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.

  • Ell3jay

    I get all of that. I went to an interview at a suck company. They needed someone to designs stripes and cute pictures for socks. I’ve done cute graphics, and I’ve done stripes, been doing them for years. I didn’t get the job, i failed to show in my portfolio that I had done socks… I mean, seriously!

    I agree with you on all these accounts. The older society doesn’t see technology the same way. i.e. We are looking at 2 photographs. 1st is blurry, but good lighting. 2nd one was a little dark, but completely clear. They would not pick the clear one, until I opened it in photoshop, and made it lighter. Nothing we can do about it, I guess it’s part of technology moving faster than the human race can process the input.

  • Wow, that is an insanely perfect example! It’s so silly, they don’t realize they’re alienating themselves.

    Even if someone had “sock experience” (that’s making me laugh) their involvement in the actual printing on the socks is still extremely limited.

    As you probably well know already, no two printers are exactly the same. There are so many different variables. I’ve prepared work for at least 20 different printers all of which had completely different color and spec requirements.

    Which someone with that “sock experience” would have at best, got the spec sheet forwarded to them from the client, from the printer. No different than any other graphic designer would have got it.

    Clients don’t realize they’re limiting and alienating themselves completely. They need to look at the work, not the palette!

    Thanks, Bryan

  • Rob

    A friend of mine said:

    l this exact same thing happens for programmers. Some companies (that aren’t too smart) require you to have experience within a “domain” without looking at how good you are at actually solving problems(e.g. if you apply for a bank they will look for “finance” related experience which is stupid because some completely unrelated things outside of comp sci would make you better qualified to do this than somebody who’s only had experience with work for this type of service)

  • Yes, keep this info coming. I hope I get more input from other professionals on this as well. I would really like to learn as much as possible about this situation so I can write a thorough article on “How to Hire a Professional (The Right Way)” or something to that effect.

    Because this is a serious issue that is neither good for the pro or the client and is hurting our industry. Because they end up hiring the wrong person who does a horrible job with their odd filtering process and then it only further skews their thinking and us legitimate professionals have to pick up all the pieces.

    I don’t know how many times I’ve basically had to hand-hold clients, consult with them endlessly and take risks like no pay upfront because they were burnt by someone else in the past.

    – I shouldn’t have to know how to design women’s clothing to design a website to sale them.

    – You shouldn’t have had to been a famous sock designer to design graphics to be placed on them.

    – And your friend shouldn’t have to be an accountant to be qualified for creating functioning software or secure logins.

    It’s wholly asinine, the whole thing… all of it.

    Thanks, Bryan