I was surprised to learn that astrology is experiencing a comeback amongst millennials, thanks to an app called Co–Star that has been steadily growing beneath my radar. When a decade-younger friend sold it to me over drinks last week, the most interesting thing about it to me was its inexplicable use of an n-dash in the name. I installed it for a look, saw a personality trait in the natal chart* that didn’t quite match my self-image, and promptly forgot about it until the push notifications started arriving.
These nudges are titled “Your day at a glance”, and are so iconic to this audience that the Instagram filter creator known as autonommy has made one that superimposes Co–Star notifications over your head. They’re usually a single mysterious line or proverb that you’re meant to contemplate as things happen to you.
Yesterday (an uneventful day), I was assured, “You don’t have to be afraid.” Today, it asked, “What lessons have you learned today?” Tapping into the app unleashes a torrent of AI-assembled advice that tells you how to deal with the challenges of existence as per the day’s astral alignment. The tone of voice is often surprising: acerbic, blunt, even dark.
Instead of deleting the app as I meant to do, I discussed it with some people around me and shared a Verge article about the team behind it, and now I’ve got irl friends on this astrology social network, and we can see each other’s fates and compatibility, and I think I’m keeping it? It’s not like I’ve suddenly taken horoscopes at face value, but perhaps it fills a gap — I need someone to regularly kick my ass on personal development, and whether I agree with the “advice” or not, these prompts might get me to work a little harder at things. They’re challenges.
Coincidentally, I spent much of yesterday reading through the backlog of email newsletters I subscribed to and then got overwhelmed by. When someone’s thoughts on screen are a year old, making reference to events that you and the internet are so over by now, but the words remain productive, insightful, and capable of inspiring you to look back at your old email newsletter project from 6(!) years ago and maybe start writing on your blog again, they can have all the paid subscription money. If you’re in need of a couple recommendations: try Dan Hon and Craig Mod’s.
There’s always a voice gently suggesting I “write more”. Sometimes I think I write enough at work as it is. As the activities that make up my day job changed over the last few years, so did the emphasis on actual writing as a vehicle for Client Value Delivery. It took awhile to join the dots between the kind of writing I did in advertising, publishing, side projects, and now in a design/consulting context, but that still leaves out the “pleasure writing”, as one acquaintance recently called it.
Right now, I’m feeling out of practice and clumsy when it comes to this stuff. I don’t know how to write to you anymore. Maybe I cut down on tweeting and blogging because we all entered a digital privacy crisis, but the net result was falling out of the public writing habit altogether. I lost imaginary friends.
So. Why not try again? What do I have to be afraid of? What lessons am I learning today?
*Those natal charts: You plug in your date/time/location of birth, and it pulls historical NASA data to see where celestial bodies were when you were born, and interprets their deviations in space each day to produce your horoscope. Are these even called horoscopes? I don’t know; that word seems dated and quacky, like something in a crinkled copy of Reader’s Digest, whereas Co–Star feels like something new — a bit of not entirely serious millennial wellness — dressed up in ancient clothes.
A couple of years ago, we had a colleague from Hong Kong in town who would do the exact same thing as a party trick, except she manually read and interpreted the natal charts which she generated using a Chinese app. Co–Star has simply scaled this with technology and a content team.
Lots of portfolio tools advertise the ability to create a gorgeous website online within minutes, but how many are suited to showcasing a copywriter’s work? This post covers getting a basic presence up for a handful of your projects. More comprehensive site builders are only briefly mentioned.
It’s often said that people only look into their CVs between jobs, but taking stock of what you’ve accomplished on a regular basis is a really good practice. But with a standard resumé, updating a paragraph about your current employment several times a year isn’t attractive. Fortunately for people in the creative industries, there’s the portfolio, which can be very satisfying to compile, if only to remind ourselves how little victories on a project tend to make up a bigger result.
