Surface Design Portfolio Advice You Don't Actually Have to Follow! | Shannon McNab | Skillshare

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Surface Design Portfolio Advice You Don't Actually Have to Follow!

teacher avatar Shannon McNab, Surface Designer & Illustrator

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Portfolio Myth #1


    • 3.

      Portfolio Myth #2


    • 4.

      Portfolio Myth #3


    • 5.

      Your Assignment


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About This Class

Surface design can be a rewarding career, but so many budding surface designers get stuck at the portfolio building stage. One of the biggest culprits is all the bad advice we're told to follow that often leads to us feeling overwhelmed, defeated, or simply wasting time on things that don't actually help our careers.

In this mini-class, I'll be sharing
 3 of the most common surface design portfolio myths, how they could be affecting you, and how you can easily overcome them.

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Shannon McNab

Surface Designer & Illustrator


Hi ya! I'm Shannon, an American surface designer living in Dublin, Ireland who specializes in patterns and hand lettering. My focus is on helping you not only improve your creative work, but also your business skills - anyone who dreams of making a living from their work needs BOTH to succeed. But community is also really important, which is why I started Sketch Design Repeat - to support and encourage you.


PS. Want to keep in touch and know when I have new classes or articles? Sign up for my newsletter.

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Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: Surface design can be an incredibly rewarding career, where you get to license your artwork to companies to use on their products. Yet, so many budding surface designers get stuck at the first major hurdle in surface design. Their portfolios, they'll stay lost in artistic limbo, some some years because they're waiting for things to be perfect. Hi, there. For those who don't know me, I'm Shannon McNab. I'm a surface designer and my designs have made their way on everything from greeting cards and calendars to fabric and even frisbees. I've learned a thing or two about the biz. In my experience over the past several years, I've realized just how much bad advice there is out there for artists looking to break into the industry. Several of them are focused around a designer's portfolio and they are talked about by industry gurus and experts so frequently that designers see the advice as truth. Unfortunately, that's where all breaks down. Because by [inaudible] following all the things you're told you should be doing, artists end up wasting their time on things that aren't going to help them move past the initial portfolio creation stage and actually start their career. That's what I want to address in this short class. I'm going to share with you three of the most common portfolio myths I've seen in surface design. If you stay open-minded as we evaluate each myth together, this mini-class can provide a significant shift in how you see the art in your portfolio and help you move past creation mode and start working towards making money from your art. That's what I hope to achieve. Let's get started. 2. Portfolio Myth #1: Okay, let's just dive right into it and start with the first portfolio myth, which is by far the most common in the industry. You need a big portfolio before you start. I understand why so many designers think that, I was one of them. At the start of my surface design career I was told I needed 100 finished designs in order to have enough to start licensing my work, especially because at the time I only had about a dozen designs, and so the thought of having to build about 90 more before I could get anywhere was almost paralyzing. Honestly I felt really defeated. I know so many other designers have been given the exact same advice and ended up with the same feelings of panic and overwhelmed decided. But this myth is totally false. You can start your career with less work than you think you need or were told you needed. Because even though I was told I needed 100 designs, I decided that was crazy. I didn't want to wait that long, so I reached out to a few companies I was familiar with when I had just 15 designs in my portfolio, and within the first two months, I had my first freelance projects. By the end of that year, I ended up making a few $1,000, which was not much, but hey, it was a start. The following year, I wanted to exhibit at the art licensing trade-show, Surtex, and that same fear from the previous year of not having enough work crept up constantly as I prepared for the show, but I did my best to ignore it and exhibited anyway. I did it with only about 70 or so good designs in my portfolio, and by the end of that year, I made about $12,000 from surface design. Again, not amazing, but at least I was gaining some momentum. These two very different experiences were super validating for me because waiting to start my career until I had enough art was actually really bad advice, and I was so glad I didn't listen to it because if I had, it would have cost me at least $15,000 of income and about 18 months of momentum in my business. Instead of worrying about having 100 designs, 50 designs or even 25 designs, I want you to consider moving forward with what you have right now because as long as you have at least 10 solid portfolio pieces, you have enough to start reaching out to companies. Of course, you can add to your portfolio while you build your client list. You don't have to do just one or the other because which sounds better? Singing creation modes the next year or two until you have a big enough portfolio and potentially lose out on thousands of $ of income, or launching your career now with whatever art you have and get your first client earlier than you ever anticipated? I don't know about you, but I think moving forward now is the way to go. I hope I've convinced you of that. We've only just got started, we've got two more big portfolio myths to cover, so I will see you in the next video. 3. Portfolio Myth #2: This next myth is one that some of the biggest industry experts give as sage advice. Unfortunately, it just doesn't work for the industry anymore. Not only that, but it keeps many artists stuck at the beginnings of their career. Now I bet you're just crazy curious as to what myth I'm talking about. It's you should always design in large collections. Some experts say you must include a minimum of eight patterns anytime you're creating a new collection for your portfolio and it's totally okay if it's something you've been told or believe, because in the heyday of art licensing, the 1990s, a lot of companies did buy a lot of artwork, but they just don't anymore. That's why creating big collections is really antiquated advice. If you don't believe me, just look at your Instagram feed of your favorite surface designers and notice when they share product photos of companies that license their art. Or you could look at photos of artists showing their portfolios while exhibiting at trade shows like Surtex, and you'll find nearly all of them show one-off designs and small collections. In fact, when I hosted a Surface Design Industry Survey at the end of 2020, over 75 percent of participating designers said they package their art either as a single illustration or pattern, or as a small collection of a hero with one to two coordinates. Well, only 8.6 percent of service designers always package their art in