10 Essential Tips for Creating that Killer Portfolio

Design Articles
Jul 26, 2011


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.


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.

Presenting an Introduction to Industrial Design at Fuel Up!

About Design Sojourn
Jul 20, 2011

Just wanted to let you know, if you are in Singapore over the weekend come on down to Fuel Up: the Creative Industries Workforce Skills Qualifications (CI WSQ) fair, where I’ll be presenting an “Introduction to Industrial Design”.

The fair showcases a number of training providers and opportunities for people that are interested to either enter the industry or to sharpen their skills so that they can advance in their career.

Fuel Up is organized by the Workforce Development Agency (WDA) and the folks from Six Degrees. Here are the details:


Date: 23 & 24 July 2011 (Sat – Sun)
Time: 10am – 10pm daily
Location: Marina Square Atrium
Official Website.

While the fair runs over the weekend, I’ll be presenting on Saturday 23rd from 2.30pm to 3pm or so. If you do come, do stop by and say Hi? Don’t be shy!

Vol Portable Speaker

Industrial Design
Jul 14, 2011


The Vol portable speaker designed by Hironao Tsuboi is a work of beautiful precision crafted electronics that will appeal to any designer (or non-designer) music aficionado that grew up during the era of turntables and hi-fi. Made of aluminum and reminiscent of car radio volume dials, the speaker turns on with a twist and then continues to rotate as a volume control.



My favorite part is the bottom housing that epitomizes “form follows function”. The portable speaker runs on a lithium ion battery that is recharged via a mini USB slot, and has a microphone jack that accepts your latest tunes.

Via: designboom.

The Consumer Electronics Industry is Starting To Think Again

Six months ago I called the consumer electronics (CE) industry ugly after they launched a plethora of computing tablets to compete with the iPad. I’m happy to say that my faith is slowly being restored by not one, but two CE industry stalwarts.

Both have similar backgrounds. They once enjoyed market leadership, but have since fallen out of favor. Their businesses struggle in the red against a competition that is stealing boatloads of their market share. They have Design in the DNA, but it was lost and now rediscovered as they looked to design and innovation as a means to resurrect their brand from the ashes. They are Sony and Motorola, and I believe they will shine again.

Sony Vaio Z

The brand new Sony Vaio Z is what I would call the next archetype evolution between a desktop and a laptop. This “ultraportable” boast a carbon-fiber chassis, 13.1″ 1600×900 screen that runs on a 2.7GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 256GB SSD, and 8GB RAM. It uses a “sheet battery” that allows the Vaio Z to run for up to 7 hours. (Sorry, I got carried away with the specs! )

Before you scream MacBook Air COPY, take a look at their Power Media Dock attachment that boosts the computing power of the Vaio Z with an AMD Radeon 6650M GPU with 1GB of dedicated memory connected with Sony’s own Thunderbolt type technology called “Light Peak”.

So instead of building a MBA copy, it looks like they are creating a hardware modular ecosystem that may allow them to carve a new computing paradigm for themselves. Is this the start of modular computing or modular product design? I can also imagine a range of add-ons that could include faster CPUs, snap on HDD for additional storage and even displays. Oh my, many computing concepts of 10 years past are rushing back to greet us!

Motorola Atrix

Here is another interesting proposition that made me look twice. When the Motorola Artix smoothly slots into it’s revolutionary Lapdock, the Lapdock automatically fires-up to allow you to continue your mobile activities on a bigger screen. This is not an entirely new idea, but it was unexpected in this era of tablets. Together with the Lapdock, the Artix is basically an archetype that allows for users to bypass the need for tablets.

Not only that, when you have phones that are as powerful as computers, why would you need to own both? I’m sure many of you will dive into the software details and the things you can do with the Lapdock, but if you consider again the long term computing potential of mobile phones the possibilities become endless. Best of all Motorola just has to leverage on their strengths in mobile communications and the way forward is starting to become clear.


