Portfolio + Perseverance: insights from iconic album designer Spencer Drate

Spencer Drate would be the first to tell you that his career story is far from typical. His early days of dragging a portfolio from art director to art director, and working in the dog-eat-dog world of corporate advertising were thankfully short. Becoming an album cover designer was almost entirely accidental. After co-designing trade ads for John Lennon’s Imagine as an early assignment opened the door, there was no looking back. He quickly moved from assignments from ESP-Disk to Sire Records and designing for major record companies. His work can be found in any respectable collection of classic albums from the Ramones, Lou Reed, Bon Jovi, Joan Jett, and the Talking Heads—many of which have been on display at museums like MOMA and Cooper Hewitt.

Spencer and his long time studio partner Judith Salavetz have designed more covers, won more awards, and produced more books than any creative could ever hope to match. His path to success can’t be emulated. However, Spencer’s insights into how to make it in the design world are applicable to us all.

The biggest takeaways from my wide-ranging conversation with Spencer can be boiled down to these three: pay attention to the fundamentals of design, never give up, and ONLY put your best work in your portfolio.

Design Fundamentals

Spencer pulls no punches when it comes to what it takes to be a sought after designer. There are objective design fundamentals that simply must be mastered. Spencer will point you to the Joseph Albers school of design fundamentals—and relentlessly insists that careful attention to color, typography, and visuals is fundamental to this craft. If you neglect your training, your basic practices, and your development as an artist, you’ll be facing an uphill, perhaps even futile battle.

Spencer’s long history as a designer means he’s no stranger to the use of physical objects and processes. Computers are great, but designers need to push their conceptual skills and more often begin with old fashioned pencils and paper before jumping to the computer. A perfect example of the physicality of the design process can be found in his work on the poster version of the iconic Velvet Underground “Live MCMXCIII” album cover.

Getting Used to Rejection

The second lesson from Spencer’s experience is the need to persevere in the face of rejection. “Designers these days take rejection too personally,” Spencer laments. Any artist or designer is going to present their work to hundreds of art directors, producers, or clients in their career, and you’re going to face more “no’s” and more change orders than you’re going to hit home runs or enjoy gushing accolades.

One thing that can help designers face rejection relates to his first point about design fundamentals. Spencer rejects the notion that good and bad design is all a matter of opinion or taste. There are real fundamentals of design, color, composition, and type. You can execute effectively, or you can make a mess. And you need to learn the difference.

None of us come out of the gate with a perfect grasp of design. Even the most talented are on a path of growth and maturity in our application of design fundamentals. If we can accept this, when we get criticism, rather than taking it as a rejection of our artistic expression, we can simply consider it an opportunity to deepen our grasp of our craft. Plus, Spencer notes, “Not every art director is a great designer, some are simply hacks.” So learn where you can, and develop a thick skin.

Don’t Put Anything in Your Portfolio But Your Best Work

Spencer sits on multiple panels judging for design awards—including for the Art Director’s Club and the GRAMMYS. The biggest mistake he sees, when reviewing portfolios, is the presentation of way too much work. “The focus should be on quality, not quantity,” Spencer relates. “Designers would be far better off showing just five to seven examples of their absolute best work, than including everything they’ve ever done.”

This advice is especially relevant to the digital presentation of your work. In the old days, when you had to lug around a physical portfolio (which could only have just so many leaves), you had to be more selective. But even then there was often too much work in portfolios.

But online, there are no limitations. And so designers are inclined to publish everything. This is a huge mistake for several reasons. First of all, prospective clients simply don’t have time to look at everything you’ve ever done. Secondly, not all of your work is amazing. And when you present your best work mixed in and among your merely good work (and maybe a few not so great examples—we’ll blame those on excessively difficult clients), you dilute the overall strength of your portfolio. This will lead your prospective clients to wonder if they’re going to get your A work, or one of your B- pieces.

Another reason creatives put too much work in their portfolios is connected to broad net positioning—trying to show samples for anything a prospect might need. Adopting PinPoint Positioning will help to focus your portfolio.

Admittedly, it’s sometimes hard for artists and photographers to perceive the comparative quality of their own work, we get too close, we’ve been too involved in the process, and we lose some objectivity. You might need to rely on some honest friends to help you find the best of your best work.

A Generous Offer from Spencer Drate

I want to thank Spencer Drate for his generosity with his time to talk to me about his career and offer this valuable advice to other creatives. Spencer also generously offered to help out any of my readers by offering his keen eye to help you find your best work. Just hit him up on LinkedIn or Facebook and drop him up to five (no more) samples of your work and he’ll give you his honest opinion. Just remember that second tip though—honest criticism can be painful, but it’s extremely valuable. And we all have plenty of room to improve.

Are you ready to take the struggle out of finding new clients?