An extremely important and unique portion of the creative hiring process is the portfolio review. In many cases portfolios are viewed prior to meeting a candidate, but an interactive, face-to-face discussion about specific portfolio pieces is equally important. This portion of the talent evaluation tends to heavily weigh into a decision whether to move forward with a potential permanent hire or even a freelancer.

The purpose of a portfolio review is simple. Essentially, a portfolio review is THE time for the candidate to "sell" their previous work to a prospective employer as an indication of the quality of future work they'll create on behalf of that employer. Thus, the structure of the review itself should allow for an efficient, yet thorough discussion to accomplish that goal. It is important to determine in advance the structure that will best work for the portfolio review, in addition to determining specifically what you hope to derive from the discussion.

Structuring the Portfolio Review

Prior to the meeting, consider communicating clearly to the candidate your expectations as to what types of samples you would like them to present. For example, "I'd like to review five of your pieces: two that are multi-page documents, one that demonstrates your Illustrator abilities, one single-page document, and your favorite piece." This should curtail time spent discussing work that you find irrelevant to the particular position's needs. From a candidate's perspective, this will help set the candidate's mind at ease as to their selection of which pieces to be presented. A designer, for example, should have multiple successful pieces in their book for a variety of mediums and geared toward a variety of audiences. If you are specifically interested in seeing pieces that were intended for a similar audience as would be required for this particular role let the candidate know. And, as an added bonus, if the candidate is off-target as to what they are presenting after you have made a clear request of what you would like to see, you can be pretty sure they do not understand the scope of the requirements for the role.

In addition, be clear as to how you would like for the sample work to be presented. Do you prefer to review live websites? Are you interested in viewing PDFs on your laptop? Do you want the candidate to bring along printed materials?

Supporting the Candidate

In order to provide the candidate the opportunity to put her best foot forward, be sure to provide her additional information about the role for which she is interviewing--a job description is only so complete. If possible, share with her some items from your department's portfolio. Ideally this will enable the candidate to present her pieces with your needs in mind. Consider the following questions:

  • Will the person filling this role need strong production skills?
  • Will this role require a conceptual thinker?
  • Does this position require a high amount of creative collaboration or will this person work independently?

Reviewing the Portfolio

Once you feel confident with the structure of this important discussion, consider what you are trying to learn from the portfolio review. Effective candidates should be able to concisely discuss the role they played in the piece presented from start to finish:

  • Did they pick out the color palette utilized?
  • Were they responsible for the layout?
  • What did the client think of the finished piece?
  • Did they have client interaction?

You may need to guide the presentation and ask pointed questions to best evaluate the sample and understand how the candidate affected its success.

With that being said, it is best to spend at least a few minutes on each piece discussed. For instance, if you are interested in how the concept was created and what role the candidate played in the concept as a whole, ask them outright. If the role you are hiring for is strictly production-oriented, flashy pieces may be attractive, but a portfolio centered around flashy pieces may indicate they would not be satisfied in a production role and would either be disengaged or would leave when something "better" presented itself.

Be very mindful of the candidate's presentation prowess during this time. The role they are interviewing for may or may not currently require the incumbent to present work to clients, but this is a great time to find out if this candidate has presentation skills required if they do need to do so.

Something to keep in mind is that confidentiality restraints may prohibit a candidate from presenting work from previous employers. Many candidates I have met throughout the years do have legitimate confidentiality restrictions, but I do expect that they have work to share. A serious candidate should take the initiative to have some successful pieces to share even if their past employer does not allow them to share work from that experience.

Properly-focused portfolio reviews can be incredibly valuable tools for candidate evaluation. Focused discussion and presentation should provide you, the hiring manager, a strong sense of whether or not the candidate's previous work provides an indication of success within your department.