Sitting On Both Sides of the Table

In this article, I want to share some of the tips and advice I’ve picked up whilst sitting down for portfolio surgeries, and also explain why they are more than just a showcase of your work.

It’s hard to believe it was over three years ago that I was sat in front of my future colleagues nervously presenting my work at a carnival themed industry event. This was a huge opportunity to get my first full time job in industry and I wouldn’t get another shot of being in a room with some of the best agencies in the North West again, or at least, that’s what I told myself.

I had spent a lot of time preparing my portfolio, talking through my work to myself and reading up about agencies on my ‘hit list’ ready for a day of trying to convince people that I’m good enough to work for them.

It turns out, all of the hard work and preparation paid off. I was offered a placement at RetroFuzz which shortly after turned into a full-time position as a designer. To say I was chuffed would be an understatement.

Portfolio surgeries are a fantastic opportunity that you should take advantage of whenever you can. Not only is it a chance for a potential job or placement, but you also get to talk to some top industry professionals about your work and get their opinion. For the professionals themselves, it’s a great way to see what exciting work and ideas the next generation of designers are creating.

I have been involved in multiple portfolio surgeries, sitting on both sides of the table as both a student and a designer. I am also talking people through my work on a daily basis, whether that’s to my colleagues, my bosses or to clients. Over the past three years, I have picked up some fantastic advice on how to prepare and talk about your work and that’s what I want to share with you today.


Know who you want to talk to.
It’s important you familiarise yourself with the agencies that will be attending the portfolio surgery. Build up a list of 5–10 agencies you’d love to work for and order them by preference. You might only get to speak to a few of them on the night so it’s best you speak to the ones most important to you first. This is also a great opportunity to be proactive and invite agencies and studios you want to work for personally to the portfolio surgery.

It’s not enough to just know the name of the design agency. Take the time to find out more about who they are, the type of work they do and who they do work for. It also gives you an insight into whether they’re the right fit for you.

Practise talking through your work beforehand.
You don’t need to memorise a script word for word, but it helps to have practised what you’d like to say about each piece of work in your portfolio. It’ll make you more confident when talking about your work. It also allows you to see if the ordering of your portfolio is right and whether there are some pieces you are struggling to talk about, which may be best removed.

Arrange your work properly.
Don’t just throw your portfolio together in any old order. Portfolios need to flow in a way that’s engaging and exciting. Deciding what order your work should go in will be a personal choice but a general guide is to start with your strongest piece and finish with the one you’re most passionate about. Don’t include weaker pieces for the sake of filling out your portfolio. If you don’t feel you can talk about it passionately, drop it.

Keeping your portfolio to 5–7 pieces gives a good enough selection of your work without taking forever to talk through it. If you have more work, pop it up on your website.

Think about how you want to present your work.
The printed portfolio has long been a favourite for many designers, however, for some this might not be the best way to showcase your work. If your work is predominantly digital, consider the use of a tablet or laptop, which allows it to be seen in it’s intended format.

Using a phone to show your work is great if it’s a website or app optimised for mobile, but make sure you bring an alternative way of showing your work as well. The small screen won’t do your non-mobile designs justice.

Come prepared with questions.
A portfolio surgery isn’t just about talking through your portfolio. It’s also an opportunity to ask industry professionals questions about what it’s like to work as a designer, what their agency is like and whether they have any tips for finding a job.

Presenting Work

Before showing a piece of work, you need to set the scene.
Give a quick overview of the brief, a summary of how you came up with a solution and what your key concept is.

This ensures the person you are showing your work to will have a better understanding of your project. Not showing your work until you’ve set the scene also makes sure the person you’re talking to is focusing on what you’re saying instead of looking at your execution.

Explain some of your key design decisions.
Don’t just end your introduction with a ‘and heres what I made’. Why did you chose that font? What’s the reason behind using illustrations instead of photography?

It’s these decisions that show there is thought and concept behind all aspects of your design.

Show your personality.
Agencies looking to take on new employees are looking for more than just an amazing portfolio. Often its more important that the person is the right fit for the company and the team. Your personality is what is going to set you apart from everyone else. When talking through your work, be enthusiastic. Show that you’re passionate and have the right attitude.

Feedback and Questions

Be prepared for feedback and critique.
Being able to handle critique is an essential skill as a designer and is something you’ll have to do on a regular basis. Don’t take what is said personally but instead learn from it. It’ll mean your portfolio and the way you talk about your work is even better for next time.

Don’t be afraid to ask.
If you want a placement or a job at the agency you’re talking to, don’t be afraid to ask if there are positions available or if they’ll be looking to take people on in the near future. Alternatively, ask for a business card or contact details so you can contact them in the future.

After the event

Take time to reflect on the advice and feedback given.
If you were given suggestions on how to improve a particular piece of work, make those changes, if you agree with them. It will make your work and portfolio stronger and it gives you a great excuse to drop them a line afterwards to show them the updated work. Not only does this show your commitment but also that you can handle feedback properly.

Follow up with an email or a tweet to say thanks.
Those looking at students work will see lots of faces that night and may forget who each person was. A quick thank you email is a great little reminder and is another opportunity to send over a link to your portfolio.

Whilst these tips are aimed towards portfolio surgeries, they can also be applied to talking about your work in general. In an industry environment, you are taking people through your work on a regular basis, whether that’s with your colleagues, to your boss or to a client. Being able to explain your work properly and talk people through your design decisions helps to make them understand your reasoning behind your design, making them more likely to agree with what you have done. Putting in the preparation and practise for a big client pitch means on the day, you’ll know exactly what your saying. Your presentation will flow better and you will look more organised and professional.

It takes a lot of practise to talk about your work to others well, and I’ll admit it’s something I’m still working on regularly. However, it’s something that only gets better the more you do it. The next time you are presented with the opportunity to attend a portfolio surgery, group feedback session or client pitch, grab that opportunity with both hands!