I’m actually really excited to see the CE industry do something they have not done in a long time, and that is to think, design and innovate ahead of the competition. Hopefully, the general sickness of “follow the leader” can now finally come to an end, well unless it is a strategic competitive advantage to follow the leader. Now please excuse me while I go and try to get my hands on one of those gadgets!

Designing with your Clients

Design Leadership
Jul 07, 2011

I love it when someone writes a blog post for me. Well not officially anyway.

You see I was going to write a blog post about Designing with your Clients. I was going to tell you, for example, how it is not that bad, how you won’t sacrifice your design integrity or how it helps manage risks, etc. You know my usual sharing of insights with the list of reasons or pros and cons after it.

Well, it looks like I don’t have to write this post now as David Sherwin from Frog Design has created a really nice presentation for the HOW Design Conference on why you should Make Clients Part of the Design Process. He writes:

Why collaborate with your clients? Because when clients and designers work together as equals towards a shared goal, they can feel like they’re part of the design process. Facilitated collaboration can inform and inspire your design team, so you are empowered to create great design work. It can also create alignment, which contributes to ongoing trust and ownership from all parties involved.

Yep, that was what I was going to say too. (REALLY!) Anyways, check out his presentation below which is probably better than the post I was going to write. Heh-heh.

PS: Go full screen for maximum oomph! Via: Frog Design Blog

Muji Encourages Optimism with Design

Industrial Design
Jul 06, 2011

Ticket Gate by Makoto UMEBARA

Muji Labs has launched a wonderful project in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. They are not only trying to raise the chins of Japanese, they are also trying to encourage Japan to become a nation that runs on smart energy.

To translate this belief into action, MUJI approached a number of designers around the world and asked them to provide a design idea as an expression of support for Japan. Each designer was asked to draw his or her idea for energy in daily life within an “Enjoy! ( ) Energy.” framework, and describe it in terms that fit within the parentheses.

Here are a few of my favorites.

Eco-Plug by Yeongkyu YOO

Don’t Print, Write by John MAEDA

Bright by Sam HECHT

Sundial Wristwatch by Yasuhiro SUZUKI

Check out the rest of the wonderful ideas and, I must say, cool sketches at Muji Labs.

The Struggle Continues in Measuring the Value of Design

It’s not easy describing the value of design. Even looking to describe the value of design being optimistic. I often get by by reducing the discussion to 2 scenarios; what happens when design is used and when design is not. So it did not come as a surprise to me that at the recent Design Management Institute (DMI) meet up in Copenhagen, they concluded that the value of design can’t be measured”…or at least not in any standardized way.”

Then in the same breath, the Business Week article reports that the DMI delegates agreed that “…designers need to do a better job communicating their value to business.”

So if designers can’t agree on a standardize way of measuring the value of design, then how are designers going to better communicate the value of design to people who can only speak the language and understand things like metrics, KPIs and ROI?

The article offers some suggestions that are time proven methods. I’ll summarized them here:

Bridging the Gap between Design and Business
Starting with designers learning the language of business and vice versa, the walls between design and business should be broken down to allow for a multidisciplinary approach to solving design problems by using a blend “…of quantitative research and empathetic user-centered design.”

Make Design Strategic
Use examples of how companies have used design as a strategic competitive advantage to help move your Design Strategy forward within the organization. The article does not offer you examples of design strategies, but subscribing to Design Sojourn should fix that!

Measure the Performance of Design Instead of the Value
This is a good one. While you can’t really quantify design with design metrics, you can however look towards how the new design performed? Do people like your product more? Are they buying more? Will they recommend it to their friends? A lot of such questions are influenced by things other than design, as such Businesses will start to realize that design is a holistic activity and integral to many parts of the business.

Not a One Size Fits All
Getting design to become strategic is a different journey for every business. Thus my constant disapproval of the delivery of Design Thinking in a standardized manner.

All in all, a great read, check out the full article at BusinessWeek online.