Tips from the Pros: The Portfolio Review


The Portfolio Review.  Maybe you signed up at a convention, or some industry day at your school, but the portfolio review can make a huge impact in your career – if you do it right.  That said, unfortunately, many art school graduates totally screw it up and lose out on valuable advice and, more importantly, potential job offers.  

I recently talked with an art director who was invited to visit a portfolio night at one of the largest art schools in the country. She told me how frustrating it was to meet all these kids who made the same mistakes that she (and I) made early in our careers, and how although the art was good, the student’s interview skills were so terrible that she wished they had just taken my class to improve on some of the most basic skills that would have made their experience a lot more fruitful for everyone involved. So I asked her for her feedback about the event, and it was like a textbook case of everything a student could do wrong.  So with her help, I wanted to create this to help ALL artists (but especially new grads) avoid these opportunity-killing pitfalls.

  1. “Students were so wrapped up in getting their portfolio ready and fixing their tablets or laptops that they never even introduced themselves.”

Okay everyone, first thing you do when you go into an interview or a portfolio review: introduce yourself!  Studies have shown that the most crucial moments in an interview are the first and last impression.  My AD friend told me that students would just sit down and immediately start fidgeting with their laptops, trying to bring up their portfolio and never even said “Hello.”  

Not only is this extremely rude, but wtf are you doing?  I know that you’re probably nervous, and scared, and your stress levels are probably shooting through the roof, but there are a lot of things you can do to prevent that.  

Besides power posing , you can also lower your stress levels by preparing before you even get to the venue.  Successful interviews are 50% doing the work before the interview even begins.  That means rehearsing with a friend, doing your research about the company you’re interviewing with, and making sure your portfolio is in order ahead of time. 

An ideal situation that would have solved this issue is simply this:  When you’re in line waiting your turn, open your laptop or tablet and get your portfolio ready.  Don’t be playing a game or sending a text or whatever – you’re here for business so act like it.  I know you’d probably rather be catching Pokemon, but what’s more important, a new Varporeon or a job?  (FYI, The answer should be “job.”)  By the time your name is called, all you should need to do is open your laptop and click a single button.  

Even if you’re not 100% ready, you always introduce yourself first.  Tell them who you are, and ask how the interviewer’s day is going.  Be friendly.  Make it a conversation.  As you talk, you can use that time to load up your portfolio.  By going in and being flustered, not only will you panic and make mistakes, but you’re also showing them that you’re not really professional enough to work in the industry yet.  So practice with a friend so your opening introduction is nice and smooth and you can make a great first impression.

  1.  “For the few that did come in and introduced themselves and shook our hand, they gave us the wet fish handshake.  I wanted to die.”

I shudder just thinking about this.  I know that not everyone is raised to shake hands – it’s a cultural thing – but if you’re looking to work in the United States, you need to learn how to properly shake hands.  Please, you want to avoid trying to crush a person’s hand, but you also need to give it a firm shake.  Letting your wrist go limp in what’s known as the “wet fish” handshake, is possibly the grossest, lamest thing you can do.

People HATE getting a wet fish handshake.  I could go on and on for another four paragraphs about how terrible it is, but please, just don’t do it.  Use the concept of mirroring – if the person shakes with a lot of force, squeeze back.  If they shake gently, shake gently but firmly.  But never, ever, ever, just let your hand go limp and have them move it around.  Once again, if you don’t know how to shake hands, find someone who does and practice!  This may sound stupid, but is it more stupid to practice shaking hands, or losing a job because you don’t have your act together?

  1.  “I would ask them about what their inspiration was for a piece, and they’d just say ‘well, it was for an assignment.’”

This makes me think back to the line in the original Ghostbusters film, where Winston Zeddmore says “Ray, if someone asks if you’re a God, you say YES!”  Truer words could not have been uttered.  In this case, if someone asks about your inspiration for a piece, don’t just say “it was for an assignment.”  That’s basically the worst thing you could ever utter.  Even if it was for a class project, you must have put SOME thought into it.

