How To Create a Killer Design Portfolio

Building a portfolio is one of the most challenging parts of pursuing a career in design. On one hand, there's no strict formula and no defined requirements, but on the other hand, we’re creatives, isn't that supposed to be where we thrive? In six months, I've had the opportunity to see both sides of this portfolio enigma, first in assembling my own portfolio and applying for positions, and more recently reviewing others’ portfolios with DtM CEO Tim Prestero to find a good fit for the company. This puts me in a unique position: I can still clearly remember the dozens of questions I had at the outset of my job search, but now I’m equipped with the context to give answers!  The best advice I can give is this: design your portfolio as well as the projects it contains. Who is your audience, what are they looking for, and what's the most effective way to deliver it to them?

Who is your audience?

Before you even open InDesign, do some research. What is the standard for portfolios in your design niche? Furniture designers have vastly different portfolios from medical designers. Use this standard as a starting block. If you have a specific company in mind, you can look up the current employees. How do the staff members talk about their work? What skills do they  most emphasize? This is a great place to start, but don’t stop there!  Design portfolios needs a unique, well-considered approach to properly communicate.

Titles: tell me WHY not WHAT

As a student, it’s important to realize that teachers are a very different audience from employers. More often than not, I see people simply transfer class deliverables into a PDF, and presume the portfolio done. In a pinch, this may get the job done, but it can lead to a portfolio that doesn’t communicate anything more than technical skills. We’ve all seen the beautiful page of drawings photoshopped onto a moleskine notebook entitled “SKETCHES.” Employer Malory wants to know WHY you did those sketches. Were you thinking through closure details, or looking for a form that is consistent with a brand language? Most importantly, do your best to communicate your intentions succinctly -- preferably in the page title.  

What are they looking for?

Or in other words, what purpose does my portfolio serve? Student Malory would have told you that a portfolio is to show people your work, explain how you tackle problems and show the happy clients you’ve worked with. Now, employer Malory says that a portfolio’s main purpose is to substantiate the skills you claim to have. The shift in this thinking came from reviewing resumes. “Proficient with solidworks” can mean vastly different things from different applicants. Show me the results of paying attention in your CAD classes and it will set you apart from the other candidate who says the same thing but slid by. This goes beyond just technical skills, use pictures and stories to show me how you think! 

As a student, one of the most common questions is how to present group work. There’s a duality of advice given about this subject. One school of thought says, “You will rarely work by yourself in the professional world, so show us that you can excel on a team of designers.” The other says, “Group work in a portfolio is never safe. How am I to gauge your skills when I don’t know how involved you were in this project?” There is still no clear answer, and every employer will tell you something different. The most I can offer is this: Be transparent about your contribution to the project. If someone else created the 3d model and render that shows your design concept, be sure to clearly call that out on the picture.

What's the most effective way to deliver your portfolio? 

As students, we’re tempted  to ask for a blueprint. How many pages should my portfolio be? How many projects? What’s the best format, PDF or website? The answers are never consistent, but that’s because they are beside the point. Instead of asking, “How many pages?” think “How long will it take to review?” The problem with page count is that someone hears “three pages per project,” and then they populate those three pages with so much content that it becomes too busy to communicate anything. Take time to simplify the points of your project, dedicating a page to each point and designing the page to communicate that point as clearly and visually as possible. 

Website and PDF portfolios have their applications. Ideally you should be ready to go with both. I remember thinking as a student that website portfolios were so cool and professional. Employer Malory still thinks that’s true, but the challenge is that websites are impersonal. For a job application, personalized touches set you apart faster than anything else. Pick the most relevant projects for the company you’re applying to and use those to populate your portfolio application. That being said, there are ways to be personable with a website: instead of sending an employer to your site’s homepage, consider linking them to a specific project within your website and explain why that project is relevant. 


Evaluate your portfolio after it’s done. 

Like any design, your portfolio needs to be tested. Sleep on it, then skim it. What does your portfolio communicate when you only read the titles and look at the pictures? Is that on message? Present your portfolio to someone, and take note of their questions. Look for points that require the most verbal explanation. This indicates a problem with either the story, or the communication of the page. 

Your portfolio can be a powerful advocate for your work if you want it to be. Take as much effort to design your portfolio as you have the projects inside of it. It will show!