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How to prepare your portfolio

Arti­cle by Bill Schaaf
Head of School of Design & Craft at Buck­ing­hamshire New University

Art and design portfolio

Your port­fo­lio is one of the most impor­tant tools in your career devel­op­ment. The port­fo­lio you cre­ate today to help you get into the col­lege or uni­ver­sity of your choice is only the first build­ing block in a project that will con­tinue to expand and develop through­out your study and into your profession(s). It should not be seen as a sta­tic thing to cre­ate once and reuse many times but, instead, as a dynamic change­able thing which you can eas­ily add to, take away from and re-​order to tell dif­fer­ent sto­ries about your­self to dif­fer­ent audi­ences. A good port­fo­lio is not a sin­gle object but a col­lec­tion of sto­ries that can be told in many dif­fer­ent ways. A port­fo­lio is used to open doors for you – to get into uni­ver­sity, to get a job, to show off what you are and what you are capa­ble of doing.

Col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties use port­fo­lios to help under­stand a num­ber of things about you: what inter­ests you, what skills you have, what you are pas­sion­ate about and how com­mit­ted you are about reach­ing your goals.

Prepar­ing a portfolio

Stu­dents should main­tain at all times a port­fo­lio of work that demon­strates their expe­ri­ence, abil­i­ties and pro­fes­sional inter­ests. At any time, you may be asked to demon­strate to some­one else what you can do. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, you rarely have enough time to cre­ate some­thing entirely new. You must have mate­ri­als, ready to hand, which you can eas­ily cus­tomize to fit the ‘client’s needs’.

Your port­fo­lio should be con­sid­ered to be a col­lec­tion of work that is under con­tin­ual devel­op­ment, edit­ing and improve­ment. You should main­tain your work in phys­i­cal and dig­i­tal form and be able to rearrange or cus­tomize the com­po­nents eas­ily. Depend­ing on the intended use, you may need to pro­vide a sin­gle high-​quality image, a col­lec­tion of five-​ten images with asso­ci­ated descrip­tions, a CD-​ROM or a pre­sen­ta­tion to an extended audi­ence. You should always have avail­able short, descrip­tive text about each piece; you are not always in a posi­tion to present the port­fo­lio so, there­fore, it needs to be self-​explanatory.

What do you put in a portfolio?

You should select pieces that demon­strate your skills (in, for instance, draw­ing, com­po­si­tion, colour selec­tion, mak­ing mod­els, crafts­man­ship), your under­stand­ing, your inter­ests, your cre­ativ­ity and your com­mit­ment. In par­tic­u­lar, uni­ver­si­ties look for demon­stra­tions of your cre­ativ­ity, pas­sion, process or approach to devel­op­ing work and skills – fre­quently in that order of impor­tance. It is vital that stu­dents can show an ele­ment of cre­ativ­ity in what they make and/​or the approach they take to devel­op­ing work. Stu­dents enter art and design study from a num­ber of dif­fer­ent routes and have very dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences and skills. With pas­sion and com­mit­ment, stu­dents can be taught new skills in their cho­sen dis­ci­pline and, while uni­ver­si­ties like to see some exper­i­men­ta­tion related to the intended study, they do not expect to see a high-​level of spe­cial­ist skill. Much more impor­tant to demon­strate are the trans­fer­able skills of draw­ing (see­ing and inter­pret­ing), crafts­man­ship and atten­tion to detail.

You should have exam­ples of fin­ished work as well as ideas in devel­op­ment. If pos­si­ble, include the stages of devel­op­ment in a more com­plex project – ini­tial sketches, inspi­ra­tional images, mod­els, pho­tographs, colour stud­ies, evaluation/​feedback from users. This might be con­sid­ered one ‘piece’ pre­sented, for instance, as a devel­op­men­tal log-​book.

