Illustration by Frida Ek (Animade)
Electric shocks defined my first year at college. I plunged headlong into a world of Arduino, poorly soldered circuit boards, and even more poorly insulated power supplies. Each month brought a new project, and survival depended on the ability to switch disciplines at a moments notice. I loved it.
In 2010, Tom and I started Chambers Judd, later to become Animade. It was (and is) a good partnership. Having known each other since primary school, we could be confident the other one wasn’t going to run off with the petty cash tin. Plus, our skills overlapped, and we shared a willingness to take a run at most projects.
This willingness - combined (at least on my part) with a very real fear of losing everything and having to move back in with my parents - led to a liberal approach to our early project selection process. Web development, presentation decks, and banner ads were all fair game. Creating a coherent body of work came second to keeping the lights on.
This worked well, until it didn’t. With each new project, our portfolio felt more confused. You’d find web development next to an explainer video; a healthcare iPad app next to stop-motion animation. Like headphones in a jacket pocket, our work became difficult - some might even say annoying - to untangle.
There is a fine line between ‘interdisciplinary’ and ‘unrelated’. Our brains are wired to look for patterns, and showing a bunch of disparate projects next to one another can have the side-effect of making them all look worse. This project jumble made our portfolio appear less than the sum of its parts.
Client presentations made this particularly clear. We’d be talking through a Keynote deck, and as we flitted around between projects, we’d often see a collective furrow of the audience’s brow. Most wouldn’t say anything, but they didn’t need to; we’d lost them. We could talk about our work until the cows came home, but they’d still be trying to figure out what an editorial website had to do with an explainer video (answer: nothing).
Negative effects started showing up inside the company, too. Our project managers ran twelve-month web development projects alongside two-week animation projects; two very different processes. Keeping the plates of project management spinning is hard enough without adding a salad bowl into the mix.
We needed clarity, so set about pruning our portfolio. Character animation is Animade’s sweet spot: it’s what we do best, and where we provide the greatest value to our clients. We trimmed our portfolio to include projects related to that core offering, leaving about a third of them. This left two-thirds of our portfolio on the scrap heap.
This was a wrench. Confusing or not, six years is enough time to develop a significant emotional attachment to your work. And emotions aside, could we be setting ourselves up for financial disaster?
Turning away work - as anyone running a small business knows - is utterly terrifying. But the benefits of our newfound clarity are undeniable. Our production process is significantly simpler. Presenting our work is an opportunity to reinforce what we stand for, not explain what it all means. We’ve built a platform for the next stage in the life of our studio, and it’s built on our strengths.
Attention is scarce. Offering too many services - while seemingly providing a convenient safety net - dilutes your portfolio. Over time, it becomes confusing. Find your sweet spot, then trim like there’s no tomorrow.