10 Essential Tips for Creating that Killer Portfolio

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Written by Brian Ling (Design Sojourn)
Jul 26, 2011


18 Comments


portfolio-tips

It is actually a perfect time to update your portfolio!

Not only are we somewhere in the middle of the year, we are right smack in the middle of summer and it’s blistering out there! Lazing on the beach is not going to get you a job, so why not stay indoors in the air conditioning and take this opportunity to update your portfolio?

I have therefore compiled a list essential and useful tips (I hope!) that can help you churn out that killer portfolio. As a side note, this list was generated while I was teaching students, at the local polytechnic, techniques on how to improve their portfolios.


1) A portfolio is a story about you.

A lot people say a portfolio is a selling tool. I fully agree. But a portfolio is more than that. If you think of your portfolio as a sales tool, you tend to just focus on execution skills or how many pieces of software you can use. A portfolio should instead tell an engaging story about you. It should show, through your projects, where you are in design, your passions, your goals, and your strengths. A good way to start your portfolio story is to have a 2-sentence summary about who and what you are all about.


2) Have an intro page.

This might be a no brainer, but a well-designed introduction page sets the tonality of your portfolio presentation. Many designers just have a title page at the start that says: “Jack’s portfolio.” That’s not good enough. Expanding from the first point you need to share a little about your background to give your portfolio story more depth. Keep it light though; you are summarizing your design career not writing a biography.


3) Keep the number of projects in your portfolio to between 8-10.

As time goes by, you are bound to build a drawer or a hard drive full of design projects that you have played a part in. The trick is to pick 8-10 of your very best projects for your portfolio. Any more than 10, it gets too many and most people cannot remember what they have seen. Run with less than 8 projects, and your portfolio content feels a little light.

There is one caveat to this number, and that is the number of pages per project. If your portfolio tends to have more pages for each project, you should cut the total number of projects down. If you have fewer pages per project, then you may need to bump the total number of projects up.


4) Ensure that projects in your portfolio are no older than 3 years.

To help make your selection process easier, consider removing projects that are older than 3. A big and extensive design project, could sit in your portfolio for up to 5 years as it probably took more than 2 years to complete, but try to avoid anything pass that timeframe as the work could start to look a little dated. When in doubt, prioritize commercial work over concept or schoolwork.


5) Know the purpose of each project in your portfolio.

Every project in your portfolio should have a purpose, a reason for it to exist in your portfolio. That purpose should be somehow related to highlighting your strengths and ability as a designer. Does this project show your potential employer you can deliver award-winning designs? Is this project all about your 3D rendering skills? Or does this project share a little about your design process? In many cases designers tend to double up projects, for example show a lot of 3D work and as a result unknowingly make their portfolio very 3D heavy. Try to avoid repeating skills and be ruthless in your selection criteria.


6) Who did what?

Always be crystal clear when a project you show was group work, and especially highlight your role in that project. Managers are always very happy to hear how designers can work as a team and produce great work. Not only that, as the design industry is small, many designers tend to vie for the same jobs which could put you into an awkward situation.


7) Create customized portfolios.

Selecting and deciding on projects for your portfolio can be hard. On the flip side, having a lot of projects allows you the flexibility of customizing a portfolio suitable to the type of employer or client you will be showing your work to. Are you meeting a marketing guy, or a head of R&D, or perhaps even a CEO? Having a variety of projects and presentation styles helps make your portfolio more relevant to that individual.


8) Know what you want to do as a designer.

Knowing what type of design you want to do can help you build a more engaging portfolio. Do you want to work in a consultancy? What about in an in-house design team, or even in a cross disciplinary role that reports to the CEO?
Knowing what you want in your design career can also help you shape the projects you yet to do. If you want to work in a consultancy, and you find you are weak in 3D rendering skills, this may prompt you to seek out more 3D rendering projects to shore up your portfolio content.


9) A portfolio is a living document.