If you had to make a layout for an ancient evil temple, you still had to make choices.  Was it an ancient evil temple inspired by the ruins of the Mayan people?  Or is it Arabic, or Chinese, or Tibetan?  Or is it Lovecraftian?  What KIND of ancient evil temple is it?  WHY did you make those choices?  What’s the mood?  What were you trying to say?

The interviewer is looking for a few different things when they ask you about your inspiration.  The first is that they’re looking for your creative thought process in design – that you know how to use reference appropriately, can do research, and can come up with interesting solutions within confines of an assignment or brief.  The second, is that they’re actually interested in who you are.  Are you a cool person?  Are you even a human at all?  They’re really looking to see how you respond and if you’re going to fit in with the existing team.

It’s 100% okay to say that the portfolio piece was for an assignment, but do not just leave it at that.  Talk about what made you excited about creating it.  More and more, artists who just create stuff are commodities.  Sure, if you’re great technically, I’ll definitely hire you for a freelance position, but for people who want careers and job stability, you need to also show that you can think for yourself and can be a creative problem solver.  Especially as we get robots that can create art for us, it’s more and more important that you bring something more to the table.

  1. “I would ask them about their future aspirations, or their ideal job, and they’d mention they wanted to work for a company that wasn’t the one I work at.  Really?”

Facepalm.  Why would you do this?  If you are applying to work at Pixar, why would you tell them you really want to work at Dreamworks?  If you’re applying to Blizzard, why are you going to tell them you want to work for EA?  Sure, that might be your dream job, and you’re just being honest, but it’s really an insult to whomever is taking time out of their day to interview you.

Also, if you only want to work for that one magical company, why are you even applying to other jobs?  Probably, because you’re not 100% sure you are going to work at that company in the first place.  

Let’s be real.  Out of every thousand of you readers, I’d honestly think that maybe ONE of you might get a job at the place of your choice right out of college.  And that’s a big maybe.  Whether it’s the company you want to work for just isn’t hiring for your position, or perhaps you’re just not ready yet, or it could be that someone else with much more industry experience is applying for the same job you are, it’s very very unlikely that you’re going to get your dream job as soon as you graduate.  

I’m not telling you this to discourage you, but I don’t want to sugarcoat things just to make you happy.  I’m telling you this because a vast majority of professionals end up working at companies that aren’t their ideal jobs to start out with, and that’s fine.  It takes a lot of things to line up to get your dream job, and while there is a blueprint for that, there’s a lot of factors that are out of your control, like global economics, cultural shifts, and much more.  What I want to distill in you, however, is that you want to play it smart.  I’m all about helping you find your ideal job, but really, a majority of you are still going to have to pay your bills and student loans in the meantime.  

So, what does that mean?  It means that when someone asks you what your ideal job is, you don’t say “Character designer at Company X.”  You say something like “I’d ideally like to be creating interesting character designs and being able to work on feature-length animations,” or something like that.  EXPLAIN your ideal job, don’t limit yourself to some childhood, unresearched fantasy of where you want to work.  

You also never know if that smaller, unknown company might even be the more creatively fulfilling job than the big studio you were initially eyeing.  I know a lot of artists who actually prefer to work in smaller studios because they get to have more individual say in the creative process.  Rather than just painting rocks (as a rookie environment artist would be tasked with) in a big studio, artists at smaller companies get to create full worlds.  Sure, you might not have the big-name credit yet, but if your company is a hit, you’re going to be the one who was on the ground floor of a new giant.  After all, when John Lasseter started working at Pixar, it was only because he was laid off from Disney – now he runs both companies.  

I’m not telling you to settle, but do your research and figure out what’s important to you, and learn how to articulate that in a non-threatening way.  

  1.  “Also, only one student asked any questions, and that one student then never followed up with any other questions.”

Rule number one of interviews: ASK QUESTIONS.  Please, for the love of all that is good and right in the world, make sure you ask questions.  

I know this might also be culturally strange for you, but PLEASE ASK QUESTIONS.  Studies have shown that just by watching how long an interviewer speaks in comparison to how long an interviewee (you) speaks, one can determine whether or not the candidate has a good chance of being hired.  Basically, the more you can make the interviewer speak, the more likely you are to get the job.  

