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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.