When I first started realising what I’m gonna do with my life (in 2007), I was in constant fear of acceptance. I thought my work wasn’t good enough, everything was already made by someone else and who was I to create something new. And what do I create that doesn’t exist?! Hint – we don’t have to create what doesn’t exit, we can create anything we want – it is authentic because WE made it. But I’ll talk about that in another post.

So, after years of trying to become a successful graphic designer, I arrived to the point where I could say: okay, now you have it. I looked at my work and I liked it. I liked my stuff even if it was few years old. I liked my portfolio that I made 3,5 years ago. I looked at it recently and I thought it still looks fine. So, here I actually come to the point of my story.

Few months ago at the company where I work we wanted to hire an art director to support my team. I was leading that team for a year and I needed help. We put an ad for an art director and I started receiving applications for that position. It was very interesting. I received around 70 applications, maybe even 80. People that actually applied were all level of creatives, from juniors to seniors. But what was very interesting and important to me is what made me call someone for an interview.

What kind of application was a good application?

I’ll come to that shortly!

Art director is a senior position. Since I am an expert in my field, I was searching for someone with good taste. What does that mean? Well, if your portfolio doesn’t look beautiful at the first sight and if the layout was crowded or had too much text, I won’t even bother to look at it further. That is what I see at the first glance. Good taste is not only the layout. The next thing is projects. I didn’t even need more than 5 good projects. But they have to be GOOD. What the hack does that mean? Well, I must recognise the seniority level. I love trends and I follow them too, but I don’t only follow trends. Good design is timeless. If the portfolio was only trendy, if the projects all looked like they were produced this year and there were no thoughts behind (I won’t be designing trendy stuff for a fresh fish store and for a street style brand of clothes – you must know how to design for different businesses), that was a no go for me. I was searching for a STORY. If there is no story behind, but it only looks good, I already lost interest.

The third thing was: what brands were in there and how that person approached them.

I chose wisely: the art director we hired at the end appears to be a very talented and skilled person. I am really happy how well that went. But what was so good about his portfolio: it seemed he worked on different projects – so not only print, not only tv ads, not only branding. Everything looked nice and diverse. Older projects still looked good after few years (timeless design). Everything had a story behind. I called him for an interview and he was relaxed and believed in his own words. He was enthusiastic and authentic. This is very important. You must believe in what you’re saying! Don’t create for the looks, you must have your “why”!

I would spend less than a minute with each portfolio because many didn’t even think about the layout! People! Designers! How on Earth you apply for a job of an art director without that? I looked at my 3 years old portfolio and that looked better than most of those I received. I am not saying this to brag, I am saying this because you are designers. You must think the things through. You will design for others. If you can’t design your own portfolio, how can you convince others to trust your skills?

For the trendy and hip people: I loooove trendy and hip. I follow trends and we must do that if we want to stay in a loop. But there must be a difference between only following trends and combining your own ideas and trends. If we only copy other people’s ideas, we will only have a void. Everyone can see empty design without a story. It is like when you meet a beautiful person and then you have nothing in common to talk about.

For the young creatives, I do have a piece of advice. When you’re designing, please be proud of it. Be proud of the story behind it. Combine styles of your favourite artists, think about your favourite books and use that to inspire your design. Make a mood board with everything. And from all that something beautiful must be born. Trust me. And 5 of those projects (even if the brands are not famous) are enough for someone to hire you. I would hire a person who has something to tell.

I hope this was not too harsh. I would have liked this text when I was 22 years old and didn’t have a clue what was a good portfolio. I hope you will too.

Author Tamara

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Tamara Kramer
Vienna, Austria