October 5, 2011

The ABCs of Portfolio Design

Alphabet Arm Design (USA)

Author: Maura Keller

Topics: Layouts, Profiles, Self-Promotion, Studio Secrets

Boston-based Alphabet Arm Design is a full-service design studio specializing in bold, creative, and distinctive print design solutions including logo design, branding, collateral design, CD art direction, and merchandise design.


At Alphabet Arm, they take self-promotion seriously. Well, like a seriously funny joke. Their studio environment is very focused on producing high-quality work, all while having as much fun as possible.

"Our portfolio is an ever-evolving and changing collection of materials to promote the various services that Alphabet Arm offers," says Aaron Belyea, art director at Alphabet Arm. "When we create a new promotional piece, we always bring that 'fun' attitude to the table so that we can be sure that it represents the studio when we aren't there to speak for ourselves."

Alphabet Arm also looks at self-promotion as an opportunity to work on projects that they might not be able to do through their normal clients. As a result, they work to create items such as stickers and badges that they enjoy collecting from other people.

"Our materials are very targeted in their message, though the actual goal varies," Belyea says. "We begin the design process with a clear concept in mind and with the objective of addressing a particular need. Taking the logo mini brochure as an example, we felt we needed a self-contained booklet that would showcase a wide range of identities that we've designed over the years. The piece was directed at more of a business audience than some our other promotions, while at the same time being consistent with the voice that we have established for the studio."


In most cases, Alphabet Arm's promotional portfolio pieces are very focused in that they are designed to fill a specific niche. "While the final aesthetic decisions remain open, the idea that we want to communicate is often quite well formed from the beginning," Belyea says. "Similarly, due to the frequency at which we produce materials, most of the ideas we have end up being produced in some form or another."

Though Alphabet Arm uses them in many situations, several promotional pieces in particular make up the core of their patented "Sample Pak." "The Sample Pak was created soon after the studio's inception when we quickly realized that the sooner a potential client could see what we do and how we do it—in a fun, interesting, physical format—the better," Belyea says. "From that point, it was generally an easy leap for them to contract our services for their projects. Basically, it was our way of taking graphic design—an increasingly more esoteric field—and making it really clear and accessible to potential clients."

And while the design is different for each promotion, Alphabet Arm has several overall design principles that they always work around. "First and foremost, the design needs to be organized and clear," Belyea says. "We are very aware that our clients—who are often unfamiliar with the design process—benefit from having more information about what we do and how we do it. We also made sure that the information remains central to the design, and that it is not obscured by the format."


Two factors determine the size and format of Alphabet Arm's promotional pieces: envelope size and cost. "Due to the size of the envelope, we are always aware that the finished piece needs to fit inside," Belyea says. "Costwise, each piece needs to remain as economical as possible. Though we know that each piece's life span will certainly justify its cost, we try to stretch our self-promotion budget as far as humanly possible."

The firm's promotional portfolio isn't distributed at any regular interval, but they do often bring Sample Paks to networking events and client meetings. "We have found that they are excellent conversation starters and nice leave-behinds," Belyea says. "Sample Paks don't always stay in the hands of their original recipient, but often get passed around between clients, coworkers, and peers, so it also becomes an excellent referral tool for us. Finally, we have a form set up on our website that lets anybody request a Sample Pak. It has gotten to the point where we've had to restrict requests to the U.S., as we were getting too many people asking for them from abroad."

Alphabet Arm has been in the fortunate position to offset the cost of some of these pieces by partnering with a number of select printers. "We have designed joint promotional pieces with these partners, and have also been strategic in working them into press runs for other jobs," Belyea says. "That said, production costs vary from $1,000 to $2,500 (£606 to £1,515) per run." Several thousand pieces are printed at any given time.

During Alphabet Arm's eight years of existence, the firm's promotional Sample Pak has been very successful, with two or three new pieces being added annually. "We continually hear from people that it is an excellent resource and it has helped to convince clients that we are the right studio for the job," he says. "It has also helped to get word out about our studio, since we are fairly small in the grand scheme of things, and don't have a large budget for our own marketing and publicity." And when Belyea and the rest of the Alphabet Arm team is there to hand out the Sample Paks in person, people are often amazed at all of the parts and pieces that come in it.

"Once they get a few moments to take everything in, they love the attitude and humor that we put into each piece," Belyea says. "From the feedback that we've gotten, it seems that our message is coming across loud and clear."

Source: Design Matters Portfolios