reaffirming what should be in the ideal portfolio

My colleague and I visited with principles of a couple of very successful design firms in the Chicago area recently (not going to name them here, but if you want to know, ask me off list). Again they reaffirmed what we have heard many times, and perhaps even more so in these lean days. What they are looking for in a portfolio is about six to eight pieces of truly outstanding work, each piece of which is polished and ideally suited to its purpose. No explanations should be necessary (though out of politeness, some explanatory text or remarks should be discreetly available). Polish the craft, but be mindful that it is only the base-level requirement. Résumé must be typographically impeccable but not showy. Display well-founded confidence. No fear of drawing (no drawing-class projects, please; just the ability to communicate an idea via the drawn line. Work that looks like student work is the kiss of death. (Gotta love the catch-22-ness of this, if you are a student. That is all you have been doing for the last four years) OK, so quit weeping and weed out all the projects that look the same as all your fellow students. Retool or rework the few that stand apart. Don’t cling to a half-good idea, only the truly good ones.

OK, so that is the ideal. We all know few live up to that coming out of the gate. But it is not bad to keep those ideals in mind. Your portfolio will always be a work in progress. And I have it on good authority that most of those very same designers who tout such high standards in hiring would be ashamed to show you their own first portfolios. So believe in yourself and your ability to learn, grow and adapt.

New Books

This book was created as a group project in the fall 2010 book arts class. We printed an edition of 18.  Five students and I each created a quarto sheet 13 x 19  printed one side which remained untrimmed in the final book. The copy shown was presented as a gift to Bradley University President Joanne Glasser on November 11, 2010. This was a beginning letterpress and book arts class and the students- graphic design junior and seniors – were able to do an admirable job of both hand typesetting and a variety of imaging techniques, including pressure printing, photo polymer, “sandragraph” prints, and other relief printing techniques.

More images of the book can be seen at

Typeface: the Movie by Kartemquin Films premiered in Peoria

Wood type continues to draw interest as the film Typeface, about the revival of the Hamilton Wood Type Museum, premieres around the globe. And on April 22nd, it was screened in Peoria, with a talk by director/filmmaker Justine Nagan. It also provided an opportunity to make use of our own collection of wood type, creating a poster using collagraph textures and some metal type printed on our Vandercook SP-15.

Letterpress and other tactile media continue to garner more attention these days from designers and clients alike. People respond to the very qualities that differentiate these objects and processes from the plethora of digital media. Designers find the the hands-on processes refreshing after working exclusively in virtual space for so long.

Do digital and hand work mix? I have to say NO!

At the recent College Book Arts Association meeting (Oregon College of Art and Craft, January 8-10th, 2010) one of the more exciting discussions was on digital media in book arts. I wish it could have continued. While I have a dual appointment in the both art and interactive media, I share some of the misgivings over the “digital blessing” that have been bestowed upon us, and I council students on how and when to make use of them as practical tools. I spent a recent sabbatical doing hand bookbinding and letterpress printing.

Slowing down to the pace of handwork gives more time for reflection and observation. I sometimes liken it to the difference between walking and driving a car (and all the extensions of that metaphor). Perhaps the Pacific Crest Trail versus the Pacific Coast Highway.

Do digital and hand work mix? I have to say NO!
From teaching drawing, I found over and over it was not good to teach perspective systems at the same time I taught responsive observation—different parts of the brain, I suppose. Some people can intuitively do both simultaneously, but most, particularly students, trip up in the process. .

A better approach is to keep distinct times and places for each process. Certain environmental cues can facilitate the shift to a slower more reflective kind of work. I would suggest for individuals, set up a special desk or work area specifically for hand media. Different ergonomics, including lighting and chair configuration are required for sustained handwork versus digital work. Don’t try to keep your sketchbook beside your computer. Instead, clean off that old drafting table, pull out the cutting mat, sharpen some pencils and (for God’s sake!) open the blinds and get some daylight in, or get a good lamp.

This approach can apply to classroom settings and offices as well as the individual studio. We have reduced the size of desks and increased the amount of clutter: usually centering on them a keyboard and monitor. This makes it all but impossible to do serious manual work. Drawing, cutting, handwork of any kind, requires a more meditative and fluid workspace. I don’t want to go too far with the notion of “chi” here, but there is a body of thought that holds that to do any craft work (draw, cut, carve) you had to be physically rooted and balanced: feet on the floor and aware of your physical and emotional center.

When to teach digital media? To be a responsible educator, I have to equip my students with what they need; teachers and practicing craftspersons need to know digital media. But I find most undergraduates hungry for digital media; and I have to satisfy that hunger before I can expect some of them to appreciate the alternative. (Note “SOME”—not all will be able to or want to loosen their grip on the mouse.) That said, it is terrific that there are places, the OCAC, perhaps, for people who are ready to make that leap; where they can go and embrace the craft aesthetic and process. One of the great things about the American educational system is that there is room for programs that cover the full spectrum of possibilities.