It is use­ful to demon­strate a vari­ety of projects and approaches – two-​dimensional and three-​dimensional work, mul­ti­ple phys­i­cal media (char­coal, paint, block-​print, papier-​mâché, plas­tic, metal, wood…) mov­ing image, com­puter and hand-​generated. For mov­ing image work and ani­ma­tion you should print keyframes and/​or sto­ry­board devel­op­ment so that some aspects of the work can be under­stood with­out see­ing the ani­ma­tion itself. It is par­tic­u­larly ben­e­fi­cial to include work done out­side your class assign­ments; uni­ver­si­ties want to know what you do on your own inspi­ra­tion, with­out the direc­tion of teachers.

For larger, three-​dimensional work, you should include pho­tographs rather than orig­i­nals; 3D work can be awk­ward to carry, han­dle and present and dif­fi­cult to pull out of pack­ag­ing and wrap back up for safety. Fur­ther­more, pre­sent­ing a port­fo­lio is a kind of per­for­mance. It should appear effort­less and flow­ing; the last thing you want is to be fight­ing your work because it is in awk­ward plas­tic sleeves or con­strain­ing packaging.

Some uni­ver­si­ties, in fact, rec­om­mend that you do not place work in plas­tic sleeved port­fo­lios but, instead, mount work on light card-​stock. The rea­son for this is so that they can see the work with­out annoy­ing plas­tic high­lights, that they are not fight­ing metal teeth and man­gled plas­tic sheet and that they can quickly sort through the work to exam­ine the pieces that inter­est them.

How much work should you include?

While some col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties will pro­vide strict guide­lines for the num­ber of pieces, oth­ers will not. Gen­er­ally, your port­fo­lio should include a max­i­mum of 25 pieces. They should be care­fully selected to show the bal­ance of your capa­bil­i­ties appro­pri­ate to the posi­tion for which you’ve applied. It is bet­ter to put in fewer excel­lent pieces than more poor ones.

How should your work be presented?

Flex­i­bil­ity of port­fo­lio mate­ri­als is the most impor­tant aspect to be able to eas­ily pre­pare an appro­pri­ate port­fo­lio. One uni­ver­sity may pro­vide very strict guide­lines to how work may be pre­sented such as a port­fo­lio of a par­tic­u­lar size and num­ber of sheets. Another uni­ver­sity may wish the work in DVD or slide form only. You must be pre­pared to have it in a vari­ety of for­mats. What­ever form is cho­sen, it is impor­tant to think of the sto­ries to be told.

Con­sider the sequences of pieces and how they relate to one another. Con­trary to how many stu­dents present, it is help­ful to put the fin­ished work at the front and then fol­low it with the devel­op­ment sketches and sub­se­quent refine­ment. This enables the viewer to know ‘the end game’ and focus on the devel­op­ment work accord­ingly. What are the ‘chap­ters’ of the story? Do you want a sep­a­rate sec­tion of skills or of per­sonal extra-​curricular work? Do you want the port­fo­lio arranged chrono­log­i­cally or thematically?

What­ever you decide, try to apply a con­sis­tent approach to pre­sent­ing. You should aim for a con­sis­tent set of sizes (either all one size or, at least, only a few) and posi­tion work in the same loca­tion on each page or, at least, a graphic grid (like a news­pa­per where images only take up one or more columns but don’t stop halfway across a col­umn). You might select a colour scheme to pull together themes or pro­vide con­sis­tency of appear­ance. The more con­sis­tent the pre­sen­ta­tion the fewer dis­trac­tions from the work itself.

In sum­mary, a port­fo­lio is a very per­sonal thing that should show, to a vari­ety of audi­ences, who you are, your views and capa­bil­i­ties in art and design. Your stock of port­fo­lio mate­ri­als should be read­ily avail­able and eas­ily mod­i­fied or rearranged to cre­ate a focused pre­sen­ta­tion specif­i­cally tar­geted to a par­tic­u­lar pur­pose. It should be sequenced and for­mat­ted to demon­strate your cre­ativ­ity, expe­ri­ences, skills and, most impor­tantly, pas­sion for your subject.


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