Five Questions for Kristen Harris, Portfolio Creative Staffing

This is the kick-off of what hopes to be a regular series of short interviews with other professionals regarding a variety of topics. For the first one, I start with a person I’ve know for a number of years, Kristen Harris of Portfolio Staffing.

photo of Kristen HarrisKristen Harris is the co-founder and Director of Associate Services for Portfolio Creative Staffing, based in Columbus, Ohio. Portfolio fulfills client needs on a freelance, contract or full-time basis from their specialized network of top creative talent. Her previous experience includes 12+ years of art direction and design experience in the Columbus area.

Five Questions Kristen Harris

White Boxer (WB):
One of the big stories this past year has been the state of the economy. As co-owner of Portfolio Creative Staffing, and working as a designer before that in the Columbus area, what is the market like for creative professionals in Central Ohio?
Kristen Harris:
It’s no secret that the national economy is “sluggish”, in a “downturn”, a “recession”…whatever term you like, it’s not as strong as it was. And the Central Ohio area has been especially hard-hit, particularly with housing issues. The effect that we’re seeing at Portfolio is mainly a sense of caution. While there are a few local companies that have had lay-offs or other staff reductions, generally it seems that employers are maintaining current staff and proceeding with hiring plans. However, we are seeing three trends in how staff and workloads are being managed.

  • Longer time frames: Companies may take longer to fill a position, may not always fill open positions, or may not fill them as quickly as they would have a year ago.
  • Seeking more flexibility: We also are seeing more companies use freelancers, contractors and other types of temporary staff as an alternative to hiring fulltime staff, at least initially. If it’s a great fit and the need continues, then it may convert it into a fulltime position. This really is a continuation of the “freelance nation” trend that has been happening for quite some time, especially in creative industries.
  • Tight budgets: Businesses are very budget-conscious. While they are still hiring or bringing in the help needed to get the work done, they are keeping a very close eye on rates, salaries and expenses. Hiring managers are often presented the challenge of getting everything they need, while staying within the smallest possible budget.

The current climate feels a lot like the 2001 market when there were a lot of converging factors. The dot com bust hurt some businesses, there were several large mergers and buy-outs among local agencies, and of course 9/11 affected the national economy as a whole. However, at this point I’m not seeing the drastic number of people looking for work that we saw at that time. There is definitely opportunity out there, but it is indeed competitive. People looking for new opportunities need to make sure their skills are up-to-date, their presentation is top-notch, they’re networking and committing as much effort as possible to their search, and they are seeking work through a variety of resources.

So what are seeing as the “hot” skills or jobs companies are looking for, whether as freelancers or full-time staff?
Interactive design is very much in demand, it’s definitely an area that still is seeing a lot of growth and potential. Clients are always interested in Flash (Action Script is a bonus), Dreamweaver, basic HTML coupled with strong design skills is a great combination. We also are seeing more interest in other interactive work, such as high-end Powerpoint presentations  and incorporating video or audio into sites. Print designers who want to expand their options may want to consider learning more of the interactive side. On the development side clients are looking for knowledge of all the main languages and platforms, and expect these people to constantly be on the cutting edge of what’s next. They’re looking for database work, e-commerce, blogging, social networks, incorporating video, and other features that push a site beyond the typical. They don’t necessarily expect this to be the same person who does the creative design.
Print design isn’t going away, there is a steady amount of demand for that work as well. Of course Adobe CS is the standard now, anyone who isn’t using InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop needs to update their skills. It’s easy enough for an experienced Quark user to pick up InDesign, but our clients generally aren’t interested in on-the-job training. If it’s not on your resume, you may get passed over for someone who does know it.
Really detailed production designers who understand print and pre-press processes, prepare impeccable final art, and genuinely like doing that kind of work are very valuable. Being able to hand off a concept to someone like this and knowing that it will be executed to perfection is great. But unless really enjoy this kind of work, don’t say that you do…you’ll be bored to tears in no time and your employer will know it. Our clients request a range of levels of experience and backgrounds. Strong conceptual creative people are necessary in some situations, and detailed efficient production designers are key in others. You can’t be everything for everyone, at least not all at once. Knowing your unique strengths, and being able to present and communicate them well is key. However, the more skills, experience and knowledge you gain, the more you have to offer your current and future employers or clients.
Where do you see the balance between being multi-skilled and having a particular area of strength? Is it better to be the proverbial “jack-of-all-trades” or to have one or two areas you really excel in?

You really need to be able to define your key strengths and be able to share them with someone else.