Not Your Creative Director’s Portfolio
Over the last few years, I’ve seen a fair few creative portfolios, and increasingly, when one asks to see some work, a URL gets sent instead of a PDF. When I was starting out in advertising about 8 years ago, we routinely brought physical folders of printouts to interviews. If you wanted the job, you might make an extra copy to leave behind. If you’ve heard some creatives calling their folios “books”, it’s because that’s what they really were.
Another thing that’s changed since the mid-noughties is how the presentation of a copywriter’s work has gone from showing a few ads and/or documents with long-form writing samples, to being very close to how the art guys do it. Big, colorful pictures that would reel even an illiterate eye in. Some writers’ books now haven’t got a word in them.
Most of the people I’ve met showed off work on portfolio cum social networking sites for creatives. Places with start-uppy Web 2.x names like Carbonmade, Krop, the Behance Network, Cargo, Coroflot, and to some extent, Dribbble. Some respectable, shirt-wearing creatives had portfolio sites on their own domains, and the ones who didn’t return their pencils used blogging services like Tumblr.
What I’ve noticed is that very few of these solutions are suited to the needs of creatives who self-identify as copywriters.
Copywriters Are A Needy Bunch
Designers, illustrators, and art directors are well served by the many visual portfolio tools out there. Flip through a few examples and you’ll notice a tendency to not explain the images — when it comes to showing off craft, the work often speaks for itself. Maybe it’s because most tools just don’t allow text at all, but I’ll come to that later.
I think a writer needs a little room to take his viewer through the work. So much of what we do is problem solving and just not visible in the finished consumer-facing work (nor should it be). Some of the things a writer could supply to complement a piece of work are: some background info, a project or team story, the strategic line between proposition and product, an elucidation of the idea (if one exists), how the piece works with a wider campaign or positioning that the brand has pursued, and any measured results that came out of it. Touching on just a little of the above, versus a caption reading “Banner Execution #2” on a photo of a toothpaste tube telling a joke, can help explain yourself come Judgement Day.
Five Steps to Happier Portfolioing
The more I saw, the more I started to wonder, where should a copywriter put their work online? To answer that question, I signed up for a bunch and put them through their paces, and also asked colleagues and industry friends for their (possibly subjective) opinions on the leading ones. Here’s what I know, filtered through what I didn’t like.
1. Keep Good Company
Maybe this won’t apply where you are, but Cargo (or CargoCollective) ostensibly carries a reputation for being full of student work. I don’t know where that comes from; too many cans of Heinz baked beans styled like Warhol prints? That said, there’s probably nothing wrong with using Cargo if you ARE a student. Coroflot seems to be another good place for junior creatives to get their work in front of recruiters and large brands. DeviantArt was ranked below the two, because your application will disappear into an HR drawer labeled ‘Slashfic Writers’.
For professionalism, I was advised to try Krop. It charges a not-insignificant monthly price of US$10, in the league of premium site-building services like Squarespace. I didn’t see anything that justified the price against Krop’s drawbacks. Amongst those I asked, Behance enjoys a neutral to positive reputation that will not stand in the way of your looking righteous.
As far as domains and URLs are concerned, it’s also about the right associations. If you’re on a site built for creative work, then piggybacking on their domain isn’t an issue. For example, having “behance.net/name” is okay, but “name.tumblr.com” looks like a collection of meme gifs. Using a “name.com” is great as long it’s not the “best-name-online.com” that GoDaddy recommends when your name of choice is taken.
2. Know the Tools You’ll Need
Plenty of sites simply don’t let you annotate or supply a paragraph of text beside your large and beautiful images. It’s practically textist. Krop is a major offender. And since we’re talking your garden-variety copywriter here, and not those mystical hybrid writer-designers who can tastefully superimpose text within their images, an ideal tool would allow writers to enter text on the page itself. In that regard, Behance trumps Krop, which only allows a short caption for each image. Not only is Behance free, it allows the mixing of as many images, embedded videos, and text blocks on a project page as needed.
Most importantly, if you’re going to be uploading work where you’re especially proud of the writing, make sure it can be read! Being able to click and zoom in (or load the original image) is table stakes, but plenty of sites I’ve seen don’t do it. This is the point where your portfolio’s tab gets closed and your reader goes back to a ‘Hunger Games Wedding Ideas’ board on Pinterest.
