30 tips for a better portfolio

Ask anyone on either side of the interviewing desk and they'll tell you the same thing: you've got to get your portfolio right. That means content, presentation, structure and that elusive magic touch that's going to keep you, your work and your portfolio in the forefront of the mind of the person making the hiring decisions.

But, as any jobbing designer will tell you, making your portfolio work to the best of its abilities is no easy task. There are dozens of things to consider: the look and feel of your portfolio, what to include, how to best organise your work online, paper stock, which kind of ringbinder or box file to use... the list goes on.

Portfolio strategy is a subject close to every designer's heart, so we have rounded up the great and the good of the design and illustration worlds to ask them for their top tips. From award-winning design agencies Red Design, DTAM, The Luxury of Protest and Brighton-based JacksonBone to high-profile illustrators Alex Trochut, Matei Apostolescu, Lou Marshall, Joe McLaren, Al Heighton and Dan Mumford, the designers who are either looking through portfolios or sending them out to win new business reveal their strategies for success.

Physical portfolios
The pros' tips on how to ensure your portfolio burns itself on the creative brains of prospective clients and employers

01: Less is more
"I know it's a clich," says Paul Heys of design company DTAM, "but the really important thing with a physical portfolio is to remember to keep it simple. Choose your work carefully and clearly, and include a wide range of different styles and techniques. A good sense of order will speak more about you as a person and illustrate and support your professional practice more than anything else."

02: Make business personal
"In terms of who to send your work to, the pickier you are, the better," says freelance illustrator and designer Lou Marshall. "If you are looking to work for someone specific then make sure you personalise it to them, for instance with a covering letter. Don't just write one to send to lots of different people - write each one based on your clientele and reflect them in it. This will show them you have spent time figuring out who they are and what you can do for them."

03: Presentation, presentation, presentation
Ed Templeton, Creative Director at Brighton-based Red Design, believes a portfolio needs to really look the business. "If a designer can't present themselves well, then who can?" he asks. "A wellconsidered, innovative or just plain beautiful portfolio is as much a sales piece as the work inside. If a designer's CV is poorly designed or printed then I'll quickly move on to the next designer in the queue."

04: Serve up something tasty
For in-demand Barcelona-based illustrator Alex Trochut, the secret to winning commissions from his list of clients - which includes The Guardian , British Airways and The Rolling Stones - is to keep your portfolio tasty. "Your portfolio is like a restaurant menu, and you're the cook, so make sure you put in all your best dishes: the work that shows off your abilities and skills; the work you're happy to show to the people you think might enjoy seeing it," he advises.

05: Get some attention
There's no point sweating over your portfolio if no-one's going to see it. Test it out and get some attention from the myriad of online blogs, design sites and illustration showcases, says Budapest-based illustrator Matei Apostolescu. "Design blogs and online social networks are great places to start getting some attention. Magazines are a great idea too," he says.

06: Do your research
"All too often, designers looking for a job send their books to a general studio address," says Peter Crnokrak from design company The Luxury of Protest. "Creative directors are notoriously busy and rarely have the time to look at all the material that comes their way. Often it's more appropriate to send portfolios to someone you can identify in a studio, such as a well-known designer, who will likely have the time to actually sit down and view your work."

07: Be a knock-out
Ordering the work in your portfolio is always going to be important. According to Andy Bone of Brighton-based design company JacksonBone, a portfolio is like a boxing match. "Come out of your corner with all guns blazing [with a great piece of work], settle down and be steady in the middle, then finish the round strongly before the bell [with your very best piece of work]. Leave them with something to remember. I still put presentations together in this way," he says.

08: Travel light
Think about the logistics of showing off the work in your portfolio, is the advice of London-based illustrator Joe McLaren: "I use an A4, leather-bound Panodia book. It's easily portable, easily updateable and suits my work. Larger folios look great for certain sorts of work, but they're more prone to damage and, if you're meeting your client in person, very often they'll just clear some coffee cups off a corner of someone's desk for you to show your work. Travelling light makes it easier to maintain a breezy professionalism."

09: Talk the talk
When you visit someone to show off your portfolio, you need to be able to talk confidently about your work, suggests illustrator Al Heighton: "Include projects you can talk about confidently on a one-to-one basis. Include not only your best work, but a bit of work you hate but can talk about very confidently. This way you can talk about how you'd tackle it again," he says.

10: Keep it fresh
DTAM's Paul Heys knows that you're always going to think your new work is best, so make sure there's plenty of fresh content in your portfolio. "Don't show work that's too old," he says. "Keep it fresh, showing how all areas of interest interconnect. It's also important to point out that you will not always be there to justify and explain your work, so remember to take this into consideration when constructing your final draft."

11: Think differently
Think about what you're hoping to achieve from having someone look at your work. Do you really need to send a portfolio out at all? "To be honest, although I've taken my portfolio to lots of places, I've never sent my physical folio to anyone," admits Joe McLaren. "It's just as easy to send an attractively packaged mail out with some good prints, a CD of your work, a concise covering letter directing them to your online presence, and offering to visit them in person."

12: Create your own identity
"Whatever the context may be, the portfolio itself should be viewed as a piece of work," says Peter Crnokrak from Luxury of Protest. "View the creation of your portfolio as the ultimate self-initiated project - one where you don't limit yourself in any way, shape or form. This is very much akin to designing your own identity. In no uncertain terms, your portfolio is the most effective extension of your creative self."

13: How much is too much
Opinion is very much divided on the matter of how many pieces to include, but Joe McLaren sails the middle-ground: "For a traditional portfolio, I include no more than 20 or 30 pieces of work. More than this and it risks lacking focus: always leave the audience wanting more and, having said that, make sure they can see more if they want to! Include clear directions in your physical portfolio towards your online portfolio."

