Freelance portfolio theory

ugly dogBy Jake Poinier

“Modern portfolio theory” is a Wall Street expression about maximizing your returns on stocks. A freelance graphic designer friend and I long ago came up with a freelance portfolio theory. It, too, is designed to maximize your returns (in attracting and finding new clients instead of winning stocks), and it runs something like this:

You reserve the right to *not* put crappy samples in your portfolio.

We came up with this concept out of frustration. You’ve written a knockout headline…which gets changed to something mundane. You’ve designed a clever ad layout…that the client thinks is a little too racy for their audience. You edited a whitepaper…and the author STETs their original gobbledegook. You’ve shot original photography…and the client decides they want to use a dopey stock image of two people shaking hands. It’s as bad as the irony Alanis Morissette famously whined about a few years back…don’t ya think?

But you can’t get mad, and you usually aren’t well served by trying to change a client’s mind once it’s set. So this theory allows you to take a step back, refocus, and say to yourself:

  • It’s a bummer that this didn’t come out as cool as I thought it would, but I’m still going to get my check.
  • If I don’t disclose the fact that I was involved in this project, no one will ever know.
  • Aw heck, it just doesn’t matter in the long run. What’s my next project?

Let’s be real: When you’re starting out, you’ll take what you can get. I know this will make me sound ancient, but my first portfolio for job hunting in the magazine industry was a hideous, baby-blue binder with yellowed clips from my hometown newspaper. (Mercifully, the internet has made portfolio presentation a lot slicker.)

Once you have a critical mass of good stuff, however, it’s time to start getting choosy rather than going for sheer volume. Five hundred samples shows that you’ve done a lot of work, but no one wants to slog through everything. If they want more samples in a given industry, they’ll ask.

In the end, prospective clients will judge you on your best work, but an ugly sample might also have them questioning your judgment — in an “Ugh, why is *she* dating *him*?” sort of way. Dump the dogs, and stick with your best in show.

Have you ever had a client that turned a sure-fire portfolio masterpiece into a disaster you’d never admit to? Share your horror stories in the comments!

Contributing writer Jake Poinier also dispenses freelancing advice at a few times a week, and you can follow him on Twitter: @DrFreelance…and he promises he’ll follow you back!

4 thoughts on “Freelance portfolio theory”

  1. Oh boy. I sure have. I actually had an editor write an entire second half of a piece that I had turned in for a magazine–and put a byline on it alongside mine! It was supposed to be the “big” piece in the publication and I wound up not being able to use it at all…

    But you’re right Jake–I did get paid!

  2. hmmm… dog looks, well, a bit silly, but don’t tell him that… also full of love.

    I had an editor of a now-defunct computer magazine so ruin a piece called “Is It Ethical To Mail Merge Your Love Letters?” that I thought about changing my name. I’ve way outlasted them as you might guess from the title.

    I’ve also had editors make me look much better than I am!

  3. @Catherine, ouch, that must’ve hurt. I call that a “Hamburger Helper” approach to editing; tastes just about as good. But, hey, you got paid!

    @Anne, thanks for commenting. I’m a dog lover, so I only poke fun knowing that I would surely enjoy this little guy’s personality! And that’s fantastic idea for an article–actually it would make a good movie scene, too. Stinks that it got muffed.

    But you’re right, I’ve also had editors make me look better than I really am, so there’s a yang to the yin.

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