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A Creative Director’s 5 biggest portfolio warning signs

A look through the eyes of a creative director at how your your portfolio and resume say a lot more about you than you would think.

Every year I look at hundreds of portfolios for designers, writers and creatives of all level of experience across a wide variety of disciplines. After seeing the work of that many people, you start to see patterns emerge as resumes and portfolios become a crystal ball to tell a lot about someone’s creativity, confidence and leadership style before I have ever met them. I decided to compile a list of the 5 biggest mistakes I see happen all the time in creative portfolios and explain a creative directors point of view how we view them in the hopes that people will understand them and stop making them.

1.) Quoting someone else

I see portfolios all the time with a quote from a famous person as the first thing you see on a resume or portfolio. It sounds innocent enough but the entire purpose of portfolio process is to show someone your creativity, your body of work and your thought leadership – so why the hell would you start that sales pitch with someone else’s words and creativity?

I think most people do it because they want to either associate themselves with someone who did great things to set the tone of their work or they think it will make them sound more interesting. I have the opposite reactions and see it is as a sign of someone who isn’t very confident in their skills and is trying to cover for that fact by using a quote as a distraction. As a creative director, one of the core things I am looking for is originality. I want people who can think for themselves and people have the confidence to think of new ideas. That quote is like a red flag for me that says they are probably someone who will spend most of their time pitching me concepts of that start with the words “This is our version of (another brand, website or experience that has already been done) instead pitching me original ideas. They are probably someone who will have problems developing their own leadership style because great leaders require people who are insightful and introspective instead of just people who just mimic techniques they read in articles. So while using a quote is small, in my experience it can be an early warning sign of much bigger problems that can hurt the team and the level of the team’s work.

2.) Leading with your education or thinking Microsoft Word is a skills

Another mistake I see all the time are creatives who lead off their resume or portfolio with their education. I think this is perfectly fine if you are an intern or someone who is in school but for everyone else this is yet another red flag. I read it as someone who has never done anything in their career that they think is better than what they did in school or they think that nowhere they have worked is as impressive as where they went to school. In either case, it is a red flag that the person isn’t pushing themselves to do work that lets them grow past what they did and where they were when they were in school. I never want to hire someone who is destined to stay in the same position forever. I want people who are driven, hungry and will always find a way to do great work.

The other thing I see all the time are people who put Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, Excel or even faxing as skills on their resume. This is a case where I would never even look at their resume for another second once I see that because if they really think those are skills and not applications everyone knows then they aren’t someone I want on my team.

3.) Showing every design you’ve ever done

How many times have you heard someone say that its ‘quality over quantity’ but I see it all the time with portfolios packed with every design they have done since high school. I understand wanting to show that you have done a lot of work or you have worked on a lot of different clients across a lot of different mediums but at a point, it really starts to work against you. It does that because it forces the person looking through your portfolio to have to sort through everything to find the best work. It means that very likely not all the work is of the same level of thinking so you have to wonder if that is because they put too much work in their portfolio or if it is as a result of the fact that their thinking just isn’t that solid. In either case, the outcome isn’t something you want and it will hurt your chances and your image. You want to only show your best work even it is just a handful of things. I would rather see 3 incredible projects than 30 mediocre ones. I am looking for the quality of someone’s thinking, their attention to detail and their ability to take a project from start to finish. The more clearly I can see that the more likely it is that the person will be sitting in my office for an interview real soon.

4.) Not listing your role in a project

One of the things that will drive a creative director crazy the fastest is not listing your role in a project. When I look at a portfolio and I will see that someone put a huge project like a new brand visual language or a new site design I know that 98% of the time the person didn’t do all that work by themselves. When I see that I then have to question if they didn’t put their role in the project down was because they only played a small supporting role but wanted to make themselves look more important or because they didn’t think through how a portfolio is used to understand that would be important. In either case, those aren’t traits I am looking for in a new creative for my team. I have no room for people who put their ego’s ahead of everything else and it will kill any interest I have in a person in a heartbeat. Be honest about your role because the creative world is too small and people talk, people know other people who may have worked on the project and the truth will come out. If you aren’t happy with role then you need to work harder to be able to grow your skills, grow your thinking and grow your role in those projects which will be better across the board.

5.) Being generic

Every new resume or portfolio holds the promise of something amazing. It holds the promise of someone new who will bring their skills and a new perspective to my team. I desperately want each new resume and portfolio to fulfill that promise but time and time again when I look at a resume or portfolio it says absolutely nothing about who the person is, what makes them special or why I should care about them. It is a list of the places they have worked, the skills they have or just a pile of designs with no story or explanation. This means that I have to try to find that narrative for myself and try to dig out what makes them special because they aren’t providing those things for me. You have to approach this problem like you would approach creating a brand for any one of your clients. Define what makes you special, what makes you unique and tells me why I should hire you. Be brave enough to stand for something, stand out from the crowd and show me that yo have something special to say. Those are the people I want to hire and those are the people I want on my team. But it means that have to start treating your resume and your portfolio as the start of the conversation and as a brand touch point that tells a story of who you are, the work you have done and thinking that went into all of it. Anything less than that gets you lost in the crowd and that is never a good thing.

 

At the end of the day hiring is more of an art than a science and some of these may sound overblown but after seeing thousands of portfolios and doing hundreds of interview over a lot of years, I know that these instincts and insights often prove to be true. I have developed these skills because there are few things I am more protective of than the chemistry and of my team and even a single bad hire can have a catastrophic effect on a team. These five things by no means are always true but they are warning signs that every creative leader should look out for.

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Creative Director, Designer, Brand Builder, Speaker, Podcaster, Crazy One. As a designer, I have 20+ years experience creating the strategy, concepts, and designs for award-winning integrated global advertising campaigns, building multiple global Fortune 500 brands and creating innovative digital experiences. As a leader, I have 15+ years transforming agency and client-side teams using a mix of creativity, business strategy, process and political skill to create innovative, world-class work and cultures that change industries and companies. My clients have included American Airlines, W Hotels, Disney, Citi, ExxonMobil, Acura, Old Navy, Nationwide Insurance, Verizon, Subaru and many others. My work has received over 150 international awards, my app designs have been named as one of the World’s 100 Greatest Apps, Apple has featured my work in 9 keynotes, 4 TV commercials and more.

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