How to Make a Design Portfolio

Last Updated: July 2013

Creating an online design portfolio is easier than ever thanks to services such as Cargo Collective and Behance. The downside is that many portfolios look alike and it can be hard to stand out from the crowd. As it turns out, the secret to a great portfolio isn’t the template you choose, but the way you present and talk about your work. Follow these eight tips to create a design portfolio that speaks for itself and holds its own.

1. Only your best

The saying “you’re only as good as your weakest project” is totally true. A portfolio is supposed to be a showcase of your very best work, not an extensive archive of everything you’ve ever created. When in doubt, leave it out. A portfolio is an ongoing project. Your best project this year might not even make the cut next year. Showing 8-12 great projects is plenty.

2. Simple is good

Designing a portfolio is a lot like laying out a newspaper. The most important part is content. That means huge beautiful photos and carefully edited copy. The design should cater to the content, not vice versa. Before designing your portfolio, carefully consider the type of work you have and think about how to best present it. Don’t start by designing a strict grid and trying to squeeze every project into a tiny box. Every project is different and will require a different layout. To keep things consistent, consider adding an informative header and footer but leave the majority of the page open for content. Let your work speak for itself. Give it plenty of whitespace and your work will shine.

3. No student-speak

Just because you’re a student doesn’t mean anyone else has to know. Being a student is a great thing, but it’s usually not relevant when you’re showing work.

Don’t say this:

“I created this Wine Label in Mr. Jones’ GD2.4567 class and spent all my time reading the course syllabus. It turned out pretty cool, but Mr. Jones wouldn’t let me track the font out to 500. There are a few things I’d like to improve, but I still got an A+!!!”

Never try to validate your work by explaining the limitations of a class assignment. If you weren’t able to make the project awesome in class, spend a few hours at home and make it something you can be proud of. Never apologize for your work.

Do say this:

“I designed this Wine Label for Sasquatch wine company. The design is inspired by a mythical creature who stomps on grapes before they can be made into wine. It appeals to trendy young adults who are looking for a more adventurous wine-drinking experience.”

Simple, but it makes a huge difference in how people perceive you and your work.

4. Think in systems

Being able to talk about your work is just as important as the work itself. Don’t set yourself up for failure by having nothing to talk about. Having a few awesome one-off band posters in your portfolio is totally cool and encouraged, but try to balance them out with a few solid campaigns. A campaign is a design project that is blown out and expanded into many types of media. Don’t stop when you finish the logo and letterhead. Design a website, an app, billboards, collateral, a TV spot, and some alt media. Going beyond the minimum will show how well your brand adapts to different types of media and will also reflect your ability to think strategically.

5. Show initiative

It goes without saying that real client projects and self-initiated projects are almost always more impressive than class projects. They show you care about design more than just getting a degree. They also show you can come up with ideas and solutions to real-world problems without the direction of a professor. If you have real projects, be sure to include them! If you don’t, ask friends and family and you’ll have freelance work in no time.

6. Have fun

I’ve never met a designer who isn’t extremely passionate about what they do… probably because it’s the people who care that end up rising from the crowd. If you’re a designer, the odds are you really care about design – beyond showing up to work and collecting a paycheck. If you live and breathe design, find a way to show it. A corporate identity system is great, but an apocalypse survival pack you designed for fun is equally awesome and likely more memorable. Remember to embrace your student status and try something experimental. You’re not working for the corporate machine just yet.

7. Fine art doesn’t belong

A design portfolio should contain design work. If you happen to be an amazing illustrator or photographer, find a way to work those skills into your design projects. Use one of your photos in a brochure that’s part of a larger identity system. Hand-illustrate a background for a website. Resist the temptation to fill your portfolio with fine art – especially if it’s better than your design work.

8. Tell a story

Whatever you do, be sure to tell a story. We’re bombarded by Pinterest links, Dribble shots, and ffffound images all day. Designers are too often deprived of context. Tell a story about your work, why it exists, how it solves a problem, and why it matters. Do that and people will notice.

Comments / questions? Tweet @coryetzkorn