The Secret to an Effective Design Portfolio

by Brett Forsyth, Head of Department, VFS Digital Design

In design, the portfolio is your trump card. Whether you've studied for twelve months or twelve years, the contents of your portfolio reveal what you bring to the table as a professional creative.

Why is that? Why does something as simple as a portfolio hold so much power?

Reveal Your Creativity

Imagine a recent graduate shows you a still life painting as part of his or her portfolio. It's a very well-rendered version of that old classic, the bowl of fruit on a rustic kitchen table. What does this tell you? It tells you that the person went to art school. It tells you they're competent. And it tells you they're probably very boring.

Now imagine that the bowl in the painting contains fruits you've never seen before. The graduate tells you that they're all fruits that no longer exist due to climate change. Suddenly, the still life takes on much more meaning, and says something important about its creator: the choices reveal not a simple technician but a true creative.

The same is true whether it's a painting or a print ad campaign or a Flash website. Your technical and aesthetic abilities aren't enough. To stand out in a competitive marketplace, your work needs to show a pattern of creative thinking. In short, it needs to show a sophisticated command of process.

Focus on Process

When Vancouver Film School established its one-year Digital Design program, part of the mission was to not only create assignments for students but to create opportunities for them. It boggles the mind how often students are asked to undertake major projects that simply replicate designs that have been done before. If students are expected to produce innovative results, shouldn't the assignments they're given be just as innovative? Shouldn't the work provoke a thoughtful exploration of process above all else?

If you look at the portfolio of a professional designer, you won't just see a collection of pieces -- you'll see the process that helped make each of those pieces successful. Your work shows what you've done, but your process shows what you can do.

What sets a truly professional design program apart? A focus on process. While a purely academic approach to design is driven by theory, and a vocational approach relies on teaching software, a professional program is about the process of design.

Does your motion graphics portfolio consist solely of animation? Or can you show your storyboards, look frames, and production book too? Does your portfolio of interactive work include only websites or applications? Or can you show how you arrived at those designs through personas, interactive storyboards, and wireframes?

As a professional designer, you'll need to demonstrate you have an original voice and a comprehensive design toolkit made up of leading-edge processes. In the saturated market of art and design schools, too many focus on either a theoretical approach or a technical one. But if you really aspire to bring something fresh to design, you need to find a school that gives you the combination of professional process and innovative opportunities needed to create a portfolio that shows you have something more to offer. That will be your decisive advantage as a professional. And nothing less will do.

Have your say! What makes a portfolio stand out? Does process matter? Add your own take at vfs.com/secret.

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