Danielle Currier & Larry Volk, authors of No Plastic Sleeves

Friday, April 09 by Angela Kryhul,

Posted in: Industry Interviews

Guest Interviewer Angela Kryhul speaks with Danielle Currier and Larry Volk, authors of No Plastic Sleeves: The Complete Portfolio Guide for Photographers and Designers. Published by Focal Press, this new book is a step-by-step guide for artists who want to develop and express their brand in portfolios and other promotional materials. Danielle Currier is an Associate Professor of Design and Larry Volk is an Associate Professor of Photography in the School of Visual and Performing Arts at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts.

  • How a printed portfolio complements other promotional pieces and an online presence
  • How to objectively evaluate and edit one's own work
  • Ideas for creating promotional pieces that are simple, affordable and engaging
  • How to use the book in conjunction with the companion website NoPlasticSleeves.com

Interview Transcript

This is an edited transcript of Angela Kryhul's interview with Danielle Currier and Larry Volk, authors of No Plastic Sleeves: The Complete Portfolio Guide for Photographers and Designers, published by Focal Press.

Angela Kryhul:

Welcome, Larry and Danielle. Let's start with the very interesting name of your book, No Plastic Sleeves. How did you come up with that? Is there a story behind your choice of title?

Larry Volk:

Well, yeah. That was essentially a demand put on our students - who are in our portfolio class - that a binder with plastic sleeves, which held printed examples of their work, was not going to be adequate... that they needed to move beyond that and develop something that was much more reflective of their abilities as both designers and photographers. So, essentially, "No Plastic Sleeves" meant no pre-made binder.

Danielle Currier:

And one of the things that we discuss in the book, and certainly discuss with our own students, is the idea that you sort of take a stand - you make a statement. And in our case, with the book title, it might perhaps be a little controversial. You know, there are certainly folks out there who still really believe that a store-bought plastic sleeve binder is acceptable. Given our approach and our process, it made sense to us to really advocate that people think through and create their own books... to put ourselves out there and take a stand...

Larry:

I may add that, just as we advocate in our book for individuals to develop a brand, develop a sense of identity, No Plastic Sleeves became our brand essentially.

Danielle:

Yeah, absolutely.

Angela:

Okay. Let's talk a little bit about why you wrote the book. Can you describe the need that you saw in the market for this kind of resource?

Danielle:

The approach we took really came out of this portfolio course that Larry just mentioned, and that he and I worked together to develop over a number of years and reshape. And in doing so, we really found that there wasn't a book out there that focused on the entire process. And the way that we think about that is sort of the very beginning process of evaluating and editing your work, and then thinking about brand and concepts, and then carrying that all the way through to all the particular pieces of a portfolio package: your book as well as website and other pieces.

We found there were some great resources out there for very particular topics within that, but not really something that guided you through a step-by-step approach. One of the things we found is there are a lot of great resource books that have wonderful images of examples, but they don't necessarily talk you through how to get to that end result. So, we wanted to really make sure that we provided that kind of information and took that approach with this book.

Larry:

One of the main deficits we saw in the other resources was the problem of concepting and designing. It's not a simple thing to make a portfolio book and then extend that into the other complementary materials - we found that that was often the most difficult part of the process when teaching. And when we looked for resources, there weren't a lot of resources that help guide you through that. And so, this is where we saw a need and we saw a need within our own teaching as well.

Angela:

Would you say, then, that the printed portfolio is the centerpiece of a photographer's professional, promotional material?

Larry:

Well, I think there are a lot of varying opinions about that. What I would say now is that a printed portfolio is certainly necessary but... it's well understood that you need an online presence and you might need complimentary pieces that are either direct mail or leave-behinds. I think where a printed portfolio fits in is that it represents a comprehensive statement that's been put together. It also becomes an expression of craft. You know, crafting and putting together a whole portfolio really shows the photographer's ability to envision an idea. So, I think it's part of a number of pieces because certainly electronic forms play a big role in marketing and self-promotion.

Danielle:

Yeah. You know, it's an interesting question and, certainly from our own experiences and in talking with a number of professionals both within our own experiences for the book and then ongoing for myself with the [noplasticsleeves.com] website. You know, it's something that I continue to ask and almost always get the same answer... that, certainly, you have to have an online presence. You really have to have a website and have your portfolio up - that's probably going to reach a greater audience. But that printed portfolio is still this really important part. It's something you take with you to an interview, or you might drop off with a potential client or employer and then pick up at another time. So, it's almost like it's the closer. You know, it's something that you come in with that can really impress. And certainly, it serves a different function than a website.