My most recent bookwork came out of digital media. The little cast of characters in my most recent book projects ( ) were created originally for some fun flash animations. (

Book arts for Peoria

Book arts for Peoria

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Books in Hartmand Gallery

Three letterpress artist books by Robert Rowe, December 2009

I have completed three book projects as part of the residency at the Prairie Center of the Arts. These were included in an exhibit at the Hartmann Center Gallery.

I have been working also to help the Prairie Center to set up a letterpress studio. It now has three presses, metal and wood type, and a nice clean studio for binding and other processes. Through cooperation between Bradley’s College of Communication and Fine Arts, the Prairie Center of the Arts and the Peoria community, we may well be on our way to a having a book and fine print center here in Peoria that could offer community classses, host resident artists, publish, and curate and host exhibitions and other book-related events.

The Bradley University Senior Portfolio Exhibit was hosted by the Aldo Castillo Gallery in Chicago on April 30th, from 4:30 to 7:00 pm. The Gallery is located at 675 N. Franklin Street, Chicago. (View Images of the show)

The senior portfolios and projects were also exhibited in Peoria at the Heuser Art Center on the Bradley University Campus from May 10–13, with an opening reception  Sunday afternoon, May 10th. View Images of this Show.

When to have your portfolio ready

I have been teaching portfolio design for over 15 years and I aways underestimate the propensity for procrastination among students. Not that we don’t all do that some extent, but to all teachers—me included—I want to recommend you insist that portfolios be complete and in hand, printed, bound and presentation-ready  four weeks before the end of the semester. The remaining time can be spent in practice presentations, developing custom résumé packages, developing a personal contact list, and creating your web presence.

This semester I did not insist on an early deadline. And now, we are a week away from a major portfolio exhibition, and I have not seen one completed book!

Some students have sent repeated pdf’s asking for comments— but you can judge only so much from a pdf. There are many things you cannot judge looking at an image on a screen. You should absolutely do a test printing of your portfolio before you do the final version of it. It does not have to be on good paper, it does not even have to be in color, but it will give you (and anyone looking at it) the feel for how it comes together as a book or presentation. It would be wise to test the binding method as well, so you can test your sequencing concept. As you know, you cannot judge readability of type looking at it on a monitor. Page layouts depend on margins, size of images, resolution, all of which are impossible to evaluate on a monitor.

It is false economy to not expend the time and perhaps some money on making a test print. But having time to live with the results will give you greater insight into it, you can decide what you will say about each project. Budget your time to allow for printer malfunction, trimmer errors, and the slings and arrows of outrageous bad luck that any project is heir to.

As I wrote to my students recently, “this is a project like no other.” A single misspelled word necessitates reprinting. On a class project, you may rationalize “OK, a small mistake, a couple points off, but it won’t hurt my GPA all that much.” This, not to put too fine a point on it, is your future!.

Reports coming back in on effectiveness of custom portfolio packages

Gary Will, coauthor of the textbook Graphic Design Portfolio Strategies, has been working closely with students on customized portfolio packages, using methods described in the Chapter 8 of the book. Here are two letters from current students reporting responses from employers.

Dear Gary

I meant to tell you I sent in my resume package to a company in
Chicago for an Internship and in less than a week I had received a
call from a lady who wanted to call me personally and tell me how much
she loved my resume package. She said that it was definitely something
that stood out from any other resumes they had received and that they
have never seen anything like that before and had been showing it to
everyone else in the office. Thought you might like to know that the
project was a success!

Alyssa Johnson.

Dear Gary

went to my interview anyways and the first thing the lady did when
I sat down was to hold up my book and say, “This is a great idea. This
book is the sole reason you are here. It was the only thing out of a
bunch of boring white resumes that caught my eye and let me know how
you designed.” The next morning, only about 18 hours after my
interview, I found out that I got the job! The OWNER called me to
praise me on the resume experience book that I had sent. So I know
that maybe some people (including me) blow off those kinds of
projects, but obviously it really works. And honestly, being a MM
major, they would have never told me to make a BOOK. It’s always make
a DVD or game….but I wanted to thank you for having that project in
your class because I doubt I would have gotten this job without having
done that project!

Thank you so much Gary!

Amanda deFrees

You can visit Gary Will’s web site at,%20Gary/Garysnewsite/Site/

résumé and matching web site examples web site

Sarah Kelly just sent me this link to a page on Creative Opera that shows some examples of résumés and matching web sites. The advice given at the end of the examples is excellent. Many of the examples are good, although some seem to border of being too busy. Here is the link:

Stepping up to PHP5

This page has been off-line for a week, through no change by me! Suddenly it stopped working and produced a server error (500). Technical support suggested changing the settings to use PHP 5; How to do this? Go to the FAQ page on 1and1 and scripts and PHP; but make a long story short, copy this single line: AddType x-mapp-php5 .php into the .htaccess file; and, voilá, the page came back to life!

Note, the .htaccess file normally is hidden (since it starts with a “dot”. But it is visible to Fetch ( I use Fetch for ftp purposes.) In the Fetch window, I changed the file name temporarily removing the dot, downloaded the existing file, added the line, re-uploaded it, and then changed the name back again, adding the period.