Portfolio Reviewin’, Thoughts and Ideas for Design Students

Tom Osborne, Former VP, Design

Article Category: #Design & Content

Posted on

jump starting your design career

Deep in the heart of Georgetown lies the Center for Digital Imaging Arts (CDIA) an extension of Boston University's applied arts school. I was recently asked to participate in a portfolio review of some of the school's upcoming web design graduates along with representatives from a few other fine agencies in the DC area. Among other options the school offers a Graphic and Web Design Certificate to help get future designers a leg up in pursuing their passions. I've been really impressed with the school's outreach into the local community. They seem to 'get it' and the students are smart to have connected with the school to jump start their careers. 

CDIA Student Portfolios:

It's my understanding that the CDIA students literally cooked their portfolio's up in a matter of a couple of weeks leading up to the review. Quite impressive considering many just learned the foundations of web design. As reviewers we were tasked with critiquing portfolios as a whole more so than the work shown within. Looking through the portfolios I couldn't help but have some recurring thoughts. This advice would apply for anyone entering into the field of web design. I hope it comes across as more helpful than it does preachy.

Who are you?

Your work is a marriage of your own personality and style mixed with the requirements of the job at hand. If you don't have any client work yet, it's really important to let your work be an extension of who you are. Your portfolio will 'tell your story' to those reviewing your work. Those that like your story will want to hire you.

Where do you want to be?

If you want any part in trying to find a job that matches your passions try to cater your portfolio to your interests. Be it print, web, animation, or video, if you have a love, emphasize it in your portfolio and pursue companies that can help you get your foot in the door. You can show a variety of different media to show off your creative thinking, but give priority to the work you are most proud of and that will help to get you where you want to be.

Understand the Space

If there are companies that you will be targeting in your job search, understand the space they play in. That can mean a variety of things. My advice is to find patterns in how different companies within the same space represent themselves with their portfolios. Look at their client list and the type of work that is getting produced for those clients. Learn who the people are and what organizations they participate in within the local community. Understand and be inspired by the work of the companies you desire to work for and go meet those folks at events.

Be Creative

When given the opportunity to speak to your work, talk about the creative thinking behind it. Concepts are worth their weight in gold. Good ideas are not so esoteric that only you understand them. A good idea can be simple and should be driving force for every other thought that comes together for a design. Good ideas win awards as much -- if not more -- than good design will.

Be Aware

Do yourself a favor by using a good rss reader and subscribe to a selection of design feeds that match your interest. Doing so will give you a better understanding of design vocabulary, expose you to trends (for better or worse), and give you more opportunities to be inspired. Smashing Magazine is a great place to start due to its wide variety of quality references.

Be Cool

Be deliberate about meeting people and getting your foot in the door but be cool about it. Don't be a turn off by being over-eager. Be mindful that your future employer wants to help you but can be juggling an assortment of things at any given moment. Also, remember that if you use social media that you will be found. So be professional about what you say in public forums. Last, be courteous and use manners. A simple thank you and follow up email can go a long way to say that you've appreciated someone's time.

Typography, It's Alive

There are two things I see time after time in the typography of student portfolios: 1) Opportunities are often missed to let the choice of type enhance the feeling and expression of the design and 2) There's too much sameness in sizing and spacing. Let the type guide the priorities of the message and space things out. In other words, let it live, let it speak, and let it breathe. A good use of type is a sign of good design.

Go Deeper

There is a time and place for flat colors and good composition, but I see too much of it in the work of students. Take the work further. A good concept can offer the opportunity to use textures, gradients and color palettes that are not only richer but can enhance the overall meaning and tell a better story.

Don't Stop at Design

If web design is your passion, understand that there is more to it than design alone. Understand how HTML, CSS and JavaScript work so that you can use it to your benefit. You don't have to be a coder to do great web design but learning to appreciate it goes a loooooooooong way. Also, take a look at what your content looks like with style sheets turned off. This is what the search engines will see and what makes your web site accessible. Being able to speak to search engine friendliness will go a long way. The same can be said about print (something we discussed at the end of the portfolio review). A good print designer understands what it means to talk about offset printing and the printing process and more inventive designs come from those who do.

Related Posts

Owen wrote a great post back in December of '08 about Finding a Job in the Design Field. In it he identifies alternative places to post your work and places to find work. It's a must read for anyone trying to figure out where to start.

Also, Cindy talks more about Interview Expectations and etiquette over on our Four Labs blog. There are some great tips to make note of.

Those are my thoughts. I certainly encourage other web design veterans to add their thoughts on the matter. I wish only the best of luck to the graduating students of the CDIA programs and to all who pursue a career in web design. There will always be turbulence but soon you'll be flying high.

Related Articles