Author: Ryan Boultbee
Receiving a strong portfolio is a joy because the content sticks with me; I can’t stop imagining the creative possibilities of collaborating with you. When stuff doesn’t stick, simple mistakes stand in the way of a successful portfolio presentation. Working across different creative industries, I’ve encountered countless practises and projects via emails, attachments, and links. I have reflected on my experience engaging with early-career creative’s portfolios as an artist-curator. Below, I identify several strategies to help develop presentation skills and avoid the undesirable mistakes that creep into portfolios. Here are my thoughts on preparing professional portfolios that support successful digital applications and proposals.
Start a portfolio with an aim
The more specific the aim driving the portfolio, the greater its appeal. Use the aim you identify to filter what is included and guide the creative decision-making process when curating the content of the portfolio. When using an aim, you will be reminded of the purpose of the document, and it gives an additional opportunity to stitch all the featured content with a unique thematic thread; for example, a generic portfolio recounting the last of five years of a creative practice is far less appealing than one demonstrating the creative possibilities of a specific project.
Build a portfolio through research and references
Be inspired by the portfolios of peers, tutors, and established creatives working in similar mediums, roles, or industries; note and evaluate the tools they use to communicate their creative practice, asking ‘how successful are their methods?’. When building a portfolio, return to any research notes to identify valuable techniques, presentation methods, and the essential information that could support any future portfolio.
Evaluate portfolios with a critical friend
Exchange portfolios with a friend in return for constructive and critical feedback, and to identify any mistakes (good feedback is clear, concise, supportive, and focuses on the points to develop). Check over a portfolio thoroughly before sending it to anyone to avoid basic errors: obviously, spelling falls under this heading, but also any dead hyperlinks or out-of-place content – this allows the person you sent it to can focus on critiquing creative content. Following the submission of a portfolio, successful or not, always send a request for feedback to the recipient; a short email is normally adequate, however, a quick phone call or in-person conversation creates a more informal setting for questions and a networking opportunity. Gathering feedback on a portfolio enables critical examination of the presentation of professional creative practice; it will support professional growth and development.
Tailor each portfolio to an identified recipient
Think carefully about who will receive the portfolio, then tailor the featured content to meet their needs: artists, curators, and collectors are all specialists exploring their interests in specific creative fields, so foreground what these professionals will identify within the contents of the portfolio. Tailoring a portfolio to an individual does not need to be an all-out design exercise every time, but it will require some research; once the portfolio format is created, tailoring to a recipient’s interests can be easily achieved by reordering content by assumed relevance, adding or taking away components, or writing a personalised introduction. Never bulk distribute a portfolio in the hope that something will stick. Always carefully consider who is receiving a portfolio – it is a waste of time to share irrelevant content that is attempting to appeal to everyone.
Keep a portfolio short, sweet, accessible, and easy to share.
Streamline how a recipient will engage with your work; help them navigate to your killer content, showcasing the creative output in just a few seconds. All the portfolio work should be intuitive to access and flawlessly easy to engage with – can a reviewer quickly flick through the content? Avoid multiple email attachments, unconsidered file names, bulky downloads, and tedious link trees. Direct the recipient to the portfolio content in the fewest and quickest steps; remove as many barriers to access as possible, for example, unnecessary navigation or password-protected content. If you’re referencing something complex, put it in simple terms. If a larger body of work is featured in a portfolio, such as a thesis, don’t include everything, just a sample of the best bit, or bits, guiding the recipient from a general outline to select details from the project, using carefully considered content. Do everything you can to ensure the portfolio’s content can be shared and accessed easily by the recipient, and that the recipient can share your practice with their associates, colleagues, or partners.
Share the portfolio in the right format
A digital portfolio can take many forms to represent a practice, such as a link to a personal website or a carefully composed PDF attached to an email; it is up to you to select the right format for them, one that is complementary to their work. That said, for some creative practises, digital methods may be less impactful or even inappropriate; a more effective showcase of the content may take a more tactile form, for example, think of a hand-made portfolio, or an invitation to a performance or exhibition. The documentation a portfolio contains should be carefully selected to offer the best representation of the thing being shared in the space available; this can be incredibly challenging and often requires trialling and developing strategies tailored to individual practice. Try not to assume the format of a portfolio, but discover through trial-and-error what works on an individual basis.
About the Author:
Ryan Boultbee is an artist-curator, based in Nottingham. The above article is informed by reflection on creating and reviewing portfolios in professional and academic contexts, working in the visual arts, architecture, and other creative sectors. You can follow Ryan on Instagram by searching @rematerial, or find out more information about his practice by visiting his website, ryanboultbee.co.uk.