The graphic designer maintains a portfolio. A little over a decade ago when I first graduated, portfolios followed this format:
The work would be printed at full size, neatly hand trimmed, carefully mounted onto crisp black A2 card and placed in transparent sleeves. The entire collection would then be threaded onto the snap closing, gold effect rings of a leatherette portfolio, before the whole lot was zipped shut.
The finished item would be placed on standby beneath a bed or down the side of a wardrobe, until a job interview came up or a grandparent wanted to see what you got up to at ‘art school’. As your career progressed the content would change, the older items beginning to date and so being replaced with more recent work.
The above image is of mine, minus the work. I have no particularly fond memories of the content it once displayed and which has long since been thrown out, but I’ve held onto the hardware for its vaguely haunting, ‘Mary Celeste’ quality. I also hold onto it for what it represents, though I’ve never really considered entirely what it represents until I started writing the piece you’re now reading.
When you’re building a portfolio the content is always the focus. Where in the image above you now see white squares, the very best of my creative capacity once took pride of place. My heart and soul was poured into that content; content that kept me captive long into many a dark, lonely evening in the college computer suite.
The portfolio itself was merely a delivery method, a means of transport and display for that lovingly crafted content. The portfolio, all that board and all those sleeves existed to be invisible, nothing more than a frame around the picture. Only sloppy workmanship would ever enable the portfolio itself to distract from the creativity it was there to house, and nobody wanted that.
In my case that precious content, that beautiful content is now long gone, both from my possession and from my memory. As with the sorry majority of graphic design output the passing time rendered it worthless, so it’s entirely without sorrow that I accept what I once poured over with love, pride and care I’ve now long forgotten. It is with that content long forgotten that the value of the portfolio itself has become visible.
Hanging at heel height when in transit, and living primarily on the floor when not, the A2 leatherette portfolio is frequently scuffed and easily kicked. The particular combination of shape and weight requires of the hopeful candidate an inelegant heave when placing it on a boardroom table in front of an interview panel. Unzipping requires an ungainly reach, and so allows time for prospective employers to get sight a) of fingers chafed by an ergonomically insulting plastic handle and b) down your shirt.
The A2 leatherette portfolio really is a rather cumbersome and inconvenient thing, and therein lies its beauty. The beauty is in that bother. It’s in that awkward wrestle. It’s in the initial thud as you bang it down on the table, the second thud when you realise you’d laid it face down, that long unzip and that third thud and subsequent shuffle as you heave all the pages over in one go and spin the lot around, having realised you actually had it the right way up in the first place. That’s the drama. That’s the portfolio pantomime.
When that pantomime begins, everyone present knows there’s a portfolio to look at. It’s an experience to be mistaken with nothing else. Everyone knows the contents on display will represent countless, dedicated hours of somebody’s life. To open a portfolio with pride, perhaps with a mild sense of unease or indeed with outright dread, for the contents to be examined and judged by one’s superiors is an event every designer should recognise.
I haven’t used my A2 portfolio in the eleven years since the interview that led to my first design job. Instead I’ve made books for people, taken prints to show clients, emailed PDFs or simply provided URLs. Most recently I transferred my work onto the iPad, making my portfolio a simple finger swiping exercise.
The iPad fits in my bag. It’s high tech, simple to use and familiar to hand. It has a bright, high quality, high resolution screen. It’s delightfully convenient, handily self contained and can be passed around a room. The work on show can be easily browsed by anyone with fingers.
A traditional A2 portfolio is good for about eight to twelve pieces of work. Anything more than that becomes too time consuming to look through. It feels tiring. It becomes a chore. When you’re finger swiping on the iPad you can scroll through twelve projects in about a minute. On the iPad, looking through a portfolio uses the same gestures one uses to play Angry Birds. On the iPad there is no pantomime.