14: Learn the art of self-promotion
Don't see your portfolio as just a collection of work - look at it as an opportunity to promote yourself as a brand. "I like to give quirky business cards to people directly or by mail," says Lou Marshall. "This gives them a little something to keep remembering you by, rather than just a link in an email that can go un-noticed."

15: If you don't ask...
If you're asking someone to look at your portfolio, you may as well get the most out of the meeting, as Andy Bone says: "Always try and see the person face to face. Phone up and arrange a meeting to show your work. Say you are after advice on your portfolio and that you understand there are no jobs. If the interview goes well, ask them if they can recommend anyone else you can go and see in other companies. They want to employ you, not your portfolio, so try and get a work placement."

16: Search for the killer idea
If you can come up with something truly original and striking in the way you present your portfolio, you've already won half the battle. "A long, long time ago, I saw a CV that doubled as a micro portfolio piece," remembers Paul Heys. "Two pieces of high-quality screen-printed [metallic] paper stock and some exceptional use of type. The concept still remains one of my top 10 of all time."

17: Show your skills
As Peter Crnokrak says, if you've not created a great deal of commercial work, pack your portfolio with work that shows you know how to approach a project in an innovative and unique way. "If you're not happy with the entirety of your work, then get to work on self-initiated pieces that demonstrate your technical and conceptualisation skills," Peter advises. "It's critically important to impress upon the interviewer that you are serious about your chosen vocation - this is solely born out of a well-developed talent."

18: Deliver a self-portrait
"Let your portfolio show your real development as an artist," says Matei Apostolescu. "Have some sort of a timeline in your folio - this is a really good idea and will highlight your evolution as an artist and as a professional. Include some early work and some more recent pieces. That way, you can demonstrate just how much you've developed."

19: Be brilliant
"The only way to make a brilliant impression is by showing your most brilliant work," says Peter Crnokrak. "This may not get you the job in the short-term, but it will hold you in good stead in the long run. Designers love to see passion in others - the type of work born out of a true love for one's chosen path in life. Aim to show work that induces raging fits of jealousy!"

20: If at first...
The thing to remember with any traditional portfolio is that you have to have faith in it, along with a strong belief in the power of your own work. Pack enough good work in, keep updating it and sending it out to the right people, and it's going to get you what you want eventually.

Online portfolios
You can't be in two places at once, but your portfolio can be everywhere. Launch your design offensive from your desk chair

01: Opt for cheap alternatives
You don't have to spend thousands on a flashy Flash portfolio: "Try Flickr," says Joe McLaren. "It's free to set up, extremely easy to use and beautifully designed. It also works as a sort of networking tool. Also, it's a great way to receive feedback on new work, particularly if, like me, you work on your own. Within five minutes of posting a new illustration, I've usually had a comment or two."

02: Have some structure
"The nature of a good website means people can jump around it in any order, so this needs to be kept in mind," says Andy Bone. "The website can include more examples of your work than a traditional portfolio, but it is important to build this into a logical, hierarchical structure so that the visitor will get a good impression of a cross-section of your work after just a few clicks. Consider including a 'recent work/highlights' element."

03:Saviour of the universe
"For a better presentation, Flash offers a lot of possibilities. The only problem is that it requires extra attention on page design, programming and maintenance," says Matei Apostolescu. "I'd go for a simple HTML/CSS site, and just let the work speak for itself in a user-friendly, clean environment. The thing I love about online presentation is that you never really know who will see your folio - you can strike gold at any time."

04:Develop a thick skin
Unlike the face-to-face world of the traditional portfolio, a web showcase gives those viewing your work from behind a laptop screen the chance to give you the kind of criticism they would never dream of offering in the real world. "Just be prepared for the brutal critiques that are common place in the anonymous world of the internet," says Peter Crnokrak.

05:Keep it simple
"Online portfolios should go straight to the point so that the people can see the work fast an easily," says Alex Trochut. "Doing a nice portfolio presentation is necessary, but sometimes the make-up covers too much of the face. The people looking at your website want to quickly be able to see what you're capable of. Long intros and too many effects often distract from what the people really want to see: your work."

06: Get some help
"If you don't have the skills to make a website, don't put a half-made website up that you threw together," says designer and illustrator Dan Mumford. "Get someone in who knows what they are doing,"

07: Keep in touch
The beauty of a really good online portfolio is that it's a constantly evolving piece of work and, as such, any updates and changes you make offer up a whole world of opportunities. "Make sure you can update your portfolio easily," says Red Design's Ed Templeton. "That's the benefit of an online folio. If I like a designer's work, I ask them to update me when they've done something new. Putting new work online is a great excuse to email round your URL again."

08: No-one likes a show-off
"Be honest! Everyone hates a show-off," says DTAM's Paul Heys. "Keep it simple - 'Fancy Pants' websites come later. Make sure all the credits and URL links that are affiliated with your work are also included and update at least once a month to let everyone know what's going on."

09: Sell your styles, not your skills
"Unless you are selling your skills as a Flash developer or web designer, then a simple online portfolio is fine. I just need to be able to see images quickly, and navigate easily," says Red Design's Ed Templeton. A good online portfolio should, first and foremost, show off your work. If you want to be an HTML monkey, there are better ways of showing off your skills.

10: Make sure you have an online portfolio
At the end of the day, if you want to make a living as a graphic designer or illustrator, you really can't get by without an online portfolio. If you're still getting by with the old school paper-and-folder variety, do whatever you can to get your work online. The whys and wherefores - such as what to put in and what it should look like - can come later.

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