Last Updated on February 18, 2019

No matter what stage you’re at in your creative career, if you’re looking for work in the design industry, you need a stellar, stand-out portfolio. Whether you’re looking for creative freelance jobs or full-time employment, a design portfolio is one of the most important tools to show your creative, technical and problem solving skills.

Here are some tips for creating the best design portfolio possible, with insights from Brian Young, a lead recruiter at Creative Circle, one of the country’s largest and most successful creative recruitment firms. With over twelve years of recruiting experience, Young has seen thousands of books and design portfolios from an array of candidates.

Employers Prefer a Digital Design Portfolio

First, you have to choose a format. Should your design portfolio be a printed book or a digital entity, like a website or PDF file? The choice isn’t necessarily obvious. Since graphic designers work in the print and packaging world, it seems natural to opt for the tried-and-true print option. Sure, they can be beautiful and offer the viewer a tactile experience. However, they lack the immediacy of their digital counterparts. It takes time to snail mail or arrange to deliver a bound portfolio design book, while a digital version gets to a hiring manager with just a click.

While Young is personally impressed with analog portfolios, he admits there has been a shift to digital. “I’m seeing a lot of print designers create online portfolios using different content management systems and platforms that allow print designers to showcase their work,” he says. More importantly, employers appear to prefer them. “I think for ease, digital is the way to go. Clients prefer quick.” It’s also important to remember that digital portfolios should be updated constantly, in an effort to keep track of all of your best work.

Curate Your Design Portfolio

Once you’ve chosen the format, it’s time to create your book. It might be very tempting to include every piece you’ve ever contributed to or created, but editing yourself is key to building a strong design portfolio. Young recommends limiting yourself to no more than twelve items while showcasing your best, most recent work.

“Lead with your best piece and end with your second best piece,” he says. He’s also adamant that the materials included being no more than four years old, no matter how long your career is or how seasoned you might be. Even if you feel your best work was something that’s six years old, it would be prudent to leave it out because employers want to see what you’ve done lately. Hopefully, your abilities have been evolving and improving with time, and you’ll have excellent, recent work. Young points out that the one exception to that four-year rule is if you created a well-known brand logo. So if something like Twitter’s bird or Amazon’s arrow was your design, then by all means, put that in.

A freelance creative is likely to possess a whole host of diverse, exciting work – but you’ll want to tailor each individual bid to prospective clients based on their industry or expertise, as Young goes on to suggest.

Tailor Your Design Portfolio

According to Young, variety is desirable in a design portfolio. “Show your depth as well as your breadth of experience,” he says. However, he also adds that it’s okay to curate what’s inside based on a prospective employer’s needs. A major advertising firm, for example, might be looking for a great diversity of work. It would have a large number of accounts to cover, so a graphic designer with a portfolio that displays design experience from several industries could edge out a more focused collection.

On the other hand, a smaller boutique agency that is focused on just a handful of clients, perhaps all from the same sector, could be more eager to find a designer who knows how to serve that sector well. This idea of being able to curate your book based on the needs of your prospective employer is, of course, easier to do if you’re portfolio is digital. The malleability of that format gives you that freedom, whereas having a bound portfolio commits you to one look for some time.

A freelance creative might find the idea of updating your design portfolio for multiple clients daunting, but the reality is that doing so greatly increases your chances of landing a design job – even if it’s only a temporary gig.

Brand Yourself and Your Work

Your design portfolio should create a brand for yourself. You want to strategically highlight your talents and ability to problem solve in a creative space. This book should stand out as undeniably you. Also, be sure to be informative. Don’t just include images, instead guide the viewer through your work by providing well-stated summaries for each image. Include the year it was created, the client or agency, any partners you may have worked with, and a couple of sentences about your role and your specific contributions.

“Look at color choices, look at font choices, make it consistent,” Young suggests.

Include Spec Work

If you’re new to the graphic design world, as is often the case with students and recent grads, you won’t have a trove of professional work to sort through. In that case, it is absolutely acceptable to build your design portfolio using spec work. Examples that you’ve developed for coursework, for practice, or to make an unsolicited bid are all perfectly acceptable design portfolio entries – the idea is that you’ll give the potential employer or client a window into your design philosophy.

Don’t Make These Mistakes

Don’t misrepresent your skills. “Only put the pieces in there that you worked on,” says Young. “Be honest about your contribution. If you’re a design candidate coming out of school, and it’s a collaboration project, talk about the pieces and what you contributed to. If you did the design execution, but not the ideation or conceptual blowout of it, then highlight that.”

Don’t include older work. Also, avoid having too few or too many images. You want to add enough to create a sufficient story without overwhelming a prospective client. Finally, poorly executed design portfolios will surely be ignored, so create a professional representation of your work. Images should be high resolution and sized appropriately. “Don’t make the work too small, or too big, so that your eyes don’t get it, or it’s just overwhelming,” Young recommends.

Ace Your Interview

If you’re doing it correctly, your design portfolio will show off your talents, display your aesthetic, and speak to where your design interests lie (packaging, posters, flyers, etc). Of course, a winning design portfolio still has to be supported with a great interview. If you get the call from a hiring manager to interview for a job, be prepared to discuss the design choices that you made in the pieces included in your portfolio.

Young encourages you to be able to talk about these things. “They’ll want to know, why did you choose this font? Why did you choose this color scheme?” he says. “In order to prepare for the interview, a candidate should be able to casually talk about the ‘whys’ of their portfolio. Why they chose this design over that, what their process was, all of those questions are fair game.” With a well-planned, polished design portfolio and articulate, meaningful interview answers, the graphic or UX designer job of your dreams can become a reality.

Are you a freelance creative or full-time graphic designer looking for work? What are your top design portfolio tips? Share your comments here!

Brian Young
Brian Young

Brian is a Recruitment Manager for Creative Circle, the largest creative staffing agency in the U.S. where he implements talent acquisition and placement strategies to engage with and place top creative talent.