Wednesday, March 20, 2013

PortFAILio: The Art of NOT Getting a Job

With GDC 2013 around the corner and many students and professionals planning to kick their job search into high gear, I thought it worthwhile to be sharing my own particular flavor of thoughts on job hunting for artists.  While lots of other talented individuals have contributed to this topic in the past, I wanted to add a slightly different "spin."  This is also lifted straight from a presentation I gave to a group of students at Ringling College of Art & Design this past December 2012.

Disclaimer:  I'm using "portfolio" as a generic term.  I'm not referring only to physical media.  Your portfolio is your website, your forum presence or your profile on any number of art sites.  Your portfolio is your work, regardless of the manner in which it is presented.

This article is NOT (get it?) about what to include in your portfolio.  Why?  Simply put, there is no strict formula as to what to include and what not to include.  In fact, the types of things one might include varies from studio to studio, from project to project and from position to position.  There are nigh-infinite variables to consider.  And unlike some Mordor-forged ring, there is no "one portfolio to rule them all."

So, why am I writing this?

Unlike Roulette, there's no guarantee your ball will find a home.
I want to improve your odds.  I've been in your shoes and count myself fortunate that I was able to enter the industry when I did.  I started in 1998 and the industry landscape is very different now from how it was then -- not better, not worse, just different.  Regardless, any job seeker needs to understand that the job market is rough, especially for students.  How bad is it?  Let me put it this way, students don't have to compete with each other any more.  With the high turnover rate at publishers and large number of shuttered studios, students now have to compete with professionals - those with real experience and shipped titles to their credit.  In the face of that much adversity, I want to help.  There were a few key individuals who helped me when I was starting out, and now it's my turn.

Yes, people use to have them, and yes, I used to carry them to interviews.
Also, I've spent many years reviewing portfolios, sourcing candidates, conducting interviews and .... discarding applications.  Every recruiter you ever meet will tell you that they throw away more applications than they actually consider.  As I mentioned above, the things to include in one's portfolio is wildly subjective.  While I can provide more general pointers, there are plenty of others who have already done so.  What I want to do is point out the "portfolio killers."  These are the most common things applicants do, oftentimes well-meaning, which transform their portfolio into a portFAILio.

The Dog Shit


Let's go ahead and get this out of the way first.  Don't put any "dog shit" work in your portfolio.  I don't have to explain why.  More important, you shouldn't be the one making this evaluation either.
How to Fix:
Find someone you trust who can also be brutally critical of your work.  No holds barred criticism.  They will call out the dogshit to you and you must excise it with extreme prejudice.  No second thinking, because there are no second chances.

The Scatter Shot

Got any hits in that portfolio?
This is the most common failing of student portfolios.   That was certainly my portfolio's failing, and it continued to be a problem with my portfolio even two years after I had entered the industry.  This is the Jack of All Trades problem, combined with the fact that most students haven't yet built up a library of sample work.  In short, there's a little bit of everything, but none of it is truly exceptional.  This portfolio loses out to the candidate who has really honed a specific skill and has built strength in a key area or two.

How to Fix:
Difficult.  Most students are understandably generalists who want or need exposure to a lot of variety before settling on their key focus.  In truth, some don't find their focus until after acquiring some professional experience.  There is nothing wrong with demonstrating breadth in one's portfolio.  But lead with your strength and your passion.  Again, if you can't figure it out, then call up that harshest critic mentioned above and ask them.  Build several solid pieces around this strength demonstrating variety in artistic style.  Assuming they are strong enough, let the "breadth" pieces add flavor to your portfolio but let your strength play center stage.

The History Teacher

My brother-in-law.  Yes, an actual history teacher.

The history teacher's portfolio is much like the Scatter Shot -- lots of samples and not a lot of key strengths.  The History Teacher portfolio is unique in that this candidate wants to show you their ENTIRE BACK CATALOG.  I've seen candidates include things they created in high school.  Their intent, naturally, is to show you, the art lead or hiring manager, how far they've come.  Great.  Can I let you in on something?  Other than your friends and parents, no one gives a shit.  Learning and growing is part of professional development and it is assumed that you are better today than you were yesterday.  The person who may hire you wants to know what you can do NOW not what you could do THEN.  And if your NOW is no better than your THEN, your portfolio won't get you anywhere

How to Fix:
Remove the back catalog.  If there is some reason why you think an older image is worth including, it better be fucking amazing.  Keep your portfolio not only to your BEST but also your most recent.  I'll discuss this in greater detail below, but recognize that your portfolio has a shelf life.

The Cactus Bikini

I can't believe I found this image.
Basically, your portfolio is made of the "wrong material."  Now this aspect is subject to some debate by professionals; what I'm giving here is my opinion so I'm going to take a little extra space to explain myself.  Ultimately, I feel that an artist's portfolio should match the company to which they are applying.  For example, if your portfolio is chock full of space marines, it doesn't make sense to send it to the company that only makes fantasy games.  The reverse is also true.

Now, I've met some students who have told me that their professors tell them not to imitate the work of other games or companies.  Allow me to clarify.  Absolutely do not just clone their work; don't try to just create a copy. 

How to Fix:
It is perfectly valid and even recommended that your work appear to be a stylistic match or, even better, build upon the art style that potential employer has already developed. Furthermore, there's one key criteria that will cause most employers to want to set up a phone call after viewing a portfolio. 

In my case, I ask myself this question:  does this person's work match the work we do.  It is even better if there are samples in that portfolio that look like they're ready to be exported into the next game in that franchise.  Every recruiter or hiring manager wants to find people they know can perform.  It's a simple question of confidence level -- the more aligned the portfolio, the greater the confidence.

Final note on "wrong material" is this.  I've seen a handful of portfolios that were just ... strange.  The candidate's work clearly indicated some form of personal fetish or attraction to a subculture.  In these cases, the portfolio not only leans far too heavily in a single direction but is also just plain ... awkward.

The Ancient

A mummy's portfolio?

This is an unfortunate scenario, and one to which both professionals and students alike are subject.  This is the condition under which a portfolio has stagnated and fallen behind.  Ours is a fast-paced, technical industry with new artistic techniques developed every year.  One must keep pace.

Most students' portfolios fail here simply because they come out of school thinking their portfolio is done and then wholly focus on the job hunt.  The job hunt sometimes takes a long time.  In 1998, my job hunt took almost 6 months, to give you a frame of reference.  Aside from the job hunt itself, you have one key goal to complete once you graduate school.  Replace every piece in your portfolio.

How to Fix:
It may sound strange, but this is critical.  Regardless of the setting, you probably spent 2 years or 4 years building the portfolio.  The quality of your skills as well as your artistic eye is likely much stronger upon graduation than it was in any of the preceding years.  Not only that, but sometimes student work is hyper-directed by faculty and your work may be too similar to other students'.  You should look to replace each piece with a better piece - one that demonstrates greater talent and greater personal passion.

A final note:

Don't disregard presentation quality.  It may sound trite, but I've seen lots of promising work that was poorly lit, poorly composed or just organized in such haphazard fashion that the portfolio itself (rather than the images themselves) sunk the candidate.  Presentation quality strongly indicates whether or not the applicant can "bring it all together."

When it comes to portfolios:  a mess is a mess.  If you have one, clean it up.  Don't let it become a portFAILio.

If it were food, make it like this.
Not this.

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