The Portfolio

A portfolio for graphic designers, art directors, photographers, illustrators, industrial designers, interior designers, fine artists and other visual creators (and let’s not forget copywriters) is the one key component of showing a potential employer a job candidate’s capabilities. Resumes are still needed, but they simply don’t carry the same weight in the mind of the employer as a good resume. A great resume and a so-so portfolio gets a so-so response. (And so-so job offers.)

Portfolios are the visual representation of what that designer can do. (From this point on, we’ll lump all of the above into the phrase “designer”, even for the photographers and copywriters.) There was a time when this meant a physical carrying case with printed samples in it. Back in the day, designers would have leather cases to showcase samples on mounted boards, or oversized “books” with vinyl sheets where the samples slid in place. Often designers would have duplicates of their portfolios that they would drop off at different businesses and pick back up a few days later. (Or arrange courier services to do that for them.) 

Today, everything is done on a computer screen. (See number 1 from our list below.) This article won’t get into the details of making a digital portfolio, but instead will talk about the subjective nature of what is in the portfolio and the interactions between the job applicant and the potential employer. 

The list below is based on opinions and advice from someone who has spent years showing portfolios, then later reviewing hundreds (perhaps thousands) of portfolios as an ad agency owner hiring creative talent, as well as a portfolio advisor to several colleges and universities, and also as an instructor at a portfolio school.

1) Your portfolio needs to be viewed online, but also able to share.

This is probably obvious to everyone, but we’ll go ahead and state the obvious. Your portfolio could be hosted on your own website (preferred) or on a portfolio site. 

A portfolio site is a place where your portfolio is among other portfolios. The NIU BS/BA Capstone website is an example. Behance.net from Adobe is a popular portfolio site for creative design professionals. 

There are pros and cons with being on a portfolio site. Having your portfolio on a portfolio site can be a good thing where people might find you on their own. At the same time, if you are replying to an ad for a position, if your portfolio is only available on a portfolio site, then you are leading that prospective employer to the place where they can look at all of the other candidates.

The best option would be to have both, your personal site and put your work up on the portfolio sites, but always direct people to your own personal website.

2) Your portfolio needs to fit the audience.

If you are looking to interview with a corporate design department, your portfolio should show examples that relate to corporate design needs. If you are looking to interview with a skate board company, then your portfolio might be a little wilder in its samples. (But remember, the skate board companies also need legible brochures and communications, it’s not all crazy graphics.)

Do your homework. Look at the website of the company that you are applying to. If your portfolio doesn’t match what they are doing, why are you bothering? You are wasting your time and your chances of even getting an interview are slim to none. That doesn’t mean you can’t show some breadth to your work. It’s okay to show diverse ideas and styles. Just make sure that a majority of the work relates directly to the company you are applying with. If you are applying to a company that does package design, you better have some pieces of package design in your portfolio, even if it is totally made up work.

Is your portfolio customizable? Can you create multiple versions?

If you have enough quality samples that you can customize a portfolio directly to the company that you are presenting to, that is the ideal approach.

3) Your portfolio should be able to be sent to others where they can print it out.

Create a pdf version of your website that prints on an 8-1/2 x 11 page. Keep it clean. Use white backgrounds, not colored backgrounds. (You don’t know what kind of paper and ink someone is going to print it out with, a large colored area can bleed on cheap paper and an oversaturated page can wrinkle.) Design it in a way that it has a white margin on all four sides.

Once again, as mentioned in number 2 above, it is best to be able to customize this to your audience. 

4) Your portfolio should also be a presentation.

Before hiring someone in a creative role, employers want to hear you tell your story about your work. Why did you do what you did? How did you do it? Primarily this is done in the interview process. Can you create a presentation that you can present over a Zoom meeting? Perhaps you can create a video presentation where you talk about your thought processes and technical procedures in a video that you put up on your website and on YouTube? It’s more than just the work, it’s the process of starting with a problem and finding a solution. That’s what employers are actually hiring: problem solvers.

Your job is to tell a story, not just show your work.

5) Identify who you are in an easy way. 

Always have easy contact information included. Use an email or phone number that you plan on having for some time. Don’t use a college email address. You might not be thinking about it now, everything you put out can have a shelf life beyond what you originally intended and someone might want to reach you a few years down the line. You want to keep that possibility open.

Then, always make sure your file names have your name included. Never, ever, send a pdf called simply “portfolio” (or likewise a resume called “resume”.) Always include your name in the titles of anything you send out or anything that can be downloaded. 

6) The make up of the portfolio.

A question that is often asked is how many pieces should be in a portfolio? The answer is simply enough to show your talent. It is better to leave someone wanting more than to try to pad a portfolio with inferior pieces. One bad example can erase the goodwill created by a number of strong pieces. 

