The Master of Arts (MA) in Digital Communication and Media Arts (DCMA) program at DePaul University gives students the option of taking an elective Portfolio course in which they complete a digital portfolio project. The workshop-style course is designed to help students prepare for the job market and integrates guest presentations by professionals in the field of digital design, communication, and media arts. The interview below focuses on the elements of a digital communication portfolio and the tools and technologies used to assemble a digital portfolio.

About B. Rich, MFA: B. Rich is an Assistant Professor in the School of Design at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media. He holds a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Film/Video from Columbia College Chicago and a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Biology from Thomas More University. He is a filmmaker and designer whose areas of interest include documentary, transmedia storytelling, VR, and, more recently, user experience (UX), industrial design, and augmented reality (AR).

Interview Questions

[] Let’s begin with some background on the Master’s in Digital Communication and Media Arts program at DePaul and your involvement with it. Your personal area of expertise is digital filmmaking and your primary teaching responsibility at DePaul is in this master’s program, correct?

[Professor Rich] Yes, that’s my background. I have also dabbled in game design and user experience design and now I am moving more into industrial design. The Master of Arts (MA) in Digital Communication and Media Arts program is a small program. We run out of the School of Design. It is an interesting arrangement because we have the College of Computing and Digital Media (CDM), which has three schools: the School of Computing; the School of Design; and the School of Cinematic Arts. This master’s program is partnered with the College of Communication. So the Digital Communication (DC) track runs out of the College of Communication, and the Media Arts track runs out of CDM. The students in the DC track get a little more theory and background in terms of communication as an academic discipline. The students in the Media Arts track focus more on designing and creating digital media. But all of the students work through several courses together and they have an opportunity to focus on whatever they want to in digital communication and media.

[] So, in addition to the two tracks, there are a significant number of electives, including a digital portfolio course.

[Professor Rich] Yes. We call it a choose-your-own-adventure degree. We are in the process of creating several more defined tracks for the program so that students aren’t too overwhelmed by choices. That will give students an opportunity to come into the program and choose a digital storytelling/campaign building track or more of a user experience/design/new media track in Media Arts. I run the program with LeAnne Wagner, and she comes from a graphic design and interactive design background. I come from a documentary filmmaking background. So I’ve learned a lot from her, and I think she has learned from me as well.

[] Do a lot of your students opt to take the Portfolio course, and how many times have you taught the course?

[Professor Rich] I’ve taught the course three times. I would say that it is not a super popular course. We always end up cross-listing it with the CDM’s Experience Design and Human Computer Interaction (HCI) master’s programs and we have also opened it up for undergraduates who are majoring in User Experience Design. So the class draws students from outside of our master’s program.

I’m not sure that all of our students recognize the value of having a portfolio. And because it’s an elective, a lot of our students who either already have a portfolio or who don’t understand the value of having a portfolio don’t take it. I understand that.

What we are doing is we are implementing some new things in the Media Arts track starting this coming year. For instance, students who have experience in graphic design and have a portfolio that they can show us can skip the program’s two introductory classes. If we can take what you have already done and map it onto the program’s expectations, then we can waive one or both of those courses. So the intro classes will be for students who have no career experience in media arts and who do not have a professional portfolio. That will allow us to use those intro courses as a place for students to start their portfolios. And then, with every additional course they take, we’ll be focusing on projects that can fit into the portfolio.

I teach portfolio in a way that emphasizes that the portfolio is a story about you. It’s your story. It’s how you work and how you think. The individual projects you do for your portfolio don’t necessarily have to be great. You are a student. You are learning. And the projects you complete as a student are about learning, which means they aren’t all going to be polished, professional pieces. But if you can convey your thinking and your decision making process in those projects, then you are telling a story about yourself.

We work on a quarterly system, so time is a real constraint. Ten weeks is not always enough time to fully flesh out a project. I warn students in all of my classes that they should not expect to create a masterpiece in ten weeks. But you can always go back and continue working on a project that you started in class. Even if a project does not come out as well as you would like it to, it can still be a valuable case study, particularly if you can talk about what you would do if you had more time, more money, or a team of people to work with. These aren’t excuses; they are realities and facts relating to what you would want to improve upon and what you are satisfied with. That can help anyone who is looking to work with you understand your process and your abilities.

[] This is the approach that you take in teaching the portfolio course specifically?

