How to Design an Amazing Portfolio

For a grpahic designer, the importance of a portfolio cannot be overstated. In fact, your portfolio will likely be the deciding factor for employers or clients as to whether they hire you or not.

Fifteen years ago, you would typically drop off your portfolio or present it in an interview. Obviously this is not the standard anymore, as it is far too time consuming both for job seekers and for agencies or hiring managers. Today you absolutely need a website for your portfolio, a version of your portfolio that can be emailed, and a portfolio you can present in person.

Also there is a growing trend that I’ve been advocating, of keeping a portfolio you can present via smartphone as well, since you are likely to always have it on you.

There are some typical questions and challenges that always arise when developing a portfolio:

  • What work should you display in your portfolio?
  • How many pieces should you display in your portfolio?
  • How should you organize your portfolio and order the work?
  • How should you format the design and layout of your portfolio?
  • How often should you update your portfolio with new work?

There is also the issue of multiple portfolios. There can be value to having multiple portfolios if you have experience in many different disciplines. If you have work in branding for example, you may have a large body of logo design work as well as websites and print material. While you should have a comprehensive portfolio that shows your best overall work across all disciplines, consider taking the extra time to develop individual portfolios as well, so that you have the option of presenting a concentration of that work to a client who is only interested in one specific thing.

I cover the finer points of Designing and Presenting a Print Portfolio In This Video:

What Should Be In Your Portfolio?

While it is obvious your portfolio should have your best work, you should also be focused on the type of work that needs to be in your book for that situation or interview. In most cases, if you are applying for an in-house job you should have a balance of well-rounded work demonstrating different skills. If you are however, applying to an agency or a marketing company, you should try to limit the scope of your portfolio to the type of work that agency or firm does—or show that you are capable of doing the work they already have a demand for from their clients. A little research on who you are presenting to goes a long way.

A design student recently approached me about trying to break into sports advertising. I suggested that he look up agencies already doing that work and see what they are showcasing on their websites and produce work of a similar caliber to present to them. Self-initiated projects are fine if they have the right context and show off your skills and capabilities while fitting the needs of what someone is looking for.

If you are showing a portfolio to a broad audience to get client work this can be more tricky. This is where categorizing your work really comes in handy since you can’t be sure what one client will want vs. another. If you specialize in a particular discipline like logo design or web design, then it may be a good idea to categorize by the type of industry the work was done for.

How Much Work Should Be In Your Portfolio?

The short answer is: as much as it takes to sell your skills. If you feel extremely confident that you only need to show ten pieces to close the deal then that’s fine. Typically clients are hesitant to make a decision if they’ve never worked with a designer and they need to be certain of their skills and capabilities. Every quality piece of work you present makes it easier for them to put their faith in you. If you have multiple disciplines consider showcasing at least five pieces of work demonstrating each discipline. If you are not a multi-discipline designer consider showcasing at least 15-20 pieces of work to show that you have experience and have worked with a range of clients. 

How to Design and Format Your Portfolio:

The actual design and layout of your portfolio should focus on the work itself and make it the hero of the page. Going overboard on the design can be distracting and confusing for someone reviewing it. Many designers like to design their portfolio in the style of a magazine, and if you feel you can pull it off it, can be a unique and powerful presentation. If you are dealing with an Art Director or Hiring Manager that is more traditional however, this can work against you and appear as more “flash than substance.”

I have a video that walks you through how to design your portfolio in Adobe InDesign here:

How Often Should You Update Your Portfolio with New Work?

You should consider updating your portfolio at least quarterly or more if you are constantly producing new work. If you have an online portfolio you should be updating it monthly. The more often you update your portfolio with your best work, the stronger it will be overall and bring the results you need. At the minimum, you should be updating your portfolio yearly if for no other reason to see your own journey, growth, and evolution as a designer.

Final Thoughts on Portfolios

Your portfolio in addition to your personality, will decide whether or not you advance in your design career. Play to your strength and don’t feel compelled to show work that is high profile if it is a weaker piece. Make sure your portfolio is setup in such a way that allows for the interviewer or client to get a sense of your unique style, skills and overall capabilities fairly quickly. Keep things functional, simple, and clean.

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Posted on: December 12, 2014

Roberto Blake

Roberto Blake is a Graphic Designer helping Entrepreneurs and Small Businesses improve their branding and presentations. Roberto also teaches Graphic Design and Adobe Tutorials through his YouTube channel and community. Roberto's Photoshop artwork has been featured in publications such as Advanced Photoshop and Photoshop Creative Magazine. See robertoblake.com

1 Comment on How to Design an Amazing Portfolio

  1. Can you suggest any free online portolio sites? It’s limits the size of the email rather than sending my portfolio every time. I currently use Carbon Made but it’s quite ugly.

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