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Portfolios, decluttering, and Marie Kondo

What I Learned on My Way to KonMari-ing My Portfolio

Getting rid of old design work seemed a bridge too far; now I understand why.

A white wall with an outline of a picture frame, with a nail above it.
Photo by Enrico Mantegazza on Unsplash

Over the past year, I’ve been decluttering, preparing for a move to launch the final phase of life. In my bullet journal, one such task has been carried over month after month, its unfinished status feeling more and more oppressive: culling 20+ years of design samples. Could I KonMari-Method them? Should I? And so I began. Here is my story.

A pile of dried and withered autumn leaves
Photo by Chris Raymond ©2021

I like to see that my things are well taken care of and that they serve a purpose. — Science journalist Starre Vartan, writing about what she calls the empty promises of the Marie Kondo craze for minimalism.

What Is Purpose?

During the stage of my career when I was primarily a graphic designer (for millennials: it was around the time of Netscape 2; Google it), it sort of made sense to hang on to those brochures, newsletters, ads, posters and annual reports, carefully mounted onto black mat boards. In those prehistoric days, folks actually brought a box or large zippered portfolio to job interviews.

The not one, but two scars on my right index finger attest to the days of putting together comps using X-acto knives and press-on adhesive sheets.

My career took a 45-degree turn in the 2010s, focusing almost exclusively on digital design and now, user experience design. Potential employers expect a digital portfolio, which, sadly, is often ignored in favor of “homework.”

I digress.

The point is, I haven’t had the need to show my design work in physical form in at least a decade. The portfolio boxes are heavy. The work looks outdated, and like for anyone looking back on their design career, wince-inducing. If defined as “job acquisition tools” they are long past their expiration date.

But in deciding to finally buckle down and clean out, I saw that those samples did serve a purpose that I just wasn’t aware of until I started going through them.

Two dried leaves next to each other
Photo by Chris Raymond ©2021

“There are three facets to the spirit that dwells in material things: the spirit of the materials from which the things are made, the spirit of the person who made them, and the spirit of the person who uses them.” — Starre Vartan

Spirits in the Material World

As I dug through my samples, they served to remind me of why I upended my life to pursue a graphic design career. As a science journalist, I strived to tell stories about research through words alone. Graphic design provided me a foundation to tell more engaging stories, albeit for clients, not readers.

They reminded me that I’ve always, from the very beginning, been a minimalist committed to marrying form to function.

Some pieces triggered fond memories of clever solutions:
→ devising a way to make an animated gif look like a Shockwave movie;
→ adapting jquery to turn a static print poster into an interactive digital learning experience;
→ conceptually tying together Art Linkletter and 2000 years of graphic communication into an awards dinner program.

If some of my executions were imperfect, the ideas were spot on. If you are a fan of the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, you celebrate the imperfect-ness for what it means: the journey toward a more perfect state.

Other pieces served to remind me of the professional recognition I received for elevating the spirits of those who “used” my designs. Who doesn’t like getting awards?

A single dried leaf with stem
Photo by Chris Raymond ©2021

“To discard the stuff we’ve acquired is to murder the version of ourselves we envision using it. […] Kondo’s books constitute an insistent if oblique consideration of our own mortality, and the soon-to-be-departed, dear reader, is you. Death: the supreme life-changing magic.” — Laura Miller, writing in Slate about two of Kondo’s books, including The Life-Changing Magic of Cleaning Up.

Shock Treatment

My foot-dragging on culling my design portfolio shouldn’t have been a surprise.

First, I grew up in a home where my Mom wouldn’t discard dull steak knives even when given a new set, or throw out old utility bills “just in case.” (She wasn’t a hoarder, but a child of the Depression — although I’m not sure what that had to do with the junk drawer full of old electric bills). Second, I’ve had a low-simmering fear of bidding final farewell to an identity that I worked hard to build.

On the first go of culling, I managed to fill up one large trash bag of work. The banker’s box is nearly empty, but those clamshell boxes are still mostly full (although one of them now holds personal artwork). It’s a struggle to accept that I don’t need to save physical manifestations of everything I’ve ever done, even if Mom did!

As Kyle Chayka, author of The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, wrote in The Guardian, “It is a shock treatment demonstrating that you do not need to depend on possessions for an identity; you still exist even when they are gone.”

My shock treatments aren’t yet done, but this patient is making considerable progress in realizing the difference between the workplace and the work.

Update March 2021: Thanks to my own psychological kick in the butt writing this piece, the last box of work mounted on boards went into the dumpster. 🏋

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