Please don’t take this the wrong way and speak less – the point here is to turn the interview into a conversation where they speak more because they’re answering questions. You want to ask thoughtful, interesting questions to help drive the conversation.  Think about every awkward conversation you’ve ever had – it’s awkward because the conversation constantly dies abruptly.  

You can avoid this by asking questions and not just answering them.  If they ask you something like “what’s your ideal job?”  You can answer and then ask them – “so that’s really what I’m looking for.  Can you tell me more about your ideal candidate for this position?”  

Not only does asking the interviewer more questions make the interview go smoother, but it also does something really subtle, but really powerful as well.  When you start interviewing THEM, it sends the signal that you’re not some desperate artist looking for a job, but that you’re an artist looking for the RIGHT job.  I guarantee you, once you start asking questions, the interviewer is going to start trying to sell you the position.  It’ll psychologically raise your status and you’ll be seen as more valuable and important. 

Please don’t aggressively grill the interviewer.  You are not an interrogating them – you want to be pleasant and friendly while you do it, but asking them about their individual roles in the company, how they like working with their supervisors, what sort of work culture the company has – these are all things that can be done with cheer and genuine curiosity.  Your goal is to be their professional friend – think a good waitress or waiter at a restaurant.  Friendly, yet professional.  This goes a long way in the hiring process, so be a cool person, and watch your interview success rate rise.

  1.  “Some of the students also didn’t know when the let up.  After the portfolio review, they’d keep dragging it on.  It was excruciating.”  

When the interview is over, please, let it be over.  Some students apparently, even after they shook their hand and told them to have a good day, would go “Oh, wait, I have this other project I was working on, let me show it to you” and then would start digging in their backpack for a different piece.  

Why would you do this?  Do not do this.  If you want to show someone something, have it prepared (see the first point again).  Once the interview is over, politely ask for a card (and be okay if they don’t offer one), and ask them if it’s okay to follow up.  If they decline, thank them for their time and leave.  You had your shot, and it’s time to move on, do not drag it on awkwardly.  

If you have their contact, follow up with a short and polite thank you.  If they offered to give you more feedback, ask for it.  But do not drag the interview on longer than it naturally goes on for.  Be respectful of their time and let it end when they seem ready for it to end.  

  1.  “I was actually going to potentially hire this one kid, but when I went to all of their websites, the pieces that we were looking for couldn’t be found.  So we ended up not hiring anyone.”

I know it’s hard to update your portfolio site.  I get it, and I’m guilty of this as well.  But please know that when I’m applying for new work, what’s in my physical portfolio that I take to interviews is ALWAYS going to match my website.  

Often times, interviewers are talking to tons of people.  While you might meet with ten to fifteen people in a day at a convention (and that’s really high), they’re probably talking to hundreds of people.  They’ve seen thousands of pieces of artwork, so don’t take offense that they can’t accurately match a face with a name with a specific piece of art.  

You always want to make it as easy for them to hire you as possible.  Sure, in an ideal world they’ll just remember your name and face and portfolio, but it’s not an ideal world.  Interviewers might be hungry, or they might be distracted about their own deadlines they need to hit, or they could just be tired and overworked.  You need to make it easy for them.  Your business card should have examples of your work that are in your portfolio, and are on your website.  Don’t show them a portfolio where not a single sample is on your website.  

Imagine you were going shopping for a new bath towel.  Now spend a day shopping online, then go to every single place in town that has bath towels.  Now wait a week.  Do you think you’d be able to find the exact place that had the towels that you want on the first try?  Now imagine that you even remember that it was at one of two stores, but when you go online to buy the towel, neither store has the towels listed.  Do you think you’re now going to buy that towel?  Nope.  That store just lost a sale.  Don’t be that store and lose an opportunity for a dumb reason.  

So all you art students out there preparing for the next big con or interview, please keep these things in minds as things to avoid – don’t shoot yourself in the foot before you even take your first steps into the professional art making world.  

Do these tips make sense?  Have your own killer interview/portfolio review tip?  Share your thoughts below!

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