[Professor Rich] Yes. And with the portfolio class I always bring in a number of professionals to talk about hiring and what they are looking for and what separates a good portfolio from a bad portfolio. The consensus from professionals seems to be that they don’t necessarily care about the quality of a project as much as they care about the person’s philosophy and process. They want to know how a person works and whether or not that person’s philosophy and process is going to integrate with their way of doing things. That’s what has to come through and be displayed in your portfolio.

Overall, it has helped a lot to emphasize that the projects students work on as they progress through the program can become part of their portfolio. I think it helps the students understand that these projects are not just exercises for class. You’re learning and all of the steps in that learning process are important.

[] What are the elements of the kind of portfolio students in your program and in the portfolio course are working on?

[Professor Rich] I’ve had communication students who are more driven towards academia. For example, one of our students from a couple of years ago is now working on her PhD in the ethics of robotics. She didn’t get that experience or that interest directly from us, but she did start to pick it up while she was in the program. So that’s an interesting arc.

Most of the students in the program are aiming to get into fields like content creation, design or journalism (DC track). So the elements of a portfolio differ based on the goal of each student. A student who is interested in going into journalism may create a portfolio that will have a lot of different articles. The challenge for those students is mapping out the portfolio in a way that creates a personal brand and conveys something about their style. If a student doesn’t want to highlight a particular style, that student can pick and choose work that demonstrates knowledge of a wider range of things.

The elements of the portfolio for students who are interested in design are different. First of all, I let them pick out whatever platform they would like. I’ve had web development students who want to build their own site, which is a great way to demonstrate your skills and your work. But it is difficult to create an entire web site in just one quarter. Most of those students end up scratching the website and picking a template because designing an entire website is just too much to fit into ten weeks when you are also trying to figure out how to fit all of your other materials into a portfolio. That’s fine. You can always build your site later when you have more time.

The main thing we focus on is helping students find a template that works for them, whether it’s on Squarespace or Weebly or whatever they end up choosing. We do an exercise where each of the students picks a platform and a template and researches it. They bring that research to the class, and we talk about the pros and the cons of the platform, the expenses, and the limitations. That process allows the students to see and think about the different options that are out there and then choose a platform that will work for what they want to do.

It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be a big elaborate production. You just need to start by getting yourself into the digital realm in a way that makes it possible for people to find you and see your work. Some of the students have used Adobe Portfolio because they already have a Creative Cloud account, and they can use the portfolio assets there. We also work with Behance when that is applicable, and we talk about building up a LinkedIn portfolio and making that part of an integrated personal brand.

We want each student to understand that this is about building a brand, a personal brand based on who you are and what you do. You can do that on your portfolio site and through LinkedIn. The big considerations are where you’re going to have your website and what the domain name is going to be. Is the domain going to be your name, a brand name, or something else that relates to your concept? Then you can map that out across any other platforms you want to use. For example, if you are going to incorporate an Instagram account as an artist/designer, you have to figure out how to integrate that. But, mostly, it’s a portfolio site and a LinkedIn profile.

To build the portfolio, the students go through all of the projects they’ve ever done, starting with projects that go back to the beginning of their work in the field. Through that they can touch on what spurred their interest in media and design and create a backstory as an introduction to their work. We talk about how to tell a story about yourself and the projects that you include in your portfolio.

We look at what the first thing a person will see in your portfolio. If you are applying for a job, you want to make sure that the person doing the hiring sees the stuff you want them to see first and then, if they are interested, they can look at other things you have done. I like to think in terms of complexity. The first thing people see should be easy to follow and have some pictures. It should leave people with a clear impression of what you have done, and it should be accessible to people who aren’t necessarily in media and design.

The second level may be for the hiring manager in a department, a person who knows a little bit more about what they need but they don’t do the actual job so it should still not be too technical. And then you can have a third level where you assume that the people who do the kind of work that you do are now looking at it and you can get more into the weeds and go into depth and detail about all the little choices that are going to be interesting to someone who knows what you are doing, but that wouldn’t be interesting to a person who doesn’t have some technical knowledge.

If a student has lots of different interests, we think about how you present that. If you’re an artist and a graphic designer and a musician and a journalist, how do you make that a coherent part of the story you present in your portfolio. Some students work with separate pages so that they can give out different links to people, but I don’t think that’s very practical. I like a portfolio site where everything is there, but it is very easy to sort, especially since a lot of places are now looking for multi-disciplinary people. They may need someone in graphic design but the fact that you can write may be a big help.

