I'm good at art, but I'm not creative. How do I make a portfolio?
August 13, 2010 7:34 PM   Subscribe

I like to think that I'm pretty good at web/graphic design, programming, motion graphics, and a lot of other new media type things..but I'm a left-brained guy. How do I put together a portfolio (or otherwise market my skills) to show what I'm good at, even though I'm not the type of person to sit around and make art?

I'm good at a wide variety of artistic things, and while I do have an intuitive grasp of art, I usually approach it from an analytical/mathematical perspective. (Yes, a good portion of my photography uses rule of thirds. Why do you ask?) This means that I create things with a purpose, and I rarely am artistic "just because".

The trouble is that I see my artsy friends getting jobs and other opportunities because they have a large amount of work to show off, often work they've created "just because". I, on the other hand, have a wide variety of skills (everything from simple Wordpress tweaks to sponsor thank you videos played at corporate events), but not a large quantity of any specific type of work.

For example, I taught myself how to use Adobe After Effects, and I've cranked out some "ridiculously impressive" (other people's words) videos for various events, but I don't feel that I have enough examples for a portfolio. Or I've put together various 1-2 page websites for community happenings, but I don't think I have enough samples to show off.

What's the best way to market my work while emphasizing my various abilities, without drawing attention to the fact that I might only have 2 or 3 samples of any given media type? Because sweet fancy moses, I am not spending my weekend creating fake corporate brand packages just because.
posted by niles to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I would put up what you have and just add to it as you complete projects in the future.
posted by MegoSteve at 7:53 PM on August 13, 2010

Are you trying to get a full-time job or freelance?
posted by AlsoMike at 8:05 PM on August 13, 2010

Response by poster: AlsoMike: Freelance for now, but ultimately it's something I'd like to pursue as a full time opportunity.
posted by niles at 8:09 PM on August 13, 2010

I am not spending my weekend creating fake corporate brand packages just because.

This is, you realize, a big part of how people starting out get excellent portfolios: they spend spare, unpaid time demonstrating their talents. They're not doing it "just because," they're doing it just because it's going to get them more work.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:17 PM on August 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

You don't have to do fake corporate branding packages if you don't want to, but you have to do something. So think up something that interests you and do that. Then put it in your portfolio. Two birds, one stone.
posted by spilon at 9:36 PM on August 13, 2010

If you're going for a full-time position, I'd advise you to stay away from too many specializations. As a programmer who can do design work, the people you want to hire you generally love the all-in-one idea: hire a programmer and get a designer too, absolutely free! They like a free designer because they don't want to pay for design, and this usually means they also won't give you enough time and resources to do a good job, and there won't be any mentorship or real critique that would help you grow as a designer because you will be the best in the company. You can transition out of that into a real design position after a few years, but you go back to the bottom. The freelance situation is similar, you end up with clients who need some programming, and want design thrown in for free. They come to you because they didn't like the price of a real designer, so they aren't the greatest clients to have.

In other words, there's not much career advantage to having a very broad set of skills. It's often a disadvantage, even when you can avoid the "jack of all trades, master of none" problem. It's somewhat of an advantage if you plan on starting your own web design company, but you really need to have great business development skills on top of that, or hire someone who does. Or maybe you could try writing your own iPhone apps and see if you can position yourself as a freelance app developer. A programming background is also useful for a UX designer, because it means you can build prototypes and work more effectively with developers.

Regardless, if I were you I'd pick something to focus on, build out your portfolio in that area and invest in some design education certification or something to show employers you're serious about design.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:16 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: chesty_a_arthur: Yeah, I understand that, but it's like my brain just can't be creative without a client. Any tips on things I can do kick myself in gear?

AlsoMike: Thanks for the advice. I suppose I thought that companies would pay more for someone with a larger skillset, but I can see how one could end up in the situation you describe.
posted by niles at 10:14 AM on August 14, 2010

I'm not sure from your description what it is you're interested in, or what aspect of all these kinds of work you enjoy doing most.

A friend of mine always says "you get the work you do", which is often true, for good or ill - if you're trying to get freelance work you'll mostly get work from people who see something you've done and want something like it (unless your potential clients know you well and know you can do stuff that isn't in your portfolio). So, you need to do some work that is like the kind of work you want to get paid to do.

Because you say "I am not spending my weekend creating fake corporate brand packages just because" I'm assuming you don't actually want to get work creating corporate branding. At least, it's not your ideal work. If it was, you'd probably be happy to spend your free time doing it because it would interest you. So, if that's not it, what does interest you?

You don't need to necessarily set yourself fake briefs from pretend clients. But you should think of something to explore. Don't worry at first about creating something that's going to be good enough for your portfolio. That's like a painter staring at a blank canvas worrying about producing a painting good enough to go in a gallery. The painter would probably start with sketching, doodling, playing around, take photographs, do some rough paintings, work up to the final thing.

So you should also just start tinkering and playing with things that you want to do. If you're into it enough then, after a while, you may see how to make something portfolio-worthy out of it. Maybe even your experiments will be good enough to demonstrate to potential clients the areas and techniques you're interested in.

Also, don't feel bad about being "analytical/mathematical". Plenty of art and design people are like that, and it's something that makes you different. Hell, I did four years of art school, doing graphic design and illustration, and I'm way too literal and unimaginative to be really "arty". Find areas and techniques where your tendencies will benefit you. In terms of graphic design and motion graphics, maybe data visualisation would be a good balance of the two sides of the brain?
posted by fabius at 2:20 PM on August 14, 2010

Yeah, I understand that, but it's like my brain just can't be creative without a client. Any tips on things I can do kick myself in gear?

This is an opportunity to hit up your friends and family. Ask around if anyone needs anything done. I actually did this a little bit ago because I was looking to return to freelancing and my portfolio needed some refreshing. I did a little bit of free/super-discounted work for people I knew with a couple caveats in place (i.e. no expectations of tight deadlines, one round of critique, whatever) and that helped me get my portfolio back up to date and get my mind back in the game.

Also, don't feel like you need tons and tons of stuff in a portfolio. A portfolio shouldn't be a clearinghouse of everything you've done; it should be curated to show off the best examples of your skills. Five awesome pieces (even of different media) is much better than 20 run-of-the-mill pieces.
posted by stefnet at 6:18 PM on August 14, 2010

Yeah - totally agree that it's hard to make up projects out of whole cloth. You can do pro bono work, though, as in stefnet's suggestion above, or work on solving problems you've identified with existing sites/campaigns/etc. They don't have to know about it. :)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:50 AM on August 16, 2010

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