Sunday, July 22, 2012

Portfolio Review – the Psychiatric Method

"So, what do you think of your portfolio?"

When I was a young creative, the portfolio critique was a sometimes inspiring, sometimes intimidating rite-of-passage.

You got to see inside an agency, maybe even try out their toilets.

But nowadays, it seems that portfolio reviews more often take place remotely. Which is a shame in some ways - you don’t get as good a sense of the person behind the book, and it makes the process rather one-directional.

Young creatives often ask me to take a look at their portfolios, but being dissatisfied with how the online crit conventionally works, last week I wanted to try something different.

My mind went back to one of the best pieces of advice I ever got on my book, which was from Richard Myers, former ECD at Saatchi & Saatchi London. He just asked me: “Are you happy with your book? Because that’s all that matters.”

It took me a long time to work out what he meant. But eventually, I decided that he meant you can make your book anything you want. If you think it should have more digital work in it, you can do that. If you think it should be better overall, well then you can just work harder and make it better.

In thinking about how to do a crit differently, I considered Richard’s words, and I realised there was a psychiatric element to his approach. A psychiatrist doesn’t tell you what to do. They ask you to describe where you’re at, and then ask you what you think you should do.

Could a portfolio critique along these lines be effective, the way pyschiatrists can improve a patient’s condition, even though it’s the patient who does all the talking?

I decided to try the experiment, when a young creative called Brad Donovan asked me to critique his portfolio last week.

If you want to take a look, here it is. (Incidentally, Brad was very game in agreeing to the experiment, and having it discussed on Scamp. Three cheers for Brad.)

Here are some edited bits from the crit.

Scamp: “What do you think of your portfolio?”

Brad: “I like it (can I say that?), although it's quite plain, I'm the sort of person who likes to let the work speak for itself. The platform I'm using (cargocollective) has made things pretty simple to upload from the creator’s (my) point of view. What would I want to see if I was a Creative Director? I want to be able to navigate easily. I don't want to read a wall of text. I need the gist, but it has to make sense. At the same time, I don't want you to feel like you're reading a school report, I'm here to entertain you (in a good way). I want you to feel like I'm there in the room chatting away about each project.”

Scamp: “Talk me through some of your favourite stuff in it, and why you like it."

Brad: “Some of the better stuff I think is the personal things that I've added in. Although agencies can hire very talented people, there's a lot to be said about the type of people an agency brings into their culture. You have to be willing to put a bit of that on the line. Also, for me, it's the stuff I can point to and say, I did that, on my own, without an agency’s help. Ultimately, the folio should reflect the kind of place you would want to work next. And everything I put in my folio helps tell the story of who I am, and where I want to be. “

Scamp: “Tell me what you want to replace, when you do the next nice thing, and why.”

Brad: “I didn't go in with a set amount of work that I wanted to show. I want to show that although I can write an ok line, or perhaps come up with a concept or two, I think I just want to show that I get a sense of what the industry is about, but at the same time I'm still learning, I don't want it to look finished, I want it to look like I'm continually trying to improve and update it. If I were to be specific, perhaps I would replace the Charlie's print ads with another - more recent print ad. But then again, everything's on the chopping board if the new work is good enough.

Scamp: “What is it about the Charlie's print ads that makes you want to replace them?”

Brad: “When I refer to the Charlie's ad, it's not that I think it's bad, but perhaps out of all the work on the site, that's probably the one that will be first off the block, because any more of this type of work and I feel that my folio might cover much of the same ground. Plus, I personally think it's the least interesting, it's not pushing the boundaries of print per se - but it serves the purpose of rounding out my folio, so I think it's earned its place there.”

Scamp: “Tell me what you feel your portfolio is lacking.”

Brad: “Hmm, this is a hard one! This may come across as cocky, or whatever, but because I am in this state of constantly trying to get advice, constantly trying to improve, I feel that everything is potentially lacking. But I have to say, well folks, this is where I'm at the moment, here's my full stop - send it off to a few people - get feedback, take in what works, do away with what doesn't. That's my approach. To constantly improve. If I'm completely honest, I don't think my folio will ever be good enough. But that’s what gets me up in the morning.”

Scamp: “And what about the design? What look are you going for? What do you want it to say about you, and your work?”

Brad: “Design should add to the story of who I am, if you look at my site, it's rather plain. There's a reason behind that. I want you to focus on the content of the work, and the words. I'd say that's a good reflection of my personality as well, the design should indicate to you that I have kind of a no-frills sense about me.”

Scamp: “Other than work that reflects ‘the kind of place you would want to work next’ is there anything specific you would like to see go into your book, in terms of media, or product categories?”

