My First Portfolio: Natasha Jen

Print‘s new Portfolio Review is a great opportunity for designers to show off their stuff and personally connect with some of the top design firms in the country. All entrants will have their work featured in an online gallery, and six winners will be flown to San Francisco to attend the 2013 HOW Design Live conference and meet one-on-one with the judges—Mirko Ilić, Natasha Jen, Debbie Millman, Scott Stowell, and Jessica Walsh—for advice on their work.

But before the judges start evaluating the portfolios, we thought it would be fun to ask them about their portfolios—specifically their first portfolios, and how they helped or hindered their early careers. Previously, Mirko Ilić told us about the “big paper salad” he brought to New York in 1986; Debbie Millman recounted her “Kinda Sad Portfolio Story”; and Jessica Walsh talked about why physical portfolios may no longer be necessary. Today, Natasha Jen, who was named a partner in Pentagram’s New York office last March, describes her first portfolio.

When did you create your first portfolio? What did it look like?

My first portfolio was a briefcase that I bought from Pearl Paint. It contained pieces of school work—some were physical objects and books, some were posters mounted on boards—that I created during my sophomore year at SVA in 2000. Many of the works were my first graphic design assignments and I was being very precious about my portfolio. My second portfolio box was an elaborate one. I hand-picked the fabric for the box and specified all the measurements of the interior compartments and had it custom-made at a shop. At that time, a portfolio was not only a milestone, but it was also a kind of highly materialized, if not fetishized, object for me, and a lot of students.

I kept that point of view probably until two or three years after I started working. The belief in a portfolio as a physical, holy, crafty, polished, immortalized object just dissolved as I began to understand that creative processes are often messier and more complex than the conventional notion of a portfolio. Portfolio is a misleading word, I think. It’s the body of work that matters. And a body of work is always transforming.

Did you show your portfolio to many people? Did they give you useful feedback?

I was doing an internship at Eric Baker Design then, and I showed it to the senior designers in the office. They said, “This girl is going to be our boss one day.” It was very kind of them to give a sophomore student such encouragement. And because of that, I naively believed that I would “do really well” as a graphic designer.

Did your portfolio help you land a job? If so, can you tell us a little about how that happened?

Luckily, my work has always helped me land the job that I desired. I used my work from my junior year to land an internship at Pentagram. Before I graduated from SVA, my senior work landed me a job at Sony music. I resigned from Sony within a few months, but my work landed me a job at Base. My work at Base helped me landed a job at 2×4 . . . and so on and so forth.

As I mentioned previously, a designer’s work is always evolving, despite that it may seem incremental at first glance. But once there’s some time and distance, I think one can begin to understand his or her own design tendencies and can make some conscious decisions about where that work is going to go.

Do you still keep a portfolio? How has it changed since your first one?

No. Now that I have more work—in diversity, quantity, and complexity—than ten years ago, I arrange my work differently and very specifically according to the situation. It’s fluid and flexible now. It expands and contracts. It projects different attitudes and interests. I guess its current state also reflects me as a designer. I like the mirrored-view I get now that wasn’t there when I first looked at my portfolio ten years ago, and I can’t wait to see its development in the next ten years.

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