AIGA San Francisco

the professional association for design


Get Review-Ready: Maximize Your Portfolio Review Experience

by Leila Singleton

As thousands of design students prepare for their portfolio reviews, there’s going to be a lot of printing, color tweaking, reprinting, kerning, ligature insertion, paper trimming, accidental finger cutting, spray gluing and overall project perfecting going on.

That’s the obvious stuff. But having a truly productive portfolio review is about more than just showing up with an über-polished body of work.

Plan to actively participate in the process, and you can have an experience that will give you a leg up over the students who simply plan to show up and let the reviewers do all the work.


Bring a notepad and pen
This should be the simplest part of preparing for your portfolio review, yet it is the most often overlooked.

You will be meeting with industry veterans. They will be giving feedback — often granular — on each of your design projects. Are you seriously not going to record the wisdom they are about to bestow upon you? You won’t remember it all later … especially if you plan to go straight from the review to an after party.

Bring business cards
Another oft-overlooked basic, the business card is a simple yet powerful leave-behind, the purpose of which is twofold: it proves your ability to succinctly and creatively design within a limiting format, and it gives reviewers a way to contact you later if they so desire. Make sure your card includes a current, permanent email address.

Bring your resume
Resume writing services can be expensive and aren’t always geared toward people in creative fields. Bring your resume along for feedback from people who’ve seen it all and have clearly done something right with their own resumes (they’re professional designers, aren’t they?).

Dress like you care
Regardless of how laid back the design community is, a little effort never hurt anyone. No need to roll out the designer-label power suit and tie, but definitely reconsider the flip-flops and your favorite clubbing attire (ladies: ditch the diaphanous duds). Comb your hair, pack a few breath mints (you’re going to be breathing on people all day), and just be presentable.


Try going as a junior
If the event you’re considering allows it, attend your first portfolio review as a junior. This will give you extra time to:

- identify the shortcomings of your portfolio and presentation – revamp existing projects that have potential – create new projects that fill any holes in your body of work – select elective courses during your senior year that directly address weaknesses identified at the review

If there are no formal review events that allow juniors, see if you can set up reviews with professors and designers within your community.

Consider bringing some actual pieces
After four years of lugging unwieldy portfolios around campus, the prospect of compressing your final ‘folio into a sleek, booklet-sized presentation is probably a relief. But beware: unless your book includes fantastic, high-res photography featured at a reasonable size (i.e., NOT the size of a matchbox), a reviewer may not be able to see your work, much less evaluate it.

Things like special paper stock, typography, detailed illustrations, complex folding and 3D construction often get lost in mediocre photographs. It never hurts to bring a few, key pieces, actual size, so that they can be thoroughly appreciated — and properly critiqued — by a reviewer.

Explain yourself
There is nothing worse for a reviewer than having to pull words out of an interviewee’s mouth, or suffering through interminable “ums.”

You don’t need to memorize a speech, but at least have an idea of how you will introduce yourself and what points you want to make about each of your pieces. A reviewer wants to know about your concepts — your thinking elevates your portfolio from simply being a series of technical exercises.

If extemporaneous speech terrifies you, jot down brief bullet points about each piece ahead of time. A single-sided index card per project works well. The cards can be discreetly attached to the backs of your presentation boards using acid free photo corners or, if you have a book, kept in a neat stack for you to reference (extra credit if you design to match your resume and biz card, and/or make a cool carrying case).

Bullet points should address key design decisions and how they aid conceptual and communication goals; e.g., how choosing a day-glo ink is a good choice for your target audience of 80-year-olds, or why Curlz is the perfect typeface for a bank’s corporate identity. Also mention notable technical accomplishments; e.g., every photorealistic illustration in your project is vector art created by you.

Above all, be passionate about your own work, and many of your explications will just flow.


Realize your portfolio is very likely NOT perfect
After spending wads of cash on printing and all the other finishing work that comes with a portfolio, it can be heartbreaking to hear a project requires revisions, particularly if it’s part of a bound presentation (like a book). But going to a review thinking nothing in your presentation will change is the wrong mindset.

Resign yourself to the fact that your portfolio is in a permanent state of flux, will be for the entirety of your career, and that it will not emerge from the portfolio review unscathed. In fact, the better designer you are, the pickier many reviewers will be, because they know you’re at a point where infinitesimal details can and should be addressed.

Consider the portfolio you bring to your review a refined, expensive prototype. Be willing to entertain the idea of revisiting projects — and redoing your book — if necessary.

Defend your work without arguing
While there is nothing wrong with defending your design decisions — it’s a skill you will use throughout your career — arguing with, dismissing and insulting a reviewer is not the way to go. Aside from being incredibly rude, it indicates you are unprepared for a professional environment, where you will have to temper your discontent diplomatically in order to get along with senior talent and clients.

You won’t agree with everything each reviewer says, but respectfully consider their feedback, remembering that they are not doing this for their health: the vast majority of reviewers are volunteers using their (limited!) amounts of spare time to give you advice borne of years of industry know-how.

Understand that the review is not a job interview
We’ve all heard stories of rockstar designers reviewing the work of unknown kids who knock their socks off, and offering said interviewees jobs on the spot.

Such tales represent the exception, not the rule.

Not everyone who volunteers as a reviewer is looking to hire. Some are freelancers who fly solo. Others attend because they enjoy mentoring new talent, even if their company is not hiring.

Leave the Why-I’m-Perfect-for-Your-Company hard sell at home, and listen to the reviewers rather than concentrating all your efforts on peddling your skills. Don’t bank on leaving with a job, and instead use the experience as a way to groom yourself for future interviews. In the event that you do get an offer, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Say thank you
Enough said.


Leila Singleton is Manager, Design Services, at the San Francisco Travel Association. She attended two amazing portfolio reviews as a student and now volunteers on the other side of the table: she’s reviewed work at Colorado State University and four AIGA SF Portfolio Days. Leila’s art and design appears in over half a dozen books and has been exhibited in such diverse locations as Times Square and Kharkov, Ukraine. Say hello to her on Twitter: @leila_singleton.


Every author whose submission is selected for publication on our website will receive two complimentary tickets to an AIGA SF event of his or her choice.

The views expressed by our contributors are not necessarily that of AIGA SF. We welcome any and all submissions, suggestions or grievances sent to communications. We reserve the right to refuse any submission for publication without explanation.

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