The Class of 2012 in Industrial Design at the University of Cincinnati had a problem our book reviewer can sympathize with: ID books rarely show process, yet portfolio presentation requires the viewer to understand the underlying thinking in a matter of seconds. Furthermore, most ID schools don't run those students through the paces of Photoshop or InDesign that is requisite for putting their work in the best light. With their new book The Portfolio Handbook, the University of Cincinnati Class of 2012 asked people in-the-know how a portfolio should be structured so you wouldn't have to.
The book begins with a light tone, framing portfolio design questions as coming from little South Park-headed personas asking (and answering) naïve questions. Each section is introduced by the talking heads and often followed with shots of students working on prototypes or huddled around walls of Post-it notes. Those shots serve to illustrate that the students have done the work they're explaining, and that the same structures that underlie classroom teaching and presentation apply to portfolio layout.
Four years of work is difficult to condense into a single portfolio, so they begin with a survey of working designers. The designers they surveyed placed the highest value on quality of ideas and conceptual sketches, placing less importance on finished designs, renders, 3D models or prototypes. Those are the same skills most non-specialized employers require, but portfolio construction is slightly more complex. Communicating the quality of ideas requires two other skills that don't score so highly: storytelling and graphic design, so the Handbook spends the bulk of its pages on that foundation.
Graphic design is the terrain of your portfolio, yet it's often neglected in ID school. Without graphic design (a lowly #10 in their survey), it's going to be difficult to tell a good story (#4) that conveys the most important elements: ideas (#1) and your conceptual sketches (#2). While pages can be thumbnailed or collaged, a layout program like InDesign is essential to keeping your content in a hierarchy while meeting the professional standards employers expect. The Handbook uses InDesign layouts of real student work to illustrate the fundamental concept of the grid along with typographic issues like tracking, kerning and leading. The only thing they don't do is tie the concept of a text baseline into the grid. Noticing errors where type and photo content fail to align is a quick way for employers to winnow down a large pile of portfolios. Look it up. Understanding baselines might save you from the garbage pail.
Where the book shines is when they begin to discuss storytelling. Early on, they mention the importance of a voice and a style to the character of the portfolio, but only in approaching varied student work is the verbal description made clear. John Miller uses sketches and minimalist layouts to convey prowess, while Oliver Muller presents his portfolio as though it was a manual for his product, a useful analogy.
Midway through, the inclusion of classroom photographs begins to cohere with the portfolio work. A few pages present photos of students working with Post-its and competitive landscapes on an idea board and the next reveals portfolios that used graphic design to display the multi-tiered hierarchies of ideation, research and drawing. By including visual representations of the classroom process, student portfolios can convey the difficult journey of design even if prospective employers flip the pages quickly.
Toward the end, they offer a tidbit of advice we wished we'd taken: "Show off your crappy, cobbled-together sketch models," and "you aren't going to be keeping those under your bed forever." We can't stress the importance of this advice enough. Especially if you're a first or second year student, photograph your work, even your bad work. It may seem like it's not worth documenting at the time, but it will break, and you'll regret it. The students bring use that "bad" work to good result with a portfolio page that's a shot of 20 or so loose-leaf sketches with the words "Epic Fail" superimposed in bold caps. Even though a design consultancy likely wouldn't show discarded work to clients, they have piles of sketches that went nowhere, and they'll respect you for showing your dead-ends and failures as much as your successes.
Like potential employers, we were pretty comfortable with the students' level of design skill far before we reached the tidy renders in the final pages of the manual. Those last pages, however, offer the opportunity to link the finished product with its early inspiration and force you to create a visual hierarchy so that the features and functions are easily read. The book closes with a series of interviews in which working designers explain how to avoid the pitfalls they encountered in their portfolio process. While we can't anticipate which piece of advice might be most useful to any given student, keep in mind that those students were able to secure jobs without the Handbook. If you choose to buy it or to donate and download the PDF, we imagine that your journey will be considerably easier.