It is always best to lead with one of your strongest pieces. And then it is always good to close with one of your stronger pieces too. 

If you have enough samples, break it out by category. In a recent survey that we took, we learned that many employers find a job candidates ability to perform multiple functions (design, illustration, animation, photography, video, web design, etc.) as highly desirable. In fact, you might actually have multiple mini portfolios under an umbrella heading. 

7) Get advice.

Get opinions from people that are respected in the industry. Your opinion actually doesn’t matter when it comes to getting a job. What the people on the other side of the desk thinks is the only thing that matters. Find out. One of the best ways to get in front of people is to simply ask for their opinion. Stroke the ego of the person that you want to learn from: tell them that you value their opinion as a leader in the industry and that you are hoping they can review your portfolio so you can get their professional assessment with the intent of improving your portfolio. 

And then do exactly that. If you get an opportunity to get in front of someone in the scope of reviewing your portfolio, don’t ruin it by talking about jobs at their company. If they bring it up, that’s great. But remember the premise of how you got in the door. You can always get in contact later showing how you followed their advice! (And always send a thank you note afterwards.)

8a) Real vs Fake

It’s perfectly fine to show work that isn’t “real”. We’ll lump in any work that is speculative (spec), class project, work that simply didn’t get picked, etc.

In a public forum, if you are using a real company and it wasn’t a real project (where the company literally paid for the work), it is probably best to get permission to show anything that uses a company name, logo, product, etc. At the very least, make sure to label it as a class project, spec, etc. 

Please note, we are not giving legal advice on this website. The use of a company’s logo, name, product, etc., is a gray area that may fall into fair use, it may not. It is always recommended to get permission.

At the same time, real projects have issues that a spec project don’t have. You have to work within the constraints of the creative brief, you have to work within the comfort level of the client, and you have to have someone that was willing to spend some money for the media. All professionals that are hiring talent understand this. If you are showing work that was out in public, it doesn’t hurt to share how it was used.

8b) Real vs Fake, Part 2: Volunteer

If you don’t have a lot of “real” projects, which students just graduating from college might not have had that opportunity, consider volunteering your time to a non-profit organization. They’ll appreciate your support and more often than not will give a lot of latitude on the creative approach. Not only do you get to showcase your talent, it also showcases your willingness to help others. That is a big positive to potential employers looking for team players. 

9) Show the work.

Remember in math class in grade school your teacher told you to show the work. They wanted to see how you came up with the answer that you did. This is absolutely true in the world of getting hired for a creative position. It is highly recommended to demonstrate at least one project as the process of how you got from start to finish. (Remember, it is always about problem solving.) Share what the creative brief was (the problem), show the steps in coming up with a solution. This could be rough drafts, different versions, different color schemes, etc. Create a timeline of the process and then reveal the final piece. This exercise will be invaluable to the person looking to hire. 

10) Your portfolio should never be finished.

If you are continuing to grow (and you should be), new projects should easily be the best project that you’ve done yet. Revise your portfolio constantly. This requires thinking through an easy way to make changes to your portfolio, whether it is page to be printed (pdf) or a website or other way of presentation. And if you’ve made several changes to your portfolio, announce this to people. “I’ve updated my portfolio and you’ll find a new project for XYZ company and several other new projects, here’s a link…” Remember, your portfolio is a tool that helps you get a job. Make it work for you.

Last note:

Number 8 on the list talks about the use of projects for your portfolio. There are copyright and trademark issues at play when working with real companies. Even if you got paid to work on a project, you potentially may not have permission to show that work in your portfolio. In a freelance situation, it is always recommended that you work out an agreement, in writing, that states that any component of the project that you work on for a company that you are allowed to show it for self-promotional purposes. This is pretty standard in the industry and most companies are obliging. There are times where a company may have a legitimate reason to not allow the work to be shown. You then must decide whether that is an issue for you or not. Have this conversation before the project starts, not afterwards. Likewise, if you are hired by a company, discuss the use of the work in your portfolio in advance of taking the job. As an employee, you do not own the copyrights to the work, your employer does. 

We will discuss copyright ownership, work for hire clauses, etc. in a separate article.

Content on this site should not be construed as legal advice. Please consult with an attorney on any legal questions. 

About the author…

Randy Gunter is a thirty year advertising agency veteran and agency owner. The Gunter Agency has worked on national and international projects for companies that include Charter Business, Firestone, Fiskars, John Deere, Kimberly-Clark, Oscar Mayer, OshKosh B’Gosh, Rayovac, and others. Randy and his agency have received Adweek’s Media Plan of the Year award, NAMA Best of PR award, and hundreds of creative awards and recognitions.

Randy still consults with companies on marketing, but today his main concentration is CEO of Sugar River Trading Company. Sugar River is best known as the manufacturer and distributor of McNess home products.

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