A portfolio should always be evolving and living in beta. My advice is to update your portfolio every 6 months, or at the very least, update it yearly. Waiting longer tends to allow for work or documentation to go missing. Not only that, a juicy job opportunity might just pop up that could leave you scrambling to get things organize before the submission dateline is over. The Scout’s motto applies here: “Be prepared.”


10) A killer portfolio is well designed.

It is logical that as a designer, you should take every step to make sure that your portfolio is well designed and not just a bunch of images sitting in a plastic folder. Unfortunately, there are a lot of portfolios out there that are poorly designed, even though the content might be acceptable.

Not only it is advisable to have a consistent portfolio layout, the flow and organization of the content should be designed to work in your favor. Do all of your projects start with a beauty shot of the design? What about ensuring a consistent landscape or portrait format? The industrial designers reading this may be forgiven for a poor layout, but the graphic designers will need to be extra careful to ensure their portfolio reflects their capabilities.

A good way to get started is to create a template by using the grid technique (popular with graphic designers) and populate your design work from there. It is always tempting to over style your portfolio, especially if you have a high octane personal brand, but at the end of the day, the best thing to do is keep your layout design simple. You don’t want the background or portfolio layout to overshadow your design work.


11) Bonus tip: Digital vs. Printed portfolio?

With the Internet becoming a standard means of communication, most portfolios are now sent through email. Not only that, more and more designers are presenting their portfolio work on their laptops, iPads and projectors. Don’t discount the paper portfolio though; the honesty and tangibility of the medium could be the winning factor that gets you your next design job.
My point is that it is important to design for the medium. In many cases, a layout for a printed portfolio will not work on a laptop screen or projector. There is a lot more real estate on paper than on a laptop/iPad screen. Paper also tends to be a more forgiving medium as well. A laptop screen’s allows for bright and vibrant images, but a computer screen is limited to so many pixels and zooming breaks the flow of the presentation.

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I hope you enjoyed these tips and suggestions. They are by no means a complete list, so please do not hesitate to share your own proven portfolio tips in the comments below. I look forward to reading them.






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Comments

Paul Mckay
Jul 26, 11 – 5:45 pm

This is a great guide to have for those that are looking to update their portfolio. I’m currently going through the task of updating my online portfolio as I believe this is the fastest method of getting your name out there.

Originally being heavily involved in the print aspect of design, my portfolio, of course was geared towards presenting my work on paper stock, allowing my work to be handled and look through in a thorough manner. Since then, I’ve taken up a web design role and now would look at presenting my work through a website. If asked for an interview however, I would still look at presenting a hard copy of my print work as I think it’s always good for the interviewer to get a feel of what you can do both through vision and touch.

GINA
Jul 28, 11 – 11:15 pm

Thank you to share this, You have no idea how much ill need to do my portfolio now that i am moving to another country , The one advice that concern me the most is that i have no idea of the design positions you mentioned how many others are there? what do they do ? and if i can apply to them? in CR the positions are limited to web and graphic designer, project management if you add some business administration to your resume, photographer or Instructor.. Any advice is welcome .Regards from Costa Rica

Brian
Aug 11, 11 – 10:14 am

@Paul: Thanks for your feedback. I did consider about and online portfolio, and it is all the rage at the moment. However I wanted to focus back on the fundamentals. In reality like any medium, going online you will also need to specifically design for it. Agree with your last point as well.

M. Polanco
Aug 18, 11 – 12:15 am

Sin duda, un blog sumamente interesante, ideal para estudiantes de diseño que apenas comienzan el camino como es mi caso. construir día a día un portafolio me parece una herramienta util e indispensable en este medio. Saludos.

Useful | Pearltrees
Mar 20, 12 – 6:12 am

[...] 10 Essential Tips for Creating that Killer Portfolio | Design Sojourn I have therefore compiled a list essential and useful tips (I hope!) [...]

