What makes a great design portfolio?

With quite a few design students reading our blog and following us on twitter, we thought it would be a good time to give the latest jobseekers a few tips on what a prospective employer, like us, will be looking for in a great portfolio.

Way (way) back in the 90’s when I was at University, I carried an A2 leather folder under my arm. Inside were numerous pieces of paper of varying sizes, and included everything from entire projects mounted on sheets of card to charcoal drawings of life models.

Now, in 2013, there is no such need for such a big, and often heavy, piece to be lugged around. Today, a perfectly acceptable portfolio is a digital file carried on a USB or even emailed, which has the added benefit of being able to include links to web content, embedded videos, scanned illustrations and 3-D renderings. However, what IS nice to see, and often more convenient for an interview situation, is a nicely made, professionally printed book containing work examples – these are available pretty cheaply nowadays from almost any company who prints photos.

When it comes to portfolios, a lot has changed even in the last 13 years since Creative Media began, but the important things – the principles behind what makes a great portfolio – have stayed the same.

Printing & Graphic Design Icons
Printing & Graphic Design Icons

Grab attention

Clear communication is essential to a great design portfolio. The person flicking through your portfolio probably has a good number to wade through, and you need to get their attention in a matter of seconds – so make it count. The best folios are those that are bold, confident and intrigue the viewer.

Show a process

As my maths teacher used to say, “You’ll get marks for showing your working out, even if you get the answer wrong”. The same principle applies to great portfolios. Some of the best portfolios I’ve seen are the ones that show how the designer got to the final product. Each project should also have a beginning, middle and end. What was the problem, what was the method, how was it solved and why is it better than everything else out there?

The viewer might not agree with the final solution, but they are still interested in how you got there. This shows that you can develop an idea from conception to completion, and that the object you created has a reason to exist.Also, most design companies will also want to see some text – how you sell your own work, and how you talk and write about it is very important – explain your ideas with text as well as in images. Additionally, it’s a big advantage for a designer to be able to write well, as you will often be required to write, or edit, text in design projects.

Simple, but with variety

A clear understanding of layout is crucial, because a great layout allows the viewer’s eye to seamlessly scan and absorb the information in the intended order. “The simpler the better” I say, keeping a clear, distilled message on each ‘page’. Your portfolio could contain sensational ideas, but if this is not clearly communicated then it’s a waste.

However, ‘simple’ doesn’t mean ‘boring’. A great folio also contains a variety of projects showcasing the applicable skills for the position – if the job asks for great sketching skills, then you better show you can draw – but even if it doesn’t – most talents are transferable and useful, even if not absolute requirements.

Distilled

A portfolio should not be about quantity; that means filtering your work, and this takes time. Having a large skill set is valuable, but don’t overwhelm your audience with projects.

Creative but clear

Great portfolios stand out when they are different and unconventional. They show creativity and personality and do not necessarily follow any ‘rules’. There is a fine line between making a portfolio brimming with creativity and keeping a simple and clear message. The best portfolios live on this line. They show that the creator has personality, but also can present a piece of information to a viewer concisely. The format of a portfolio can also make the difference between an OK piece of work and a great piece of work. It all depends on the best way of communicating the content you have to the person it is being presented to.

Above all remember to put yourself in shoes of the person you are presenting to. What do they want to see? What are they interested in? What are they looking for? Use this information to show the skills you have with the most appropriate projects in the most appropriate way. For example if you were applying for a User Interaction role you might put together a beautifully constructed online journey through your work and experience whereas if you were applying for a Graphic Print Design role you might put together something more tangible but equally as exciting for the viewer.

And remember, we’re always on the lookout for great designers, so if you have put together an excellent portfolio, drop a copy to nigel@creativemediani.com and you never know, someday we might give you a call…

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