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5 Tips for Building a Killer Portfolio

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Denise Anderson, author of Stand Out: Design a personal brand. Build a killer portfolio. Find a great design job., shares expert insights on building a book of work that represents the style, type, and industry-specific work you want to do.
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As a designer, your portfolio is the single most important vehicle you have for getting noticed, getting an interview, and getting hired for the job or freelance project you want. When you're not around to do the talking, your "book" can speak volumes about your talents, style, experience, and expertise. Whatever your goals may be as a design professional, your portfolio must accurately represent who you are and the value you can offer.

Technology has dramatically changed the way employers find designers they want to hire. Long gone are the days when a hiring manager would place a cryptic ad in a print publication, sift through a profusion of written responses, and invite a lucky few to submit a complete portfolio. Today's hiring agents often don't bother to advertise openings; instead, they explore possibilities online, see what's out there and who's doing it. Or they'll ask their colleagues and associates for a recommendation, checking out portfolios before they contact anyone. Your portfolio must be easy to find and readily available, so that anyone connected to a digital device (computer, tablet, smartphone) and the Internet (which is pretty much everyone) can see your work 24/7. Additionally, once your "book" is out, you have little control over who views it, when, or how. You simply can't risk throwing something together and hoping for the best—or not having an online presence at all.

Building a portfolio, especially if it's your first, is a formidable undertaking, but it can be a satisfying experience that taps into who you are and helps you to build confidence in the value you can deliver. When I first started teaching the Graphic Design Portfolio course at Kean University's Robert Busch School of Design, a traditional (print) portfolio is all a student needed to put together. Today, every assignment-seeking designer must have at least two types of portfolio. The first is a website—because it's how the world does business now. The second is a print "book" or a digital version of the portfolio formatted to view on a tablet when the designer interviews in person.

In any format, the mission of your portfolio is to offer a preview of the great work you're capable of producing.

My book Stand Out: Design a personal brand. Build a killer portfolio. Find a great design job. lays out a complete portfolio-building process in step-by-step detail, including self-assessment, personal branding, choosing the right work to showcase, and keeping pace with the impact of rapidly evolving technology. That's the comprehensive approach, but if you're eager to get started right now, the five tips in this article can put you on the road to building a killer portfolio.

Tip 1: Select projects that reveal your skills, talents, and passions.

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all portfolio. Selecting the right projects; arranging them logically; and presenting them in a way that is unique, engaging, and reflects your personal brand takes forethought and planning. To help you select the appropriate projects and present them in the best possible way, identify your primary purpose at this moment in time (understanding that it may change in the future). What do your projects need to communicate? Show off your best and most original ideas. When students show up in my portfolio course, I ask them to look through their past two years of work (because it's the most relevant) and identify the projects they're proudest of and consider to be their best. Once they've made their selections, the students develop their ideas using the skills they have acquired, targeted toward the industry and type of work they want to do.

Showcase the work you love and the type of work you want to be hired to produce. Anything you include should demonstrate your skills, abilities, range, talents, and experience.

  • Select work that reflects what you want to do.
  • Showcase passion projects that reveal your interests.
  • Tell good stories about the project idea and your process.
  • Communicate your wicked skills.
  • Include diversified project types and touchpoints.

For example, Saatchi & Saatchi art director Ria Venturina designed a poster for a personal project she worked on as a student. Via social media, Ria asked 300 random people, "If you could have one wish, what would it be?" The resulting visual not only showed Ria's skills as a designer, but also revealed something intimate about what's important to her (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Ria Venturina, "The 300 Wishes."

Tip 2: Create pieces that could be mistaken for "real" projects.

Even if the projects you create are just serving as a "dress rehearsal" for the professional design world, try to replicate the types of work and processes that are generally required in professional practice. The more believable a project is, the more attractive you will be to hiring agents, because you've provided a strong vision of the work you can do for their clients.

Each semester, I develop creative briefs based around fictional business concepts, assigning my students to design brand identities that communicate the style for which they want to be known. Even applying the same objective, each student adds a twist and showcases his or her unique perspective (see Figure 2). The results are consistently impressive, and students often tell me with pride that interviewers didn't realize it wasn't an existing brand (see Figure 3).

Figure 2 David O'Connell, "Tomaselli's Barbershop and Social Club."

Figure 3 Jon Mui, "Satori Barber."

If you want your portfolio projects to have a strong foundation and demonstrate clear purpose, I strongly recommend basing each one on a creative brief that you have developed yourself or acquired from an outside source. Your work might be beautiful, but an art director reviewing your book wants to see design thinking, problem solving, and the ability to understand and fulfill a set of requirements.

  • Create a variety of project types (retail, not-for-profit, startups).
  • Solicit projects from real businesses or not-for-profits.
  • Create your own fictitious company or product.
  • Use or improve upon an already completed project.

Tip 3: Design a presentation layout that enhances your project stories.

