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A black book (or web page) is opened.
Samples of creative work are viewed.
The book or page is closed.
Decisions are made.
As a creative professional and educator, I have always pondered the meaning and role of the creative portfolio, what it means to those who are creative professionals, and also to those who are not—those who interact or recruit creatives. For art directors, copywriters, and designers in multiple disciplines, the creative portfolio is their lifeblood. It’s where they show their work. It’s their default resume and principle means by which to land jobs. And, in the end, it defines their careers. The reason it defines their careers is because creative directors, hiring managers and recruiters use the “book” or portfolio to judge a creative pro’s worth. But how much can we really tell about someone from their portfolio, and how defining is it? To me a creative portfolio is solely this:
An artifact that illustrates the degree to which a creative person has been “allowed” to be creative.
Since I put allowed in quotes, let me define it a bit. Unless you are a street-corner musician, a poet or a self-styled starving artist, creative professionals are almost always more obligated to be professional than creative. They work for design companies, ad agencies, or corporate in-house creative teams. This means that their creativity is constrained by their employer. Creative people are further constrained by the clients of their employers. For services companies, this means external clients. For internal groups, this means other functional units within the company. In effect, the sum of these constraints equals the degree to which a creative person is allowed to be creative.
These constraints don’t simply lie in the necessity to conform to a creative brief, design specs or customer requirements. From a broader perspective, all individuals who judge the work of the creative person subjectively form constraints. These include creative directors, account executives, marketing clients, engineers, technologists and many more, including the end-customer if a company is creating correctly. In the end, the work of the creative is not solely a measure of their creativity, but also an artifact of their particular environment’s creative process. It’s important to note that when I say environment, I don’t mean the process itself, but the space within which the process acts itself out. Let me illustrate this with an example:
A copywriter and art director team, from a Chicago advertising agency, come up with an idea for a 30-second television commercial for a consumer package goods (CPG) client.
The idea is shown to their creative director, the creative director’s boss, three account executives, and two clients who are marketing managers/directors. The client then takes the idea and shows it to four more people including their boss. The idea gets altered in numerous ways to meet the ideals and requirements of all who have touched it. Next it goes into production. A director, actors, producers, editors and numerous others touch it and alter it before it is a final product that goes into the copywriter’s and art director’s creative portfolio.
In the example above, the first part contains the environment in which the creative process is acted out
2. Ad agency
3. CPG client
The second part is the process. Most creative professionals understand this process, or one similar to it. Most consider this a system that is acceptable and known. And though creatives, being creative, might occasionally moan about it, they mostly resign themselves to its machinations. However, what very few people consider is how drastically this scenario changes when you change the first part, the environment. So let’s take the exact same process and make the following environment replacements:
Chicago to Portland, Oregon
CPG Client to Athletic Shoe Client
Now, even though the process is probably very similar, the environment has drastically changed. For instance, Chicago has traditionally been a conservative advertising city. Portland has not. CPG clients are often conservative marketers. Athletic shoe makers typically are not. CPG companies often flock to Chicago agencies due to their CPG expertise and conservatism. Athletic shoe companies do not. CPG companies typically employ the kind of person who can understand and conform to the sort of strategic branding these companies do. Chicago ad agencies typically hire creative professionals with portfolios that fit their current client’s style.
Change the Environment, Change the Creative Product
Now imagine the process above taking place in the new environment. If the exact same copywriter and art director were involved, with the exact same process, would the outcome (creative portfolio artifact) be different?
Faster than you can say swoosh. You can bet your recession-proof savings on it.
Country, city, type of office, type of client; these are the environmental elements that designers, art directors and copywriters work within, and that contribute to the formation of their creative product, and thus their creative portfolio. And this is why a creative portfolio only tells part of the story regarding an individual’s creativity and creative potential.
Throughout my 20-year creative career I have known and worked with numerous wildly creative individuals who do NOT have wildly creative portfolios. I’ve also known many creatives who blossomed and evolved once their environment changed. For some it was simply a change of workplace. For others, a whole new city or country or client industry precipitated the evolution.
There’s a rather famous example of this not many people know about. The lead Industrial Designer at Apple, Johnathon Ive, has become a legend for his design and design stewardship of Apple’s groundbreaking iMac, iPod and iPhone designs. But Ive wasn’t always the hero at Apple. In fact, during the years when Steve Jobs was away from company, Apple took a nosedive, and the company was at its all-time lows in stock price. Despite the fairly wide acceptance of Mac by creative professionals, Apple looked as if it was going the way of the Dodo. At that time, Ive was there (he started in 1992), designing, and building a (mostly unimpressive) creative portfolio.
Then his environment changed.
Steve Jobs returned in 1997 and put the focus of the company on industrial design. He opened the floodgates for folks like Ive, a brilliant designer, to show just how creative he can be. This one change in environment changed a middling creative talent (if you only looked at his creative portfolio) and allowed him to achieve a level of creativity closer to his potential.
A creative portfolio is an artifact that illustrates the degree to which a creative person has been “allowed” to be creative.
Seeing Behind the Portfolio
The implications for this sort of perspective about creative portfolios stretch from creator to creative co-worker to recruiter. I think that most creatives would agree with much of what I’ve outlined, perhaps even with an apathetic shrug. But to those who float the periphery of the creative world, these notions are perhaps far more important.
Outside of creative professions, job hunters are judged on their resume, their experience, their education and how they come across in an interview. This is the normal world. But not for creatives. Creative professionals are mostly, and often solely, judged on the content of their portfolios. Given this inevitability, I would plead with those who critique portfolios and make hiring decisions (yes, you too, creative directors) to open their minds to a creative’s potential as much as their portfolio. I humbly request you start with these three simple guidelines that help you see behind the creative portfolio to the real creative professional.
1. Read between the lines.
Look at creative executions with an open mind. Try to see through the end result and consider the process and especially the environment.
2. Listen, don’t look.
Listen to the creative talk about their work and probe deeper into how it got there. Don’t just scan it and take it at face value. Typically, there is far more value hiding behind the face.
3. Remember that creativity is born before it is recruited
Creative professionals are creative by nature first, not profession. What you see isn’t all there is. In fact, the typical creative portfolio is usually just the tip of the creative iceberg.
With these guidelines, I guarantee you will better understand both the work and the mind of the creative professionals you come in contact with, and be able to better gauge creative potential. In today’s creative world there are a handful of wunderkinds out there who are tearing up the awards books, and making names for themselves internationally. But these handful are not the only ones capable of creating extraordinary work, they merely represent the ones who have been allowed to.
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As always, your comments are welcome–BV
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