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Once upon a time, designers toted around big, black zippered leatherette cases that piled up in headhunters’ offices and in studio and agency conference rooms, waiting to be reviewed. You “dropped off your book”—your precious, one-and-only portfolio—leaving it with a receptionist. Sometimes when you returned to pick it up, you even got a sense that it had been looked at.

In the 1990s, the stakes were ratcheted up with the advent of the handmade portfolio box. Kind of a high-end craft project, it was fashioned from brushed aluminum or foam board; covered with linen fabric or handmade paper; filled with artily-lit photographs of work mounted on Lucite sheaves. Some of those weighty, one-of-a-kind creations were credited with helping get recent graduates high-paying jobs, but everyone agreed they were expensive and unwieldy, and they ultimately became dinosaurs.

CD portfolios didn’t quite fulfill the profession’s expectations, either. Not unlike fancy boxes fastened with grommets or raffia bows, they made the recipient do too much work—and might crash the system, be a nightmare to navigate or not open at all. “We groan when we get CDs,” says RitaSue Siegel, president of RitaSue Siegel Resources, the executive search division of Aquent. “Half the time we can’t open them. Designers all assume that everyone is working on the latest Mac. Well, it ain’t so. And how do you store them?”

The new paradigm is the e-portfolio: a PDF file that can be e-mailed, printed out as a booklet and printed out in a larger presentation format for interviews. It is the delivery system for the 2000’s: flexible and fast. Every page tells a story, and you can breeze through it in a few clicks. Who has time for drop-offs any more? If there’s a job posting on craigslist or Creative Hotlist, hundreds of résumés arrive via e-mail within 24 hours. The smartest of them will have—not a link to a URL, which also makes people do too much work—an attachment of two or three PDF pages, kind of a portfolio synopsis that, if it fits the job, can put the applicant right on top of the pile.

“The majority of my clients who want a freelancer want that person yesterday,” explains Rita Anderson, senior recruiter at Roz Goldfarb Associates, another leading New York search firm, which handles 30% freelance assignments. “They expect me to present samples of that person’s work on the day they call. PDFs make that possible. Candidates who can’t wrestle their book away from somewhere else may lose out on an opportunity,” she adds. “The first two pages should make the client say, ‘That’s exactly what we’re looking for,’ or ‘We should talk to this person.’ And with a PDF there’s a better chance they’ll keep it on their hard drive and remember you when the next project comes up, even if they don’t use you right away.”

To design a PDF portfolio, instead of stuffing various-sized pieces into an off-the-shelf product or creating a one-of-a-kind art object, you are truly designing a book. A flexible, editable book about yourself and your work. It has a cover, a title page, and ideally, twelve to fifteen pages. Its style could be anything from corporate to hip-hop: whatever is really you and speaks to your intended audience. The format could be any reasonable size, but 11" x 8 1/2" horizontal is easy to view on screen and to print out, bind and pop into a FedEx envelope.

Everything that’s been difficult to transport or show, especially large or three-dimensional projects like signage, vehicles, posters and packaging can be displayed as if it were on a page of, say, Communication Arts—except it’s all in a fast-loading file of no more than 2MB that can be edited or rearranged to suit the position or assignment.

It takes effort to get all your samples PDF-portfolio-ready. But as you do so, you’ll establish a system for archiving projects in accessible categories, by client or genre. Logos and trademarks are saved as EPS files, ready to import. Web work can be shown as pages, just as they are in the Interactive Annual of this magazine (with URLs listed, should the recipient care to visit). Posters, ads and covers and spreads of brochures can be scanned or exported to EPS, perhaps with a little shadow added in Photoshop. Bottles, shopping bags and other 3-D work can be photographed in an environment or against seamless. Playing silhouettes against rectangular images makes the book interesting. Just make sure there’s one project to a page, and a sense of scale so the viewer can tell whether something is a business card or a billboard.

“I like this type of portfolio. Every page tells a coherent story,” says RitaSue Siegel. “All the prospective client or employer has to do is scroll through it.” Siegel, who has reviewed more than 300,000 portfolios in her 30 years in the business, says the most frequent portfolio mistake is a collection of disjointed images that make it difficult to judge a designer’s ability. “One page might have a logo on it, another the cover of a print piece. Most of the time, the images are snapshots of individual elements or a collage with so many elements it’s impossible to see properly and make sense of,” she says. “This makes me wonder about the sophistication and breadth of knowledge of the sender.”

Even if you are a new graduate, you can make your motley collection of undergraduate assignments look polished and professional. It shows initiative to upgrade class work to resemble something a design firm or client might need. Please, please don’t include your blurry black-and-white photographs or freshman life-drawing class sketches; but if you absolutely cannot part with one or two, use them as backgrounds for nicely faked CD packages or book jackets.

One of my Purchase College students, Emily Flynn, transformed her sophomore-year “spider” exercise into a handsome brand identity for a fictitious company, “Spider Web Design,” with stationery system, folder covers and T-shirt. A few hours of work turned the kind of school project that never got anyone a job into something that shows an understanding of real-world assignments and constraints. Tia Phillips, another former student, reports that in a recent competition for a coveted position, her portfolio blew everyone else’s away. “It took a while to put together,” she admits, “but now I have a great job and a decent salary for a recent graduate. Yeah!”

The large, in-person presentation version of the portfolio consists of individual leaves—printed at about 130% on photo-quality paper and flush-mounted on cover stock—neatly stacked in a portfolio case. Actually, large is not-so-large, compared to the old zippered portfolios. A 13" x 15" case is plenty big. As Tan Le comments in “The Designer’s Black Book” message board in www.underconsideration.com, a site where all kinds of design issues are discussed, “It’s a common joke that you can tell the seniority of a designer by the size of their portfolio. Enormous-sized cases usually mean fresh out of school. The smaller, the more experienced.”

To an interview, bring only those pages that are relevant. Because they’re not in a binder you can lay them out on the conference table in a way that best suits the occasion, pulling pages out of the case that answer an interviewer’s question: “Have you ever done any...?” Complete copies of your best printed pieces—yes, clients still want to see actual, printed pieces—should be included. If you also do interactive work, bring your laptop and show it right there.

And if you don’t have it yet—create it. Make up a series of problems for yourself and solve them. Or redesign an ad campaign that everybody hates. Or volunteer your services to get experience in an industry you want to work for. For example, rather than try to explain that you are really interested in design for healthcare institutions, but never have actually had one as a client, design a piece for your local hospital. I never advocate giving away free work, but it’s no crime to jump-start your career by doing something great for a deserving nonprofit—and for your portfolio. Agencies like $1 billion Fallon Worldwide got started by creating brilliant pro-bono campaigns for local businesses and nonprofits like the Episcopal Church Foundation. “This strategy has worked since the beginning of the industry,” says Fallon group head Dean Hanson. “I’ve never met a good creative that didn’t follow this route to some degree.”

The most important thing about the portfolio: that it’s a true reflection of you. Not of your instructors, your roommate, your partners on a group project, your former boss or mentor, your co-workers. It should give your new employer or freelance client the confidence that when you start your position or freelance project, you’ll be able to produce work of equal quality or better. Work that ultimately can be showcased on new pages of your constantly-evolving portfolio. ca

Ellen Shapiro (visualanguage.net) is a graphic designer and writer based in Irvington, New York. The author of The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients (Allworth Press) and nearly 200 magazine articles about design, illustration, photography and visual culture around the world, Shapiro has been contributing to CA since 1991.

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