As a graphic designer a portfolio is essential. While it’s great to have an online one, it’s also a good idea to have a physical one too to take along to meetings and interviews.
Putting together and showing this kind of portfolio of your graphic design work is quite a skill, and the best way to do it gets debated constantly by designers around the world. There is no right way of doing it – there will always be differences in what employers or clients expect, or would like to see. Some simple logic and advice will help you though, and I’m going to share what I have learned both from experience and from reading other articles.
Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in May of 2009.
So, to get started it’s worth mentioning that your portfolio, and the way you talk about it, is an opportunity for you to shine and to demonstrate that:
- you are creative
- you can apply good thought processes
- you have a range of skills
- you are ambitious and enthusiastic
As designers, when we start a design project one of the first questions we always ask is who the audience will be. You should be applying the same thinking when putting together your portfolio – who will be looking at it? What are their needs and expectations?
Depending on your situation, your target audience is likely to be one of the following:
- A potential employer
- A potential client
If you are looking for a job in the design industry remember potential employers will most likely be designers themselves. This means they will have a keen eye for the look of your work and will want to understand your contribution to each project.
If you are looking for work from potential clients they, on the other hand, will be more focussed on whether you have experience in the type of work they need to produce, and whether your design style is to their taste.
Adapt where you can
Try to adapt your portfolio and presentation style to fit each audience. This means a bit more work each time but will make it more engaging for them. It will also lead to more success for you by demonstrating you understand their business.
Do some research
When you have a meeting set up to show your work, do some research. What sort of company are they? If they are a potential employer what kind of work do they produce? Are they really creative or more corporate? If they are a potential client what sort of design work have they had produced before? What kind of industry are they in and who are their customers? Luckily today most businesses have websites, so all this should be relatively easy.
Limit the number
If you can, try and keep it to about 6-10 good size projects. People don’t want to go through everything you have done and will probably make up their minds about you during the first 3 you show. Obviously if you don’t have much to show for any of them (e.g an individual logo) you could consider showing more projects.
Select your best
I can’t stress this one enough and you will hear the same thing from other people in the industry: Only select your best work and work you want to talk about. If you don’t love it or can’t talk about it endlessly, over and over, it will show and they won’t be interested. I know myself it’s tempting to fill out your portfolio with work that isn’t your best but shows other skills or types of client. But it won’t be long before you struggle to talk about them engagingly, and you will come across as not enjoying your work.
What order to show them in?
The first and last projects in your portfolio will stick in people’s minds the most. So, you should select carefully which projects to put in these positions. In addition, the last project can be the best place for a project you really like talking about or has samples that people can look at. This is because it can often end up staying open on the desk while you continue the meeting.
The projects you show in the middle of your portfolio should then be ordered in a way that demonstrates variety in skills and style. Keep them interested by mixing things up and being dramatic. If there are samples to pass around for one project, consider following it with a project that doesn’t. Don’t, for example, put all your logo or brochure projects back to back if you can help it.
One of the things potential employers will often look for is how you got to the finished design. They may be interested in sketch books, loosely bound sheets of ideas, mood boards or unused concepts. Put a few of them in your portfolio but not for every project. They are there to demonstrate your ability to think and and sketch before you jumped on a Mac to create the work.
You should also aim to include at least one or two mockups or printed samples. This will stop your portfolio from looking like just a collection of flat printouts of your work, and therefore a more memorable experience.
Put in what you want to get out
What does this mean? Well one important thing to remember is that you should only put types of work in your portfolio that you want to get more of. If you’ve done a lot of one type of work but you’re now really tired of it, don’t put it in your portfolio even if you think it’s good work. Chances are, you will only get more of it.
Presentation is key
The standard of presentation in your portfolio must be the highest you can achieve. Employers and clients alike will be judging how much attention you pay to these details as well as the actual work. But don’t dress it up – the quality of your work and your presentation is much more important than a fancy or tricksy portfolio.
Explaining the Work
OK, so we have covered putting your portfolio together, but you also need to learn how to talk about it.
It’s not easy
The art of talking about your work is not something that comes naturally to designers – I know I didn’t find it easy in the beginning. But it’s a good skill to learn, and learn as early as you can. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes and look upon each meeting as an opportunity to develop this skill. Not only will this make it easier to talk about your portfolio, it will also make you better at presenting concepts and design work, both to your colleagues and to clients.
The simple rule here is engagement. Your aim should be to arouse interest in your work, not give a speech or lecture. Remember, showing your portfolio to people is also about them, not just you.
When you come to each project, talk about it briefly to introduce it but don’t talk at length. See how they react, let them ask questions or let them simply look. If they are looking at you rather than the work, talk some more about the project – tell them what interested you about it. Look for signs that it’s time to move on to the next project.
To help you get used to talking about your work, try it on other people whenever you get a chance. If they are non-designers it will help even more, as you will practice not using designer lingo to describe each project.
Show your value
Employers want to see how you could be useful in their organisation, and when showing your portfolio they will often ask what your involvement was on a project. Whatever you are tempted to say, I advise this: Be honest, give yourself credit, but be clear about your skills.
A potential client will be wanting to find out if you have the skills they currently need. Focus less on talking up the design aesthetics of your work, and more on explaining the value of your services to the client of each project. Were they pleased with the work? Did they achieve their business goals?
You should take some time to understand your strengths and weaknesses (and yes, we all have weaknesses) before showing your work. If you can’t see them yourself ask another designer for an honest opinion (and be prepared for the answers!). You may not get asked about these specifically in a meeting, but you should be prepared to discuss them anyway.
The reason I mention this is that showing you understand your limits and where you are most effective is far better than trying to prove you are simply amazing. Employers and clients are interested in how they can use you best – they know no-one is good at everything and are not looking for that.
If you are particularly strong in one area though, make sure every piece of work in your portfolio shows that without you even having to say it. They will remember you better that way.
Hopefully this article will give you a good starting guide to your portfolio. Remember, it is a skill to be learned during your career rather than mastered beforehand – every time you show your work it will give you extra experience and feedback that helps you improve.
If you are interested in reading further, here is a collection of a few articles which you may also find useful:
- How to get your first graphic design job
- 15 graphic design interview tips
- Innovative one page resume and portfolio