How to develop a portfolio career in the creative industries

For many freelancers, a portfolio career spanning a range of different sectors and roles is both financially and creatively enriching.

In the creative industries, there’s enormous potential to build a career by applying your skills to a different sector or genre – a film and TV hair and makeup artist takes up a role in theatre; an actor brings in extra money through working in motion-capture; a writer uses skills honed in screenwriting to provide services in unscripted TV and advertising.

Having the flexibility to move between roles, genres and sectors is actively encouraged within the creative industries because it benefits the industries themselves, as well as the freelancers concerned.  See Portfolio careers in the creative industries.

So, if you’re a freelancer who wants to break into other creative sectors, how do you go about it?

Motivations for developing a portfolio career

It’s worth starting by reflecting on your motivation for taking the step into a new role, sector or genre. There are a number of reasons why you might want to diversify. Think about what’s driving you and take inspiration from those who are similarly motivated.

  • Storytelling. Leon Oldstrong, a director who works in scripted, documentary and 360, is driven to move between genres through a desire to reach the right audience for the story and tell it in the best possible way. Watch Leon’s story.
  • Cash flow. Theo Scott is an award-winning animation director. He needs to work in illustration and graphic design to keep a steady income while his animation films are in development. Watch Theo’s story.
  • Variety. Emma Millions gets bored easily. She finds being able to move between being a screenwriter, development producer, tutor and copywriter for corporates and brands keeps her stimulated. Watch Emma’s story.
  • Entrepreneurial spirit. Ace is an actor and a natural businessman. He likes thinking about how production processes can be improved and has spotted a gap in the market for character development of creatures and fantasy creatures. Watch Ace’s story.
  • Making the world a better place. Adam is a location manager who has diversified into providing sustainable waste management and eco-clean services.  His primary motivation is to help the film and TV industry become better at caring for the environment. Watch Adam’s story.

See all video case studies

Take confidence in your transferable skills

In every area of work, there are sector-specific skills and transferable ones.

Take design as an example. The processes, skills and education involved in industrial design – which is about physical prototyping and using materials – is distinct from the data handling and digital processes involved in website design. The ability to work with materials or data are, in this context, sector-specific skills.

“But the ability to be inquisitive, the ability to do user research, the creative mindset and the ability to sell yourself all overlap,” says Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, chief design officer at the Design Council. “These are transferable skills.”

The key to a portfolio career is being humble enough to learn sector-specific skills whilst having confidence in your transferable ones.

ScreenSkills has an e-learning course, Getting into the screen industries, which is designed for people not working in screen. It does, however, have a ten-minute module called How to identify the right role for you in the screen industries, which includes information on identifying your transferable skills.

Getting into the screen industries

Tips for transferring your skills into other sectors and genres

  • Get to know the sector in which you want to work. Find out what its issues are and market yourself accordingly (Alison Grade, The Freelance Bible)
  • Find a way to add more value. Become an asset within your industry and more ideas and financial opportunities will open up to you. (Ace Ruele, actor and character developer)
  • Email people that you want to work with and ask if you can meet for a coffee and an opportunity to talk about your work. Adapt your portfolio or CV to make it relevant to them (Aileen Kelly, costume and set designer)
  • Each sector has its own language. Don’t become so broad in your approach that you are don’t use the language of that sector. It’s the sector-specific language that makes you sound credible (Alison Grade, The Freelance Bible)
  • Find a mentor in the sector in which you want to work (Daljinder Johal, creative producer in film, TV and audio)
  • Make people aware that you’re passionate about working in your chosen sector, even if you’re working in a different one. (Aileen Kelly, costume and set designer)
  • Learn the skills you need from the people around you. Be prepared to put in the work with your own research and study to fill in the gaps in your knowledge (Michael Adefehenti, creative technologist and virtual production specialist)
  • When working in a sector for the first time, be inquisitive about the production processes. Find out who makes the decisions and how they get made (Alison Grade, The Freelance Bible)
  • Get a good team around you. Surround yourself with people you can rely on (Adam Wilkinson, location manager and sustainable waste manager)
  • Find someone from whom you can get honest feedback (Theo Scott, animation director and illustrator)
  • See every job as an opportunity to create another opportunity (Ace Ruele, actor and character developer)
  • Say “yes” to anything, then work out later how to do it if you don’t already know (Emma Millions, scriptwriter and development producer)


A note about imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome – the feeling of incompetence despite success – can be an occupational hazard for anyone moving into new roles and sectors as there’s a good chance they will be working with people who know the industry or sector better than they do.

Emma Millions’ advice to say “yes” and work out how to do it later is good, but it means some freelancers can be vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy when they are stepping into sectors new.

They can, however, take confidence that there are plenty of freelancers with successful portfolio careers who have learnt how to handle these feelings.

“Imposter syndrome is usually a good thing. It’s a green flag,” says Michael Adefehenti, creative technologist and virtual production specialist. “You’re probably not inadequate, but you probably can tell that you have some blindspots in your knowledge that you know you should fill in with some research and study.”

“When I feel I have those doubts, I allow the feelings and I go and I walk a lot,” says Leon Oldstrong, a director in documentary, scripted and 360.  “I go out into nature, I spend a lot of time just walking. And it just sort of washes those feelings away. And then, I feel ready to go, ready to tackle again.”

Why do the creative industries encourage portfolio careers?