Portfolio Taboos

Portfolio Taboos: What's Allowed and What Rules Shouldn't Be Broken

There are some portfolio topics that, even today, remain risky for student portfolios. Going where no-one else dares is high-risk. You may offend, or you might be praised. 

Sex

Heavily sexualized content is risky in advertising, but it is particularly risky in a student portfolio. Today's consensus is that sex is everywhere in advertising, and most brands aren't looking to add to the clutter. Instead, portfolios need to take a smart approach to their creative.

As an instructor for 12+ years and a recruiter for the past 4 years, I highly recommend not to have any sex related work in your portfolio. Mainly because it's easy, it screams "student work," and it gets old. Every student thinks it's original and funny but we've all seen it too many times. It's only funny in class and with your friends. As a recruiter, I will immediately stop looking at the rest of your work or tell you to take it out. - Recruiter, Henry Hikima

Here's some tips to help you decide if you should add that provoking content:

Senior AD Jeff Hunter created this ad when he was a student. It won the Best of Show at the National American Advertising Awards. Jeff now serves as a Portfolio Studio Advisor. 

Senior AD Jeff Hunter created this ad when he was a student. It won the Best of Show at the National American Advertising Awards. Jeff now serves as a Portfolio Studio Advisor. 

  • Avoid that route whenever possible. If your client is sex related, then think of a unique and smart way to get the message across. Not the obvious. Only 1 out of 100 sex related ideas are done well. Try doing something unexpected, so it catches the person reviewing your work by surprise.
  • If you decide to include something sexual, stay away from cliche´s. No condom ads. Never include a headline that alludes to size matters - everyone hates those. 
  • Don't be tone deaf. Offensive and shallow is never good advertising. That old idea that any publicity is good publicity doesn't always hold true.
  • Be sensitive when creating work that references sexual health, gender identity, and other evolving topics. 
  • If you do think you've got the "1 in 100" smart, sexually related idea - make sure you show it other seasoned creatives before you include it in your portfolio. Don't rely on the advice of your friends or other students. If a few senior creatives love it, you may have something. 

Language

Swearing can add emotional impact to your work. But make sure you need to go there before you do because it can backfire. Sometimes implicit swearing, double meaning, or a twist can be used just as effectively. 

Other times you just have to go for it because swearing can surprise, signal confidence, add authenticity, imply passion, or it can be just plain funny. 

Senior Carrot Creative AD Jennifer Lau created this award-winning ad as part of a campaign when she was a student. 

Senior Carrot Creative AD Jennifer Lau created this award-winning ad as part of a campaign when she was a student. 

  • Swearing doesn't work for most brands and most situations. You'll never hear Snicker's say: You're not you when you're f**king hungry. 
     
  • Make sure that you know your audience. Is your word choice going to connect with like minded people? 
     
  • It's possible that you'll have to defend yourself when you show your work. Make sure you've done your research and can support your choices. 
Classic ad by Saatchi London that created awareness for Anti-Slavery International

Classic ad by Saatchi London that created awareness for Anti-Slavery International

Vices

Designer Nick Grapppone created this branding for Stoner Ranch. Read about Nick's amazing portfolio here. 

Designer Nick Grapppone created this branding for Stoner Ranch. Read about Nick's amazing portfolio here. 

Student portfolios overflow with alcohol advertising and design. It has been years since we've seen work for cigarettes, however, in 2017 we began noticing an upsurge in marijuana packaging and product design. 

Ballast Point

Our best advice for this client area is don't overdo it. A great packaging idea for cigars or a series of wine labels that shows off your typography skills can be an asset for your portfolio. But, too much makes your portfolio seem one-dimensional (and perhaps makes you seem a bit obsessed). Diversity shows maturity. Your ability to work with a wide variety of clients demonstrates your readiness to jump into the field. 

Student work by Stephen Chu and Kristen Sugihara. Stephen now works as a copywriter for Ogilvy NY and Kristen is an AD at Vitro, San Diego.

Student work by Stephen Chu and Kristen Sugihara. Stephen now works as a copywriter for Ogilvy NY and Kristen is an AD at Vitro, San Diego.

Stereotypes

Stereotyping is one of most controversial topics in industry today. Advertisers have been accused of culture and gender stereotyping. Global brands are being called out as tone-deaf and offensive. There is little tolerance for this distasteful marketing, and agencies are having to address issues around stereotypes that they have perpetuated themselves. 

We found that across many different industries, there's a big gap between what the industry is saying and how consumers are living - Aline Santos, EVP of global marketing for Unilever
Stereotypes kill, and having expertise in the culture you’re trying to reach is critical - Paul Jankowski, New Hartland Group
We are living in a collection of bubbles. We need to recognize that, look into some other bubbles and step inside of them to see what they’re really all about. On an individual level, we’re actually quite different. Greg Andersen, Bailey Lauerman

How does this affect your portfolio? It is important that you demonstrate awareness and sensitivity about stereotyping and avoid it

  • Research your target market. Don't guess. Get to know them. 
  • Curate your work. Question your assumptions. Get to the truth. 
  • Break down stereotypes where you can. It can make your perspective stand out from the clutter. 


Portfolio Studio is the creative hub that connects ambitious students with working industry pros for professional development and portfolio building.