The Portfolio Pantomime

The graphic designer maintains a portfolio. A little over a decade ago when I first graduated, portfolios followed this format:

Ghostfolio 3

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.

Design by Reduction

Designers typically react to a brief in an additive manner. In order to solve a problem they add something that wasn’t there before. It might be a tool, a device, a website, an app or a simple piece of printed literature. It might be something big or small, complicated or simple, but generally something is created that didn’t exist before.

Traditionally, that’s what creativity is thought to be – the act of creating things. Michael Bierut, a most vocal and deservedly respected design practitioner and commentator recently defined designers as being driven by their desire to create something where there once was nothing; as he puts it, “The thrill of making something”. By our nature, we creatives create. We bring into existence. We give rise to. We add.

It’s a definition I’m not entirely happy with because it suggests we cannot be creative unless we add something. Can one not be considered creative by removing something?

Over the past few years I’ve been developing a mild fascination with this concept of design by reduction. Can we designers start solving a few more of our problems through a simple removal of things, rather than creating more things?

This is not to be confused with the more commonly seen approach I’d call ‘streamlining’. I fully accept our racks of CDs have been replaced with pocketable iPods, and shelves full of books now live in our Kindles. Streamlining is noble, necessary and very clever, but it isn’t true reductive design because a new item has been brought into existence. A solution may well result in a net reduction of items overall, but the designer still answered the brief by creating an item that didn’t previously exist, and so approached it with an additive mindset.

The idea of true reductive design that so interests me is that in which a problem is solved without anything new being created. The designer must approach the problem with a reductive mindset from the beginning, and resist the temptation to add anything.

Though a project of pure fantasy, I’ve had a go at it myself. The first time was last year when I shared a suggestion for promoting and encouraging social cohesion by the simple act of removing the walls and fences that separate our gardens. That project can be seen here. I then just recently happened across an image which suggested another opportunity for design through reduction, and it set the mind ticking.

The goal of the petrol pump designer has thus far been to insulate the motorist from the dirty business of transferring fuel from a large underground tank into the tanks in our cars. And they’ve done it well; beyond a distant humming noise and the alarming climb of the digits beside the pound sign, does anyone ever consider the process taking place within that brightly coloured box when they squeeze the handle?

Perhaps we might consider our actions after a gentle reminder that petrol pumps are just that – petrol pumps. You see that belt driven component in there? That’s a pump. See that thing next to it? That’s an electric motor. See what it all does? It uses electricity to turn the pump that draws refined oil from a huge storage tank underground, along pipes and into a tank in the back of your car. That stuff it pumps, that’s petrol, that’s the stuff you burn. It’s come all the way from the Middle East for you to burn.

I find it quite a compelling idea. Of course nobody is likely to immediately scrap their car as a result of such an initiative, but it would act as a gentle nudge. And nudges are a proven technique in altering behaviour. It’s the reason behind the optimistically voluminous transparent donation boxes at the exits of museums, and why the staff make sure there’s a conspicuous littering of notes atop the coins before the doors open each morning. It’s a gentle nudge. Stick a fiver in. Go on. Others have. We need to fill this thing.

Of course there is one mild concern raised by opening the sides of petrol pumps. The safety risk posed to the careless and the beskirted by belts and pulleys at high RPM threatens this as a truly reductive design. If we replaced the fascia panels of those pumps with perspex, could that still be considered design through reduction? We’ve certainly removed the visual barrier between the user and the activity. Perhaps a transparent fuel hose allowing the motorist to actually see the fuel they were buying could be similarly beneficial. It might trigger the end of fuel being an abstract concept and actually make us think beyond the pounds and pence, if only for a moment but each and every time we fill up: “Oh my god, that is actually petrol. That’s dead dinosaurs right there”.

‘Removing a visual barrier’. Is that really design through reduction? Perhaps it’s a cop out? I’m still adding a piece of perspex to a petrol pump. A barrier has been removed, but not a physical one. So let’s keep going, just in case we’re not happy with it. Let’s create a solution that adds nothing.

Let’s propose a scheme whereby fuel retailers can get some kind of mildly profitable tax rebate if they install clear pump fascias and transparent fuel hoses to their pumps. Then watch as not a single one takes up the offer after deciding that they’ll lose more money in the long term if their customers are made aware of what they’re buying.

Then simply publish the findings of the scheme’s failure and let the press and the public do the rest. “Fuel Retailers Rather Pay Tax Than Inform Customers” would be a punchy headline. “Fuel Bosses Prefer Tax to Transparency” punchier still.

As much as I adore and admire the work of British industrial design legend Kenneth Grange, it’s hard for me not to think in many ways that he’s from a generation of designer that had it fairly easy. When he was asked to design petrol pumps, all he had to do was make them pretty and pleasing to use.

Today’s climate provides design challenges that are more serious, more complex and which necessitate solutions entirely devoid of glamour. Reduction may well be a perfect solution to a particular problem, but it’s without glamour. People pay for things, for new things, nice things, shiny things; they’re not going to pay to have things taken away. Kenneth Grange drove an E-Type Jag. A reductive designer would likely end up homeless.

Nicely Done

These were the place names laid out for each and every guest at the wedding of Steve and Jennie last year. Apparently they were made by hand using a tube of superglue and countless Scrabble sets bought over eBay.

I think they were an excellent bit of design, and I couldn’t think of anything more fitting to reflect the interests of two Scrabble obsessed English teachers.

Nice work guys. Happy anniversary.


“Today, when the pace of change is perhaps greater than it has ever been, the temptation to retreat in the face of complex societal problems to a perceived ‘Golden Age’ is great. The future is uncertain, as the traditionalists are wont to remind us, and the past is comforting. However, if we hope to avoid living in a society in which heritage is more important than creativity, we must learn to respect the past but live in the present, and concern ourselves with creating a better future for everyone”

The above quote by Billy Bragg perfectly sums up my feelings about Britain’s continued tendency to look backwards. Unfortunately I came across it a few weeks too late to include it in my piece on the DRU, and almost a year too late to paste it into my Routemaster rant, so it gets its own post.