Cracking the Creative Portfolio

One of the most commonly asked questions I hear is: 
How do I make a creative portfolio?  
and How do I make it stand out?

Students and those early in their career are generally pulling from a limited amount of experience—a handful of school projects deemed worthy of sharing, maybe an internship or two. You wonder, with so few chances to prove how legitimately baller I am, how do I show agencies I have what it takes to be hired? Do I have to go to portfolio school to create a strong portfolio?

To shed some light, I turned to several brilliant creatives around the industry for their thoughts and advice. (We'll focus specifically on portfolios for creatives this week, but stay tuned for a strategy portfolio version in the near future.)

Jill Lin, VP Creative Director at MullenLowe

What can students do to build their portfolios? What do agencies want to see in entry-level creative candidates?

The landscape is changing in advertising where "work" doesn't just mean print ads and or tv spots. It can mean a multitude of different creative work that solves real business problems. What agencies are looking for from creatives is that creative/business intuition. Identifying a problem, then finding a creative business solution for it. The problems can be as general as "make father's feel special on Father's Day" to, "how do we get people to love Pepsi again"? Work form can be a case study and whatever artifact they created to solve that problem.

Any other advice on putting together a portfolio, based on your experience or creative candidates you've seen?  

Showcase that you know how to solve problems. While you are considered a "creative," advertising is a business and isn't about art or creativity for creativity's sake. What I look for in young creatives is that ability to think, come up with smart strategic and creative solutions. Also, research the position you are going for. Aspiring art directors who don't know how to use and apply design to the problem you're trying to solve don't really help us out much. Writers who can only write in one voice are also a no go. The business of advertising (even the creative side) requires young and old creatives to be able to wear multiple hats. It's less about you and your subjective taste, and more about what you can bring creatively to help a client solve their problem.

More from Jill on FWA.

Carla Ballecer, Associative Creative Director at R/GA

How common is it for the agency you work for to hire non-portfolio school grads? 

I'll be honest – it's definitely a lot easier if you've gone to a reputable portfolio school and have a great book. Portfolio school basically boils down to two things – 1) you get time to practice and hone your craft, and 2) you make lots of connections. But when that's not an option, there is always another way. Many agencies have production assistant or creative assistant positions that essentially help groom you for placement in different departments, so that's always a good entry point. Your best bet is to get your foot in the door at an agency, even if it's not directly in creative. From there, if you're clear about what you want to do from the beginning, and you make a point to befriend creatives and find mentors in creative directors, they'll be willing to give you a shot and eventually throw you on projects here and there.

For those who can't go to portfolio school, what can they do to build their portfolio?

What really matters is that you know what you want, and that you focus on developing relationships with the people who can help you develop your creative skill set. I ended up landing a two-year interdisciplinary fellowship at IPG, where you rotate between 4 agencies and spend 6 months at each. My first was at FutureBrand where I was strategist. I really focused on value proposition and tagline development since I knew this would set me up well for a writing position. Then I pushed for a copywriting gig at R/GA as my next position, and I ended up getting hired there and leaving the program early.

As far as building your portfolio on the side, there are a few things you can do. [During an internship], you can practice concepting on live briefs. You can also ask CDs for past briefs or simple ones they've put together for you to work on. On your own, take 3-4 brands you love, think about what you'd love to see them doing more of, and then build campaigns and ideas from there. Essentially, make your own briefs. Finally, volunteer to help with side projects that friends are working on, or small businesses you love who could use some help.

Follow Carla on Instagram.

Chad Tafolla, Associate Creative Director at Instrument

How common is it for the agency you work for to take non-portfolio school grads? 

It is very common for us to hire non-portfolio school grads. First and foremost it's always about the work. More often than not, we don't care what school you've gone to as long as you show you have skills, drive and potential.

What can students do to build their portfolios? What do you want to see in entry-level creative candidates?

The first thing I'd think about is what type of work you want to be doing and if there's no one to give you that type of work, make it up yourself. The biggest thing I look at in young designers portfolios is passion. If there's something they're clearly excited and passionate about, it gets me excited to talk to them and learn more about those passions. If there's a dream client and/or project that they would love to get their hands on, they should write themselves a brief for the project and just jam on it. Most times, young designers never get the big, cool projects so creating it themselves is a great way to build a book.

Any other advice on putting together a portfolio, based on your experience or creative candidates you've seen?

Make yourself stand out. Year after year there are more and more talented designers coming into the industry. Put yourself into your work, how you talk about it and showcase it. Don't use a template or a service like Behance, Squarespace, etc. Take the time to craft a portfolio that you're proud of and that represents you. Don't look at what everyone else is doing around you.

Peep a treasure trove of advice from Chad on breaking into design.

Whew. If you made it this far, high five. My closing thoughts—your portfolio doesn't have to be a burden. It's just as much a reflection of you and the way you think, as it is the things you can do. So have fun with it. Go and create a portfolio you can't wait to share. 

You got this,