Portfolios: One Tough Psychological Cookie

There’s no arguing that it’s vital for any professional, of any kind, to have a portfolio. You just have to have one. However, even when you have one, a substantially large portfolio even, it will still be a battle every now and then. I think the biggest issue is that when it comes to technology, non-tech-savvy clients have a very peculiar way of looking at what goes into a project. I think they make them out to be more specifically technical in their minds, than they really are.

The most absurd way I lose projects at times is a simple matter of specs. I’ll give you an example:

Potential Client: “I see you’ve designed plenty of logos and web graphics, but I’m not seeing any flyer work. I don’t think this will be a good fit.”

That’s exactly like saying: “I see you’ve dug a 5×5 ft hole, but I’m not seeing any examples that you’ve dug a 10×10 ft hole. Sorry, I don’t think your skills fit the bill.”

It’s crazy! I don’t know how that way of thinking comes about. If it’s not clear yet what I’m getting at, I’ll explain in black and white: all graphic design is the exact same. The only difference is what it’s being sized for. If I design a smiley face in Illustrator, that smiley face can be placed anywhere, on anything: website, business card, brochure, flyer, postcard, album cover, anywhere. The only thing for review should be my ability to design a nice looking smiley face in the way the client wants, that’s it.

Even more bizarre, is when the subject matter is important:

Potential Client: “I’m not seeing any examples of websites you’ve done for dentists. We’re going to need to see examples of dentist-related work before moving forward.”

I can’t see how that’s relevant? Can you? Am I missing something? Because the closest thing to a dentist site I’ve done is a doctor’s site, means there is some impenetrable, invisible wall there that will block my capability to design a website based on the client’s outline?

I mean, I somehow just won’t be able to use soft whites and blues (anything to deter people away from thinking about how much they hate the dentist) and use soft, friendly photos and people smiling with beautiful teeth and make sure to show nothing instrumental or medical looking, because I’ve never designed a dentist website before? Is that what the potential client is thinking, that I just couldn’t fathom the concept of a website for a dentist and I’m going to put flames and ponies all over!?

I’m not going to lie, I know exactly why people put these filters up. It has wholly nothing to do with professionalism or common sense. It comes down to this: people need to feel warm and fuzzy. While I understand that, it’s an extremely obnoxious psychological state that I’m sure most professionals are familiar with.

Another issue is that if you’re doing well enough to stay busy, you’re always 1, 2, maybe even 3 steps ahead of your portfolio. I find that my portfolio becomes out-dated way too quickly (I think it even needs serious updating now). On top of that, a portfolio should only be seen as an indicator of someone’s experience. It should not be seen as a be-all-to-end-all absolute truth of someone’s skill set. My portfolio shows maybe 10% of the amount and variety of work I’ve done. Not everything can go into your portfolio, nor should.

There are some things that just aren’t visual: SEO, marketing, clean and valid coding, etc. Also, I’ve done many trivial one-off projects that aren’t even portfolio-worthy in my opinion. Another issue might arise from more strict projects that, legally, you can’t even talk about.

UPDATE — I just had the following back-and-forth email discussion on this very subject, that drives my point home quite nicely:

Rep of Potential Client: “Thank you for your time, but we are going to go with someone with intimate lingerie experience. Thanks

Me: “Out of curiosity and maybe I can learn from this as well; why is that a relevant part of reviewing a potential professional for this?

I mean, what does the subject matter have to do with my ability to design clean, fast, SEO-friendly and aesthetically nice websites?

The only thing that changes is the look, everything else is the same. I mean I don’t need to understand the intricacies of lingerie to put pictures of them up with prices assigned in a shopping cart, placed in a likely elegant and sleek design within a feminine color scheme or whatever is requested.

For future reference I wonder if you’d be willing to share insight into this for me from the client perspective the thought process or review process of why the various themes or subject matters of my work have importance in my ability to do websites for other themes or subject matters.

Thanks, Bryan

Rep of Potential Client: “between you and I, I ask myself the same f-ing question. But is nto my decision. My colleagues don’t see it the way we do. I know, that when you are talented, u are talented.

I was trying to show them a really cool shopping cart (soap.com), and they wouldn’t look at it cuz it was not clothing. I got very upset, but it pays the bills, so I just smile and nodded.

I know what is like, I’m a graphic designer, and I dont get jobs for the same reason. It drives me crazy. Maybe they hired someone in the past, who said they could do it, and turned out they couldn’t. They lied. There’s are a lot of dishonest people out there. I just got cheated out of $500 of work 2 weeks ago. I feel myself getting tired of it all. If everybody has to start somewhere, and they are talented, why not here? And it would all change if everyone was honest, but I guess is too much to ask of people in such a big city.

I do apologize, I believe that you are more than capable, and thank you for replying to me, and helping out. Good luck man.

Me: “Hey, it’s great to know I’m not crazy…

Calling all professionals: I would love to get your take on this.