Interview with Prof. Heather Shaw, V.P. AIGA Boston

No Plastic Sleeves recently had the opportunity to ask Heather Shaw a few questions about portfolios, AIGA and the AIGA Annual Student Portfolio Review. Check out her responses.

Heather Shaw is Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Curry College. Prior to this appointment, she was a full-time lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, for both the Graphic Design and Digital Media departments. She has lectured nationally and internationally on the integration of dynamic media with traditional graphic design pedagogy. Heather earned her MFA from the Dynamic Media Institute at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and BFA in Visual Design from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She has 15 years of professional experience working as a designer for print, motion and interactive media; and currently serves as the Vice President for AIGA Boston, the Professional Association for Design.

What do you think makes for an outstanding portfolio?

Perhaps the question could be, “What makes for an outstanding presentation,” as a portfolio cannot stand alone. When I review student work, I seek two things—”measurable” attributes, and “emotive” content. I weigh both equally when assessing a portfolio.

“Measureable” attributes are hallmarks typically graded in a GD curriculum, such as content, form, typography, complexity, and an ability to apply such attributes across various media (print and dynamic).

“Emotive” content is not so easily measured, and is not always evident in a student’s finished work. Such characteristics include students processes, concepts, ideas, and essentially, their vocabulary and enthusiasm in how they speak to their work.

Anyone could argue the definition of “measurable” and “emotive;” however these terms are not fixed, and must adjust to an industry whereby the change is constant. Regardless, it is a student’s comprehension of their ideas, their capacity to represent it visually, and articulation for expression, that I believe makes for a strong presentation overall.

Regarding the contents of the portfolio itself, I recommend quality over quantity.

How important do you feel a print and/or online portfolio is in securing a job in the industry?

Both are important, but for different reasons. A print portfolio enables specific qualities of the work shine whereas screen-based media cannot—tactile aspects such as binding, craft, and printing, etc…

An online portfolio allows a potential employer to review work quickly before scheduling an interview. A student’s website can be a portfolio piece in itself, showcasing their ability in designing for interactive media.

However, the online portfolio begs the question—how important is it for students to design and develop a “portfolio website”? The emergence of web-based applications and online content management systems necessitates a shift from creating stand-alone web “artifacts” to addressing deeper levels of user involvement. It questions the value of instructing students to design and build their own self-contained online portfolios, when they can easily upload and manage their work on sites like

So which is more important? Having work posted online, versus having an online portfolio website? Does it matter to a potential employer how, where, and through which medium the work is displayed? To secure a job in the industry, it all hinges upon the content of the portfolio, its presentation, and the medium of delivery appropriate to the content.

What do you think the benefits are to a student joining AIGA?

Joining AIGA is a student’s first step as a commitment to design as a discipline. However, each student’s goals for joining AIGA are different. The tangible benefits (such as an Adobe discount) is not a typical reason for why students join–it’s the intangible benefits such as mentorship, networking, inspiration, learning, volunteering, and the opportunity to participate in the design community at-large that keeps students engaged.

A student’s involvement in AIGA reveals just how accessible the design community is–albeit on a local or national level. Students don’t realize that affecting the organization is well within their grasp. Many students ask “What are the benefits of membership?” I often answer with: what do you hope to gain from it? It’s a simple shift in thinking from “What will AIGA do for me” and more towards, “What can I contribute as a member, and more importantly, how can I make a difference?” This facilitates students to pursue initiatives based on their interests, and discover their role as a designer within a larger context.

What do you think makes AIGA Boston’s Annual Student Portfolio Review such a success? What do you think students gain from such an experience?

The AIGA Student Portfolio Review entitles students to have their work reviewed by several New England design professionals in a non-competitive environment. For a two-hour session, each student has the opportunity to meet with at least five seasoned designers one-on-one. The format is modeled after “seven minute dating”: the students set up their work at a table, and a reviewer sits at their table. The event runs on a 1:1 ratio so each student is given individualized feedback. After 15 minutes of review time, music is played, cueing the reviewers wrap things up, and move to another student for the next 15 minutes.

This is an efficient and effective way for the students to meet with several different professionals, providing a variety of perspectives and feedback. Additionally, students hone their presentation skills by repeatedly speaking about their work for two hours. Set-up time is also built into schedule, initiating students to socialize, network, and survey the portfolios from other schools.

What do you think is so appealing about AIGA and the Boston chapter that keeps you so involved?

The people and the amazing events I have been able to participate in. My involvement with the Boston chapter has granted me collaboration with the most creative and philanthropic people I have ever met. AIGA Boston is completely managed on a volunteer basis. Many people don’t realize the board of directors is completely composed of volunteers. It is remarkable how much is accomplished by the sheer will and dedication of creative folk willing to donate their time to develop inspiring programming for our members.

What keeps me involved? First and foremost—the people I interact and work with on a daily basis. Secondly, the fact that I believe I can influence our programming by continually redefining the boundaries of design. AIGA is not an exclusive group of people who determine the future of the organization. It is everyone and anyone who wish to participate, contribute, and make change.