Angela:

Okay, I wanted to go back to some of the comments you made earlier about the market for the book... who did you write this book for? Is it for photographers who are just starting out? Is it for established artists or artists who do specific types of work?

Danielle:

Well, I think, generally speaking, [the answer is] in the title of the book: "The Complete Portfolio Guide for Photographers and Designers." So, our audience is both photographers and designers, for this book. And while we do speak to specific professions within the book, we do have an approach that I think is relevant for both photographers and designers. In fact, some of the feedback we've gotten - that's been really positive - is that, to some degree, it's great for designers to actually think about and see the perspective through a photographer's eyes, and then vice versa for a photographer to think a little bit more about things like typography, that might concern a designer more specifically. So, with that range in mind, with a fine line, we did approach the book for students, for young professionals. But I think it's the type of book that even if you're an established professional, and you're sort of thinking about your marketing materials and perhaps re-branding yourself or reaching a new marketplace... or just freshening up what you're doing and thinking about how you can be a little bit more innovative perhaps with your promotional materials... this is could be a great book for [you] as well.

Larry:

The way the book is designed, someone can access the book at different places. So, if someone is an established photographer who has begun to create a brand and visual identity for themselves, they may want to revisit their actual book and possibly even their website. Within the book they can look at [how] some of the design fundamentals are presented or even ideas of picture relationships or some of the aspects of website design that they might want to reconsider and then build out from what they already have. On the other hand, for someone who's just entering the market or a student who's finishing school, they may start at the beginning of the process where they're really trying to conceive a visual identity and a sense of brand and a presentation having never done that before. So, there's enough flexibility in the way the book is written that it enables people at different levels to approach the material and take what they need from it.

Danielle:

Yeah. And I will say that it's not a book for someone that doesn't have any experience within their own practice whether that's a photographic or design practice. So, you know, we assumed that there was a foundation level of knowledge and may essentially remind or provide some advice at certain points but, you know, we did approach it so that you were continuing with some of your already established skills and ideas and ability to concept.

Angela:

And as you just described, the book can take the reader - if they so choose to use the resource in this way - step-by-step through the process of developing a complete and interconnected portfolio package. And that begins with objectively evaluating and editing one's work. Can you give me a sense of how difficult is it for commercial artists to get through that first step of self-evaluation? And how does the book guide them through that process?

Larry:

Well, I think that's actually one of the biggest hurdles: to have a range of work and be looking at it and trying to figure out, "Well, how am I going to organize this and how am I going to present this?" This is why the book actually starts with Brand, Audience, Goals. You really want to start with "who are you trying to reach?" What do you want to say about yourself when you reach them? And from there how would that be represented through the pieces that you choose in addition to the particular design and form of your materials in your book, et cetera. So, we really start with thinking a bit about who you are - even if you're established - who you are as a designer or photographer in your business and where you're trying to get to. So, it really starts with what the goals are and then from there, trying to look through the work and decide what best represents you. And it's usually the most difficult part of the process.

Danielle:

Yeah, it is a difficult process to be self-critical and to evaluate yourself and your body of work. I think the difficulty level is really going to depend on the individual and how much of a critical eye they have and how objective they can be about their work. One of the things we stressed is that you get the opinions of other people whom you trust... who you work with professionally. For students... [get feedback from] faculties, certainly, and perhaps even other students and colleagues or people they've worked with in internships and such because I think it's important to get some feedback that certainly would be a little bit more objective.

We as artists, any kind of artist, we tend to be really passionate about what we're doing and sometimes that means we kind of hold our work a little too close. So, you know, folks that you're going to trust and who know a little bit about the marketplace and the industry that you're trying to get into.

Angela:

The book really, you know, takes you by the hand. You go through step-by-step and it strikes me whether this book is really meant for do-it-yourselfers, you know, photographers and designers who will come up with the design concepts and do all of the execution themselves. Is that what it's meant for? Or can this book be used with another professional like a designer who help take you through?

