Monday, 2:01pm
13 July 2009

Trouble getting through the door?

mike radcliffe
Graphic design

Brand agencies can teach designers a thing or two about storytelling.

Some graphic designers’ portfolios are effective tools that help them to find new work, writes Mike Radcliffe. And some categorically are not!

I have seen thousands of portfolios over the past six years running my company Represent. The portfolios that are the most effective usually contain inspiring stories of how design has solved a problem.

Digital marketing guru Seth Godin once said ‘don’t give facts, show great stories,’ and designers who understand how to do this when presenting their own work – those designers who are, in effect, great self-marketeers – will be the winners in this current recession.

Many designers fall in to the trap of not understanding how to tell the story of their work. They simply display their work as an archive and try to make it look as pleasing to the eye as possible. They often fail to make three fundamental points. The first is to explain the brief of each project in their folio. The second is to show the design solutions they provide. Third is to illustrate the benefits provided through the design. This process feels much easier when the work involves branding and identity, but in fact every piece of design is itching to tell its story!

Recently I met with a senior designer whom I’ve known for some years. Times are harder and he’s feeling the pinch, so this normally self-sufficient designer felt he needed some help finding work. When we first met in 2006 I recognised that he had talent: some of his work was eye-catching and interesting, but I failed to find any work for him because I had a ‘mental block’, and couldn’t translate my initial enthusiasm into a fluent and cohesive picture of him as a designer. When I met up with him again a few weeks ago I realised why: he presented only facts and no stories. We had a long conversation, and I sent him away to work on the thought process behind his presentation and now I’m looking forward to seeing the results. My hope is that he will now understand how to present his work effectively.

Perhaps designers should take note of some of the great brands of our time – and the branding agencies behind them who know great storytelling. Look at Dyson, for example, and the story behind this much-loved vacuum cleaner. Another great brand story is that of Innocent. The creators of the brand, still at the helm, understood how to build a great brand with a delightful story (The Penguin book, A book about Innocent will be reviewed in the next issue of Eye). These guys were from an ad background so they understood storytelling.

My theory is that designers need to emulate the ad agencies and brand consultants they’re aiming to be employed by, and really understand how to sell the stories of the work they have produced. When designers achieve this, it’s instantly engaging, inspiring and ultimately job-winning!

See Mike Radcliffe’s other posts about work and recruitment:

‘Scary times for recruitment’, and

‘Think positive, add passion’

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.