Portfolio reviews are a cornerstone of RGD’s annual Creative Directions conference, which hit Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre last weekend on March 5. One of the event’s panel discussions, How to Survive a Critique, proved to be particularly appropriate, exploring the critique process from both sides of the table and offering suggestions on how to make the most of even the most negative feedback.
The experts on deck were Cossette designer Eleni Alpous; Katina Constantinou, design director at Parcel Design; Catalyst Workshop creative director Adam Antoszek-Rallo, and Overdrive Design Limited principal James Wilson. The discussion was moderated by Wendy Millard, manager of Design Services at Empire Life.
For those that weren’t in attendance, here are four takeaways to keep in mind the next time you show your work.
1. Don’t be afraid to speak up
Across the board, all panelists agreed that reviewees shouldn’t be scared to ask questions, which not only helps for clear communication but also shows that you are actively listening, probing, and thinking through the feedback.
Alpous added to this by advising to set the stage with personal details for context. “Are you a student? A young professional? Where are you at?” This helps Alpous know what you’re looking to get out of the review process, and provides structure so the conversation gets started in the right direction.
Constantinou recalled one creative director who was flipping so fast through her portfolio that she never got a chance to explain her work. “I should have stopped them to ask more questions,” she said. “What am I missing? What’s wrong?”
Ask questions to get the most out of your review.
2. Lose the ego
“You have to figure out how to get rid of as much ego as possible,” said Antoszek-Rallo, reminding that a portfolio is merely a time capsule of past circumstances. “It’s your work that is being torn to shreds. It’s not you.”
Alpous noted that separating work and personal identity is not easy for everyone. In some cases, like when a reviewer chose to voice his opinion on her choice of earrings, portfolio reviews can turn uncomfortably personal. She advised to write an email to yourself afterwards to note your feelings, and to list three takeaways regardless of whether the experience felt positive or negative.
3. Take the feedback for what it’s worth, then get back to work
Alpous related another review gone awry, where she was told she would never be a designer. She didn’t let that get to her and stuck with her goals, eventually proving the reviewer wrong. Antoszek-Rallo had a similar experience, where he was told that his more opinionated, political work would make him un-hirable. “I can say a decade later that [that feedback] was completely wrong,” he said.
Wilson mentioned a time he was fired from a job for doing a lacklustre job on a big assignment. His takeaway was straightforward: “Don’t do that again,” he said. “You just knuckle-down and get ‘er done.”
4. Don’t apologize
“Be proud of your work. If you’re not proud of it, don’t put it in,” Constantinou said. Although your portfolio will always be a work in progress with room for improvement, being proud of it counts for a lot, she said.
Antoszek-Rallo advised to front-load your portfolio so that it starts with your strongest material. “Don’t bury the lede,” he said, noting that it’s possible the reviewer won’t even make it to the end of the portfolio if you get caught up talking about the pieces at the front of your book.
Instead of apologizing for any work that gets a negative response, frame it. Let the reviewer know what challenges you were facing, and how you would have liked to solve any issues with more resources or time, he said.
Show your design thinking in your portfolio and also articulate it, said Constantinou.