Your portfolio is undoubtedly one of the most important documents that you will ever put together.  It is just as important for your portfolio to showcase your creativity as it is to demonstrate your professionalism, because these are the two essential qualities that any artist/designer/performer should possess.  However, too often people will put more focus or attention in one and not the other, and this is just one of the common mistakes that people just starting out will make.  Although we should all try to learn from our mistakes, it is important to avoid as many as we can, because it may take a long time before you get another opportunity that's just right for you.

To start with, we should discuss the general layout of a portfolio, as this is a topic with raises the most questions.  In reality, there are no hard and fast rules for the structure of a portfolio.  Since the portfolio format is required by applicants in many different creative industries, you have to be able to adjust the individual sections to comply with the requirements of the application, but as a general rule, a good portfolio should include these three major sections:

1. General Information - this is where you will provide basic information about yourself, relevant to the application or job description.  These include:

  • Resume (provide several copies if in paper format)
  • Cover Letter (written to address the specific job)
  • Biographical Page (tell them what is unique about you as an artist/performer/designer)
  • Summary (what you have done, and what you can do)

2. Skills Portfolio - this is basically where you provide a list of your skills and abilities, or things that you are capable of doing.  However, you need to go into more details then what's on the resume, because the interview panel will have to be able to assess your skill level and competence based on this information.  So in this section you should provide:

  • Degrees, diplomas, certifications
  • Other relevant qualifications
  • Any ongoing training or membership that you are involved in
  • Any vocational or work experience undertaken

3. Performance Portfolio - this is where you get to show examples what you have done, and a chance for you to impress with your unique skills and abilities with actual examples.  This section will vary depending on your particular field of expertise/study:

  • One clearly marked page/section for each piece of work that you are presenting
  • Provide some commentary to accompany the work
  • Provide background information to put the work in context
  • Provide any resources or extra information (e.g. website, video)

Some key points to consider:

  1. Provide the viewer of your portfolio that shows attention to detail
  2. Give the impression that you are organized by presenting your portfolio in a similar manner
  3. The portfolio should show what you know, but don't point out what you don't know, this is implied by its omission
  4. Include both things that you believe are most representative of your work, and also what others have found most impressive about your work

The best way to make sure you've covered all these key points is by having your teacher/instructor/mentor review your portfolio.  It is also good to go over some of the key items and content in your portfolio with them before the interview, so you are confident and reasonably relaxed with talking about your own work.  Very often people don't do enough preparation for interviews, and the odd question can catch them out by surprise.  With enough practice and preparation, you'll at least be calm enough to think things over or use other similar responses to help answer the question.  In addition, there's no harm in getting your friends and colleagues to give you a second opinion or suggestions on things that you are not quite sure about. 

The popularity and widespread use of technology has resulted in the acceptance and use of electronic portfolios in addition to the traditional hard copy paper portfolio.  Here are some tips and advice relevant to electronic and paper portfolios, discussed separately.

Electronic portfolios

We are dealing with technology here, so the number one rule here is - BACK UP your information, because there's nothing more disastrous then having created all the materials, and having it wiped out due to a virus, power surge, computer hardware failure, or accidentally deleting it yourself.

The second important thing to think about is the format of the electronic portfolio.  In most cases, there is a direct relationship between the appearance and storage of the information with the type of technology employed.  For example, when presenting your portfolio on-line, you need to be aware of the way different elements (such as the color, image, font, etc) are displayed on different web browsers.  Wherever possible, try and use resources and technology that are compatible with the major browsers. 

If you are providing your portfolio in a presentation, you also need to check the difference between Windows and MacIntosh operating systems.  This is a very well-known issue, but many people still fail to take this into account, resulting in presentations that can't be opened, or information that fail to be displayed properly.  There are also differences between versions of software from the same vendor, such as Office 2003 and 2007.  The fail-safe method to avoid all these problems is to provide different versions of your portfolio, or use technology neutral methods to produce your portfolio, such as burning the information onto CD or DVD, or using pictures or PDF format to collate and store the information.

Whatever the software or technology you go with, there are always a range of options to choose from.  This includes the cost of the technology, the user-friendliness, the support and documentation provided, as well as the reliability and compatibility of the technology.  As usual, choose something that you are comfortable with, and that will provide the functionality and features that suits your particular purpose.  Don't short change yourself on the time and effort spent researching for something suitable.  If possible, go for the simplest and most effective technology, because your portfolio should ultimately focus on your WORK, and not how good you can make your portfolio look.

 

Paper portfolios

Even if you decide to go with a paper portfolio, it is still important to have a secondary backup somewhere handy, so you can produce it quickly in case of some unplanned disaster.  This can be in an electronic format, or just hard copies of your portfolio, depending on your like (or dislike) of technology.

Since the portfolio is produced as a hard copy, there are some extra considerations you have to take into account.  While they may seem trivial at first, there are some important reasons why they can make a lot of difference to the overall presentation of your hard work, so it is still important to make the effort to investigate these points.

The first obvious point to consider is the size of the portfolio.  While it may be tempting to produce a large portfolio for works that either capture or present a lot of details, there are practical reasons why this is not a good idea.  A cumbersome portfolio is difficult to carry around (especially if you are going to more than one interview), can be awkward to handle for the reviewers and hard to navigate around, and much more expensive to produce.  Commonly acceptable sizes are anything that is around an A4 or letter size portfolio, but as a general rule, if it is easy to carry around and fits comfortably in a carry bag, then it should be fine.

The style of the portfolio is another immediate consideration.  You may want to consider portfolios with zipper cover to stop things from falling out, or perhaps ones with pouches for materials that are too larger to put on the standard page of the portfolio.  Ideally it should have swappable or removable pages so that you can arrange/re-arrange the pages without too much fuss, and also to get rid of blank pages at the end, which can make your portfolio look unprofessional.  

You should decide early on whether the material to be displayed will be in profile or landscape view, and stick to it as much as you can, to avoid the viewer having to rotate the portfolio constantly.  Also make sure that your work takes up as much of the space as possible.  Enlarge or reduce them if necessary to achieve it, because leaving blank spaces has a similar effect as leaving blank pages in your portfolio, unless there is some special reason for doing so.  Lastly, provide some type of indexing for your portfolio, and mark clearly the page numbers to provide easy reference.

Summary

As discussed previously, the general rules for preparing a portfolio apply equally to both paper and electronic formats.  Although in some instances particular works may present much better in one format compared to another (e.g. digital photography work may display better in electronic media), it is a personal decision as to how one's work should be presented.  Of course, there are the particular preferences and requirements to comply with, otherwise it is largely another creative process that will call on your much sought after skills.  It has already been mentioned that backups should be provided just in case, and it is definitely better to be safe than sorry when it comes to something as important as your portfolio, and this simply can not be stressed enough.

We will leave this discussion on one last final thought.  The process of creating your portfolio is one that has clear implications for your professional career, so it is definitely not to be taken lightly.  However, as with all aspects of your life and work, if you can not enjoy the experience, or simply become too worried or stressed out, then by all means take a step back and give yourself some time and space.  Talk to others in a similar position, or get some advice from people who have been through the same experience. 

If you can't enjoy presenting your work to other people, or don't have the confidence in your own abilities and back your own style, how can you possibly expect to do this day in and day out in your job?  These are probably the biggest assets that you can bring to your potential employer, so make sure that not only do they see it in your portfolio, they also see this in you.