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What I’m Looking at When I’m Looking at Your Portfolio

A friend recently suggested I write a ZJ blog post about how, in her words, “portfolio websites that talk about you in the third person are tacky now.” Meaning it’s becoming more tasteful to have your portfolio (and bio) say something like, “Hi. I’m Becky. I like writing stuff and watching TV” than having a grandiose paragraph, supposedly written by someone else who quite admires you, explaining your every accomplishment – “Becky is an award-winning copywriter who was recently knighted for her work.” (None of that is true, of course).

But now that we’re on the subject, there are a lot of other things that I’m analyzing when I look at people’s portfolios, things that aren’t about their work at all, but shed light on who they are as a person. In a sense, the work does not speak for itself in this industry. A lot of what people deem portfolio-worthy is collaborative, effected greatly by the client’s taste rather than the creative’s, and often put through loads of review, where it becomes something else entirely from what it started as. That’s why the portfolio, in how it’s styled and written, can provide some of those missing cues.

Here are a few of the things I look for:

1. What is your portfolio built on?

Is it your own coding that you did four years ago that doesn’t exactly work now? Is it a platform that was super stylish a couple years ago (Indexhibit) but is now getting replaced by slicker services like Squarespace? The way your portfolio is built shows how in-touch you are with trends and technology and how much effort you think you need to put into showcasing yourself. People who know what’s up tend to have portfolios that are just as amazing as their work.

2. Do you have a “schtick?”

A lot of people’s portfolios have some kind of theme or meta-story that creative people dream up as a way to seem … more creative than other creatives. Sometimes these are super cool, and other times they’re just inefficient, bizarre, roundabout ways to get across information. This leads to …

3. The way you talk about yourself

At ZJ, we’re big sticklers for humility. If your portfolio is full of promises like, “If you want great work, I’ll deliver it,” we worry that you’re a bit overconfident. Is your work “great?” That’s a big term. Maybe that’s a Minnesota thing. Also, if there’s no humanity or sense of who you are as a person – just a bit of jargon – I’m less than intrigued.

4. Any link to where your “real” work is

Whether you’re a writer or a designer, it’s good to see the work you just create for yourself. That’s a better way to understand your style and interests, in my opinion. Also, a lot of copywriters that go to portfolio school end up with a portfolio that hits hard on “funny.” How often am I supposed to write humorously for clients like Purina or Nordstrom? Pretty much never. It’s good to see if you can be serious, long-form, etc. rather than just making with one-liners.

5. How truthful you are

Little white lies abound in people’s applications and portfolios, and sometimes they’re more obvious than you think. For example, if you list a Tumblr blog that contains zero original content as your own business, that’s a big old stretch of the truth. Also, if you give yourself credit for something you only had a minor role in, that tends to become apparent once you actually get on the job and don’t have the skills people thought you did.

There’s a lot that might genuinely surprise you when it comes to what people are looking for in potential applications. For example, when I was younger, I assumed everyone had a certain level of cynicism toward their job, and that was just how people talked about work. But when I actually got into a hiring position at my old newspaper job, hearing applicants snarkily put down the the paper – assuming I would agree – automatically put them on my “no” list.

My advice is to be humble, be passionate about a potential job, and always assume you could be doing more to show how awesome you are. But – as kindergarten teachers say – “Show, don’t tell.”

-Becky Lang



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