Design’s Young Gun: Lotta Nieminen Shares Multidisciplinary Perspective in Guest Portfolio Review
30 seconds. As an aspiring creative professional, that’s approximately how long it takes for your portfolio to make or break your chances to land a dream job or woo a prospective client. So when KCAD students had the opportunity to have their portfolios reviewed by illustrator and graphic designer Lotta Nieminen, first impressions were a hot topic.
There’s Nieminen’s résumé, for one. She first hit the scene as a freelancer in 2006, and following stops at fashion magazine Trendi, Pentagon Design, and RoAndCo Studio, she opened her own studio in New York City and began attracting such high-profile clients as Volkswagen, IBM, and United Airlines. In 2010 she received the Art Directors Club Young Guns Award, and she’s been named by both Print and Forbes as one of the most dynamic young designers in the world.
But despite her abundant workload, Nieminen still finds time to put her experience and perspective to work for design students looking to make an impact with their portfolios. In fact, Nieminen became the dual-threat creative superstar she is today thanks to her very first portfolio review as a Graphic Design undergraduate at the University of Art and Design, Helsinki in Finland. The guest critic was so impressed with Nieminen’s sketchbook that she offered her a job as an illustrator on the spot.
“Never put anything in your portfolio that you don’t feel strongly about,” Nieminen told the KCAD students. “In this industry, nobody has the time to look at a portfolio for longer than 30 seconds, so it’s better to learn how this process works in a safe environment like this rather than out there in the real world.”
KCAD students jumped at the opportunity to do just that. Over 40 Graphic Design and Illustration majors watched eagerly as Nieminen critiqued their portfolios in rapid-fire fashion, simulating the kind of immediate scrutiny they’ll be subjected to in the professional world.
“I approach it like this,” she said. “If someone were to send me this portfolio to apply for a job, what would be a deal-breaker or a deciding factor for me? Usually what pops out is something that’s either really good or really bad, whether it’s the type or the imagery or whatever it is.”
While critiquing the student portfolios, Nieminen stressed the importance of the whole package. Aesthetic qualities like typography are critical, she said, but “having beautiful visuals doesn’t get you far if the concept behind it is flimsy.” And vice versa. “If it has the kind of aesthetic that will make people stop and look at it, that’s how you can get the viewer interested in the concept.”
Strong graphic design, Nieminen said, is all about immediate, efficient communication.
“It’s critical to send the right message or convey the right idea immediately. The viewer shouldn’t dig for the meaning. You have to be clear and leave no room for confusion.”
When it was Graphic Design student Amy Johnson’s turn, she showed Nieminen “Letters, Lost Then Found”, a book she’s developing that chronicles the letters exchanged between her grandfather and his youngest brother during World War II.
Nieminen didn’t know as she looked through the book that it had won a Best in Show Award at the 2014 regional ADDY awards and a Gold Medal at the district level. As it turned out, that outside perspective was a good thing. Nieminen pointed out a few areas where she felt the layout was holding Johnson’s concept back.
“All feedback is good,” Johnson said. “The more people that see your work the better, especially for me being a non-traditional student coming from a technical illustration background.” She hopes to use the new perspective to fine-tune her book before shopping it around to publishers.
Nieminen also spoke passionately about developing an identity as an illustrator. She urged the students to explore the bounds of digital and hand-drawn media until they discover a style of their own. That idea resonated with Shannon Mack, a Graphic Design senior who’s looking to break into illustration.
“I really liked that she told me to keep doing what I’m doing, but do more of it,” said Mack. “That way, my work looks more natural and less like stock images. The biggest thing is just to keep working at it, because you don’t have an identity to start, you have to make one.”
Nieminen’s work, with its surprising use of space and color, reveals a style and identity all her own. Her creative versatility has often helped her attract clients and she encouraged the students to embrace opportunities to get outside of their own discipline and interact with other designers as they hone their own professional direction.
“For me, working as an illustrator has been an advantage,” said Nieminen. “I understand how both designers and illustrators work. You can definitely specialize in one or the other, but collaborating with someone else is going to give you a better understanding of the whole process.”
Despite giving students a taste of how their work will be judged in the real world, Nieminen’s sagest piece of advice was to remember that they are, for the time being, just that: students.
“It’s a great situation to be in,” she said. “You get to try anything you want.”