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A case of Portfolio Pain

Why is it so hard for us designers to put together a portfolio and even harder to keep it fresh and interesting? 

It’s been now 10 years since the last episode of The Office aired, but still, to this day, I can tell you lines by heart. If a particular situation in daily life reminds me of a specific interaction from the show, I’m fast to mention it to whoever is listening. It mildly annoys my friends. 

When it felt like it was time to update my portfolio, I wasn’t sure how to do it; then I remembered an exchange between Jim and Dwight in their never-ending banter:

Jim: All right. Well, I'm not asking for a raise. I'm going to actually be asking for a pay decrease.
Dwight: Uh, that is so stupid. What if he gives it to you?
Jim: Then I win.

That dialogue came to mind because I’m actually downgrading my portfolio, and I realize that it sounds just as absurd as Jim and Dwight’s exchange. I hope I win. 

I’m calling it a portfolio now, but there aren’t any actual case studies or visuals. Granted, I gave visitors a few selected pictures from places I’ve been around the world, just as thanks for landing on the website, but I’m just a photo enthusiast, and this should be a design portfolio. 

In the beginning
My very first portfolio went live in 2004. I was so proud and happy about it. I remember the satisfaction of adding a lot of work to it. There wasn’t much of a written rationale behind the cases. Back then, I was a mid-level designer climbing my way up the ranks, and I had more of a graphic design-oriented showcase, so it was all about visual delight. The simple fact of having an online portfolio with a proprietary domain was half the battle. 

That portfolio opened up a few doors, and then, well, I kinda didn’t need a portfolio anymore. You see, I began to build a solid network, so things started happening naturally – a colleague would refer me, or maybe I would reach out to someone I had a mutual acquaintance with, so one thing led to another, and things sort of happened very organically for some good 12 years. 

The network I built was fantastic, and it took me to many places – I could probably still be milking that same network to this day, but another thing about me is that I am a curious individual. I’m interested in various places in Designland, and I live to explore different avenues down this domain, so I always saw embracing the unknown as part of my professional development. 

This idea of embracing the unknown and looking for other areas of expertise always carried a certain mystique to me, but I soon learned the intricacies of it.  If, on the one hand, you’re sure to expand your network, on the other hand, you may find that some of the contacts you had before might not be that relevant anymore. Breaking away from a certain area of expertise and venturing into a new one is very difficult, 

A big question for me was how to translate all the knowledge and experience I’ve accumulated up until now into the next thing I want to do. A good example of how that transpired for me was when I wanted to move from editorial to digital products. I had to start over. And I also wanted to move countries, so double whammy.

Anyway, it was clear to me that I needed a new portfolio. 

Even though digital products were on my professional menu, I was not working in a proper agency or in-house in that sense. It took someone incredibly cool like Peter to see beyond my then repertoire and understand how beneficial the translation of my previous skillset would be in this new environment. 

After that, I did it again and again. I know how to do this, I really do, but I’m now facing one of those crossroads once again in which I know that whatever brought me here needs to take a bit of a side step to make room for however I’ll go about my next portfolio. 

 “You’re only as good as your last work”
I heard this sentence at the main office of Huge in Brooklyn. I can’t remember who said it, but it certainly made an impression on me.

I have shifted my career path quite a few times in my life, so I tended to think that the previous work I’d done before was irrelevant, so it felt harder and harder to come up and share it, so my “last work” never felt good enough to me. 

Only recently, I realized I’ve been neglecting so many cool things I’ve done. Like,  I never talk about the fact that I’ve authored 3 books, or the documental video project I created with a friend, or an urban intervention I’ve done in São Paulo that ended up as a book. 

Me de um conselhor by Daniel Motta
The urban intervention in the streets of São Paulo, Brazil
Me de um conselho by Daniel Motta

The other day I was talking to my good friend Bruno and I mentioned I once was interviewed by Jô Soares, (he’s kinda like, Brazil’s David Letterman). This urban intervention was why he wanted to interview me. The project was quite simple: I put up a big wooden ballot in the streets of São Paulo with a notepad and a pen on top of it. There was a question: “can you give me an advice?” People would come up, write and cast the advice. Later, I would post all the advice on the project’s page and, eventually, went on to publish a book with those pieces of advice.

Bruno was so thrilled about it, and to me, that was only a nice memory of something cool that happened because of the relevance of my work back in 2012. I find it hard to find the right context to share information like that in the place where I stand professionally in 2023. 

I get the basics of it: every single thing I’ve done, be that a personal project or a professional one, added a little to my professional enrichment and ultimately brought me to the place where I am now. I am the director of a design team of 15 people from 10 nationalities in Helsinki, Finland. That’s no small feat, but still, I find it incredibly hard to pinpoint what brought me here. The knowledge transfer I had to put in place (and I know I’m not the only one who does that) was gigantic. 

A little clarity
I guess that in the process of writing this article, I realized that I have a very rigid preconception of what a portfolio should be. I'm expecting visual delight, well-written rationales, and a little info about the person. Extra points if there’s a professionally taken portrait. 

What I'm not expecting to see is spreadsheets or a screenshot of calendars filled with meetings. I feel a bit self-conscious because most of my days now consist of managing the team and engaging 1:1 with designers, and I find it very hard to highlight those things in a conventional portfolio format. If I happen to, say,  unblock a path for a designer, that absolutely makes my day, and yet I don't know how to highlight this in a way that sounds concrete and relevant.

I'm a big fan of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård. Fun fact; his book A Death in the Family was the one that brought my then-girlfriend, now wife, and me together when we first met. Both of us happened to be reading it at the same time. If you're not familiar with his work, he became famous for his 6-part autobiographical odyssey in which he provides a very granular account of his own life, from childhood to the present day.

In the second book, he details his new role as a father and the weight of parenthood on him. One moment that stuck in my mind was when he talked about how the most essential care that parents provide to their babies is an immense ocean of nothingness. The thousands of diaper changes, endless formula bottles, and all that activity that is so vital to a baby’s life and yet so forgettable.

All the 1:1's, pitch decks, discovery sessions, interviews, all of that is so essential to keep my work relevant and alive, and yet, I find it so hard to convey the value I'm bringing if I do not include a massive visual impact in the end.

I know I love what I do, and I want to keep on doing it, so maybe I just need to keep on pushing a bit more, and soon, I’ll figure out how to address my current portfolio situation.

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