I'm a creative director at Laughing Samurai. I bark orders. Sometimes people listen. Sometimes they don't. When they play nice, I pay with pizza. And sometimes with Nachos. Hell, sometimes even Beer. Wanna work with me? Let's do this.

Design a portfolio that will land you the job.

Sumo's challenge each other in the ring. I challenge you to improve your portfolio every day.

So you’re ready to hit the pavement running looking for a graphic designer job, but do you know how your design portfolio is going to stand up? A good resume will always make a great impression, but the reality is your portfolio is probably going to be reviewed first. With a portfolio that is designed to win jobs, you’re increasing your chances of getting your foot in the door for an interview.

There is a lot of advice out there about designing a winning designer portfolio, but I still manage to see people making a lot of mistakes. In the name of public service, the following are a few things to consider when building a design portfolio. It’s essentially a list things that I look at when considering a candidate for a graphic designer position.

Designing your portfolio

How much student design work is in there?

For me this is the most important aspect of building a good portfolio. Where did the work come from? Without relevant work the rest of this list is worthless. Now I understand that you are a student, and you’re fresh out of school, but filling your book up with homework only tells your potential employer you have no experience working with a client, or taking real world direction. Do free work! Everyone is always looking for free design, trust me. Offer your services to family members or friends. There is, however, some school work that can go in, but only as advised by a portfolio reviewer.

It needs to tell a story. Your story.

Not literally but make sure it makes sense. They need to be taken on a journey that is your work. Don’t be afraid to make it creative and reflect your way of thinking. Think of it as a peek into your head. Have fun designing it and make sure you LOVE it when it is done.

Know your terminology.

Logo design is not branding. Art direction is not creative direction. Graphic design is not art direction. Call it like it is, and don’t try to make projects seem bigger than what they really were. Just because you designed a poster for someone, doesn’t mean you did a POP campaign. It was just a poster. People can and will see thru bullshit, so don’t serve it. Be honest. It will get you farther.

Show some thinking.

Whenever possible, show your sketches and thinking behind a design. As a creative director, I would love to see how you landed at an idea. It also tells me how loyal you are to what’s in your head. Be careful when putting non-approved concepts in the mix. It can show weaknesses if not curated properly.

Less is more.

Make sure your story is told, but let the work speak for itself. Take a look at your portfolio. What is in there that doesn’t need to be in there? Take it out. Right now.

Preparing to Launch: Quality Control

Make sure your resume and design portfolio are aligned.

Now that you’re done with your portfolio, look at your resume and all of your social media and make sure there are no conflicts. Too many times have I seen examples where either the work in the resume is not in the portfolio, or vice-versa. Make sure they match. And, it may seem obsessive, but having a resume and portfolio that match are extremely important. Make sure you design them to look the same. Like they came from the same person.

Keep it small, and easy to access.

This is the second most important thing on this list. I should probably do another article just on this point alone. How many times do you see yourself browsing a site, and getting antsy when it takes too long to load? Well, think of it as the same thing. Having a portfolio that is too big may actually deter someone from reading it. These are busy people you are trying to contact, that may be dealing with some form of ADD. Keep their attention once you have it! You need to make two versions.

Version 1. (document) Make it an emailable (pdf!) file that’s no larger than 5MB, without the need of dropboxies, yousenderts or any third party downloading method.

Version 2. (on the web) There are numerous free ways of getting your work displayed online, and can make it easy for anyone to access on the go. Just make sure the work is clear, and big enough to see clearly. If web design is not your strong point, stay away from building your own web portfolio. Use a social option like beHance. Just please please, for the love of whatever you worship, DO NOT USE FLASH!

Get a second opinion.

You need to ask your friends what they think. Ask design and non-design oriented people. Remember, you have been slaving over this document for hours (days would probably be better), and can get biased or obsessed about things that don’t matter. Take a break from it and ask around to get another persons insight.

Get a portfolio design review. More than once.

This can be invaluable when building a good portfolio. A good professional opinion from someone in the field can guarantee you a great first impression from a potential employer reviewing your portfolio. And make sure you have some “Take-Aways” from your review, and actually implement any suggestions. Do not look at the review as being criticized, more so than critiqued and as an opportunity for improvement. You may have to pick up the phone and call local design agencies and ask for a portfolio review. Get more than one opinion. I recommend at least 3, 2 of which should not be academic in nature. Once you have this feedback, go back to the beginning of this list and make the needed changes, even if it means doing more free design work.

Design Portfolio Upkeep and Maintenance

Keep your design work fresh.

Don’t even think of sending a portfolio if you have to say “This is all old work”, or “I haven’t updated it in a while”. For me, that is an automatic red flag, and rarely do I take it seriously. I probably don’t need to say this though, since the people that say stuff like that aren’t taking the time to research how to improve their design portfolio.

There is a lot to digest in this article. I hope you will take the time to really polish your image and do the work necessary to create a winning design portfolio. It may seem like more work up front, but you are saving yourself lots of time emailing people with requests that will get ignored. If you have questions, please post them. Something missing from this list? Post that too. I want all good designers to get good jobs.

2 Comments

  1. Posted December 14, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink Tiffany Boeson

    Hello, This is great advice. I graduated in MN with my BFA in 2009, focusing mainly on print design. I still have yet to find a design job, but just have recently got my online portfolio up and running. It would be great to be able to have a section in your post about how to get a portfolio review, so you can get real honest advice about if your stuff is awesome or needs major improvement.
    Thanks. Love your blog.

  2. Posted December 14, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink The Fontografist

    Hey Tiffany:
    How to go about getting your portfolio reviewed? Well, just ask. Find professionals who’s work you respect, and ask them for a review. Usually, if they are not swamped, they are always up for giving someone good advice.

    Good Luck!

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