Danielle:

There certainly is a focus on do-it-yourselfers, and we really wanted to give people a means to be able to concept and design and construct their own book, and then carry that through to their website and other materials. We believe that the book can be a lot more than just a simple and often generic container for your work. So, to think about that as a well thought-out and impeccably crafted creative statement puts a lot of onus on the individual. So, I think that there is a place for creatives to work with other people that perhaps have a specialty, whether that's in bookbinding or whether that's in website development; it's really difficult in this day and age to be able to do everything and do everything really well.

Larry:

And sometimes it's just a matter of having some access to the basic concepts that will enable them to work more effectively with someone that they're contracting with, or look at some of the packaging, the pre-templated sites for example, and decide what's going to best suit their needs. And so, even if, you know, as Danielle kind of reiterated, even if you're not going to be crafting something yourself, you're going to have a much better place and basis from which to discuss this with either the service or the individual who's going to be doing this for you. And I think that basic knowledge is extremely useful because it's just going to get you further along to what you need to best represent you.

Angela:

Danielle, you created the companion website NoPlasticSleeves.com. Let's talk a little bit about what's on the site and how the book and the site are meant to work together.

Danielle:

The idea for the site began as an extension to the book, something that could continue to offer examples of portfolios and promotional work as well as resources and additional articles and interviews, and also to engage the community - to provide a place where the community could submit their own work, to share with others, and add their own comments and such. And you know, I feel fortunate that it's been able to do that. And I think that it has sort of grown into its own thing at this point. It's currently getting over 10,000 visitors a week and it's pretty active and, you know, I've been really fortunate to get such a positive response from people in the field. There are a lot of sites that show really great work. What I try to do is really limit it to specifically promotional and portfolio work.

Angela:

When I looked at the quality of the work that's being shown on the website, some of the pieces look elaborate or expensive to me and I'm wondering whether your book is meant for photographers to help them create just one or two really special portfolio pieces or books that they can mail to a limited number of select potential clients... or [one] book that they can take with them to an interview?

Larry:

Well, I think that the actual ideas within the book can apply to both the situations. I think ultimately a photographer's going to probably have a well-developed portfolio that they're going to bring with them when meeting with specific clients or getting that opportunity to show. But what we really emphasize is that the very same characteristics and the very same thinking and particularly the visual identity should carry over into small select pieces. And in fact, one doesn't necessarily have to build a complete book. One can build small pieces that are sent out. But the idea is to have consistency within all the pieces, and so I think the book is oriented towards doing both of those things: having small, select pieces directed to a targeted audience as well as comprehensive book.

Danielle:

I've seen student work that's really been amazing and innovative and well crafted and constructed on very limited budgets. So, you know, I think that you can make something that is certainly as fabulous and it's going to well represent you without spending a lot of money. And that may mean that you make a limited number of those [pieces]. A number of the folks in the industry that we interviewed... they actually said there was something really nice about having something that was a "limited addition" - that felt more special, that felt like there was this time and care and effort that went into it. But that said a lot about the person, that they were passionate about their field and that really cared about what they were making. So, you know, I think that you can spend a lot of money and make some great work, but I don't think that you necessarily have to do that.

Angela:

Actually, on the topic of budget, do you have a guideline or a sense as to how much money artists should spend on their physical and online portfolios?

Larry:

Well, what I was going to add was that the printing tools that both photographers and designers have access to now work very well and can actually allow them to affordably develop portfolio materials and promotional materials without paying for another service. I mean, on average, if you're building your own portfolio book and printing it yourself, you probably can produce something for as cheaply as $50 to $60. But it easily can extend to more than that depending on the materials you want to use. I think there's a lot of range, and the cost of it is sometimes a function of the kinds of papers and such you want to use. But even the most basic, high quality photographic printing paper - a basic mat paper which is relatively affordable - you know, it actually produces a very good image and can represent the work of a photographer designer very well at a fairly low cost.

So, at $50 to $60, you can produce a really nice book. You can produce small things for much less that might be one-off pieces. If one goes to an online service, those services vary both in quality and cost - and we discuss that in the book - and from anywhere from as little as $12 to $15 all the way to $40 to $50 for a hardbound version of a portfolio, those can be produced by a commercial online printer or a one-off printer. So, again they're pretty reasonable these days.

