(In a series of education themed blogs, Macworld looks at the hopes and challenges facing new and not so new talent across the creative industries.)

The annual student degree shows are almost upon us and while a time of celebration, with a nod to the future and potential success, it's also a time to take stock. Education offers the raw tools and foundation to build a career but the real learning starts when you leave college.

Understanding what clients want, being able to deliver a brief on time and within budget, requires new skills and experience, which typically you only pick up over time.


Paid commissioned work may be lacking but you can give the appearance of being competent, professional and employable by producing a body of work that best showcases your skills and talents.

Creating a portfolio of work traditionally or online is your calling card: “This is what I do and this is what I can do for you.” It should be an ever evolving collection that reflects not only your creative development and your current skillsets but also the needs and interests of your potential clients.

You can refine and adapt a traditional portfolio for each and every client visit, remove, add and edit as you go. Often it can be down to what you leave out as much as what you put in. Fig Taylor, originally trained as a graphic designer, has been resident portfolio consultant for the Association of Illustrators (AOI) since 1986. Prior to, and for much of that time, she has worked as an illustrators' agent.

In addition to her work for the AOI, Fig operates a private consultancy for non-AOI member artists and lectures extensively on professional practice for illustrators on BA and HND illustration courses throughout the UK.

Fig has proved a popular speaker at AOI seminars, and is a regular contributor to The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, and the author of a forthcoming Laurence King book, 'How to Create a Portfolio.' Macworld caught up with her to discover how best to win clients with a carefully considered portfolio.

Fig Taylor has been resident portfolio consultant for the Association of Illustrators (AOI) since 1986.

Q. What things do you need to consider when putting together a portfolio?

Accept from the outset that you can never be all things to all commissioners

A good portfolio – by which I mean an effective, professional portfolio – should do two things: it should say, "this is the way I work and here's how you, the client, can use me".

In other words, don't go and see a gardening magazine if you don't have at least a couple of gardening-related pieces in your folder. You'll be dismissed as a time-waster.

Given that the UK has a highly competitive industry where the number of commissions is greatly outweighed by the number of illustrators available to do them, clients are often spoiled for choice. Most have pressurised jobs and prefer not to take risks if they can avoid it, so they've developed a preference for one strong, recognisable style that can be applied to a variety of subject matter, rather than a multitude of different styles.

With this in mind, concentrate on what you know you do best and don't try to spread yourself too thinly. Don't include pieces you believe to be weak or unrepresentative of the kind of work you enjoy doing. This goes for published work as well as speculative samples.

Don't show work that's irrelevant - i.e. straight photography or typography with no illustrative content, or something you can't deliver, such as work that's overly time consuming or that you need access to special equipment to do. Your old college may swear you can have access to the print room whenever you want it but that can prove impracticable in the long run.

If you do have several different styles and they have vastly different audiences, such as political satire and children's books, try splitting the work into different portfolios to avoid confusion.

If you favour a print presentation mount your work on thin paper or card in a shade that shows your work to the best advantage and protect it in plastic leaves, or by laminating it if you prefer a loose leaf approach. Clients have been known to slop coffee over unprotected artwork.

A sketchbook or two is permissible as an optional extra but including academic life drawings will make you look like a student not a professional. Likewise, don't take up valuable portfolio space by mounting up random, self-indulgent work with no obviously commercial content just because you like the quality of the drawing or have a sentimental attachment to the subject matter.

Clients want to see finished samples of work they can actually relate to, not studies of your manky old trainers or your gran watching 'Emmerdale'. Meanwhile, any published work you have should be put as near to the front of your portfolio as possible, providing, as previously stated, it is representative of where you want to go as an illustrator.

A similar approach to editing should be employed when making a digital presentation. Whether you are talking a client through your Web site or a series of images on digital files, there should be a logical running order to the selection of work you show.

Lastly, do your homework and make sure the contents of the folder reflect that you understand your chosen client's needs. Make sure that client is likely to use illustration, and, more specifically, your kind of illustration. With editorial and publishing clients the source material will easily be available to you via libraries, bookshops and newsstands.

For design and advertising clients, keep your eye on the magazines that service those industries and Google individual Web sites. There are also numerous directories, databases and mailing lists available on and offline.

The Association of Illustrators also offers a Portfolio section for AOI members and non-AOI members.

Q. If you haven't yet had any paid commissions what should you fill your portfolio with?

Magazine mock-ups. Most new illustrators will get their first commissions from magazines, and a mock-up is the easiest way of showing a client what your work would look like in the context of a magazine like theirs.

Some balk at the prospect of replacing a photo or someone else's illustration with a piece of their own work but it's common and perfectly legal, at least in the UK. Plus, if you're not used to seeing your work alongside type and/or other images, it can prove educational to the illustrator as well.

Word to the wise, however, when showing mock-ups don't feel tempted to show the piece you are replacing for contrast purposes. The client might decide they like the other illustrator’s work better.

Q. How important is presentation, do you need, for example, a premium quality portfolio or will an entry level one do?

Presentation is highly important – in as much as you want something simple, clean, lightweight to carry and easy for a client with limited space and limited time to negotiate.

If, by entry level, you mean a foundation-level cardboard job secured by pieces of string and held under the arm, the answer is definitely no. Likewise cheap, tacky, little folders with fixed plastic leaves. However, a standard zip-up portfolio with ring-binding is absolutely fine, as is a soft-cover folder with ring-binding, held inside a zip-up carry case.

Some illustrators favour boxes with loose leaves inside though, personally, I would worry about pieces of work straying during a drop-off presentation. It is possible to pay hundreds of pounds for a hand made, leather tooled, whistles-and-bells portfolio but I don't think it's necessary to fork out that kind of money. A brightly coloured, idiosyncratic or gimmicky portfolio might stick in a client's mind, but, ultimately, it's what's inside that matters.

If you favour a virtual presentation, don't rely on being able to use a client's computer or assume they’ll have Wi-Fi. Always bring your own laptop, or one you’re familiar with, plus power back-up, a memory stick or work on disk, and even a few printed pieces just in case.

Q. Does size matter, is A5 too small, A2 too big, is there an ideal size?

A3 or A4 are both fine. A5 is definitely too small. Colour laser copies are fine but if you are getting large samples of work photographically reduced, make sure this is done professionally by someone who knows what they're doing and printed out on good quality stock. Nothing says amateur more than a bunch of cheap snapshots featuring work leaning up against the garden fence on an overcast day.

Q. If you have several styles of work should you combine them in one portfolio or keep them separate?

If the style is similar and only the medium is different, I would say you could keep them in the same portfolio. If, however, the styles are vastly different and the clients using them likely to differ too, then separate folders are to be encouraged.

Q. Finally, with online portfolios and blogs do you think the days of the traditional portfolio are numbered?

Curiously, no. I still see significantly fewer digital presentations, although some illustrators might take me for a spin round their Web sites after a print presentation. Obviously, if someone produces work for the Web or does animation, they're more likely to favour a virtual approach - but the majority of mainstream commissioners, magazine and book publishers, design companies, ad agencies and the gift industry, still commission primarily for print purposes. Consequently they still appreciate seeing and handling printed samples of work.

(Details of the Association of Illustrators can be found here. Non-AOI members can email Fig Taylor - fig_taylor@btopenworld.com - for further information about private consultations.)