As the students are going through all of their projects and deciding what to include, we get them to think about how the portfolio will be organized. We also try to get them to think about presenting their work in a way that reflects their process. So, we encourage students to include pictures of the project in process or a list of steps or sketches so that people can see the process. Every portfolio is different, but we try to break them up into tiers so that the first page is a thumbnail and a blurb and if someone wants to know more about a specific project they can click on it and go deeper. We want the students to imagine a hiring manager and to think about what that hiring manager is going to see. Or maybe it’s going to be an AI bot that first looks at the materials. That has to be taken into account as well.

There are a lot of considerations when you’re putting together a portfolio, a lot of decisions that you have to make. I’ve had a lot of students take the portfolio course toward the end of the program and inevitably they’ll say that they wish they’d taken a course like this at the beginning of the program. It really is helpful to know in advance that you should be thinking about how you might incorporate all these various projects you are doing as a student into a portfolio. When you get done with a project, it’s good to do a postmortem and reflect on what went right and what went wrong while all of the details are still fresh in your mind.

[] Do you work on incorporating a resumé into the portfolio?

[Professor Rich] Yes. That is another aspect of the class. We have students build up their resumés and create a nicely designed one-page resumé. I should say, if it’s practical for them then we have them do a designed page. If that’s not practical then we work on making it concise, readable, and professional looking. The resumé is one of those things that has to be there. Just like LinkedIn. People are going to go to LinkedIn to see who you are and what you’ve done. That’s become the rolodex for everybody. So you either want to have a link to your portfolio with your resumé there or have your resumé linked out from your portfolio. You just want to make sure that it’s easily accessible from wherever you are directing people.

[] Is it fair to say that all or most aspects of a portfolio are at this point digital, even if some of your work exists outside of the digital realm? And, given the broad range of possibilities that digital media allows for, is there any standardization in terms of what is expected of a portfolio at this point?

[Professor Rich] You do have to figure out a way to bring all of your portfolio work into a digital format, but that’s usually not too difficult. As for standardization, I have had lots of different professionals come into the portfolio course and the takeaway is that they want to see your process. They want to how you work and how you think. They want to know something about you and what your passions are. They want to see how your personality comes through in all the materials in the portfolio. Are you very serious? Are you a jokester? And how is that reflected in the presentation?

In terms of specific formats, there’s no standardization. But there is only so much room within most of the templates that you would use for a portfolio and what you can include. Maybe that will change as we start to have more AR and VR. We may have an explosion in possibilities in terms of how to approach things. But for right now, the interface is a screen and you’re going to have a website with a bunch of grids, and you have options in terms of how those grids are arranged. That’s pretty much it.

None of the professionals who have come to the class have said anything like, we expect to see white backgrounds or black backgrounds or thumbnails on the front. They want to be able to easily understand what you do and see your work. And there should be some kind of logical narrative flow for each tier of the portfolio. It’s funny how many of them have said that they don’t care what platform the portfolio is built on as long as the material is there. These are all people from agencies that have products in the digital domain. We’ve had people share their professional websites and portfolios and some of them are just done on Wix. So they want to see the work and understand the person. It doesn’t matter to them if they are going to Behance or Adobe Portfolio or Weebly. They don’t care, which is refreshing to me.

[] Are there platforms or tools that you prefer in portfolio building?

[Professor Rich] I personally like Squarespace because there’s not a whole lot of their branding on the templates. If you have a domain and you have a Squarespace account, you really can’t tell that it is on Squarespace. And they have a ton of templates that you can experiment with.

We have a thesis program in the Media Arts track of the master’s program, and we just had our third cohort graduate with that in place. We’re developing a thesis site where all of the new people can be highlighted on the front page and all of the past work can be archived. We’re using Cargo for that because we had some graduate assistants come in to help us choose the best platform for that. Cargo had the easiest to use platform for what we needed because we want students to be able to upload their stuff from wherever they are rather than just having one administrator. Cargo works well for that. Nobody has chosen that for the portfolio course, and I have not yet recommended Cargo, but we have had students explore Cargo along with all of the other platforms that are out there. It seems to have a lot of potential as a portfolio site.