Danielle:

I think when we're talking about website portfolios as well that there's certainly is a range. It's fairly inexpensive to purchase your own domain name and to get some server space and to work with let's say, a blog structure and even purchase a zine for that, and sort of do that yourself. To do something that's more advanced... if you don't have those technical capabilities, then you would have to work with someone who does and that can definitely get a little bit more costly. But there are certainly other alternatives such as readily available templates that you can use, and I think do a little bit of customization with so that you can certainly connect your online site to your print portfolio and make sure that you have sort of this cohesive package that's going to represent you and be memorable. So, there is a range of solutions, and one of the things that we did try to do in the book is to present that range not only for your particular skill level but also for your budget.

Angela:

And creating and updating a portfolio is also a time investment. How often should a photographer or a designer update their print portfolio, and is there a way to measure the return on investment for the money and the time that they're putting into creating those portfolios?

Larry:

I think that's a difficult question and out in the blogosphere where photographers are exchanging lots of information. This question often comes... "what should I expect in return on my meeting with an art director or an art buyer?" And the truth is that the reality for most in the industry is that the percentages for one-time meetings are pretty low and it's often repeat meetings and repeat mailings and repeat contacts that generate the most work. And sometimes the turnaround can be a year or a year-and-a-half. So, it's a difficult thing to scale if photographers frequently try and figure out "what am I getting from what I'm developing?" I think, though, that a photographer who's trying to make regular contact may be updating their portfolio at least every six months, particularly if they're getting a second opportunity to send it out or meet with someone.

And certainly, they should be trying to send out new materials and particularly with electronic systems such as online presentations. They can be making regular updates, keeping people apprised of what they're doing and then sending out the book or bringing the book with less frequency. So, it may be that you update your portfolio once or twice a year but your electronic forms can be updated regularly because that's lower cost.

Danielle:

A number of photographers also create particular bodies of work. So, you know, a portfolio of work that represents a particular direction and targets their clients a little bit more carefully in that regard. That can work a little bit more successfully as well. You know, I think it's important to produce something that is going to remain memorable and is going to sort of grab someone's attention. It's just like anything else. There's a lot of competition and so even when you're thinking about a promotional - a postcard that you're going to send out - a lot of that stuff just gets tossed.

So, I think part of the return on investment is making decisions that are going to get a response from someone who is really interested in a particular area and expertise that you have. So, to show that you have a special skill or to show why you might be a little bit different from everybody else, I think is key.

Larry:

I think one of the things, too, is that art directors and art buyers and creative directors routinely can get up to a hundred different e-mails sent to them in a given day. And the reality is that, frequently, they don't get to them or they have so many that they ignore them. So, I think Danielle's point about - and we talked a little bit about this - about trying to be more targeted and if you can, choose who you're sending to... can be one way to sort of break through. The other is in terms of, not necessarily quality of the material and expense but the quality of your choice of imagery, quality of the design of the piece you send. Even if it's a postcard, it's going to help differentiate you.

Danielle:

Yeah and if it's meant as a promotional piece that someone could keep, send something that they're going to want to keep around. I just had a photographer send me a piece for the website - it's a printed image that he sends out to potential clients. But he also includes stickers with that. You can put the stickers on the printed image and, you know, it can say different things and you can kind of make your own collage with it. Certainly, that's a little bit more fun and is not as likely to get tossed.

Larry:

Yeah, we had another photographer whose campaign we included in the book and what accompanied that were these small buttons that he made. He reported that the buttons were the most popular thing. I'm not sure if he was suggesting that they weren't interested in his images, but he got a big response out of this one additional item that probably didn't cost him very much to make.

Angela:

So, you're really only limited by your imagination. I wonder then what are the essential pieces that an artist must have in their promotional toolbox, their professional material toolbox, and how do they work together?

Danielle:

Well, certainly a comprehensive portfolio package and when I say that I mean you have all these interrelated and interconnected pieces. It should include a website, certainly, and your book as well as your resume, your CV, perhaps a cover letter, materials - business card materials, promotional materials to get someone to actually be interested to look at your portfolio. So, there really are a number of pieces and again, to emphasize that they should really function cohesively. You're putting out a message about yourself. And in any kind of brand, whether it's a literal brand identity or whether it's something that's much more loose than that, certainly it should have a consistent and positive and memorable message about yourself and really interconnect those pieces.

Larry:

Photographers are now creating blogs that allow them to talk about current projects and essentially update clients and other people that they're interested in targeting, with what they're up to in their work. And they can feature images and text. But again, all of that should be consistent with the other materials they produce.

Angela:

Okay, in your experience then, what are the three biggest mistakes photographers and designers make with their portfolios?

