Jack Cheng

is a writer and designer living in New York City. He co-founded Disrupto (an interactive design studio), launched Steepster (a social network for tea sippers) and writes thoughtful articles on everything from wishmaking at a shrine in Kyoto to making long-term memory work in your favor.

What are three things you're looking for right off the hop in a portfolio?

A point of view, solid fundamentals and initiative (pursuing personal projects).

How quickly should you be able to get a sense of the personality behind the work?

Pretty quickly. It’s like being at a party and seeing someone across the room: their body language, what they’re wearing, how much fun they appear to be having, all that is expressed without even talking to them. It’s clearly not all there is to that person, but it makes you think “hey, that’s someone I’d like to meet.” A solid portfolio conveys that same first impression.

Is that as or more important than the design/illustration chops for you?

That depends on what I’m looking for. If I’m looking to contract someone for a particular gig, design and illustration chops are just as necessary. If I’m hiring a junior designer to join our team—someone to mentor and cultivate—then the craftsmanship is less important. “Chops” can be learned. A point of view must be discovered.

Is it still important for a portfolio to tell a story or be put together thoughtfully?

I wouldn’t necessarily call it a story, but the individual pieces should be congruent with the whole. And that requires thoughtfulness. It requires ruthless editing to eliminate the incongruence. If I come across a single piece in your portfolio because someone reblogged it on Tumblr, which is increasingly how I find out about designers and illustrators these days, it’s one thing for me to say “that’s an interesting design,” but an entirely different thing for me to say “that’s an interesting designer.”

Do you have any pet peeves that make you lose interest immediately?

Fads and cliches (a little more excusable for juniors). I don’t need to see another minimal movie poster. I don’t need to see another ad campaign exaggerating a simplistic product benefit (“this laptop is so thin that it cuts you like a knife!”).

As creator of Steepster, if you had to trade all of the tea in China for just one blend for the rest of your life… what would you choose and why?

I used to be a coffee drinker and I still have leftover cravings for malty, caramel-y beverages in the morning, so I’m going to go with a robust Yunnan black tea.