9 Game-Changing Tips for Creating a Strong Design Portfolio

Portfolio Tips

Originally published on AIGA Cleveland

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When it comes to applying and interviewing for jobs, the way you present your work matters — a lot. You’ve worked incredibly hard to be where you are, and you know you have a lot to offer. But if you aren’t strategic about making that clear to employers, it won’t matter how talented or smart you are. Below, I’ve compiled a few tips that I’ve gathered throughout my education and career in the field of design — some from well-respected mentors, and some from my own experiences — which have proven profoundly helpful in my own job-search endeavors.


Presentation
Cover your bases.

For most designers, it’s best to have three formats of your portfolio: a website, a digital PDF, and a printed format. This covers all your bases — while most companies prefer a web link in job applications, sometimes a digital PDF comes in handy, especially if you want to curate your projects for the viewer.

Printed portfolios matter.

Unless you specialize in motion or interactive design, and therefore most or all of your work must be displayed digitally, bring a print portfolio to the interview. It’s not only easier for employers to look closely at your work, but it demonstrates an understanding of print production and craft.

Sell your work.

Practice reciting your descriptions of projects. Being able to speak articulately and intelligently about the decisions you made, the role you played, etc. will set you apart from other candidates. Personally, I spend time crafting a written description, which helps me memorize the most eloquent way to verbally describe the project.


Content
How many projects?

When presenting your work in an interview, generally it is recommended to have no fewer than 5 projects, and no more than 12. If you have projects that take up more than one spread, such as a multi-media campaign with many components, you can lean toward the lower end of the total. This also counts when presenting work digitally — if your website displays a ton of work, be sure to prepare a curated list of projects to present in an interview, rather than aimlessly clicking around.

Show only your best work.

In this context, less is more. Showing anything but your best work will dilute the quality of your skills and distract from the true showstoppers. Employers only know what they’re looking at, so if there are some parts of a project that take away from the others, you don’t have to show everything. Show what is going to help employers see the best in you. Don’t lie or deceive, but do put your best foot forward.

Show (mostly) the kind of work you want to do more of.

This is an advantage that comes with more experience, because you have a larger breadth of work to pull from. So, the priority, especially if you’re just trying to get your foot in the door of the industry, is to demonstrate creative thinking and design skills. But if you can, be selective about the work you share — whatever you show will bring you more of that kind of work. If you need to throw in the occasional outlier in order to demonstrate a specific skill or achievement, make sure you’re prepared to explain why it’s relevant. (For printed portfolios, it helps to have a way of switching out projects to curate your selection depending on the audience. I prefer the screw & post method for this reason.)


Layout
Full bleed vs. no bleed.

Full bleed images are more emotional. The viewer is immersed in the moment. Images cropped within the layout are more technical; the viewer is removed from the scene and viewing it a bit more analytically. There’s no right or wrong answer for which route you take for each image, but it’s a helpful rule of thumb to keep in mind when you’re trying to make an impact with your layout. I personally tend to use a mix of both full-bleed and non-bleed images to establish contrast.

White space is your friend.

When in doubt, add more white space. Don’t overcrowd your work by making your type too large, margins too small, or including too much on one spread — which brings me to my next point…

Avoid over-designing.

Let the work shine. Don’t allow a multitude of unnecessary graphic elements to compete with the work you’re featuring. If you can design the portfolio with nothing but thoughtful and elegant alignment within a grid, you will come across as sophisticated and effortless, and your work will be displayed in its best light.

 

In the increasingly competitive field of design, applying and interviewing for jobs can be intimidating, especially when it comes to designing and presenting a portfolio. It’s time-consuming, tedious, and difficult to know what decisions will get the best reactions from employers. I hope these tips prove to be insightful and guide you toward success. Good luck on the hunt!

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