What is a Portfolio?

What exactly is a portfolio, and how does that translate for people in different professions?

That’s a question that has started weighing on my mind recently, ever since I started building my portfolio. A quick check online gave me this Wikipedia entry that is closest to the form of portfolio I’m interested in:

“An artist’s portfolio is an edited collection of their best artwork intended to showcase an artist’s style or method of work.”

What got my attention was the word “edited”. It never occurred to me that when we build our portfolios, that we’re making changes. To my mind, portfolios are collections of the best works of professionals, showcased in a flashy way (the web versions, anyway). But it is true, isn’t it? We do have to edit the whole truth, to extract the best of each work and show that and that only. The entire work is typically too much to consume at one go, and has too many distractions for the viewer. If a web designer wants the viewer to see the best of her most recent work, chances are she will be highlighting the website’s homepage only. Furthermore, to make it more appealing to the viewer, there’s a good chance she will be doing some form of enhancement. Editing. Which is fair, of course.

The next bit of description says,

“A portfolio is used by artists to show employers their versatility by showing different samples of current work.”

I’ve an issue with the “employers” bit. What about independent artists? Do they not still have portfolios, to show their potential customers before agreeing to work together? Replacing that with “employers or clients”, then, we arrive at a portfolio being a showcase of not only the best works, but also a wide spectrum of the different kinds of work that have been done by the professional, for the benefit of a potential working partner. Totally fair —if the portfolio in question only demonstrates the painter’s ability to paint blue paintings, and the client/employer had in his mind a red one, then the portfolio would have essentially ended the conversation, right?

Interestingly, before thinking about the definition of a portfolio, I had unknowingly adhered to the above principles. Not only did I pluck out screenshots of the individual websites I was showcasing to put them into dioramas, but I was highlighting only a part of each of these works. I also essentially broke them down into different categories so that I could highlight my strengths in different areas. As far as I could see from others’ portfolios, a majority of them do the same too. The rest are inclined towards the “I do this kind of work only” category, reflecting “depth in one specific area of work”.

I also began to wonder: who actually need portfolios? When presenting myself as a frontend web developer, I did not think I needed a portfolio. When most of your work is code, why would you, and how would you have a portfolio to show? Which was why I stopped maintaining my past portfolios, and opted to share what I can do during the interviews. Yet when I saw Kenji Saito’s spectacular array of code snippets on his portfolio, I had to admit I was being narrow-minded. If I were a company I’d totally hire Kenji, based on the strength of the portfolio alone.

Designers—graphic designers and web designers and UI designers—undoubtedly need one. Without a portfolio, it’s hard to show what you’re capable of to your potential working partner(s). Do other professionals need portfolios too? I wonder. In this increasingly visual and competitive world, maybe a day will come when teachers have to showcase pictures and videos of themselves teaching, in order to gain a competitive edge. Or perhaps its already happening. I won’t know.

As far as I can tell online, portfolios these days also have the tendency to be themselves creative and attention grabbing. The very notion of a portfolio suggests creativity and the ability to impress. Which is why, very often, the portfolios themselves are more impressive than the works they showcase. (Part of the reason for that, likely, is that clients are less inclined to take risks than the creators themselves. Didn’t Paul Arden point out shrewdly that mediocrity has the greatest demand?)

But there should be something more to portfolios than the above points. Portfolios should reflect the creator, and therefore be unique. That is why I’m personally against the idea of portfolio sites like Behance. While they are probably decent tools for spreading your work, using them exclusively for your personal portfolio is surely a bad idea. How can anyone differentiate your portfolio from that of the others if they all share the same damn layout and colors? How can a template reflect the unique personality and character behind you?

Irene Demetri’s portfolio is light and playful and offers a glimpse into the kind of designer she is; if you’re a serious businessman you may not be interested in working with her, but if you’re a startup you’re probably keen. Kenji Saito’s portfolio is firmly anchored on technology as a motif, and you can likely imagine what he can do for your product or offering. What about myself? My newly created portfolio? Frankly, I can’t tell. I’m too involved in my own portfolio to be able to tell the feel and vibe it gives off to people. Nonetheless, I can say without hesitation that my portfolio is mine and mine alone, unique and free of any of the influence of templates that haunts many designers. That should be a good thing—based on my definition of a good portfolio, anyway.

The last thing that every portfolio needs is probably the contact details. After impressing your would-be collaborators, surely you want them to have a chance to get back to you if they do decide to work with you? In fact, I’m sure some people will insist that this is the single most element in a portfolio. Many, like myself, beg to differ. I have yet to add my contact details to my portfolio—goes to show much importance I attribute to it. On another web designer’s portfolio I came across, the contact link wasn’t working. Everything else was looking great, but the contact link alone was clearly not tested. Made me smile for a second. Artists and their self -contained worlds.

I suppose that’s it. From the time when portfolios were physical folders to now, when an entire website can be a portfolio, the purpose of it has probably remained unchanged: to sell the creator, one way or another. And just as each individual is different, so can (should) each portfolio be different. Not only is it important for a portfolio to be different in order to stand out, there’s also the question of compatibility. Like my examples above, a portfolio that showcases not just your works but your individuality helps both the creator and the client/employer to filter out the clearly incompatible parties. When I was younger, I had the misconception that I should be molding my image to the employer/client I hoped to work with. Now I know that incompatibility is unresolvable (or at least too painful and usually not worth the effort to resolve), and that I’m better off being myself and working with people who want me for myself.

At the end of this reflection, have I gained any special insight that can improve my portfolio by leaps and bounds? Unfortunately, no. Like I said, my portfolio is a reflection of myself, and no amount of thinking can change my portfolio drastically within a day, just as nobody can change himself overnight. As time goes by, I will add in bits and pieces that should improve it in stages. Until then, all I can do is to keep thinking futilely and working fervently and hoping that someday, it will become something I’m truly proud of.