Friend and fellow designer Rich Higgins and I recently visited a Design Portfolio class at the U of M. The class is focused on helping Seniors in the Graphic Design program build out their identity systems and final portfolios*. We were asked to come share our experiences in the design industry as well as present our graduating portfolios that got us our first jobs.

It’s always a bit humbling to look back at something you’ve designed years ago (particularly web sites circa 2003), but we had a great time and there was a lot to discuss about what we had done right and what we would do differently. Afterwards we had time for questions which mostly revolved around getting a job and what we look for in portfolios when interviewing. So without further ado, here are 10 Tips for Your Design Portfolio.

*Portfolio in this case refers to a printed portfolio, however an online counterpart is discussed in Tip #7.

1. Make No Excuses

If you walk away remembering only one thing from this blog post, I hope that it’s to be proud of what you show. If you’re not proud of it, don’t include it in your portfolio. We’ve all heard the saying “you’re only as good as your worst piece,” but more importantly, if you’re not excited about something, then it’s going to come through in the way you speak. Nobody is going to hire you if you’re not excited about what you do. Now of course in design there is compromise, especially in work where a client is involved, so read on to the next tip for advice on how to deal with that.

2. Show Your Process

A finished piece is great, and often that’s all that you have time or space to include in your portfolio. However, employers want to hear about your process. At the very least you need to speak to the problem you solved and the design decisions you made. Employers need to know that you didn’t just pick a color because you liked it, and ultimately that you can walk through a design when in front of one of their clients to explain why it’s the best solution. Along these lines, if there were any design compromises that you made, be sure to discuss these and consider including the initial concept that you proposed along side of the finished piece.

3. Compliment Your Work

Think about the best way to show each piece in your portfolio. For example, a poster designed in Illustrator may look fine printed to fit within your boards. However you’re probably missing an opportunity to show off the detail and give the employer a sense of it’s true scale. Instead consider bringing a full size print rolled up. Photography is another great approach to show a finished piece, and in the case of the poster to show in its intended setting.

4. Take Care with Your Craft

This is really part of Tip #3, but it’s important enough that it deserves being called out. Poor craft gets in the way of your work. Everything from the quality of your photographs to your skill with an exacto plays a part in how your work is received. A sloppy job cutting out a curved edge on a business card or poor print quality speaks to your attention to detail.

5. Cater Your Portfolio towards the Company

Learn as much as you can about the company and make sure that what you are showing is a reflection of what you know about the available position. Even if it’s just an informational interview, consider what you show and the order that you show it in. Per Tip #1, you really should be proud of all of your work, but we all have favorites so start and finish with your favorite pieces. Leading with whatever type of work relates most to the company is also a good idea.

6. Make it Convenient

I’m all for getting creative with your portfolio case. In fact I used an old Army survival kit canvas bag (see the sketch at the top of this post). But make sure that it’s convenient to carry around and allows for standard size prints. Last thing you want is to lug around something large and awkward only to find out that the table you’ll be presenting on is too small to fit your 3 foot wide boards.

7. Have a Web Version

Not being able to code is no excuse, you need a web version of your portfolio. You may not use it during your interview, but it’s probably what got you in the door and is going to be what employers use to remember you after the fact. There are plenty of free tools out there including Cargo Collective, Krop and WordPress. Whatever the case, show that you’re serious and purchase a domain name.

8. Practice and Listen

Show your portfolio to anyone willing to see it. Go to events like AIGA’s Portfolio 1-on-1. Get whatever feedback you can and take into careful consideration what you hear.

9. Differentiate Yourself

One downside to showing school work in your portfolio is that everyone else in your graduating class has a similar project. This means that if an employer interviews several graduates of the same program projects can tend to blur together. They may even recognize a project right away as “Oh this was your Typography poster project.” This is where personal or freelance projects can really set you apart. Not only does it show ambition, it also gives you a chance to show off what you’re really excited about.

10. Follow Up

Remember how I mentioned leading and ending with your favorites? Well this would be my other personal favorite, second only to making no excuses: No matter how the interview goes (or even if it’s an interview at all), send a thank you. An email is fine. A hand-written note is best. If you want to see where the bar is set, the class that Rich and I visited sent us each a hand drawn note, pictured at the top of this post.


There you have it. That’s what we discussed with the Portfolio class in a nutshell. Two other resources to call out are Under Consideration’s publication Flaunt which is much more in-depth and includes more than 40 case studies, and this blog post by Nancy Lyons entitled How To (try to) Be A Clockworker (or – tips for your job hunt if you’re hunting at Clockwork).

About Rett
Rett Martin is the Director of Creative at Clockwork. A self-taught web designer with a degree in Graphic Design, he loves everything from ideation and concepting to the occasional day of cranking out HTML and CSS.
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