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portfolio vs client (briefcase icon next to avatar and money icon on cold background)

Who you should work for: your portfolio or your client?

I will always disclose the conclusion first, assuming you have a busy, busy life. Always work for your portfolio and never, ever for your client. Take from the client only the raw problem and solve it with honesty, attention to details and grit. But if you don’t do it carefully, you’ll lose the client, his money, you’ll starve and die. :)

Now, I can assure you’ll forget this advice if you close this page before you read the rest (even if you find this useful and the smartest thing to do).

First, let me tell you how I see the idea of portfolio and how I see the client.

PORTFOLIO

  • think of it as the most important evangelist of your professional life. To understand how important it is, imagine that some day you’ll lose your voice. That’s right, you’re not able to speak anymore. Portfolio should be not only a voice speaking on your behalf, but an eloquent one.
  • in the mean time, think about your Portfolio as your Super-Ego. When you create something – and I’m not talking just about aesthetics here – just try to imagine this in your portfolio. You’ll be proud of it or not? Don’t ever put something in your portfolio just because is good enough (I still struggle with this myself). Remember the feeling: PROUD.
  • Portfolio should be your single competitor. Don’t try to compete with agencies or famous designers. It’s not practical. Not only in terms of time and resources but emotions and feelings. Those are the engine of your imagination and passion and by putting an overwhelming weight on them, can cause some serious damage. Take one step at the time and do your best to make a better work next time, regardless of your current success. Be unhappy with your work. Admire it as long as you need to, but move on.
  • Portfolio is your also a mirror. Can you look better than you already are? Of course you do. Always. Mirror analogy is at the same time about sincerity. You lied in your portfolio? Sooner or later the lie will float like a piece of sh… but let’s get going, you see the point.
  • Long time ago when I was so into photography field I use to tell people that the only difference between a good and a bad photographer is that the good one shows only the good work. In other words, be extremely selective. Gladly I’m expanding this advice to the entire life: don’t watch poor movies, read bad books or marry bad wives. See all those as your portfolio of knowledge and experiences. It’s hard at the beginning to take action on this principle but you’ll make a significant difference in the long run.

CLIENT

  • you won’t find the perfect client. Ever. There is no such thing as there is no perfect designer, friend, wife, mother, brother, past or future. Before anything else, nurture a good relationship. Never, ever look at the money but instead at this relationship. Even your client doesn’t know anything about design, work as if you are employed by one of the best designers in the world. Would you dare to show a mediocre work of art? No, of course not.
  • you are tempted to say that your client is stupid. I’ve done this huge mistake many years ago and the history is repeating with young designers. It’s perfectly understandable his lack of knowledge in design field and this is why this client actually hired you. Anyway, because you tend to expand his ignorance, you’re not paying enough attention to business details and in spite offering a beautiful design solution later on, you might miss solving the most important problem already described. Been there, done that. Your client is much smarter than you because he is in the middle of his business, he is facing problems and consequences every single day. You know his business only superficially, no matter how well he’s describing it to you. His business is so complex (the competition makes it so) that your role can be seen as just painting his building office. Don’t ever be arrogant thinking you uncorked his money pipe. It’s just wrong. Humbleness is gold.

Coming back to the question in the title of this article, it seems a little bit counterintuitive to work for your portfolio instead of your client. Well, that’s because there is an important tint in it. Usually, the brief contains mixed information about the problem and design matters. Extract the raw variables but take design matter in your own hands because your client:

  • is tempted to see the design solution just by copying the competition’s design. In this case, you’re a puppet ready to vectorise and move things around until you get this restful visual feeling. Although all are screaming for differentiation, most of them are afraid to differentiate. This is not only their dissonance. It’s also yours.
  • has (as you are) his own fixation regarding shapes, colours and, in general, how a visual experience should happen. In worst case scenario, your fixations are better because you experienced much more in terms of design. In theory, his mistakes should be much painful than yours.
  • your client is expecting to see at least as better solutions as you showed in your portfolio. Being a yes person won’t uncover your potential in finding the best solution for the problem.

Now let’s get back to work. Time’s short while art is long.

Adrian Costea