How to Get Noticed by a Creative Director: Notes from a Thousand Portfolios

Jess Bachman
Written 1 year ago
in Design

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Part of my role as Creative Director at Visual.ly is to evaluate infographic designer candidates and make sure the best are members of our Marketplace. Mostly, this involves reviewing around 20 to 100 portfolios per week. After looking at thousands of portfolios this year, I have come up with somes tips for designers to stick to if they are looking to get the attention of a creative director.

Your own domain vs hosted portfoio sites

Having your own domain and website is an opportunity and a risk. It allows you to immediately show off any website design skills you may have and this should be required for website designers. It isn’t needed for illustrators and other designers, but can still be an opportunity to show off your creativity.

My process when reviewing hosted portfolios is pretty automatic and routine. Stumbling onto a really well done personal website can immediately peak my attention.

The risk, however, is that most personal websites I’ve seen are not well done.

Regardless of your abilities or client references, it often is hard to get past a dated, sloppy, or out-of-touch site design. Remember: if you are applying for an open position, you can assume many more are applying as well, and the reviewer or creative director often has seconds to make a gut decision.

If you can’t put together a well crafted personal site, just direct me to a hosted portfolio.

Not all hosted portfolio sites are the same. Some are a pleasure to work with, others I would count as a strike against the designer.

Showcasing your best work

The ideal portfolio, whether hosted or your own, will allow the viewer to be able to quickly get at your best work. This means big images and good categorization. Some thoughts on the most popular sites out there:

Behance: This is by far the most popular service, which is unfortunate because it requires a lot of clicking on my end. The categorization is rolled into the same hierarchy as individual projects, so portfolios are often a mix of collections and one-off projects, which is confusing. If you have a diverse set of skills, Behance will not show them off. Also, the preview icons are small, which necessitates a click to find out what’s going on. Behance also has all sorts of useless information on the page, which reduces the amount of your work you can get on the screen and increases my inefficiency.

Cargocollective: Another popular one and it can do some impressive formats. The problem is that people don’t use them. The typical Cargocollective portfolio I see is a righthand text list of projects or clients, usually in a small type and a smattering of 200×130 thumbnails. There is no real hierarchy, which results in a lot of wasted clicks. Cargocollective does strip out all the useless info that surrounds Behance portfolios, but it often leaves a hole for content, which few designers opt to fill with further design or useful info.

DeviantArt: I’m a big fan of DeviantArt and have been a member since 2003. The portfolio offering does a lot of things right. This is different than the gallery on your DeviantArt page: please don’t send me there, it’s a mess. The basic structure of daportfolio.com is a list of categories, which take me into the projects or samples. The project images are nice and big, which is what I am looking for. The images roll through in slideshow format and I can usually get a good sense of your work in 10 clicks or less. My main gripe about daportfolio is they afford the designer little room for personality or personalization and the fixed-width/ non-responsive design is a bit dated.

Carbonmade: It’s generally a pleasure to view a Carbonmade portfolio, as they do much of what daportfolio does right — hierarchies and large images — but also allow the designer to express some of their style in the portfolio design itself. While some Carbonmade portfolios are put in a clickable slideshow, there is also an option for a scrolling presentation. I generally prefer to use the scroll wheel on my mouse rather than click to view content.

Visual.ly: I am certainly biased, but it’s worth noting that some sites are really geared to certain types of content. Often, video or interactives will be displayed poorly on the above sites. Likewise, infographics — which are often very tall — end up displayed awkwardly. If you have infographics in your portfolio, I suggest you get them on Visual.ly.

Recipe for a successful portfolio page

There seem to be portfolio sites popping up all the time so if they can follow this basic recipe, you can have a winner.

Use categorization. If you have 20 illustrations, 10 site designs and 6 infographics, group them! Ditto, if you have 5 projects for Coca-Cola and 4 for Adobe. This helps me get an overview of what I am looking at and I can focus on the quality of the work rather than deciphering the context.

Go big or go home! I suspect most creative directors like myself have some pretty big screens. Do not be afraid to use big images, even in thumbnails, to show off your work. Large images stimulate more of my cerebral cortex and if the work is good, this will easily put you in the “memorable” category.

Don’t get too fancy. Please refrain from unnecessary fading or moving effects; those just slow me down. They may impress a wide-eyed potential client, but it’s just friction to me. Krop uses this technique and it’s irritating as hell. Not the frame of mind you want me in when looking at your work.

Do you need the network? Many portfolio sites are network and community oriented. Dribbble is a great example and Behance goes down this road too. A community of your peers can be a great asset to your progression and networking ability but it’s superfluous to someone who is evaluating your work. Please do not send me any Dribbble profiles! I do suggest designers maintain an active Dribbble, Forrst or Behance account for the community benefits but also have a separate profile that they link to when showing clients or employers.

Your portfolio is an expression of yourself, but always remember the intended audience. If you are actively seeking clients or a job, you should try to stand out but err on the side of efficiency and ease of use. Employers who have a stack of 100 portfolios to go through will thank you for it, maybe with a job!

Jess Bachman is a Creative Director at Visual.ly. Follow him on Twitter.