10 tips for a killer design portfolio

As a creative professional you live and die by the quality of your design portfolio. It sums you and your work up and is the first port of call for anyone looking to hire or commission you. 

It needs to show the breadth of your output, your skills and experience, how you generate and execute ideas – basically your whole creative process.

And your portfolio should also show your work off in its best light – so you'll need a decent DSLR or compact camera to shoot any print work. 

When done well, a creative's portfolio should impress and surprise the viewer, demonstrating how you and your work will be an invaluable asset to the viewer, whether that be as a full time member of staff or on a freelance basis.

There are lots of varying opinions on exactly what a design portfolio should contain (especially what format it should take) but there are some golden rules and theories that will set you in good stead when putting yours together. 

Read on for my 10 top tips for creating a killer portfolio, gleamed from over a decade's industry experience as a commissioning designer and art editor, not to mention my own experience of preparing portfolios and attending interviews. I'll also showcase some portfolio examples from fellow designers that I think work particularly well.

01. All killer, no filler

This should really be common sense, but you'd be surprised how often it isn't followed. Only ever show your very best work in your portfolio and if you aren't 100 per cent happy with the outcome then don't feature it. 

It's fine to show a creative journey through your work but people don't want to see way back to your college years (unless of course you're a recent graduate) and the old adage that 'you're only as good as your last job' should spring to mind.

It's often hard to self-edit, but it's important to be quite ruthless when selecting the work to ensure that all of it is up to scratch and of a standard that you're happy with.

02. Start and end with key pieces

Photographer Valerie Phillips makes a lasting impression on her landing page through the use of full window imagery that cycles though different images as you hover over the sections

This is something that I learned quite early on: to begin with a really strong killer piece that will grab people's attention, and then finish on a similarly striking talking point that will leave them wanting more. 

It's easy to see how this can apply to a traditional print portfolio, but the same thinking can be applied to an iPad folio or indeed a simple PDF attachment in an email.

03. Leave them wanting more

As mentioned above, its important to leave the viewer wanting more, especially on initial application as you don't want to arrive at a meeting or interview with nothing left to talk about. 

Also, remember not to overdo it in certain areas of your portfolio. If you've done some infographic work then feature a few key pieces and then show something different, the last thing you want is to bore someone with 100 examples of the same kind of work.

04. Get an online portfolio

There is simply no excuse for not having an online portfolio in this day and age, even if you are predominantly a print designer. You don't have to know any code to take advantage of the features that sites like Cargo Collective and SquareSpace offer, not to mention an abundance of ready made and beautifully designed Tumblr and Wordpress themes. Not forgetting the social portfolio platform behemoths, Adobe Portfolio and Behance.

Cargo is a great platform enabling creatives to quickly set up an online portfolio and customise it by editing the CSS or HTML

If you do wish to edit the look and feel of some of these sites then most allow you to edit the HTML or CSS directly and it only takes a conversation with a code savvy friend to learn the (very) basics. Or failing that, Google is always your friend.

05. Let the work speak for itself

Don't be tempted to over-embellish your online portfolio (or printed portfolio for that matter). Allow the work to do the talking by making projects easy to view in large formats.

I spoke to Rob Gonzalez from the UK based design studio SAWDUST and asked him why they chose to design their portfolio site the way they did:

"The idea was essentially to make viewing work as easy and accessible as possible. We wanted all of our projects on one page at the same time, which would allow anyone commissioning us to easily be able to scan projects until finding the desired reference."

SAWDUST's slick portfolio site has proved to be a great calling card for the cutting edge design outfit

SAWDUST's site is a great example of a clean and concise online portfolio that's easily navigable and puts the work at the forefront. I can speak from experience and say that on more then one occasion I've ended up not commissioning someone because the user journey was too convoluted or it took too long to load the images.

06. Curate for the job you want

If sending out a PDF sampler or curating your portfolio for an interview, always make a bespoke selection of work each time that's tailored to that specific client. 

Although it may be the thing that you're most proud of, a potential corporate client probably isn't interested in the experimental fashion shoot you've just worked on. This applies to whole selections of work on websites as well; only show the kind of work that you want to get commissioned for or hired to create.

07. Self initiated work

I've lost count of the amount of times I've heard fellow creatives state how important self initiated work is to their practice. Potential employers are also interested in seeing you flex your creative muscles and express your individual voice, to the point that I actually saw it specifically stated as a requirement on a job ad.

Colour and the Kids use their bluff alongside their main portfolio site to showcase personal and work in progress pieces

Including self initiated work helps the employer to see where your passions lie and the kind of work that you'd choose to do if not restricted by a tight client brief. Also, unless you're at a senior/art director level then it's sometimes hard to tell how integral a role someone played within the creation of a large project, and whether or not they were working to strict guidelines and design systems.

08. Show your working

Along with seeing self initiated projects, its can also be valuable to show your working and the journey you went through to realise the outcome to a given brief. This may be the journey from marque creation to implementation within a branding project or the craft based process behind an analogue piece of work.

Kyle Wilkinson showcases behind the scenes shots on his portfolio site, giving an insight into his creative process

I asked Kyle Wilkinson, who often works with real world materials, why he thinks it's important to show the process behind his stunning images.

"Showing things going off behind the scenes when creating your work gives an instant understanding to the viewer on how it was made, as well as the depth and level of your capabilities as a designer." 

"And unlike showing your working in a maths lesson, demonstrating your techniques and craft can be beneficial - as the image style may not be quite what a potential client is looking for, but they now know you are equipped with the skillset they're after that you could apply to their brief."

09. Choose the right format

To iPad or not to iPad. The general consensus is that the traditional print portfolio is redundant when attending interviews, and that displaying work on an iPad is a much easier, convenient and contemporary way to display your work.

My personal advice would be to take both, but perhaps a box folio for actual printed matter is preferable to the traditional leather flip book. There's nothing wrong with a PDF on an iPad or indeed a keynote presentation, but when dealing with print I think wherever possible it's nice to see the actual pieces and feel the tactility of the product.

It makes sense that printing out digital projects is a pretty pointless activity, and photoshoots and illustration both look great on iPad, but if you've been working with different paper stocks and finishes it's nice to see those pieces in the flesh. Ultimately use your common sense and choose the best format to display the kind of work that you produce.

10. Be confident and tell your story

Finally, the key to any portfolio presentation is the ability to deliver and talk confidently about the work within it. There's nothing worse than going through someones portfolio who has little or nothing to say about their work. 

Ensure that all the pieces that you include are ones that you're very proud of and can talk confidently and enthusiastically about in a meeting, explaining the back story and journey you went through to get there. Go get em!

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