For this reason, I do not recommend using ‘free’ services that reserve this ability for paying customers, e.g. Carbonmade. Behance won’t zoom either, but you can at least reproduce your copy on the page using a text block.
3. Create a Gallery, Not a Blog
When a portfolio site is built on a blogging CMS, and looks like a linear blog, expectations are set for a diary of constantly evolving works-in-progress. Visitors will be less impressed by your last post being 18 months old, even if it was ahead of its time.
Of the sites I’ve seen built on simplistic platforms like Posterous, Tumblr, Blogger, Pinterest (you gotta see this Hunger Games wedding), too few employ themes with a static front page serving as a table of contents. If your platform of choice doesn’t let you do that, find a new one. A scrolling page of entries without proper navigation is counterintuitive to your purpose: showing your recent work at a glance, and putting more details one click away.
Some sites will also format and present a version of your resumé in addition to your portfolio. Behance and Coroflot are two that stood out for me.
4. Decide If You Want Feedback with That
Socially enabled sites like Behance are proud of their communities. You can follow people doing interesting work, and browse a stream of their recent work right from your front page. Gold stars, comments, resharing; all that stuff. But there’s a real need for portfolios that don’t talk back, and if you’re familiar with the teen movie trope of parents embarrassing their sons with baby stories whenever a girl comes over, you’ll understand not letting a potential mentor or employer see the “helpful” suggestions you’ve been given by others. Or your witty mom-centric replies.
Moreover, as we’ve already covered, many of these sites are for designers and not copywriters. I’ve heard this sentiment several times: “Designers have Dribbble, but where do copywriters go to share their work and get constructive feedback from peers?” It’s a gap that no one has filled. Until then, my advice would be to keep the two as separate as you can. Find an avenue for copy feedback that works for you, and display your work on a pedestal where it belongs.
5. Keep Open Secrets
Another feature that’s rather important but not always available: the ability to secure projects with a password. Some client work can never be fully public, but if there’s a story in there worth telling, you might open it up to select viewers. Please don’t set your password to “password” or your first name, or have no password at all and instruct the HR person to ‘just press Enter’, because that just makes it look like passwords are a new concept to you.
Choose Your Own Ad Venture
The first conclusion I drew is that you’ll want to spend some money to get this right, although it doesn’t have to be a lot. Whatever your choice, make sure it looks good on mobile devices and doesn’t rely on Flash.
My preferred solution has always been to create pages on a personal site, using whatever CMS you’re comfortable with, but that involves a fair amount of set-up and manual work. In contrast, the allure of these modern portfolio services is undeniable. Most come with the promise of page views from fellow creatives baked in, and who doesn’t like getting ‘Liked’? The drag-and-drop features and professionally designed templates are also particularly good for copywriters. Uploading a bunch of comps and artwork almost always results in a presentable page.
Of all these services I evaluated, the only free one that would meet the needs outlined was Behance. Their paid option is called ProSite, but its fancy templates frustratingly strip away the extra text that makes their free pages compelling for writers. If that gets fixed, it would be a complete winner.
If you’re willing to get your hands a little dirty, then Squarespace, Breezi, Virb, and WordPress are sound bets. The first two have no free options and start at around $8/mo for a standards-compliant, responsive design site. With templates as starting points and pixel-level control over every detail, they are suited to people with knowledge of web design but who don’t want to code.
Virb is another all-in-one hosted site & blog solution that costs the same as Krop ($10/mo) but lets you do more. There are templates that let you bundle images and text together quite simply and beautifully.
The open-source WordPress.org software is pretty much the gold standard for consumer CMS on the web, and if you don’t want the hassle of installing it on your own servers, WordPress.com has an ad-supported “hosted service” that takes care of everything for you, with few compromises. A number of portfolio-ready themes are available, but do pay for the domain mapping upgrade, because “name.wordpress.com” looks almost as bad as it would if it said Tumblr. Almost.