I’ve had a lot of students in the portfolio course use Squarespace, a lot of students like Wix, and Weebly is a site some students choose. Weebly seems to show a lot of its own branding on its sites. There’s nothing wrong with that. But for me, personally, I don’t like that. I also don’t wear logo clothes. Unless you are sponsoring me, I don’t want to wear your logo. Squarespace and Wix seem to be good at not showing too much of their own branding on their templates.

Adobe Portfolio is very nice too, if you have a Creative Cloud account. If you use Adobe, then you are tied to that for the rest of your life. I have a Creative Cloud account, so that doesn’t bother me. But if you’re not sure whether you’re going to want to stick with Adobe, then I don’t recommend that because the portfolio isn’t available to you if you close your Creative Cloud account.

I do encourage my students to explore Behance. At the beginning of the portfolio course the students are all assigned to go out and find three or four or five sites that they really like or really don’t like and to bring reports back to the class so that we can all look through them. A lot of the really good ones are out of Behance because there are a lot of really cool designers with a lot of cool work on Behance. That’s the thing: if the work is beautiful and amazing then you can put it anywhere and it’s going to look great. The community aspect of Behance is helpful if you want to get other artists and designers to notice your work. Behance is a great place to look for inspiration if you’re in design. I think of Behance as a good place to have your work in addition to having a portfolio. I’ve had some students just work in Behance but not many.

The difference with Behance is that you’re diving into a pool of tons and tons of work. In a sense that doesn’t help you out because you’ve dropped your work into this huge pool. But it’s great for finding other people to collaborate with and for getting inspiration about how other people have told their own stories. If you’re on there then you’re seeing all of that stuff. It’s a very useful tool, but I would not recommend only having that.

[] You mentioned that students coming into the program in the future may be able to opt out of the first two introductory courses if they have a portfolio that meets certain expectations.

[Professor Rich] We have that in place right now. It’s not written anywhere, so it’s unofficial. Those intro courses don’t count toward the degree. They are eight credits on top of the credits you need for the master’s degree. These are courses that prepare students who don’t have prior experience to be in classes with the students who do have professional experience. It’s sort of a like a boot camp. One of the classes focuses on theory and concepts of visual design, and the other is more about the tools – Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign.

The main thing is that students who come into the program without a portfolio are going to be starting their portfolios in those two courses. So, it may be that having an elective portfolio course is not necessary, although that’s something that we are going to have to look at after a year or so. The idea is that the portfolio course could go away because the program’s other courses would incorporate a portfolio component. Maybe instead of the portfolio course, we could have a professional course where people would come in and talk about resumé building, interview tactics, and the nuts and bolts of the hiring process.

We recognize that there is an absolute value to a portfolio and a lot of students are not fully understanding that until they are out in the world. We think that by starting the portfolio discussion earlier in the program and integrating it into each class it will create a ladder effect. Students will be creating the components of a portfolio and thinking about how those components connect to tell a bigger story as they progress through the program. So the portfolio class itself may disappear, but the students will actually have a more effective portfolio at the end of the program.

[] For students coming into the program with a portfolio already in progress, what are you looking for in those portfolios?

[Professor Rich] Well, it’s not a graphic design program, but they need to understand the basics of visual and graphic design. We have two different things we are looking at. One is the visual and graphic design elements that are covered in one of the introductory courses that I mentioned before. We also have a foundations of digital media course that covers photography, video, and sound recording. That course is required by both tracks. If we can see that a student coming into the program has had that experience, then we substitute another course for that course. That gives that student one extra elective.

What we are looking at in the portfolio of an incoming student in terms of waiving or not waiving the intro courses is evidence of the knowledge and skills that would likely be there if that student has a professional background in digital design. You need to understand color and lines and composition on a screen or on a page. We have some people who have done a lot of blogging and they can use that to show their aesthetic knowledge. Depending on what we see, a student may be waived out of one of the intro courses but required to take the other. So if you have experience working with Adobe Suite then most probably you will place out of the intro course that focuses on digital design tools. Generally, if you have a digital portfolio that uses digital design tools and that has a visual design component, then you are going to be waived out of these two bootcamp intro courses. From my perspective, if a person already knows the material then you don’t really want them in the class.

Thank you, Professor Rich, for sharing your insight and perspective on creating a digital portfolio.

Matt Ashare
About the Author: Matt Ashare is a journalist, writer, and editor who currently resides in Central Virginia. Among his areas of expertise are food, music, culture, and higher education. He has taught journalism and media studies at Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA.