How To Build A Better Portfolio

Portfolio Case

The portfolio of a graphic designer is the paramount display of his/her existence in the creative world. It helps define us, measure us, and communicate to others just how good we are. It can either proclaim to the world (and prospective employees or clients) “I must be hired” or just the opposite (“I have chosen the wrong profession”). In other words, it can make us or break us.

Having been in this industry for 25 years now and having been a former Creative Director and college-level portfolio reviewer/advisor, I can say I have seen my fair share of portfolios – good and bad. And when approached for advice by young students who are building their first portfolio, the most common question is pointers or guidelines on their portfolios.

Alas, what follows are three general principles that I apply not only to my ongoing portfolio but to those I counsel or give feedback to on their portfolios.

Don't Show Everything (aka: Avoid the Kitchen Sink)

I want to preclude this first principle as really only applying to either physical portfolios (ones that have a nice matting, case, binder, or book that you would show in person to someone) or non-linier online portfolio (ones where you take the visitor on a linier-path of presentation by showing them only one sample at a time). This guideline doesn’t really apply to portfolios where you are giving the viewer a complete overview and they can select certain pieces as they chose, like as seen in my own portfolio.

When it comes to portfolios, actually the old adage of “less is more” is true. Some designers will build a portfolio with up to 20 – 30 pieces in it. Basically, a portfolio of everything that they have done.

The main reason to avoid this is that people can get bored easily. As a potential employer with an open position, one would usually line-up their applicant interviews one after the other. That being said, after spending a few hours looking at portfolios, it is easy for boredom to set in due to repetition.

The other main reason is that unless you are a stellar designer or a design demi-god, there are bound to be some mediocre pieces among your batch. Keeping the number of pieces down to a smaller number will help you filter your work and disregard the work that isn’t your best.

What’s the magic number? I like to think between 10-14 pieces is a good number.

Carefully Choose The Order (aka: Placement is Key)

Just like a good novel or movie, plot structure is everything. How great would it be if you went and saw a movie where all of the best moments are at the beginning and then the rest of the movie was “just okay”? Or having to sit through a boring movie only to have the best part be at the very end?

The sequential order of your portfolio, in my opinion, is very important. Once you have selected which pieces to show in your portfolio, the next big trick is to be very selective in the order in which you show them.

I have seen too many portfolios that have not applied this basic principle and the results can be impactive.

Why is it so important? If you show me your best pieces up front, the viewer will get excited because of the great work, but then their excitement wains and you leave them with the memory of your worst or mediocre work at the end. If you show them the best at the end of your portfolio, you leave them on a good note, but that is after they had to endure your worst or mediocre pieces throughout your portfolio. Remember the importance of first impressions? Especially when it comes to being hired. An interviewer can sometimes already get a sense of you from the first entry in the room, let alone the first design piece you show them.

Here is my general rule of thumb when it comes to this principle: Take your 3 best design pieces and show the best one first, the second best one last, and the third best one right in the middle slot in your portfolio.

The reason is simple. Like any good movie or book plot, you want to grab the viewer from the start. Make them say “Wow!”. Then a few good pieces, than about half-way through the portfolio, another “Wow!” moment, and then finally leave them with the climax at the end. A “Wow!” piece that will leave them with a lasting impression of your design skills.

I have been asked which is more important, the first half (between the first and middle position) or the last half (between the middle position and last). I personally side with the first half as I would rather see fabulous stuff more up front because it is the first few pieces where I form my opinion of a designer’s strengths or weaknesses.

Show What You Are Capable Of (aka: Reality Bites)

This piece of advice always seems to be the most enlightening for young students or designers who have only been in the industry a few years.

The reality of a career in graphic design is that you will have pieces that are mediocre or just average because of the micro-managed demands of a client. In other words, reality bites. The reality of a project (when it goes to print or completed) most likely doesn’t reflect the original design and conception of its designer.

Let’s say that you are hired to design an album cover. You present the client with 3 different designs, and as to be expected there is one that is your favorite and probably best represents your creative talents more than the other two. The Law of Creativity states that there is a higher probability that the worst of the batch is what the client will chose.

Or lets assume that you have a client who thinks they are more talented and creative than you (which is why they hired you in the first place, right?). In the end, the completion of the project will ultimately result in a design piece that is nothing close to what you had designed because the client valued their design skills more highly than your own.

I have seen many portfolios where a mediocre piece is shown simply because IT WENT TO PRESS. It was a real piece. A real client. A billboard that you can drive by and say to yourself “I designed that.” without any prudence as to whether it is really that good or not.

This is even more so seen in the portfolios of young students who have little experience.

I have seen tons of portfolios where it was one class project after another, even when the project was more of an exploration in design principles rather than applied graphic design. And then, low and behold, the coveted brochure emerges that is just okay, but was included in the portfolio because… it was REAL.

What does that mean to you? After you have pulled your pieces together and found your 3 best, what do you do if the rest just isn’t that great?

Make it up. Dream big. Take this opportunity to self-assign yourself a project where you don’t have a client in charge of the design decisions. Create a poster for a local play. Redesign the cover of your favorite book. Create a fictional company and design its logo and collateral pieces. In other words, don’t be afraid to dismiss the “real” stuff and insert some of your own great work. Did the client chose the wrong design? Show off what you thought was the best of the batch. Guess what? It’s your portfolio!

As a potential employer, reviewer, or prospective client, I would rather see what a designer is capable of, than perhaps what the real world experience dictates. Let’s face it, even the best designers out there don’t have every piece that goes to press or completion be worthy of their portfolio.

Your portfolio is the best gauge of your talents and strengths as a designer. It can also reveal your weaknesses. Regardless, always put your best foot forward, constantly swap out pieces in your portfolio as new and better ones arrive, and enjoy the fruits of one of the best professions out there!