Packaging your portfolio is like wrapping a gift—your recipient will inevitably judge the exterior as well as the content. Just as there are an endless variety of wrapping papers, ribbons, and box styles, many options are available for packaging your book of work. Think about how your "gift" will stand out in a competitive marketplace. Is it engaging? Is it compelling? Does it connect to your personal brand and your career objectives? Every element of your portfolio tells a potential employer about you.

Before locking into one of the many portfolio types (such as a traditional print portfolio, an interactive PDF, or a website portfolio), take some time to learn about and understand each one's potential for helping you to promote your work effectively to the right audience. A savvy art director will judge your book by its cover as well as its content, so make sure that the packaging you choose complements your work and brand, and that it allows the viewer to connect to what's inside.

If you want your viewer to understand your range of qualifications, pack a lot of substance into your portfolio—your choices say a lot about your brand. Be sure that the content you include works in the context of each portfolio type you use. Include an introduction (a starter page that introduces your brand), well-created project images, and just enough text to communicate concepts that are not easily conveyed through your visuals.

  • Make the layout simple.
  • Keep the contents neat and well organized (see Figure 4).
  • Plan the sequence of your projects.
  • Create an engaging experience.

Figure 4 John Weigele (designer) and Margaret Grzymkowski (illustrator), "Four Steps to Designing a Portfolio Layout."

Tip 4: Produce images that show off your work.

The quality and composition of your visuals give your audience lots of useful information about your ability to organize, art direct, produce, and present a body of work. Images for your portfolio can be produced in several ways (photography, prototyping, mockups); each method has relevance for different audiences and types of work. As you're making decisions about creating and choosing your pictures, remember that each image needs to visually communicate the story behind your work and add to the overall essence of your brand.

When my father-in-law, Tony, puts out a steaming plate of pasta topped with his richly luminous homemade red sauce and a delicate smattering of shredded Parmesan, my mouth begins to water, but every great chef knows that simply looking good is not good enough. As I bring that first bite to my lips, I want the aromatic blend of garlic and Italian spices to captivate my sense of smell and taste. I want the flavors and textures to stand alone even as they work together. I want to crave that next mouthful before I'm finished with the last one.

Just as a dish of Tony's pasta offers a rapturous culinary experience, the images you use should entice your viewer deeper and deeper into your portfolio. Are they high quality and appropriate for the medium? Are they composed in an aesthetically pleasing arrangement? Do they draw your audience further into the story you're telling? To build trust and an emotional connection with your viewers, the quality of your images should be consistent throughout your book.

Demonstrate what you know about the importance of composition, consistency, and lighting. No matter what combination of media you use in the creation of visuals, your final portfolio needs to represent a cohesive body of work and should not come across as a patchwork of competing styles.

  • Create dynamic compositions.
  • Select an appropriate theme.
  • Choose a consistent style.
  • Experiment. Fail. Learn. Repeat.

One last thought: When it comes to photographing images for your portfolio, I strongly urge you to hire a professional or barter with someone who has the equipment and expertise to do the job well (see Figure 5). You may choose not to heed my advice, but if you go with do-it-yourself photography, the end result may diminish the greatness of your work.

Figure 5 Max Friedman, "Scrub'd."

Tip 5: Demonstrate your technical proficiency in producing your portfolio.

Production (digital pre-press) is the process of making real the things you have envisioned, which is a highly elusive skill for many designers. A prospective employer will use your portfolio projects to assess your abilities in this area. If you give little attention to how you produce your own work, an art director is likely to perceive that you lack production and organization skills. On the other hand, if an art director sees that you have taken care to produce high-quality projects, he or she will assume that you will continue those practices when you're hired.

Remember, each portfolio format you deploy determines how you produce the projects contained within it. A portfolio layout and elements that have been poorly retrofitted to another portfolio type will look sloppy, and a creative director will notice. In short, produce the components to fit the format you've selected.

Technology is constantly changing, so you should also select the most relevant and current software to produce your portfolio presentation, and the type of portfolio you're producing will help you to determine what that technology is. Print portfolios and interactive PDFs can be created using the same program (Adobe InDesign), but the software features you utilize will differ, and you'll save your files in different ways. The options for producing a website portfolio will vary, depending on your knowledge of code and need for customization. If web design is not your specialty, an online, template-driven site that simply promotes your brand may work best.

  • Finalize your content before production begins so you can focus on the aesthetics of the layout and the end-user experience.
  • Pay attention to details.
  • Confirm consistency and cohesive flow within individual projects and throughout the overall presentation.

Final Thoughts

Your portfolio is an organic, fluid, and evolving representation of your work and personal brand. The projects you create for your book of work, the examples you include, and the way you present them add up to communicate your creativity, skills, range, thinking ability, and ambition, enhancing your odds of securing the job and the career you want.

For many more examples and details, take a look at Stand Out: Design a personal brand. Build a killer portfolio. Find a great design job. (see Figure 6).

Figure 6 Stephen Sepulveda, "Stand Out" cover design.

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