Danielle:

I would say the first is that they don't make them individual enough. We've seen so many portfolios that essentially look the same. And they may be very well crafted and have great bodies of work in them but the fact is there are a lot of people who have great work. So, you have to think in terms of a step beyond that, and I think creating a portfolio that captures you in some way. It captures you in a way that is a little bit more innovative and is a little bit more specific, can resonate with people. And I'd say that that's probably the biggest issue - that idea of brand and self-awareness of your own brand.

Larry:

I think a mistake that photographers often make is not really considering the whole body of images they're presenting, and what I mean by that is how to really sequence them and put them together to make a statement that shows an understanding of flow and organization and paying attention how one image can lead to another. I think sometimes photographers fall in that trap of just falling back on their strong single images and they don't really put together that whole package from the sense of organization, sequence, image relationships, the statement that it makes.

I mean, photographers produce lots of work, and so if you create a printed portfolio book, there's going to be a limit or a cap on how many pieces you're going to put in there. We recommend 15 to 20, maybe up to 25 - otherwise, you're going to have a voluminous book. Oftentimes, when we get to the online presentation, photographers have dozens and dozens of images and what happens is the message gets lost. So, I find that to be a major issue, where you don't get a clear sense of a photographer because you've looked at so many images you start to lose the thread.

Danielle:

One of the things that I really love in interfaces online is the ability to sort of pop up a menu and select something but then to have that menu hide and to sort of disappear so there may be a little tab letting me know that there's a menu there, but to really allow the space online to present your images in an uncluttered way while, at the same time, allowing you easy access to get to other stuff that you might be interested in.

Angela:

And finally, can you describe the best portfolio that you've ever seen and why it came across that way?

Danielle:

That's a big question. Wow. Well, you know, in general, the best portfolios I come across, they encourage me to look again and to want more. They usually do that by showing me something that I really haven't seen before or showing to me something that - in some cases - I have seen before but they're just doing it really, really well.

One of the pieces recently that I featured on the [NoPlasticSleeves.com] site is a promotional piece by a photographer Michael Winokur. He is a do-it-yourselfer and he created a promotional piece that he gave away as a Holiday gift. It's essentially a pinhole camera. He put the kit together; he put his own custom images and stickers on these cameras and packaged them with his own sort of visual imagery and visual identity, and sent these out as gifts. And certainly, he says that it was a labor-intensive process. It was sort of a labor of love in creating these pieces and giving them away to select clients and also, he says, the special "dream" clients. I found that to be a piece that really caught my attention and certainly there's been positive feedback from other folks on the website about that piece as well.

There was another piece that I featured recently on the site by Danielle Kroll, who is a recent graduate of the Tyler School of Art. Her portfolio is essentially fabric swatches that she printed on, and she wanted to communicate that she's a designer as well as a printmaker. It was constructed beautifully and actually won the How Promotion Design best of show award this past year, in 2009. And that was another piece. It was unexpected. It was unexpected to see the material used in the way that she did.

Larry:

One of the pieces we received recently was from photographer Allison Smith. She's actually in our book, and she basically releases a zine on a regular basis that is a series of images. And what's nice about this is it's a good example of something that's very inexpensively produced: they're center-stapled, folded pages. And I think she's slowly upped the production value a little bit... but initially they were just very simply printed. It's an ongoing series and what happens is you start to recall the body as you get more of these.

The idea of an ongoing project - such as a zine - that's sent out regularly... it has the material value, it's nice to receive these things, they're well thought out, they're small, they're intimate. I think that's another thing. In this case, these are scaled, you know, they're very small little booklets but they trade on a very simple notion like the zine, except it's a photo zine. We really like those and each one is different. Sometimes she's had an illustrator draw a cover for her...

Danielle:

Yeah.

Larry:

But it turns out one of [the No Plastic Sleeves] featured portfolios ... another illustrator, turns out he had actually done a cover I believe.

Danielle:

He did. He collaborated with her on a cover. So, I think that overall, you can tell when someone loves what they do. And pours that passion into, not only their client work but also their own promotional work and their own portfolio work. And you know, that's just captivating and that's engaging, and that kind of energy makes people want to work with them. And those are the kinds of pieces that I get excited about and I think that are things that other people do as well.

Angela:

Okay, Larry, Danielle, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Danielle:

Thank you.

Larry:

Thank you very much.

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