Portfolio Tips

Subjective opinions on how to create the right portfolio.

Written by Craig Berry
Former Junior Designer at VBAT

Contributions from
Joey Barritt, Managing Partner & Designer at saul studio
Ben Rimmer, Designer at Wallpaper*

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A graphic designer’s portfolio is, put simply, what separates them from the rest. It is a way to show a future potential employer who you are, what you are about and how you will fit into their place. Naturally then, it is important that a graphic designer’s (or any other designer for that matter) portfolio is as good as possible in order to stand out.

However, what is good to one person can be bad to another; this subjectivity is the nature of the creative industry. Below are some tips and advice when it comes to crafting a great portfolio; I have chosen five topics which I think are the most important as a professional in the graphic design industry. To add further opinion I asked two of my close university friends, who are also professionals in the graphic design industry, to share their insights to get several diverse opinions. We are all relatively recent graduates (June 2016, Leeds Beckett University), so therefore have been through a stage of making portfolios to get internships and jobs and now we all happen to be in a position where we look through applicant portfolios at our respective workplaces and businesses. Likewise, these tips are subjective and are purely opinions but in each of our experiences they have worked.

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A selection of personal work and work carried out at VBAT.

Craig Berry, Former Junior Designer at VBAT

As a recent graphic design graduate I’ve made plenty of portfolios both during and after university which got me several internships and freelance jobs and also to where I am now at VBAT in Amsterdam. Personally, I’m not afraid to switch things up or totally re-design my portfolio based on my current thoughts and style; as I grow and develop as a designer, as does my portfolio. However, there are some things that I always consider when putting together or editing my portfolio. These tips are also based on what I have seen from other peoples portfolios, both in terms of what to do and what not to do. You always remember the good ones but you also remember the bad ones.

Keep it simple and succinct.
Probably the most important for me as someone who gets asked to look through multiple portfolios regularly whilst also doing actual work, don’t overcomplicate or overload the viewer with content. I’m 100% a fan of keeping things clean and concise in a portfolio, it makes it easier for the viewer to read and digest when text is set neatly, images are presented nicely and it’s clear what the work is about. Pick a handful of projects to share and show what you think best summarises the work and your skills; don’t overload it with endless pages of content – it can make a good project look bad and becomes boring quickly. As a rule of thumb I would try to keep to 5–8 projects in your portfolio: a healthy and homogenous mix of university work, professional work and personal work.

Don’t give it all away in one go.
Of course when you send your PDF portfolio to an agency or studio you can’t be there to personally talk about and explain the work which it contains so you need to write something that explains it for you but don’t give it all away. Slightly related to the previous topic, keep it short and to the point whilst leaving something for the viewer to think about. If you write everything you did and why you did it for each project, if you are offered an interview you have nothing left to say. If you keep it short you can elaborate on this at the interview stage.

The details are the design.
Although the primary focus of your portfolio is to show images of the great work you have done at university and at agencies, it is not only the images that the viewer is looking at. The details of a portfolio should be as considered as the main content; things like choice of typeface, type size, typesetting, page numbers, captions, an interesting cover page and a great end page are just as important and shouldn’t be an afterthought. By paying attention to these things it shows you are aware of the whole portfolio as a piece of design itself. And an overlooked but useful detail, especially for viewers, make it 16:9 not A3 (unless you’re going to print it).

Tailor to suit.
When applying for an internship or job with your portfolio don’t just blast the same PDF portfolio to every design agency or studio you can think of with the same cover letter and CV as it’s obvious to anyone who sees it. Take some time to curate a list of places you like the work of and select the projects you think they will be most interested in; maybe there is something you have done recently which relates to something they have done previously; intentional or not, it’s something they can be triggered by. You can also tailor the portfolio to who you are sending it to; find out the creative director’s name of the agency or studio you are applying at, if you don’t know then look online or ring and ask the receptionist; it shows you have done your research.

Spelling and grammar.
It may seem like an obvious thing but make sure your spelling and grammar is on point in your portfolio and any other correspondence with a potential future employer. You might not be applying for a job that requires you to write and structure sentences or paragraphs but spelling and grammar mistakes stand out like a sore thumb to anyone who sees them and it looks unprofessional. Nowadays, there are a number of spelling and grammar websites which can help you say what you want to say, correctly and professionally.

