Check out some great work from Christopher Benjamin.
Interviewed while Mr. Benjamin was Design Director at Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center in Camarillo, California.
What kinds of portfolios get your attention these days? What brings in an industrial designer for an interview?
The most important thing that I look for in a portfolio is the student’s ability to communicate with impact. For example, when you start looking through a project and you get to the end of it, you want to know what it was all about, visually, without having to read too much. It’s a lot about visual communication skills. It’s about them showing their range, because a designer has to be an artist first, and then a problem solver. He needs to be able to take something from the beginning to an end, from ideation to a finished digital or physical model.
A lot of students these days tend to rely too much on the digital tools without the proper foundation. Even if someone’s not the best artist, they can sometimes start to substitute skill with a glossy finish. I started in the age where everything was still manual. I can always tell when someone’s good at visual tools but not as strong as an artist. Although you can fool many people with it, if you look closely, you can see the difference between someone who just used the tool and someone who’s really an artist.
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You mentioned you can tell the difference between someone who just knows the tools and someone who is an artist. What gives them away?
Little things. For example, you can draw a car and it’s maybe not in the perfect perspective but you can render it really nicely—some people can be fooled by that. A lot of times students will put basic sketches into a portfolio as ideation and then add more finished stuff later on. Especially in the more basic stuff, you see it even clearer: the difference between having a lot of mileage in their pencil versus just putting something on paper and fixing it in Photoshop.
Has there been a portfolio recently that you’ve seen that resonated with you? If so, what about it stood out?
It was the portfolio of the last designer that I hired over two years ago. When I saw his portfolio—I am not kidding you—I knew I wanted to hire him 30 seconds in. It was the way his projects were laid out, his unique approach to describing how the vehicle fit a certain clientele, his creativity and how the problem was approached and graphically laid out. It was all very concise, the artwork was beautiful, and it was very organized. There was a strong consistency, which means that, as a designer, he was very disciplined and had a method to the way he approached problems.
What do you expect to learn from a designer during an interview?
Two things: the first thing is what inspires them and what makes them want to be a designer. Why is that better for them than doing anything else? Design is really about passion. It’s not about just having a job to earn money. It should be something you live, breathe, and something you enjoy. If everything else in life were free, you’d do it anyway. The second thing is, I really want to know what they can bring to us—what new ideas, new thinking. If you look at the whole range of our cars, I would ask what they think is missing and why? What do they think would be a good fit with the brand? What do they think we need to break into? What demographic? It shows that they’re not a mindless sketching drone, but that they also think on a higher level about the company that they would ultimately represent and how their ideas can best fit that company—how they can best create that future.
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If you were just starting out now, what advice would you give yourself?
Be relentless. Be focused. Don’t get a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Seriously, when you’re in a design school, normal life is a distraction. To be honest, you’re going to have friends from high school that you’ll meet over the summer that go to a normal college and go to all the parties—and there’s nothing wrong with that—but you just won’t have time for it. Whenever you’re off doing something else, there’s another guy or a girl who is focused and practicing and who is finishing their design to a higher level than you are.
One thing I learned is that it’s not just the end result of what you do, it’s the journey. These are the things you may not realize as a student. In the end, it’s not only the final result but how you got there. It’s your attitude, it’s your general outlook. Attitude and personality come into play. Nobody wants to have a problem designer who’s super talented but doesn’t know how to work with other people or take direction. Those are the things you have to work on as well, in addition to polishing your design skills.
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