Strengthen Your Creative Work with Portfolio Schools

"Denny's," by Linda Choi and Justin Kramm, Miami Ad School 

Like a finishing school for creative types, portfolio schools prepare students for careers in the industry using practical training—but are they worth it?                                                                                                                               

By Jessica Wynne Lockhart                                        

At the height of the recession 10 years ago, most college graduates were happy if they managed to land a job, any job. Bonus points were awarded to those who actually became employed in their field of study.    

That wasn’t the case for Aman Gulati. When the founder of Miami Ad School Toronto finished his advertising and graphic design diploma in 2007, he wanted more than just a steady paycheque in his own field. “I could have found a job as an art director at some XYZ agency, but I wanted to be at the top,” he says

To Gulati, “the top” meant TAXI, the award-winning ad agency. But without the work experience, he knew it was going to be a difficult climb. As Gulati started to investigate how he could get the job, he kept hearing the same message.

“Everyone said, ‘Go to a portfolio school and there will be nothing stopping you,’” he says.

He took the advice to heart, moving to Florida to attend Miami Ad School, a portfolio school with 15 locations around the world. Two years later, Gulati walked into TAXI for a job interview armed with a portfolio loaded with work for clients such as Nike, MasterCard and Tide. Within 20 minutes, he had landed his dream job as an art director at TAXI.

“Portfolio school was the last missing piece of the puzzle for me,” says Gulati.

"IKEA: Ready to Take Home," by Lynette Rios, Miami Ad School

Putting your best work forward

Also known as ad schools, portfolio schools first started cropping up in the United States in the early ’90s. Bridging an important gap in the industry between job seekers and the recruitment needs of agencies, the new schools put aside theory-based classroom learning. Instead, they focused on ideation and execution, allowing students to develop a portfolio made for the job search.

One of the first portfolio schools was Creative Circus. Opened in 1995, the Atlanta-based institute offers art direction, copywriting, design, photography and interactive development programs. Over two years, students learn the fundamentals of their discipline, develop ideas, and work within teams to create and execute campaigns. The end result is a book of least nine pieces that demonstrate multiple executions and range. Executive director Dave Haan says that quality over quantity is emphasized, with a focus on a portfolio that reflects “big ideas, big thinking and first-rate craft.”

“There are times that I’ve referred to us as the Harvard of the marketing and communication world,” says Haan. “To say to an employer that you’re a recent grad of the Creative Circus will typically open doors.”

It’s not just a slogan. Nearly 100 per cent of Creative Circus grads find a job within their field of study within six months, joining the ranks at top employers such as Oglivy, Leo Burnett and Microsoft. In addition to maintaining close working relationships with recruiters, the school also employs two full-time placement professionals and hosts portfolio reviews.

“We work aggressively to help them find work,” says Haan, noting that students only graduate once portfolios are deemed “industry-ready”—and if they’re not, the school will assist them in getting them ready for market.


"Sudafed," by Josh Naughton and Richard Miller, Portfolio Studio

Advertising a new model

While Creative Circus may have helped set the standard for portfolio schools, others are now redefining the model. That was the goal of Gina Greco and Henry Hikima when they co-founded San Diego’s Portfolio Studio in 2013.

“We felt that there was a niche for something that had never been done before,” says Greco, who previously worked as an art director. “We wanted to create something that was disruptive in the industry.”

Their school allows students—whether they’re a recent college graduate or a skilled professional—to tailor a program to their needs. Portfolio Studio students can purchase packages of three, six or 14 classes—or even just register for a single course. With a focus on either copywriting or art, classes can be mix-and-matched and even taken online.

 Similarly, when Gulati started working at TAXI, he identified a different type of gap in the market. Not every Canadian would be willing to relocate out-of-country for school—and Canadian agencies were in need of qualified staff. The country, he decided, needed its own portfolio school.

In 2016, Gulati opened Miami Ad School’s Toronto location, the first portfolio school in Canada. Like at Portfolio Studio, students aren’t stuck in-class—or even in Toronto. During their second year, they can study, intern and hone their skills in different markets. Gulati, for example, completed placements at agencies in Germany, San Francisco, Boulder and New York during his program.

While these schools are breaking convention, they still retain all the hallmark strengths of a traditional portfolio school: small class sizes; an applied learning environment; instructors who are also working professionals; ample opportunities for networking; and, of course, a focus on building a professional portfolio.

“Portfolio programs focus on tangible outcomes,” says Greco. “Whether you’re talking advertising, design, or UX, the portfolio is still the main thing that you go into a job interview with. Companies want you to be able to tackle a client challenge right away—and if you can demonstrate that in your portfolio, that’s fantastic. It gives you an opportunity to show, ‘I can hit the ground running.’”

"Muji Precision Chopsticks," by Kenneth Wong, Miami Ad School

A case study in economics

However, portfolio schools aren’t for everyone. Typically considered a finishing school, they’re not designed for high school grads. While a portfolio isn’t required for admission, students usually already have some post-secondary education or professional experience—although it could be in any field. Familiarity with software, such as a working knowledge of Adobe Creative Suite, is considered a plus, as is an understanding of the industry.

There’s also the time and cost to consider. Attending a portfolio school isn’t a bargaining chip for a higher starting salary, since pay scales are based on experience, not education. Tuition for two years hovers between $20,000 and $45,000 USD, meaning that it costs the same amount as grad school, but without the degree. 

The price tag was what initially held Kory Brocious back from applying. “I was told by my undergrad professors that portfolio school was a waste of time and that I could just go get my foot in the door somewhere,” he recalls. But after graduating, he received the polar opposite message from prospective employers. 

"Protect Our Defends," by Kory Brocious, Creative Circus

“I thought I was in good shape. Looking back at it, it’s kind of laughable. My portfolio was incredibly rough,” he says. It was only after enrolling at Creative Circus that he developed an interview-ready portfolio, which included a One Show–winning campaign. He now works as a junior art director at Baldwin& in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“Portfolio school grads have books that are super tight,” says Stephen Jurisic, Miami Ad School Toronto’s creative chairman and executive creative director of creative agency john st. He says job applicants who have attended portfolio schools stand out from the pack. “The campaigns are strong and digitally integrated. They are well presented, clean and well designed. They’re just more refined and the books come out a lot sharper.” 

Besides, says Haan—attending portfolio school isn’t usually a decision to be made based solely on time and money. It’s one that should be based on passion.

“It is a very intense two years and you won’t survive and thrive unless you really love doing this,” he says. “It’s life-changing for many of these students. They go into jobs where they really love what they do.”   

"FedEx: Always First," by Thomas Ilum and Zoe Sys Vogelius, Miami Ad School 

Jessica Wynne Lockhart is a writer whose work has appeared in Applied Arts and The Toronto Star.  

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Applied Arts magazine.