Portfolio Curation Help & Relation to Prepress

Hey there, so I’m looking to brush up my portfolio and add in some of the projects I’ve worked on, but I’ve got a kind of dilemma that I’m not sure how to handle.

So because I know I tend to ramble, the TLDR is that I’m still pretty fresh in the field, and trying to figure out how to include and organize the different projects that I’ve worked on in different capacities, because I’ve got a lot of stuff where I came in somewhere other than the start and I want to be honest about my role, but still show that I did play a part in them. There are more details below, but I did try to keep it brief, because you probably don’t need or want all of them.

I’m currently working at what is still my first job in the design field as the in-house designer for a print shop, where I’ve been for 3 years. I’ve got to do some great projects where we started at the ground and worked up, but there are also a lot where the original design work was done by someone else, and I’ve come in from behind to make adjustments - sometimes simply preflight stuff like adjusting the provided files for the proper output requirements, other times actually adjusting/updating/changing the design and composition significantly.

The trouble I’m having is, while I know that both design adjustment and prepress work are valuable skills, I’m not sure where to draw the line on what is appropriate to include in my portfolio, or how to label such works in a way that’s not misleading, or self depreciating. Currently I’m thinking of organizing them into completely original designs, guided/restricted designs, and production work; I think those titles are pretty self explanatory, but I’m not sure if that’s a weird way to do it. And even if it is clear, I’m not sure the lines are - does the use of stock imagery detract from the originality of a design enough that it should go from original to guided, or should there be a fourth category? Or is that overkill?

I’m not sure if I’m just overthinking or if my concerns have good answers that I just don’t know being still pretty fresh in the field. I know I want to include some of those projects in there, because being able to gesture to work I did on that scale is nice, but I don’t want it to come across as though I’m claiming responsibility for the whole project when I was on the tail end of it.

Normally, I’d be happy to share my portfolio and just ask for feedback on it, but I’m currently agonizing over whether I want to trash the whole thing and start over or try to prune it into better shape, so I’m not quite comfortable with that at the moment.

Hmm. I will try to answer the best that I can.

First and foremost, who is the audience for your portfolio? I ask because you suggested three general categories of work: original designs, guided/restricted designs, and production work.

If you are looking for design work, clients won’t care about production work. There is an assumption on client’s part that if you designed it, you can make it print. This might be misguided in some circumstances, but it’s there.

If, on the other hand, you are going after a prepress job and you have a sample that’s four color plus spot colors plus spot varnishes plus foil stamping plus die cutting and it had a ton of trapping that you did manually . . . then, yes, a potential employer might be interested in seeing that. But if it’s not your creative, I don’t think it belongs in a portfolio when you’re looking for either creative clients or to be hired as a creative.

The tricky one is the guided/restricted designs. In my opinion, you need to be crystal clear about your role. It’s probably best to present these as a before and after case study. Show the original and show what you did. If the new design borrows any aspects of the original, I think you need to credit the original creative. My inclination would be to leave these pieces out of your portfolio unless the work you did was so substantial that the end product really is like a different piece from the original. In that case, I’d still make it clear that it was a redesign.

Hope that helps.

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Additionally, I’ve been in this field for 30 years. I frequently send work to other designers and step into the role of CD or AD. In those cases, I tell the designers they are welcome to show the work in their portfolios but request that the work gets credited as “Designed for (Steve_O’s Company Name) — Steve_O, Art Director.”

I completely agree with @Steve_O, so I won’t repeat what he’s already mentioned.

Yes, you might be overthinking it, and no, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to your questions. The main concerns, in my opinion, are the type of jobs you’ll be applying for (as Steve mentioned) and being absolutely clear about your role in each project.

It’s always nice to credit collaborators, and in your situation, it’s especially important since there’s a lack of clear distinction between where your work begins and another leaves off. Personally, I’d likely leave out anything that’s roughly less than 50% yours, but even that’s fuzzy since your, say, 10% contribution, might have make 90% of the difference.

If you plan on pursuing a job more focused on design than prepress work, as Steve said, the art director will be less concerned about those skills and more concerned about your design work. Even so, you can use your experience in problem solving to your advantage. If you’re interviewing with a good art or creative director, that person will know how important those skills are and how they’re so often lacking in so many newer designers.

Every interview situation is different, and your presentation needs to be tailored to the specifics of the situation. As far as your portfolio goes, don’t overthink it — the people looking at it will make snap judgments, and if the portfolio is broken down into multiple sections that require a learning curve (no matter how short) to figure out and understand, that will work against you.

As I mentioned, be absolutely clear about what work is yours and what isn’t, but keep it simple. If it works best to divide things up, fine, but keep it straightforward and clear. And as I mentioned, if you’ll be looking for more design-related work, stress your design abilities, but also make it clear that you have the additional skills that come from regularly working with (and fixing) other people’s work and collaborating with them to produce something better. These are important skills for anyone — especially junior or mid-level designers.

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