Art Of: Talking about your work

I remember in design school, after presenting our work to the class, our instructor would often lecture us about the importance of speaking about our work professionally. Most of us rolled our eyes and pretended the lecture was meant for someone else in the class. It wasn’t until after I graduated when presenting my work to an actual art director, when I realized how important it was to choose my words accurately in order to sell my ideas. The following is a list of Do’s and Dont’s that I’ve found useful when both speaking about and writing your descriptions of your work.

DON’T take the student angle:

“for this project our assignment was to create a logo and marketing campaign for a non-profit…”. Though this may be accurate, it sounds incredibly unprofessional and student-like. It’s your job to make it sound like it COULD have been a real world project, even though it wasn’t.

DO give it real world context: 

This goes with the previous but in reverseIn the real world, no one designs something just for the sake of being creative. Sorry but having mad Photoshop skills isn’t going to cut it. Design has a purpose and that is to influence your thinking or actions, or it’s meant to make an experience better. So write your descriptions as if it were a real client (even if it’s a fake one).

Here are some questions to answer:

  • Who is the client? What do they do?
  • What was the design problem that you’re trying to solve?
  • What is the design solution?
  • How is the design successful at addressing the initial problem?
  • Were there any positive results (if the project was a real one)?

Here’s a generic example:

“client x is a young startup struggling to stand apart from their competitors and establish themselves as a legitimate business to their customers.  The solution called for a strong identity that demonstrated their services incorporating a set of unique icons as well as a branded website concept that would be further carried out by a developer. The logo uses a combination of both condensed bold and script typefaces to denote both the confident but personal aspects of the company of the company. The muted color palette hints that this company is a luxury brand and targeting a more mature audience. The website continues the color scheme and highlights the client’s product on the main page through large revolving banners. Within a month of launching, the client’s sales were up 40% and the website visits climbed 4% per week….”

DON’T make it about You:

Our instructor always told us to never use the word “I” when describing our project. The second you do, it becomes about… well, you. Design isn’t about you, it’s about the client and the clients needs.

DO use the word “concept”:

So maybe you designed a website that was never produced for whatever reason, or maybe as a student you designed something for a fake company. That’s ok! Just call this work “conceptual work” and you’re safe. Employers will know not to ask questions about how it was produced or what the out come was, but rather judge the project on your design thinking and visual aesthetics.

DON’T self edit:

This is when you point out the flaws of your project, so that you can save yourself the embarrassment of when your viewer does it for you. “I know it’s a little more muted than I intended but…”. It’s your job to sell your work when describing it. If you start pointing out the flaws, you’re working against yourself. Let the client point out the flaws and have reasons for your decisions or solutions on how to fix it in your back pocket.

DO address your challenges:

It’s perfectly ok to admit that a design project had challenges because in the reality, nothing ever goes smoothly. You can’t plan for a computer crashing and losing half a day’s work. You can’t plan for a partner to totally slack on you and fail to produce their half of the work on time. This is life and it happens all the time. Addressing the challenges of working in a partnership, working with tight deadlines or low-budget are a great way to show that you’ve gained more experience. As long as you spin it in a positive and educational light, it shows that you’ve grown as a designer.

DON’T write a novel:

Chances are that no one will take the time to read your descriptions about your projects anyway. At portfolio shows, most flip through looking at the photos and maybe they read a headline but that’s it. Time is money and clients don’t want to sift through a bunch of starch to get to the “meat” of what you’re trying to say. Keep it short and sweet. So why write descriptions at all? For two reasons. Some detail oriented people WILL read and appreciate the descriptions. There are design directors out there that will look at your descriptions just to see if you can talk the talk, because half of the time you’ll be backing up your design decisions with a solid argument. Also, what may be clear to you, is probably foreign to a non creative client. Thus having descriptions is a must.

DO explain/show your process:

Employers want to know that you can think through a problem and come up with solutions that work. Showing or speaking to your process gives them an idea of how you sketch or how many other ideas you had before choosing the winner. While I don’t think you should include everything in your professional portfolio, I believe there are a few ways to successfully show your process:

  • only show process for bigger projects
  • create a separate “process book” to accompany one of your larger projects. This way, it’s not cluttering up your layouts and it has a place if someone asks for it.
  • show it on your website instead of in your book
  • make sure your sketches are detailed enough. A few lines on a paper doesn’t say much. Vectorize them or create fake mockups (if possible) to make them look cleaner
DO use accurate vocabulary for your industry: 

This may seem obvious, but there are quite a few words that have been used interchangeably in the design world. It goes a long way to make sure you describe your project accurately. Here are a few “buzzwords” that you should know the difference between.

  • User experience/ User interface
  • Mockup/Wireframes/ Prototype/
  • Application / Widget
  • Logo/ Identity/ Brand
DO clearly define your role in the project:

As a student you more than likely claim every aspect of the project your own, but as soon as you begin to work on a real team at an agency or in-house, you’ll find that nothing is ever 100% yours and you must give credit where credit is due. You may be required to work with pre-existing assets or you may have designed a portion of a larger project. Whatever the situation, speak to your level of involvement and how your piece fits in with the entire project.

DO cite your sources and ask for permission:

In school, you may have been able to get away with getting your hands on free stock or taking photos of a friend for a project. Do start making a habit of purchasing your stock or getting permission from the author. If you take your own photography, make sure you have the proper permissions to do so.

DON’T publish client work unless given written permission to do so:

It is up to you to bring the “portfolio” discussion up and to make sure they are aware that you intend to publish the work in print or digital as a promotion tool. Most small clients won’t care, but some projects are time sensitive or have too many trade secrets to allow you to share your work. Take the initiative and have that discussion early before you are ready to hit print or push the “live” button on your website.

I hope these were helpful tips on how to better speak/write about your work. Remember to approach the project from a real world problem even if the company is fake. Our job is more than just making things “look better”. It’s about providing visual solutions to business problems in order to reach a desired effect. 


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