Lately I've been spending a lot of time preparing for a course I'm teaching about portfolio design and marketing techniques for freelance designers. The course is intended for designers and artists across multiple disciplines, and my initial meetings with professionals and students from other fields including architecture and photography have made it clear to me how much more personal our profession is than some of these related fields of design.

Other design professions seem to survive on the contents of their portfolios and the slickness of their websites. I realized that, no matter how much emphasis was put on my portfolio in graduate school or how much I put on the portfolios of my students today, in our industry, almost no one ever gets a job on the strength of materials alone. In my (okay, not altogether long) career as a professional designer, I've shown my portfolio exactly twice, and it never seemed like anything other than a formality of sorts.

To explore this trend, I started doing a combination of formal surveys and informal interviews of working professionals in entertainment design. The results of these inquiries were both expected and surprising.

Only 10% had ever gotten a truly “cold-call” job — they responded to a posting or announcement, sent in materials, were interviewed, and hired. The sample set of respondents was, of course, not terribly large (30 individuals), but this result still begs the question: how did the other 90% get their first job?

By implication (and further questioning), we discover that most of these people aren't counting entry-level positions as technicians, office assistants, or production assistants of one stripe or another among the jobs they feel qualify as cold-call. Applying to be a cable-puller and getting hired just doesn't fit into the same category for most people. Considering how many of us start in those positions, perhaps it should.

We seem to be underutilizing (or in some cases, over-prioritizing) our electronic materials as well. No one I spoke to had ever been contacted about a job by someone who found their website, although a few said they had closed deals with a good online portfolio. Most major portfolio and creative talent sites like Coroflot.com don't even have a category for “theatrical,” “performance,” or “entertainment.”

Fully 40% of those I interviewed confessed that they had gotten the job that they considered their “break” under social circumstances: at the bar, at dinner, at a party, a conference, backstage. This is, of course, totally unsurprising. We all know more than a few careers that have been made by a good sense of humor and the ability to hold liquor.

Nobody thinks that's all it takes to be successful, however. When asked to break down the characteristics responsible for success by percentage, hard work, talent, luck, sociability, and a good working attitude, all hovered right around 20% each, while self-promotion and knowing where to look were ignored at 0% each. I'm guessing this confirms the process most of us expected: you're a person people like, they give you a chance, you work hard and smile through the hard parts, you get lucky and eventually find yourself where you want to be. Simple.

Why? In my experience, if you gave this survey to a group of professionals in the industrial, graphic, architectural, or interactive design fields, the percentages would be distributed along different lines. Is that because there's more pressure (and a bigger market cap) in these fields? Are live entertainment people simply more personal — or personable? Is there a relative distance from pure art that dictates a little of this difference? Is it because these fields have more working experience with cubicles than piles of cables and dirty road boxes?

The optimist and performance-fanatic in me wants to explain that this difference is the important difference: it makes for better and closer working relationships, and perhaps it minimizes the cutthroat tendencies of the profession. The more critical part of me wonders if there aren't advantages to pulling a page from the other disciplines. There's plenty of crossover and inter-/trans-disciplinary work going on in design these days — could we increase the working opportunities for those trained in design for live events if we paid a little more attention to the way we market ourselves and the jobs we go after?

Crossover has a lot of benefits for everyone involved — theatrically trained designers bring new insights to other fields. In return, their more varied experience heightens and informs their theatrical work. Technologies that cross boundaries find more markets — everyone loves a new tool.

Most of us are proud, in some way, to work in an industry that's so tight-knit, comparatively speaking. Perhaps there's room to combine that attitude with some of the tools from other disciplines in order to widen everyone's horizons and find that next hot job.

Jake Pinholster is a freelance designer, production manager for LDI's Institute and Conference sessions, and the professor of media design at the Arizona State University School of Theatre and Film. He can be reached at jakepin@gmail.com.