Students: Your Portfolio Doesn’t Matter

There, I said it. Go bananas.

Before you attempt to immediately dismiss this article because of the seemingly absurd headline, hear me out.

Recently I had the opportunity of attending the RGD Creative Directions event in Toronto. It was another amazing event ran by RGD, and I am constantly thankful for the value that they provide me. At this event, I had my portfolio reviewed by nine industry professionals from all wakes of the design and advertising world. Some of these people worked for very notable agencies in Toronto, which was somewhat nerve-wracking. Despite this, all of my reviews actually went very well. However, many of these individuals had the same question after each review; “What are you going to provide me, that someone else can’t?”

I then began to answer this question like any normal student would. I tried to explain my design chops and problem-solving skills with big words and overt enthusiasm. This worked to a certain degree, but most still wondered what separated me from the 500+ graphic design graduates across Canada each year.

They explained to me that the ability for students to create a snazzy and sharp looking portfolio is at an all time high. Apparently, about 30–40% of the portfolios they review are what they would consider “great portfolio’s”. Clean presentation, solid typographic and colour knowledge, and a great general design sense. So if there are so many people with essentially the same level of skill, what is going to get you hired instead of someone else? It was at this point when I realised that your student portfolio does not matter.

School can only teach you so much, and agencies know that. They aren’t looking for the next Sagmeister or Hische right out of college. They are looking for someone who is passionate, enthusiastic, generally skilled, and curious. With an emphasis on the curious. They are looking for someone who is willing to learn and is excited about their unknown learning journey. They also need to ask themselves if they would actually enjoy spending eight hours a day sitting next to you. So pro tip, be nice. It helps a lot.

They also explained to me that they often hire students who may not have the most amazing portfolio, but possess extreme potential. If you are teachable, they are able to mould you into a much better designer in a fraction of the time that you could have done by yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, having an amazing portfolio will help you get a job no doubt about it. But it is absolutely not everything. So instead of worrying about making your portfolio “perfect” and spending endless hours kerning copy that nobody will probably even read, work on yourself. Become a better speaker. Become a better listener. Become a better person. Because at the end of the day, they are hiring you, the person. Not the work.

Some extra tips to get hired:

  • If you don’t have your work online, then you don’t exist. Period.
  • Worry less about your website and post more on social media. That’s where your audience (creative directors) are. Not that many directors are going to Google search to hire a graphic designer anymore.
  • Brand yourself. Logo, colour, typography, the works. Make yourself look professional and maintain consistency across all mediums.
  • Have a crystal clear key message. Who are you and what do you do? Skip all of the “I develop complex solutions that solve difficult problems in an efficient and effective manner” BS. Cut to the chase.
  • Generalize your skills now and specialize them later when you get more of a feel for yourself as a designer.
  • Don’t be afraid to let your true personality shine through online. You’re not a robot, so don’t act like one.
  • What do you besides design? Do you cook? Do you make funny drone videos about cats? Let everyone know!
  • Work on your writing skills. This is one of the most important and constantly overlooked skills that a designer should have.
  • Work on your presentation skills. Sell yourself and your work in a confident and concise manner. Avoid um’s, like’s, and uhh’s. Keep it clear and quick.
  • Work on your listening skills. This is something I have been doing recently and it works absolute wonders. Not only does it make you appear more respectful, but it allows you to formulate a complete answer without jumping to a half-baked thought.

Hopefully, this will give you a different perspective than what you have normally been told. If you have any differing opinions or praises, I would love to hear them in the comments section.

Remember, the portfolio might get you the interview, but you have to get the job.

Until next time,
Jordan

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