large collections. I can tell you as one of those designers who creates those single designs in small collections and as someone who's exhibited at trade shows over the past four years and talked to dozens of my fellow exhibiting designers about what actually sells. Its been way easier for us to package our art this way simply because it makes it more affordable for companies. Because the truth is, company out budgets aren't what they used to be, so you need to stay flexible and cater to them as much as possible if you want to see your art on their products. Does that mean there's never a place for large collections? Of course not. There are a few exceptions, especially both fabric and scrapbooking. Even in those markets, you can still sell single design. In fact, of the four different fabric companies I've worked with, only one of them always buys collections, and even then it was only five or six patterns. You can get away with far less in a collection than you think. But I'm also really sensitive to the fact that every artist works differently. I know there are designers who just naturally like to work in large collections, and if that's you, go for it. But I challenge you to break up the collection into smaller groupings on multiple portfolio sheets when presenting it to companies, because it's less likely to overwhelm them. It's especially important for companies that don't purchase in large collections because it gives them choices, they can pick just one or two designs to license instead of feeling like it's all or nothing. Then for those companies who do like to buy large collections, they'll just say, "I'll take it all." However, there's also many designers on the other side of the spectrum. Those who find creating big collections with a lot of patterns and color ways in details, or who really stressful and overwhelming process. This myth, is especially harmful to them because it's taking them out of the way they naturally create. If you're one such designer, I hope you'll let go of the idea that you need large collections in your portfolio if you don't enjoy working that way. That's really the main point I want to get across here in this video. You should create whatever design process works best for you. Then however big or small they turn out, package them up in a way that's easily digestible so that any company, no matter how small their budget is, they'll be able to afford it. Because isn't it better to have your art in a way that's more likely to get picked up and make you money? I think so. That's what we're all in this business to do. 4. Portfolio Myth #3: You've already come far in the past two videos. We've got one more myth to go. You're ready for it? You have to follow trends in order to be successful. I'm totally curious about when a new trend emerges, how often do you find yourself chasing it? Be honest, do you find yourself believing that you need lots of trendy art to be a successful surfaces designer? If so, you're not alone. There's many designers out there who collect and work on every trendy design that they come across. Evolutionarily, we're actually wired to follow trends. Follow me here. I know I'm getting a little nerdy and scientific, but trends exist and have always existed since the beginning of time because of our human need to belong. So it's not surprising at all that as designers, it's completely natural for us to want to create what's popular and trendy, because we want to fit in and be noticed. That's why our favorite platforms and educators always highlight their creative briefs are full of popular or super-secret upcoming trends, which is fun while the trend is hot. But what happens when the trend is over? Once the llama trend dies, please let it be soon, what is going to happen with all those beautiful llama illustrations and patterns in every surface designer's portfolio? Absolutely nothing. You'll end up with a cute piece that no one wants and will sit sadly in your portfolio, possibly for years, because the theme is totally played out. What's the solution then? The remedy is actually pretty simple: it's best to stick with evergreen themes for the majority of your portfolio because there will always be themes that companies are looking for every single year; things like florals, birthday, birds, geometrics, classic Christmas motifs, because they have staying power. Their popularity will never wane. There will always be companies wanting them and customers buying them. Still, you might be thinking you'll get so board if you're only creating for classic themes. But isn't it better to create more that companies actually want and much more likely to get licensed than have a bunch of trendy stuff in your portfolio that'll end up stale? But you might also feel completely lost as what's considered an evergreen theme. So I've put together a little list that you'll find in the downloads that you can keep tucked away. So anytime you're unsure what to make, you can pull it out and choose something from it at random, knowing the design you create will become a valuable piece in your portfolio. Does that mean that you should never create artwork using trends? Not at all. It can be a little fun to work with something that's trending every once in a while, but it will be to your advantage if you focus primarily on evergreen themes when building your portfolio. This way, if you're the type of designer, like myself, that doesn't always enjoy trends, you're off the hook. You're welcome. 5. Your Assignment: First off, I just want to say thank you for taking the time to watch this mini class. I know it's probably not as fun as learning a new skill like watercolor or Procreate. Might argue that the things you learn today are just as important as learning a new creative skill. The biggest thing I want you to take away today is to keep things simple and focus on the things that have the biggest impact on your career. Because surface designers can get really bogged down in the process of creating a portfolio and often make things way more complicated than they actually need to be. That's really what my goal was for bursting these myths. Giving you permission to stay true to yourself and how you create as a designer. But before I go, let's quickly talk about your class assignment. I want you to choose one of the three myths we covered. With myth number 1, share with us a screenshot of your current body of work and what your next step is going to be. If myth number 2 resonated with you the most. I would love for you to share one of your most recent designs, whether it's a large or small collection, and share your plans on how you might adapt your process and present your designs in a way that makes them more marketable. Lastly, if myth 3 hit you hardest, share an image of a trendy piece from your portfolio and then share your plans on what three evergreen themes you want to add to your portfolio next. No matter what, I really hope you like this class, found it insightful and really take to heart what I've shared with you. Because if you can get past these portfolio hurdles, you'd be much closer to making a living as a surface designer. If you'd like to stay in touch with me or want to chat about other surfaces design myths because seriously, there are so many others I didn't actually cover. You can find me on Instagram @sketchdesignrepeat, or you can follow me right here on skillshare. You just need to press the follow-up button right up there. Again, thank you so much for joining me.[MUSIC] I love helping designers grow their businesses. I hope I got you just one step closer here today. Take care. [MUSIC]