Great question. There is delicate balance between being multi-skilled and appearing to be unfocused. While you don’t necessarily want to do just one very specific thing, or have people think that’s all you do, I am not a fan of the “jack of all trades” approach either. The rest of that phrase is “master of none”, which is how it often comes across. I find that generally people really are best at or most interested in a few key categories of work, so it’s really a matter of how that information is presented. Creative people often have a variety of experiences and can do a lot of different types of things, but you really need to be able to define your key strengths and be able to share them with someone else.
The reality is that hiring managers, HR recruiters, potential clients and the other people you interact with about work need to clearly understand what you do and (more importantly) what you can do for them. Generally they are looking for an expert, the expectation is not for one person to be able to do everything and do it all equally well. Even when a position appears to be asking for everything under the sun, there are always some skills that are absolutely required and others that would be a plus. Focus on what you’re best at, everything else is ancillary or a bonus. For example, you may have done print design, web design, programming and development, illustration, multimedia presentations, project management, copy writing, marketing strategy, product styling for photography, and product development. If you throw all of that at someone at once, they’ll be overwhelmed and confused about what you’re really best at. It would be more effective to say that you’re a designer focused on print and web, with an illustration background and strong project management skills. If any of those other areas are important or relevant you can bring them up in conversation, or include them secondarily on your resume.
Consider creating your own personal “elevator pitch”, where you are able to give an clear and concise overview of what you do in the time span of an elevator ride (thirty seconds or 100-150 words). The idea is to get your point across quickly so it is easily understandable to your listener. This same definition of yourself can be used very effectively as a summary on a resume. It works as a snapshot of your background and strengths, with everything else on the resume is as support materials and further detail.
Outside the technical and design skills, what other areas do designers need to stand out to become more marketable?
Hard skills are the technical expertise needed to get the job done. Soft skills are everything else—personality traits, social graces, good command of the language, personal habits, overall attitude, and much much more. It’s the difference between being able to do the job, and doing it really well.With all other factors being equal, soft skills can be the difference between getting the job, being promoted, succeeding in your work, growing your business, or not. Most soft skills can and should be continuously developed, they are not inherent in your personality. These skills are consistently found in successful people in any industry, transferable to any position, and are often a key factor in promotion and leadership opportunities.Here are some traits that I often see in successful people, and look for in candidates:

  • Passionate and dedicated to their work or the job at hand
  • Positive attitude, optimistic, energetic
  • Makes decisions, willing to take appropriate risks
  • Integrity, strong work ethic, reliable
  • Strives to continuously learn, handles constructive criticism well
  • Good written and verbal communications skills, listens, asks questions
  • Attention to detail, organized, makes plans
  • Focused, committed, works well under pressure
  • Flexible, creative thinking
  • Motivational, respects and inspires others
  • Self-directed, manages own career
  • Poised, self confident, professional appearance (appropriate for the situation)

Given the choice between two candidates with equal technical and design skills, would you rather work with the upbeat, passionate, focused, organized person or the pessimistic, unorganized, disrespectful, unreliable person? Yeah, me too. Soft skills can be developed, sometimes it’s just a matter of projecting the right image or changing your own inner thinking.

With the boom of the internet over the last decade, how important is it for designers, whether freelancing or job hunting, to establish an online presence (personal website and/or blog, online portfolio, online networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.)?
There are really two pieces to this puzzle, the personal website/online portfolio and online networking/blogging. Keep in mind that new graduates are coming out of school with their own website and a tremendous grasp of the social networking world, it’s practically second nature to them. Without some sort of online presence you may run the risk of appearing less current or technically savvy. So you need some online presence, but what? Really the best choice depends upon the work you do and your goals. If you’re a freelance web designer or are looking for a web design position, you need to have your own site. People look there for links or examples of your work, and they consider your own site an example of what you’d do given complete creative freedom. It’s your chance to blow them away! Freelance designers that want to keep building up that business should seriously consider having their own site too.
Potential clients might find you online, but more likely they’ll hear of you through a referral or meet you somewhere, and go online to find out more. A website can make you seem more like a business, truly committed to freelance work, and often larger than just a team of one. You can showcase samples of your work, highlight capabilities, show your client list, post recommendations, link to associations, and take advantages of other features that will make you appear very professional. Adding a blog to your site can increase your online presence, help you connect to other resources, and keep you top-of-mind for your contacts.

Without some sort of online presence you may run the risk of appearing less current or technically savvy.

Print designers who don’t do interactive work and are seeking a position rather than establishing a business have a few options. Having your work available online can be a convenient way to share samples. But you don’t necessarily need to build your own site from scratch, there are several existing sites where you can upload your work and resume. You’ll have a link to put on your resume and share with potential employers, without all of the time/expense/angst of designing your own site. Sites like,, and are a few options, these industry sites are also places recruiters look for candidates. If you want your own site, you might set up something simple through your email/internet host (mac, aol, etc) or a blog site (like WordPress).
Regardless of the type of work you do and your goal, social networking sites can do a lot of positive things for you. Whether you have your own business or are looking for a job, these sites can be a great way to connect with potential clients or employers, get inside information, ask for referrals, and be found by others. Recruiters use sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace to find connections and candidates, as well as niche sites (like creativehotlist and coroflot). Freelance designers can make connections with potential clients, get referrals, and establish more of a professional online presence through sites like LinkedIn, Sologig and FreelanceNation (honestly there are quite a few of those freelance sites, some are better than others). When deciding which sites to get involved with, it helps to figure out where the people you want to reach may be looking…that’s where you want to be! One caution, especially with social networking sites and blogs, is that companies and clients feel it’s entirely fair game to judge you by what they find online. There are horror stories of people not getting jobs because of something an HR person found online. While you may consider it personal and separate from your professional life, they don’t. And they probably won’t tell you what they found or why you didn’t get the job. So be totally comfortable with anyone anywhere seeing what’s out there, at least while you’re job hunting or trying to develop new client relationships.

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One Reply to “Five Questions for Kristen Harris, Portfolio Creative Staffing”

  1. […] Chris Kavinsky at White Boxer Design asked a great series of questions, and posted the answers on his blog. His questions were […]


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