After 11 years of blogging on what is now Google Blogger, I’ve exported everything and moved to a WordPress-powered site. It didn’t go all that smoothly and may still screw up, but so far I’m enjoying the platform, its modernity, and the apps/services I can now use with my blog.
During the process, I looked back on a couple of old posts and a few abandoned other blog projects, and discovered a younger, different sounding me. I suppose that was a time when everyone kept a blog instead of a Facebook page – but it all starts the same way, nobody thinks anyone important is ever going to read their nonsense or see their silly behavior.
But every time I read old writing, the same thing happens, and I’m sure you’re all familiar with the phenomenon: amidst the disposable are pieces you can’t believe you wrote; thoughts you could hardly string together today in quite the same way. Which is why I’m inclined to value these posts more than easy and fleeting social network updates. It seems the purpose of blog archives is to simultaneously inspire and shame our creative selves with examples of what should still be possible, and how far we have yet to go if we’ve discovered that the last few years were spent going the wrong way.
– This blog is now found at www.sangsara.net. It was previously at blog.sangsara.net, a distinction that became wholly unnecessary about five years ago, when I took down the other more static bits of the site. Eventually, all my online activities will be viewable here.
– The Tumblr-powered linkblog, blast!, has been discontinued. The original idea for that was to create a wall between the longer posts I write and the things I find interesting and want to link to. From this point on, those two activities will be merged here on this blog. Outbound link entries will be strictly text, an execution I’ve admired in John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog, who was in turn inspired by Jason Kottke.
– I’m leaving behind my favorite yellow (E3C046), seen in every design since 2002.
– I’ll be using one of Blogger’s new features to add ‘Pages’ to this blog, starting with an About Me profile page.
– You’ll find an old-school Blogroll for friends’ sites in the right column. This is an experiment of sorts. Let me know if you’d like to be linked.
– Positive Machine and Pocket Plastic will continue to be maintained as separate projects. Just in case you didn’t know, the former deals in strange, off-color iPhone app reviewery, while the latter is a place for me to post photos and look at developments in iPhone and toy camera photography.
– The archives are intact. I had wanted to wipe those earlier uncertain steps and start over, but decided against taking the easy way out. I’ve lost a lot of web content over the years and it hasn’t made me a better writer. You can build better things in the present when you have the past at your back.
When most of my peers and I started blogging with a proper content management system (CMS) like Blogger in 2000-2002, it wasn’t really clear what we were signing up for. Blogs were a new, hyper-public outlet for self-expression, a means of keeping in contact with friends, and for feeling the first waves of a democratic future where a student had as much right to virtual real estate as the multinational corporation that might one day hire him. Or not, depending on what he had posted.
Today, much of what a blog once offered has been decentralized by a slew of dedicated online services. Post your photos on Flickr. Keep a circle informed of your movements on Facebook and LinkedIn. Show off your art, photography, or design skills on any number of portfolio sites like deviantART. Share links and bits of media on scrapbook blogs like the ones popularized by Tumblr. Everything comes with social networking built right in. The standalone do-it-all blog has become something of a solitary pursuit as its necessity fades amongst newer internet users with a hundred other avenues for self-expression and communication. The word ‘blog’ is more strongly associated with a breed of continuously updated semi-commercial news and topical interest sites than it is with personal journals.
Perhaps the personal journal is a relic of the internet past – emblematic of our emotional reaction to a new technology, and the possibility of audiences larger than had been present before. Or perhaps they’ve disappeared under cover, gone to ground and reemerged with new names, part of our need to understand through categorization. So now there are motherhood blogs, cooking/dining blogs, birdwatching blogs, and so on. Once specific interests representing just a facet of their authors’ lives, these topics now serve to define their bloggers as amateur authorities through posts and reader feedback cycles so regular you can set your RSS readers to them, spurred on by commerce in the form of Google AdSense banners. The personal journal is dead because we reduce people to the one thing they do best.
So, nine years on and I’m still at it. Still not quite sure what I signed up for, but with some changes I’ll be making here this week, a little more sure of where I should take this.