Unlocking The Portfolio Work Product

Jared Spool

July 19th, 2011

The other night, I had a conversation that I’ve been having a lot lately. It usually starts like this:

“Hi. I’m a designer at [a big deal company] and I’m considering leaving. The problem I have is my employer has made it very clear I can’t use anything I’ve done here in my portfolio. What should I do?”

The work product lockdown is something many designers face, as they grow their careers and try out new opportunities. It’s natural that prospective future employers will want to see what you’ve done. It’s hard to show them when your designs, sketches, and deliverables are locked up behind a corporate non-disclosure agreement.

In future posts, I’m planning on talking about what people can show in their portfolio if they don’t have work products available (or even if they do), and what the best hiring managers look for when reviewing a portfolio.

However, today I want to talk about this from a different angle: Making it part of the hiring agreement.

I think every designer (especially every experienced, senior designer) considering a job at a new organization should ask explicitly about the hiring organization’s policy on including the work in future portfolios. Their answer should be on the table and negotiated, just like salary and benefits.

When should you ask?

In any hiring process, there’s two stages: The first stage is when you, as the candidate, get the hiring manager and company to fall in love with you. It’s all about showing what you can do and how you’ll help them achieve their goals for the position. You’re goal in this stage is to get the company to think you’re the most awesome person ever for their position and they should jump through every hoop to get you on board.

The second stage is when the company gets you to fall in love with them. Their goal in this stage is to prove to you that they are the best place ever.

It’s in the second stage that we can talk about the portfolio, between when they fall in love with you and when you are deciding the job is the right next step. It’s quite within the rules to say, “What’s your policy on employees including screen shots, sketches, and other work deliverables in their portfolio?”

The hiring manager may not know. It may be something they’ll have to ask HR or even the legal office about. At small companies, they have never even considered the question because you’re the first to ask.

However, it’s a really fair question. And, frankly, any answer is a fair answer.

They might say they want to protect their designs from getting in the hands of the competitors. Therefore their policy is to refuse permission to publish work (especially unreleased design work).

Public companies, who have trouble when future plans are leaked, thereby creating a possibility of “insider information” getting out, are very likely to refuse this without including a Safe Harbor statement. (A safe harbor statement basically says that investors shouldn’t use the information as any indication that the company intends to do anything with it.)

Or they might say they have no problem with you putting the documents into your portfolio, but they’d prefer that you don’t put it in a publicly accessible place, like a web site that anyone can get to. They might like you to only show it to people on an as needed basis, asking those individuals to not share it beyond their own team.

Ideally, they come back and say it’s perfectly fine. There’s not reason you can’t take your work with you as you grown your career. (After all, they benefited from your previous employer’s generosity in this matter. Pay it forward.)

Any of these answers are ok. The point isn’t that you badger them into heading in a direction that they aren’t comfortable with. The point is they tell you, up front, before you take the job.

Once you know, you can decide if this is a deal breaker or not. The fact that you asked tells the hiring manager that it’s an important detail to you. That you’re thinking about your long-term career.

(Of course, one argument is that it sends a message that you’re thinking about leaving the company even before you got the job. Personally, I think that’s ok. In this day and age, we don’t expect life time employees. Any company in denial of that fact may not be the kind of place we want to work. It’s good for an employer to realize that each employee has a choice to stay or go.)

As a discipline, our goal is to bring awareness to the hiring companies. To let them know that this issue is an important one for many professionals.

We’ll know we’ve succeeded when hiring companies start putting their openness to including work products in portfolios into their recruiting ads. When they cite unlocked work products as a benefit of choosing them to work there, we’ve arrived.

Then, someday, this will disappear as an issue, as it becomes part of the standard way we all do business.

2 Responses to “Unlocking The Portfolio Work Product”

  1. Paul Says:

    Hi Jared,
    this is a timely article for me as I’m just about to accept a job offer from a publicly listed newspaper expanding their web design dept. The company operates in the financial sector and could be classed as conservative. There’s a great potential for my CV but I’m worried that this issue could be a block :(

    I’m curious to know how do the journalists treat this same situation, isn’t it a case of copyright. Design you make is yours and personal copyright not the company’s?

  2. Jared Spool Says:

    @Paul: I’m not a lawyer, but…

    If you are hired by a company, in the US, the company owns all of your work under something called “Work for hire.” You can’t claim any intellectual property rights unless the company explicitly assigns them to you.

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