Michael
May 31, 12 – 10:59 pm

Very useful guide, my company are taking applications for an internship at the moment and a good portfolio make a world of difference. Thanks

[...] August 21, 2012 · by mattdavisnz · Bookmark the permalink. [...]

[...] Visit tutorial at Design Sojourn [...]

Linda
May 03, 13 – 10:20 am

As a Product Designer I should probably know this but if you have a hard case with tangible pieces– how do you design the Portfolio #10 or what is considered designed? I remember when I was taking classes they said to make it stand out but I’m still not sure how to do that and not worry about it distracting the reviewer.
Thank you,

sara
May 07, 13 – 3:54 pm

Thanks for sharing these useful tips. My problem is that I graduated (Industrial Design) in 2009 and moved to the US and could not work because of my f2 visa. So I don’t have any new project and work since 2009. Now I am preparing to apply for grad school and have no idea about fresh portfolios. I can’t start and finish a project by myself to put it in my portfolio. I’m soooooo confused with this problem. Any suggestion how to evaluate my portfolio to make sure that design department will consider and evaluate it?

Portfolio tips | Manansala Designs
May 24, 13 – 8:51 am

[...] With the Internet becoming a standard means of communication, most portfolios are now sent through email. Not only that, more and more designers are presenting their portfolio work on their laptops, iPads and projectors. Don’t discount the paper portfolio though; the honesty and tangibility of the medium could be the winning factor that gets you your next design job. My point is that it is important to design for the medium. In many cases, a layout for a printed portfolio will not work on a laptop screen or projector. There is a lot more real estate on paper than on a laptop/iPad screen. Paper also tends to be a more forgiving medium as well. A laptop screen’s allows for bright and vibrant images, but a computer screen is limited to so many pixels and zooming breaks the flow of the presentation. via http://www.designsojourn.com/10-essential-tips-for-creating-that-killer-portfolio/ [...]

Elle
Jun 09, 13 – 12:51 am

I have a similar problem as Sara – I graduated in 2008 have done mostly graphic work and am looking to go back to Industrial Design and moving to the West Coast in hopes of achieving this. I don’t have any new projects since about 2010. I need to refresh my portfolio. Like Sara said; ” Any suggestion how to evaluate my portfolio to make sure that design department will consider and evaluate it?” How do I get an art directly to select my work and get that interview with a clear laps in work?

[…] This week, since we are on the downward slope towards folio time, I have found a great article written by Brian Ling (even though it is a few years old – it is still good!) with tips to creating a killer portfolio. Although this is squarely aimed at the face to face second year Grenadi students, I think you will still find this article helpful and interesting if you don’t fit into the category stated. Enjoy the tips and am looking forward to seeing some ‘killer’ portfolios. Take me to the article >> […]

ajit kumar
Dec 26, 13 – 2:01 pm

The suggestions about creating a nice designers portfolio was proved vry helpful to me as I am a student of Nift..thanks a lot to the writer

Pragya
Jul 08, 14 – 4:00 pm

Well compiled tips! :)

Surpreet Singh
Jul 28, 14 – 2:07 pm

very very useful tips … thanks

Steven Robertson
Aug 20, 14 – 3:46 am

Great article! I think if any up and coming designer, fresh out of college/uni was to follow this, they would do great in an interview.

Biziet
Aug 30, 14 – 11:28 pm

I don’t think the 3-year rule is valid as a hard and fast rule. The real question is whether or not the work holds up over time. I’ve seen some pieces from the mid 1990′s that are still amazing graphics, and are not appreciably different than much of the work being created today. It’s really a case of how relevant the work continues to be.

Also, I personally prefer to tell the story of my career journey when PRESENTING my portfolio (but not when dropping it off for submittal) I put in a few earlier pieces to to show where I have come from and as examples of my development along the way. I always end with the big, glossy, gorgeous work but it’s contextualized by my earlier work and how I got from A to B.

It has worked for me.


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