Check out some great work from Michael DiTullo.
AH: What kinds of portfolios get your attention these days? What brings in an industrial designer for an interview?
MD: I’m seeing so many portfolios that are merely adequate. They are filled with projects that seem designed to show skills. When I close a portfolio like that I think to myself that this person has everything on the checklist and yet there’s nothing I can remember in the portfolio, nothing that stands out. What I look for right away on a quick flip-through of a portfolio is a project that is memorable and stands out as being exemplary of that individual’s personality, ethic, and philosophy. Is there something that makes me say, “Oh that was the girl who did this…” or something that doesn’t feel like an academic school exercise that was given by a professor? It’s not any one particular thing that I’m looking for, rather something that feels like it came from the root of who the person is.
When we work on production projects it’s like we are climbing Mount Everest together. We are going to run out of food, there’s going to be a snowstorm, and there’s going to be perils along the way that will make us question ourselves and our journey. It can feel like that when you are on the path to making something truly unique and industry leading. There will be obstacles on our way to that grand summit that we didn’t predict. I need to know that anyone we are going to bring onto the team is going to have the kind of passion, the gumption, and the stick-to-it-iveness along with the ever important skills to make it through so we can get to the top of the mountain. So I’m looking for any hints of that. Usually it comes through on one portfolio piece where somebody found the right opportunity to really be themselves and give it something extra.
I will also share a tip that a mentor shared with me when I first started reviewing portfolios. I always look for the worst sketch in the portfolio and assume that is the candidate’s average operating level. People are going to put their best work in, and obviously they’re not going to put their worst work in—they will omit that—but to get a little bit of that extra volume, they’re going to put some of their average work in. That worst sketch in the portfolio is an indicator of what their day-to-day working style is like. If that worst sketch in that portfolio is still very good, I find that that person is able to operate at an above-average level. I haven’t been wrong about this yet.
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AH: Have you seen a portfolio recently that resonated with you, and what about it stood out?
MD: One of our past interns is a great example of a portfolio that stood out so much that I knew I wanted that individual on the team from the first glance. I first came across his work when he was 16 years old on Core77 forums. I’m always looking at portfolios, at work through my connection with Core77. I immediately pegged him when he first popped on that radar as someone who’s going to be really very good. What I saw in him was that he was very passionate and very dedicated, but never married to a solution. He would do a project and then six months later redo the same project, and then redo the same project again. It was as if he acknowledged that he had learned more so it was logical for him to redesign the entire project to see how he could tackle the problem with his improved skills and outlook. That impressed me.
I’ve had students tell me, “Oh I have a portfolio but it’s not ready yet,” and I think that outlook does not acknowledge that a portfolio is a living document. It should always be changing, never static.
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AH: What about the portfolios that don’t make it through. What relegates those portfolios to the “no pile”?
MD: I think there are three variations on the no pile. The first one is the adequate but unmemorable pile. We interviewed a young man the other day who fit into that category and I thought, “I really want to like you, but all of your work looks so standard, so stock.” When you get a job, you’re going to grow as a designer obviously, but I need to know that you’re going to add some sort of unique spice into the dish.
The second category is someone who so narrowly defines themselves. I looked at a portfolio recently that was very good. I really liked the work but the aesthetic displayed across projects was very singular and niche. Because the candidate had defined a set style for himself to work in, he limited himself to what kinds of solutions he would explore.
The third group is comprised of portfolios that are simply sub par. Honestly, that’s the bulk of them.
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AH: What characteristics or qualities are necessary to be a successful industrial designer?
MD: I asked this very question of someone when I was a young designer. I believe the answer I got still holds true. A successful designer must be savvy. The image of a designer in a studio for 20 out of 24 hours in a day, pounding his head against the wall until inspiration strikes is outmoded. The ability to be savvy and navigate an organization to understand what the success criteria are—the spoken as well as unspoken—is paramount.
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