made the argument that spec work was valuable to young (or inexperienced) designers who need to build up their portfolios. We’ll deal with that specific argument a little later, but it got me thinking: what were some of the things that I did (and continue to do) to build my project portfolio?
The projects you’re already taking.
Here’s a secret: you can say no to a project. In many ways, your portfolio is a huge part of what shapes the kind of work you do. But what if you don’t want to do that kind of work any more? Or what if you want to expand into a new area?
Say no to some of the “normal” projects you would do, and find clients who are willing to take a chance on you… to work in a new area.
Sometimes, the best way to do this is to make some short-term trade-offs. Say no to some of the “normal” projects you would do, and find clients who are willing to take a chance on you (probably in exchange for a lower fee) to work in a new area.
The hardest part of this process is maintaining a long-term vision for where you want your design portfolio (and your business overall) to go. You will be making incremental changes, carefully picking and choosing the projects you take. You’ll be balancing that which pays the bills now with that you hope will pay the bills in the future. It could take a few months (if not longer) before you’ve built up enough work in the new area that potential clients begin to recognize your experience and you can charge full rates.
Do real work.
They don’t have someone telling you that they want you to change the work you’re in love with or get it done faster because a deadline has been moved up.
If you’re a young designer, just starting out, you might be in school, filling your portfolio with fanciful, made up projects for big companies that didn’t actually hire you. When I was an art director, at the agency I used to work for, interviewing potential hires, I could always tell student designers by their portfolios. Fake/school projects are ok, in a sense. They’re a large part of the design-school experience (from what I hear), but what I really like to see in a portfolio are projects for actual clients.
Projects for yourself and even, to some extent, projects for school don’t have the same set of constraints (time, budget, otherwise) behind them as real projects. They don’t have someone telling you that they want you to change the work you’re in love with or get it done faster because a deadline has been moved up. Real projects will change your thinking and the experience comes through in your portfolio.
Look for experience opportunities,
not design opportunities.
Find places to lead. It’s tempting to either do fake projects for yourself, where you are your own client and the constraints are non-existent or pursue projects with companies that have a lot of designers fawning over them. Try something else. Find projects that will allow you to think for yourself; clients that give you trust and permission to lead.
… do something that will showcase your thought and insight, not simply skill for beauty and aesthetics.
These types of projects won’t find you, so you need to create the opportunities. Review your own relationships for people that could use your help. Think about non-profit organizations that you’re passionate about. What problems can you solve for someone who doesn’t have the budget to hire a full-service firm or established designer? The key is to do something that will showcase your thought and insight, not simply skill for beauty and aesthetics.
Get paid… something.
When my buddies and I get together for poker, we always do a buy-in with real money. None of us are really serious poker players, so we only pitch in $5 or $10, but we do it to make it real. Something about putting even a small amount of real money on the table makes it real for everyone.
Something about putting even a small amount of real money on the table makes it real for everyone.
The money might not be much, depending on the client you’re working with, but ideally, have them put up something for your time. You’ll be more excited about working on the project, and they won’t be as likely to abuse your help.
For example, when I work with a non-profit, I usually try to find a happy medium where they’re putting in enough money to make sure they treat it like a real project, and I’m getting enough money so that it’s still something that I pay attention to.
You might have good intentions with a completely pro-bono project, but you may not be as helpful as you think. When paying stuff comes along, it’s easy to lose interest. On the flip side—and I really wish I knew what caused this—some of the clients that I’ve done completely free work for, despite my best efforts, have often been the ones to abuse my time and the privilege of being able to talk with me one-on-one, contact me all hours, etc. You don’t want to set that precedent.
If you have to do it for free, set constraints.
So, all warnings aside, sometimes it really makes sense to do free work. Sometimes you can really help out an organization that does good work with little budget by donating your time.
I have a simple rule for this situation: scope the project.
I have a simple rule for this situation: scope the project. Sit down, with the client, and determine exactly what the free work entails, what the project schedule will be, what parts they’re responsible for, and what you’re responsible for.
This is basic project planning, but for whatever reason, it’s easy to overlook when you’re doing free work, helping out a friend or organization. Do your best to treat it like a normal project, with a paying client.
Addressing spec work.
You can read the post and see why we don’t do work on spec.
It’s tempting as an early designer to work on spec to get a cool job, or to lower your rate because they’ve “promised” that it might lead to more work in the future. Don’t do it. Pick projects using the guidelines above. Get paid something or provide a valuable free service for someone who deserves it.
Sorry, long post this time. The final word: I wish I had a more experienced designer pull me aside early on in my career and help me understand that, in many ways, I need to actively curate my portfolio and the potential projects I take. You don’t see immediate results, but over time, you start having people seek you for the very work that you most want to do.