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So there I was, standing in the large lobby of the Marketing and
Promotion Department of J.R.Geigy (now Novartis) Pharmaceutical
Corporation in Basel, Switzerland, awaiting the arrival of Max
Schmid, the head of the then-famous design department. The
receptionist asked me to wait for Mr. Schmid who would come down by
elevator to pick me up.
I was very nervous, clutching the handles of my homemade,
oversized portfolio-made out of large DIN 01 boards and glued
canvas spine, corners and handles, containing all my original
drawings, posters, photographs, booklets and other school work. It
was my first personal interview after receiving my diploma from the
Basel School of Design.
The elevator doors opened, Max Schmid came towards me and I
started to walk towards him when suddenly the bottom of my
portfolio came unglued and everything fell to the ground, sailing
slowly-for what seemed forever-in all directions along the polished
surface. My large drawings and boards took off across the floor
like curling stones, going and going. I turned bright red and bent
down to gather everything in a hurry. But Max stopped me. He
suggested that we should just walk through the work and discuss the
pieces where they had landed. Letting the chips fall where they
may, or the Swiss equivalent to that.
As other people arrived in the lobby, some commented on my work,
while Max and I walked through my accidental exhibit. Max had
turned my most embarrassing moment into a humorous and interesting
display, making it clear with his spontaneous reaction that it was
the work and me he was interested in, not just the packaging. As a
bonus I also got the job.
I had to start somewhere, just like you. This experience also
serves as an introduction to what I’m looking for in a
Send a letter and a well-designed résumé in advance. Your résumé is
a simple typographic design problem, displaying vital information
about who you are, where you’ve been and what you’ve done in an
organized and structured fashion. Follow up with a phone call and
make an appointment. Call the day before to confirm that you still
have an interview or a drop off, who to see and when.
Brush up on the firm’s work. It helps to know something about
the studio and what they do and have done before you can expect
them to be interested in your work.
A portable proof of your design education and a document of your
work. A display of exercises, talent, thinking and solutions to
visual communication problems. The physical form of the portfolio
is completely up to you. It should, however, not be too precious or
complicated. Nor should it require delivery by freight elevator. It
is a communication tool, not a self-centered reflection of your
A portfolio is a design problem. It contains an assortment of
given visual and verbal material. As with all publications, what
you put next to one element either plays up that individual piece
or fights it for attention. An interesting layout of spreads and
pages, color, form and/or thematic relationships, dramatic scale
changes, humor, elements of surprise, details and whole pieces,
sequencing and rhythm, are all tools to entertain the eye. It is a
show piece in the best sense, and I haven’t even talked about the
individual work itself.
A well-structured portfolio has a beginning, a middle and an
end. It should be a well-designed book that shows off your work in
the best possible light. Samples should be clean and removable. The
sequence doesn't have to be chronological, but I wouldn’t put early
school work at the end. Don’t forget that the final image leaves a
more lasting impression than the first.
Show your sketches separately. This will assist those of us who
think of your sketching process as one of the most important and
telling parts of your presentation.
It helps to label your work with very short descriptions, in
case you have to drop off your portfolio and don’t have a chance to
narrate in person. Keep in mind that a first portfolio review gives
me only a first impression of you and your work. If I’m interested,
you will be called back and you and your work will be scrutinized
in more detail.
Please forgive me for not reading your books, thesis project,
poetry or research papers. I’m getting an overall impression and
can usually judge from what I’m looking at. If it doesn’t
communicate visually, you probably chose the wrong profession.
Your digital portfolio should be designed just like the regular
portfolio with the same attributes described above. It should be
easy to open, navigate and review. I have quite a collection of
portfolio CDs which are now coasters, because they couldn't be
opened. Whatever you do, don’t make us work at it. Make it easy to
get to your information.
Don’t think for a minute that I pay more attention to your email
than to a letter or phone call. It is much easier to ignore or
delete your email than it is to print it out and keep it on
I personally prefer, whenever possible, to see you in person,
because it’s not the work I’m buying—it’s you I’m interested in. I
want to hear and see you present your work. Your intelligence,
enthusiasm, energy and passion are more important to me than your
whole portfolio. Besides, I’m always as little suspicious of the
involvement and influence in your work by faculty and fellow
If I’m criticizing your work, it is always meant to be
constructive. It also shows me whether you can take criticism. This
is an important factor in evaluating your potential to learn.
Actually, my criticism is often directed at the faculty who taught
Dress presentably. Speak up and narrate your work. Don’t just
sit there and wait for questions or comments. Be self critical. It
is one of the most useful traits to be able to evaluate your own
work in as an objective way as humanly possible. Tell me what you
think is good and what is not so good. I want to know whether you
know the difference.
Most of all I want to see and hear that you love and live this
profession with a passion.
Steff Geissbuhler is among America’s most celebrated designers of integrated brand and corporate identity programs. His work for a broad spectrum of international and national clients includes identity systems for NBC, Merck, Time Warner Cable, Telemundo,
Voice of America, Toledo Museum of Art, National Parks of New York Harbor, Crane & Co., Calamos Investments, Conrad Hotels and Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. Prior to forming his own firm, he was a co-founding partner at C&G Partners for over six years, and
a partner at Chermayeff & Geismar Inc. for 30 years.
Steff has designed architectural graphics for the IBM building in New York City; a complete sign system for the Universities of Pennsylvania; and Connecticut; printed materials for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Mobil, Philip Morris, Cummins Engines and
Union Pacific. Other commissions include graphics for the Smithsonian Institution’s Bicentennial exhibition; the “Sports Illustrated at the Olympics” exhibit; a new identity and graphics for the New York Public Library; the New Victory Theater; and a series
of posters for New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. In 2005 Mr. Geissbuhler’s work was honored with the American Institute of Graphic Arts Medal for his sustained contribution to design excellence and the development of the profession. He is also
the recipient of the U.S. Federal Achievement Design Award, and several awards from the Art Director’s Clubs and the International Poster Biennales. Steff served as the U.S. president of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and has been a member of the board
of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. He is past president of AIGA’s New York chapter and is presently a board member.
Steff Geissbuhler received his diploma in graphic design from the School of Art and Design, Basel, Switzerland. He has taught at the Philadelphia C
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