An article which appeared in The Guardian based on an interview about my book.
You may have the vision of da Vinci, but with only five minutes to convince an interviewer of your indispensability, you can’t rely on your creative glow to speak for itself. The trouble with artistic spirits is that they are often useless at selling themselves. “It is difficult to be objective about your strengths or weaknesses because creativity is so personal,” says Jay McCauley Bowstead, fashion designer and author of A Guide to Preparing Your Portfolio. “You should apply the same level of analytical thinking that you use to communicate ideas or solve problems through your designs to creating your portfolio, so that it illustrates your personality and purpose.”
So why hasn’t my album of creative highlights launched me into glory? Friends and family will rejoice in the journey through your best moments over a whisky, but potential employers haven’t the time to rummage your inner life for insights. “In a crowded marketplace you need to be quite specific about aiming your work in a particular direction,” McCauley Bowstead says. “If you have worked for the Big Issue and the Guardian, and apply for a job as a children’s illustrator, don’t expect the interviewer to intuit from your style that you can make the leap.”
But what about that definitive papier-mache sculpture of a pistol shrimp that clinched my art A-level? Let it go, and move on – unless it’s directly relevant to your ambitions in user interface design. It’s worth manipulating your portfolio to suit the post you’re applying for. So, if you’re a sculptor with hopes of community art work, take along the photos of the project you accomplished with Brixton teenagers: the brief you gave them, the evolving design and the construction process. If it’s a gallery you’re wooing, focus on publications that have featured you and a small sample of recent work. “People try to cover all their bases and think that if they include a bit of this and a bit of that they can appeal to lots of different employers. But you need to decide where to focus your energies or it can seem confused,” McCauley Bowstead says. “Think of your portfolio as a tool to manipulate the interview. Ask yourself what skills they will need, and when you are arranging the pieces of work, think of it as a narrative which will take the interviewer coherently through your style and ideas.”
My inner voice is too big to be confined to a few sheets in an A4 folder. It needn’t be. A small, beautifully produced package of work will speak more eloquently than a CV, so slip one in with your application forms to whet appetites. Then, if you are summoned, include different samples in your main portfolio and stick any less relevant masterpieces in a separate folder that you could bring out to emphasise your depth and breadth if the interview is going well.
Isn’t this is the digital age? A scrap book of swatches is going to look so dated. By all means promote your talents digitally. A well-crafted website or a multi-page PDF sent with a CV might win that interview, but a tangible portfolio brings your work alive. And interviewers will not want to waste time while you are with them watching you leaf through pages on your laptop when they could access it online in your absence. “Ten years ago there was a big move to very clean digitised images, but now hard skills are becoming more relevant, and having a handcrafted drawing alongside slick commercial work can really lift a portfolio,” McCauley Bowstead says.
My website is peerless in flair and content, but no one except me ever looks at it. It all comes back to selling yourself. Find a club or association relevant to your field and get included on its web listings, and link into relevant blogs and social networking sites to capture any passing trade. And once again, don’t be tempted to upload your entire creative history – only simple, focused, coherent websites are going to detain potentially valuable passers by.