I delivered a storyboard job to an ad agency yesterday, a regular client. As I was waiting around, the art director I work with received a board from another freelancer, and turned green. The board looked like it had been made by someone's little sister. It was badly drawn and incomprehensible as she had tried to cover up for the weakness of the characters by adding tons of irrelevant details. "That's not the kind of work she showed us in her portfolio!" the art director fumed. She showed the damage to a colleague. He said, "Make her redo it." "She'll never have time to redo it for tomorrow, and she won't make it any better anyway! I can't send this to South Africa!"
To make a long story short, they managed to get me to save their skins, which took all day yesterday and half of today. It should have taken much longer but I departed from my usual storyboard style and went for a sketchy approach I had developed for one of my pieces here on dA. It allowed me to work much faster: the sketchiness made the lack of details and rough colouring look good as opposed to looking hasty. All this brought to mind several things worth sharing.
Extra-curricular or extra-job experimentation really pays. Don't wait until you have an urgent or unusual job to do, to come up with different ways of getting something done. If I didn't have this readily tried alternative to fall back on, making the deadline would have been much more painful.
In any given job, keep your mind on the essentials. When time is short, there is no room for frills. This person obviously wasted hours adding "cute" little details while the main characters were not only horribly drawn, they were so lost in the gimmicks that the whole thing was useless. Far from being impressed by her little touches, the clients were further angered by them.
Never do what this girl did, showing a certain quality of work and delivering something unrelated. Your portfolio is a promise that you can deliver the same quality every time. If you can't keep it, don't make it. A portfolio should only contain work you're confident about, not experiments that may look awesome but you don't know how to achieve again. Nor should you include work you don't want to do as a commission. For instance, if you went to school, you may have had assignments in 3d imaging. You may have done a good job, but really hated having to do it (guilty as charged). Don't put that work in your portfolio. You won't be able to back out if a client spots it and asks you for some more. Focus instead on the fields you want to work in. Even though it may appear safer to show versatility, it's actually much safer to show focus and confidence in a few chosen directions. This is true especially if you're not equally good in all the fields you're trying your hand at. Presenting something okay just to show the viewer you "also do that" only weakens your portfolio. Here's a hint: mention it in your CV, under Personal Interests. That's where a long list of extra skills will look interesting, without commitment!
Which brings us to the subject of professionalism, that I have seen brought up a few times in the forums.
Here I have to draw an important distinction: there is a difference between being a professional (noun) and being professional (adjective). Let me define both and I'll explain why the distinction is necessary.
You are a professional at something when you fulfill three conditions:
1. Expertise in your field and experience of the nitty-gritty aspects of it. How that expertise was acquired (school or self-teaching) doesn't matter as long as the third condition is fulfilled.
2. You make a living of it, or are supposed to. Obviously if a political crisis makes it impossible to make ends meet anymore, it doesn't make you less of a professional, and neither does departing form your original career path (I know an architect who turned baker, for instance). Making a living out of it implies you have the practical knowledge necessary to be functional in (and on!) the field, which in turn attracts a steady client base, etc, so it's not just about rounding off your allowance by making websites. Also, you can know everything there is to know about the stars, but that doesn't make you an astronomer (it makes you an amateur, which I assure you is not an insult, but an objective statement.)
3. Recognition by other members of the profession. This is where natural selection occurs. It's easy for someone who only knows Photoshop to claim they're a graphic designer but only as long as there are no real graphic designers within earshot. Professions come as bodies. When you are a professional, your expertise enables you to go anywhere in the world and be recognised as a colleague by any member of that same body, because you speak the same language and have the same frame of reference.
Being professional is a behaviour, or rather a work ethic. What it really designates is the model behaviour a professional should have, but unfortunately many pros really fail in that regard (and only stay in the profession because they move on to new clients all the time). At the same time, there are people who apply that standard to hobbies or things they do on the side. So it becomes necessary to distinguish the status (professional or amateur) from the ethic (professional or unprofessional).
What does being professional mean, then? It means to be reliable on every level a client might expect. When we say someone is "very professional" we mean he or she delivers consistent quality, in a timely fashion; puts forward and abides by clear terms of collaboration, foreseeing and covering possible issues; rates honestly and consistently; gives advance warning of anything that may affect the work flow (such as a scheduled trip); never backs out of a project in a way that would leave the client in a lurch; maintains professional integrity (no company wants to find out their designer plagiarised someone else's work, as they will be held accountable); keeps professional secrets; stays abreast of the news and fads in the industry... In short, can fulfill any of the client's needs (or have them fulfilled efficiently) and never bring bad surprises. That includes making sure a Google search for your name won't reveal that your standards drop drastically outside the job. Some won't care, some will very much. It's always best to have no dirt attached to your name. It's just more... professional!
Believe me when I say upholding professional standards is as important as having a brilliant portfolio. Some clients will tolerate the sloppy unreliable artists because they really love their work; others will choose reliability over creativity every time. It depends on what they need the most. Obviously, you will go the furthest if you develop iron-clad ethics along with your skills and creativity. People and companies, equally, remember those whom they can count on.