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A selection of work by saul studio.

Joey Barritt, Managing Partner & Designer at saul studio

As Managing Partner of saul studio — a small design studio based in Leeds (UK) — my entire practice revolves around meticulous attention to detail, with great care and consideration given to every aspect of the studio. At times it feels obsessive, but it’s a trait that hasn’t disserved me to date. I produce — and revise over and over — presentations/portfolios for potential clients on a regular basis, sometimes including strategies and timelines before the job is secured. Hard work pays off, and like any studio works hard to get a big client or job, the same should apply to work for them. I receive portfolios from both graduates and industry professionals alike. Some are great, some are not, but there is often a fine line between the first-class and the forgettable. The following tips are an insight into what employers will be looking for.

Why you?
When approaching a studio, always include a cover letter explaining the following key points:
-Why you want to work with them?
-Why are you a good fit?
-Which of their projects interest you the most?
A little bit extra interest and engagement makes a big difference, not only does it look like you’ve made an effort, it shows that you actually want the job and are serious about what you do. “In the off chance that you are currently looking for a junior desiginer I have attached my cv and portfolio.” Yes, that’s it. Believe it or not, we receive emails like this on a regular basis. Show you have an eye for detail with good spelling and grammar, DESIGINER is just sloppy. A statement like this is simply unacceptable, if a single sentence is that poorly put together, most studio’s won’t even open the portfolio.

Size Matters.
Keep your file sizes low, preferably under 10mb when distributing your portfolio. Make it as easy for the recipient to view your work as possible, contain everything within one email and stay well clear of external download and website links. The studio will be extremely busy so don’t make them resent you for wasting time digging around your website for relevant projects.

Please… no photos. You won’t be hired based on your appearance and the studio certainly isn’t ‘meeting’ you by its inclusion. Let the work speak for itself.

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A selection of Wallpaper* Magazine editorial pages.

Ben Rimmer, Designer at Wallpaper*

Whilst at university I worked a number of my self-initiated projects, live briefs and collaborative pieces, often choosing an editorial route and outcome; these pieces helped me to get my position as a Junior Designer at Wallpaper* Magazine in London. Here I work solely within editorial-design, every day working with layout and typography which has led me to craft a keen eye in these matters as well as a strong interest in photography and art direction. These are the things I am mostly looking for when looking through people’s portfolios. Here are a few things to keep in mind when putting yours together.

Presentation, Presentation, Presentation.
You should spend time properly photographing and retouching the images and visuals in your portfolio. Nothing ruins a well executed, well-thought-out project quite like photographing it badly in poor lighting on an iPhone. Take some time and go to the extra effort to photograph your projects professionally with a proper camera. You should strive to display the project in the best way you possibly can so book out the photography studio (or use a copy stand if your university doesn’t have a photography studio). Here, take all of your finished projects, lay them out and photograph in good studio lighting. Look at top graphic design studios for reference as to how they have photographed their projects and try to emulate this yourself. If you can’t do this yourself, ask a friend who can help.

Consistency is key.
Keep your portfolio, CV, covering letter and website all consistent. Think about how you want to come across to potential employers. If you’re using totally different typefaces on your CV to your portfolio it can come across as unconsidered, not thought out and potentially confusing. Find a typeface you like, choose a colour palette and keep your personal branding consistent.

Go the Extra Mile.
Personalise your portfolio. It goes without saying that it is important to tailor your portfolio depending on who you are showing/sending it to. If you are applying for a digital role and you include mostly print projects (or vice-versa) chances are you probably aren’t going to get to the interview stage. You can go the extra mile by personalising your email that you send to the studio and mention a project that they have done that you really like. Explain why you think the work in your portfolio aligns with the work which they do. On your opening portfolio page, include the line: “Portfolio prepared for (studio name)”, this is a nice extra touch that goes down well.

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written by Craig Berry, Creative at VBAT
Contributions from Joey Barritt, Managing Partner & Designer at saul studio
& Ben Rimmer, Junior Designer at Wallpaper*
edited by Connie Fluhme, PR at VBAT

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