Brad: “I definitely feel that as a young creative with not that much experience, I've got a gap in my folio where the personal stuff will have to come in to play. I get the feeling that as the communications industry evolves, we'll be seeing a lot more of the brands we work on becoming living breathing characters with thoughts and opinions of their own. So I think for my book, any product will do, I really have no preference, I just want to create honest useful communication that people can relate to.”

Scamp: “What is the obstacle between you and your dream job? What would you need to do to your folio to get that dream job, whatever it is?”

Brad: “I don't think there is a dream job out there. Every place has its perks. And downside. Of course there are places that I admire, but I think you can learn something from even the worst places in the world. I try to talk to a wide range of people and get their opinions so that I can form a more sound and rounded opinion of my own.”

Scamp: “What else can you think of that you could do, that would improve your folio?”

Brad: “I'd like to see a bit more digital in my folio, I know that's important, but I think if I'm plugging myself as a creative, first and foremost I have to understand how a brand thinks and acts, and talks. But immersing myself in new things such as technology and what the latest trends and vehicles to deliver these messages is also a really important part of being in the industry.”

Scamp: “So, last question. How did you find this crit? Different from a normal one? Useful? Not useful?”

Brad: “I enjoyed this process, it confirmed for me a few thoughts that I already had about the industry and where I'm at, it gave me a chance to reflect on the things I've learned and how far I've come since I began, I suspect this will continue to evolve, perhaps we could do this again every 2 years? I'd be interested in the result personally, anyway. I think this way of critiquing was quite useful as well, like you said, bit like a psychiatrist at work, where you just keep talking till you have the 'aha' moment and go on your way. I didn't have an aha moment, but it definitely solidified a few of my thoughts.”

Thank you, Brad.

So, what did you think of Brad’s answers. Do you think he’s insightful about his own work, and what he needs to do? Do you think he learned anything from this crit?

Would you like to get this kind of crit? Or do you think it’s just incredibly lazy of the critiquer not to give actual feedback, and expect you to do all the work…


Lubomir said...

Hey, Scam I sent you my portfolio 3 years ago, and you helped me a lot by telling me straight what you like, and what you think is excessive (for instance I was giving too much info about the different projects) but back then most people still had “books”... I mean it was a big deal especially for designers - how you will print it, what type, grid, paper...

Today most people here use things like Behance Network. What is your opinion about such platforms? Should you have your own site? Will you think that I’m lazy if I send you my work in ready made online gallery?

Unknown said...

Interesting theory. I must agree that bookcrits in person also are better than remote ones.

But regarding the self-reflecting method, it seems like its use is quite limited, a creative needs to have already a good sense of the industry and what's good and what's not. I imagine this wouldn't work for many young kids who actually need advice, instead of self insight. Ideally you'd combine these two, first ask questions, let them talk, make them think. Then, tell them what you think and share some wisdom. I learned a lot from listening to senior creatives. Still do.

Scamp said...

Personally, I don't care if the portfolio is custom-made, bought off the shelf, or written on a roll of toilet paper. All I look at is the ideas.

However, not everyone is like me. A lot of people are impressed by fancy design. And after all, although we sometimes don't like to admit it, a big part of a creative's job is 'making things look great.' So if you can do that, so much the better.

I also understand that custom web design can be really expensive.

Maybe start with an off-the-shelf package, and customise it. Creative directors often respond as much to a team's personality, as their work.

Lubomir said...

Scamp, I’m sorry I don’t want to turn into “the weird forum guy” - I promise I will skip the comments section for the next 2 posts :)

But you said “team's personality” - do advertising agencies (around the civilized world) still prefer to hire/work with creative couples? In my country no one hires like that, and my agency is among a minority with “creative couples” system. A few big agencies still work like it’s 1955 - all copywriters are in one room where they and think ideas, and then they pass them to a room with designers.

And my agency is trying “something new” - everybody (accounts, creatives, media etc) are gathering together for a big think. I find this absolute bull s***, it’s just a mass murder of ideas. Probably it can work for Crispin Porter + Bogusky in America because they hire creative-minded people for all of their departments but in our agency bureaucratic people prevail, and to see how they try to think with the creative department is just... a torture that I don’t know how to stop

Scamp said...

Sorry, I should have said "team or individual's" personality.

I don't know for sure whether most of the world still works in teams. I think they do. But it could change. A duo costs twice the money.

Sorry to hear about your gangbang situation. My only suggestion is that you make a rough estimate of everybody's salary, then set up a counter on your laptop, showing how much this mass meeting is costing, per minute. Once the MD sees that, the madness should stop.

Lubomir said...

I'll do it! :)

Anonymous said...

Strewth I remember you & Nick coming in with your book. Time flies. Glad you're blogging again. Hope Oz is still fun. M.