How to start building up your design portfolio

Graduating from design school and trying to get your first job can be one of the most frustrating times in your career. You need a design portfolio to get a job, but you haven't had a full-time design job before, so what are you going to put in it?

Worry not. There are quite a few different things you can do to help bulk out your portfolio – and not all of them involve designing for free. These tips don't just apply to recent graduates, either – if ever you find that your portfolio could do with a refresh but you're not getting to right client projects to do so, come back to these ideas and give one a go.

01. Work on your own brand

business cards

Your personal brand is your first chance to make an impression

It's not just a good portfolio that will impress potential clients: how you present yourself to clients is, in itself, an opportunity to provide them with a sample of your work. Having a solid brand identity for yourself as a freelance designer will also help you seem much more professional.

So, why not design yourself a logo, some business cards, and a slick website to showcase your other work. Take the advice of experienced graphic designers and spend 75 per cent of the time you work on client work again on developing your own company image.

02. Help a local business

street cafe

Look close to home for your first clients

Whether it's a local charity, a company belonging to a friend or family member, or just a place where you really enjoy the service – you can always make the first move and volunteer your services. If you've noticed that your favourite café's menu could be better, why not suggest that to the owners?

If you've chosen not to work pro bono, then make sure you price your work carefully. 

03. Create your dream project

laptop with post its on it

Set your own brief tailored to the kind of work you want to do

Clients want to see how well you are able to work to a brief and design according to their specific needs. However, there's no rule to say that your portfolio has to be filled with real-life projects. If you don't have any examples to show off your best skills, why not make up your own brief?

The advantage of these kinds of projects is that you can imagine your perfect job and picture your ideal client. What type of design work would they need? This way, you are making your portfolio more attractive to the kinds of people that you actually want to work with, not just the kinds of people you end up working with. Just make sure you flag up that it's a personal project on your portfolio site. 

04. Enter design competitions


Awards give you recognised accredation

Third party recommendations are always more convincing than self-promotion. By winning a competition, you're proving that you can out-do several other designers in front of a panel of impartial judges – possibly the best third party recommendation you could hope to receive.

There are a whole host of recognised accreditations out there that would look as good on your CV as paid work, if not better. In fact, the Adobe Design Achievement Awards were created specifically to help students and recent graduates launch their careers.

Whatever you do, make sure you retain copyright of anything you submit. Which leads us onto our final tip…

05. Avoid online design marketplaces

Avoid spec work – it's bad for you and for the wider industry

Avoid spec work – it's bad for you and for the wider industry

These sites are the cause of substantial debate within the design industry. Online design marketplaces, such as 99designs and Crowdspring, enable employers to post briefs for professional designers to ‘compete' for. 

Yes, that means that new designers have as much chance as experienced designers of being picked for the job. But it also means you have to put in a lot of time and resource into a design, and there's no guarantee that the employer will like your concept the most. 

This is spec work and, while it's rife in the creative industry, can you imagine asking a plumber to work for free in the hopes of being paid? You wouldn't eat at different restaurants and only pay at the best one. In the same way, you should never work for free (unless it's pro bono work). Doing so is not only bad for you, it's harmful to the wider industry too.

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Emily works at Route One Print – the UK's largest trade printer. Its aim is to make trade-print easy for graphic designers and print resellers with white label packaging, reseller tools and a smooth order process that helps its clients' businesses grow.