Your portfolio is your problem

The biggest sources of friction in the designer-client relationship is the designer’s attachment to getting paid to build our own portfolios. Maybe its time we let our clients off the hook.

As I went over the numbers—hours, rates, timing—with a prospective client I realized I had made a decision when I drew up the proposal. I had decided that my company was not trying to get a portfolio piece out of this client.

The budget was too slim and the timing was too tight for us to consider it an option. Instead I had set out a goal for our work: to increase leads generated through the website by communicating credibility to visitors. The amount of web design, identity design and photography we proposed is what we deemed to be enough to get the job done. We used the phrase “Minimum Viable Brand” to describe our approach.

If we get the job and follow the timing in our proposal it doesn’t mean that we’ll cut corners just that we won’t expand the work to make it seem more impressive. We’re not designing a website, we’re making a webpage that will convert. We won’t design an identity system, we’ll create a distinctive typographic logo and color palette with a good supporting typeface. Its certainly possible that the logo may end up being one for the book but that’s not the plan right now.

When a designer talks about their work and says “it’s not portfolio quality” what they mean is that the work has been compromised by severe creative limitations whether it be an existing design system, a client with bad taste and a healthy checkbook, or weird projects not worth sharing (case in point, I worked internally at Target where I made the surveillance camera sign in the parking lot, and “art directed” the sticker that cashiers give to children riding in the shopping carts. I used to show printed pieces to friends with the introduction: Here’s the weird shit I make.). 80% of the work I’ve done has been “not portfolio work” and truthfully when I spent a long period doing only portfolio work (high creative freedom and “cool” content) I was broke as a joke.

Our prospective client is “not portfolio work” but not due to content, bad taste or existing identity system, its that they don’t have the money, time or the need for us to create showcase pieces. This doesn’t mean that we can’t help them. We just have to be strategic and efficient.

Later that same day I spoke with Brent Meyers, the director of MCAD DesignWorks. Brent leads a staff of student designers who design for the Minneapolis College of Art & Design as well as external clients. Brent shared something that one of his early bosses had told him about work: You only need or one or two portfolio pieces a year. I found myself immediately agreeing. Once you’ve been working awhile, you just edit out a piece here and there and you start making work that has a longer shelf-life. This truism is especially relevant at DesignWorks because they produce a lot of ephemeral printed pieces like postcards but the student staffers often want everything to be good enough for their portfolio. The reality is that their classes are where they’re going to produce the kind of expansive, thought-out work that their books require. DesignWorks’ clients just need to get a message out in a timely fashion. These designers have yet to learn that no matter how great the postcard is you won’t keep it in your portfolio for long (as a general rule, your portfolio should not be dependent on postcards).

But when Brent said “You only need one portfolio piece a year”, something else struck me. Working designers make their clients responsible for their portfolios and because they do that they are constantly disappointed. Design students actually pay to develop their portfolios but when they graduate they expect to not only collect a check from someone but also to make that person accountable for their professional development.

The truth is this: you keep paying for your portfolio pieces for years. You take creative freedom projects like a snowboard design and spend 120 hours for $400. You finishing designing a book and realize you’ve made $6 an hour.

The sexy work and the paying work are often diametrically opposed and its really only a handful of designers where they become one and the same (side note: this almost always requires a gimmick and skillful marketing. See virtually any famous well-paid designer). Confusing them is a recipe for frustration.

The beauty of remembering that I only need one portfolio piece this year (and its true, after 10 years of working I have multiple edits of my work that I love and believe in. I have no need to replace 5 projects in 2014) is that I can easily produce a great project this year that is worthy of sharing and I don’t need a client to do it.

How much more satisfying would my work be if I stopped conflating my needs (the quest for self-gratifying new work) with my clients’ needs (solving a business problem)? How much more work could my studio take on if we let go of our attachment to creating masterpieces and solely focused on solving client problems?

I remember being frustrated by an Aaron Draplin talk because he openly admitted to not showing paying client work and instead only showing the fun (read: creative freedom) stuff—Field Notes, Gary illustrations, hot dog cart logos—but I get it now. He’s not holding other people responsible for his portfolio. If fulfilling a band’s needs results in a work worth sharing then great but he’s not attached to that outcome. If you write scripts for car commercials but you aspire to be Martin Scorcese you don’t try and turn a Presidents’ Day Sale ad for Ford into Taxi Driver. No—you write a screenplay on the weekends.

So I hope my studio will have this new small client next week. We’re going to solve their immediate problems as efficiently and strategically as possible. But we’re not going to worry about creating work for the Type Directors Club annual. We’re going to let all our clients off the hook. If making the things they need results in awards-worthy work we’ll take it as a coincidence.

What really matters is that we’re going to have a discussion internally and decide what we want to create for our portfolio in 2014. What are we missing? What are we dying to make? There’s 3 of us, do we each need to lead a project? But then we’re going to pay to make it (just like when we were students and just like we expect of our current students). Maybe we’ll take time off or maybe we’ll have to lose some weekends but we know this: we’re not going to bring an agenda to billable hours. That’s our clients’ time and they deserve our undivided attention. I think we’ll do better work as a result.

And I think we’ll be happier for it.

Namdev Hardisty is creative director of The MVA Studio, a design and marketing agency in Minneapolis.